Creativity is a means to make order out of chaos. In PR and other areas of organizational communication, a creative solution may seek to establish dissonance within a public (e.g., a need in people’s lives is not being met when they thought it was), and there is a great way to achieve harmony in their lives (e.g., meet the need with the thing prescribed in targeted messages).

The creativity process is both linear and recursive. It is linear in that it proceeds along a series of steps because people tend to work one step at a time. The process also is recursive because at later stages in the process someone may go back to and through certain prior steps while still moving the project forward in time toward its completion. This combination of linearity and recursivity accommodates the way the mind works, especially while solving problems. As long as “necessity is the mother of invention”—of creativity—problem-solving is at the heart of creativity.

Within the context of public relations practice, I view the creative process (consistent with other attempts of modeling it) as a series of eight steps:

  • Observation: identifying something interesting, perhaps a problem, opportunity, or whatever.
  • Illumination: experiencing the “Aha!” moment of inspiration that the observed thing is seen in a new light.
  • Incubation: the defining and thinking about the thing/idea and the new take on it for its possibilities, limitations, etc.
  • Immersion: making the most of the experience and idea thus by playing with the idea in various ways, from studying/planning to drafting/prototyping of possible solutions/approaches.
  • Reflection: further thinking and redefining about the thing/idea and possible alternatives and considerations about what could be added or subtracted, augmented or diminished.
  • Selection and refination (two parts in one step): choosing the best thing/idea from among alternatives and refining the chosen thing/idea as much as practicable.
  • Implementation: with the thing/idea in a workable condition, creating the final version of the thing/idea for its purpose.
  • Evaluation: determining how good the thing/idea is in any way and make any improvements.

During the process it is important to note that the process’ steps can fast-forward or -backward to other steps to tend to matters that need attention. A brainstorming session highlights the first few steps quite plainly, and the creativity process builds upon such brainstorming.

From a management perspective, the creativity process should be a gold mine of opportunity and innovation. Everyone has the opportunity to be creative, especially those assigned a task to solve a problem or capitalize on an opportunity. A transformational leader, for example, could best facilitate an environment conducive to creativity among staff members at all times. To spark more and more innovative ideas, a leader could, for example, encourage people to think like a child—to think without the limits amassed through growing up into adulthood—about a situation or problem, especially during brainstorming sessions. Doing so can release ideas that might not be allowed if a more mature, adult attitude prevailed. Critical-analytical thinking would be saved for the later stages in the creativity process.

When managing a team for creativity, Richard Florida and Jim Goodnight argue that three principles should be the guide:

  1. Help employees do their best work by keeping them intellectually engaged and by removing distractions.
  2. Make managers responsible for sparking creativity and eliminate arbitrary distinctions between “suits” (i.e., leaders/managers) and “creatives” (i.e., followers/employees).
  3. Engage customers as creative partners so you can deliver superior products.

Key to these principles is the idea that the nature, makeup, structure, and processes of highly effective teams enable them to release their creativity in value-added ways. Robert Sutton researched effective management practices that facilitated innovation and found that unusual approaches to viewing situations can be at least as effective, if not more so, than conventional approaches.

The idea of “outside-the-box thinking” is a call for creativity that is a widely expressed mantra in organizations and society at large. We must, however, be careful to recognize that we can think outside the box if and only if we know what the box is with which we are dealing in the first place. Not that the original box should constrain our creativity, rather, we must learn from and know what we have—we must discern whether or not and to what degree constraints still must be accommodated. This is the realm of effectively managing creativity—to do more amplifying than squelching of innovation. An important point in all this is that to do the right thing means having the best environment and people to do it, and sometimes those things need to experience conflict.

Creativity, then, is fueled by conflict in many ways (e.g., conventional vs. weird, old vs. new, known vs. unknown, proven vs. untested), which is framed by attitudes about one being thought of as better than another, even though either may achieve desired results. In this context, then, a better term for conflict might be Leon Festinger’s concept of “cognitive dissonance.” The issue, however, is how to achieve even better results. The key is to unleash creativity to view and solve problems in unusual and effective ways.

(This post is an excerpt from the author’s book, Managing Public Relations, in Chapter 9.)


Pete Smudde PR ResearchDr. Pete Smudde, APR, is professor of public relations and associate executive director of the School of Communication at Illinois State University.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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