Honing Your Creativity

An Interview with Gregg Fraley, author of "Jack's Notebook"
By Vern Burkhardt
Innovative ideas are always the result of creative thinking. Fortunately artists do not, contrary to popular belief, have a monopoly on creativity. With a little training anyone can develop their brain's capacity for creativity.

In his business novel Jack's Notebook, author Gregg Fraley presents us with his simple technique for creative problem solving, a step-by-step method that not only leads to solutions to specific problems but to a more creative-ready brain.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): Nearly the first point you make in your book is that "Everyone is creative whether he is artistically inclined or not," and the idea that we must be artistic to be creative is a myth.

Why do you think this myth has had such staying power?

photo of Gregg FraleyGregg Fraley: I suspect it's group-think, a fallacy that becomes a fact because so many people believe it and few question it.

Artists are overtly self-expressed, so they set a very public example of what creativity is all about. We see their art and compare ourselves. We sometimes call ourselves uncreative because we don't do those things as well. However, and this is key, creativity is much more than just art and self-expression.

Creativity also includes problem solving and decision making, so it's a much broader concept. We all do problem solving and we all make decisions, so we are all creative in some way.

People don't give themselves credit for the creativity they use every day when they are successfully solving complex challenges.

VB: Imagination seems to be the ingredient in your techniques that some people might find surprising. Most people think of imagination as the province of childhood and reason as the tool necessary for solving adult problems.

Do you ever encounter resistance to the idea of using imagination in your workshops and, if so, how do you address that resistance?

Gregg Fraley: I don't encounter overt resistance, unless I'm trying some touchy-feely visioning exercise. However, resistance in some form is there, under the surface. It's embedded in many of our heads that imaginative or divergent thinking are somehow a waste of time.

Society has trained us to believe that logic and reason are the adult skills. Our educational systems reinforce this. This focus on analysis is so pronounced that people are often blocked when they finally turn on the valve of imaginative thinking. The valve is stuck, rusting away from un-use. The way to unblock it is to turn it on more often and let it flow.

In my workshops I stress that imaginative or divergent thinking is a flow experience, and it's an essential part of problem solving. So my suggestion is to simply turn on the imagination valve more often.

VB: You say the creative problem solving process (CPS) explored in your business novel is "powerfully effective in solving both business and personal challenges." The novel goes on to demonstrate that point.

Is there an interesting story behind how you developed your method?

Gregg Fraley: There are a thousand success stories around use of the CPS method but I have to say it's not my method. I've re-articulated and simplified a process that was first put on paper in the 1940s by Alex Osborn. Osborn wrote the book Applied Imagination and he coined the term brainstorming.

bookcover Jack's Notebook CPS was later refined by Sidney Parnes, PhD, and it continues to evolve in both academia and in business. I've re-stated it my own way in Jack's Notebook. I've tried to use more everyday language around the steps to make it more accessible, and putting it in story form, I think, ties the learning to an emotional experience—that's my unique contribution.

I learned the basics of CPS in the 1980s and it helped me go from being a struggling salesman to a successful entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, and now a published author.

So, my story isn't a bad one to illustrate the positive impact CPS can have.

VB: Do those people we normally or traditionally think of as creative—artists of all types—also benefit from your method? Why is that?

Gregg Fraley: Sure, artists can benefit from using CPS. Artists have their own organic creative processes, often quite eccentric when viewed from the outside. However, if you break down what they do, all the elements of a more formal process are there.

They tend to mash problem exploration, ideation, and action all together. They move fluidly from one kind of thinking to another—from tactical (use the cobalt blue) to conceptual (this is a painting about love). They work from their subconscious.

Where artists get stuck, where we all get stuck really, is when they can't get into a flow. Artists can benefit from using a more structured process at that point in order to get them back into a flow of ideas.

When ideas are not coming it helps to be aware of where you are in a problem-solving process. Like a map, it can orient you, and help put you back on course.

VB: In its simplest form your method of creative problem solving is about list-making and choice-making, but that the lists must be made using our imaginations and suspending our judgment until later.

During the exploration stage you talk again about “watching with an open mind" by deferring judgment. Why is judgment such a bugaboo?

Gregg Fraley: Well, judgment is necessary eventually, but most of us are simply judging all the time, and it inhibits creative thinking. Being open to what your mind suggests is a creativity fundamental.

When we are seeking ideas, most of us have our first idea and then we start right in critiquing it, analyzing it. This takes you out of creative-imaginative flow. The best ideas usually come when we've flushed out a lot of, frankly, crap ideas, or just obvious, or non-perfect ideas.

If you have a lot of ideas you eventually get to the point where fresh ideas start to happen. These are the golden thoughts!

When list-making, you need to turn that creative idea faucet on and let it rip for a good, long while before you stop and think critically—in order to get to those fresh and brilliant ideas.

VB: You say creative problem solving "gives us a form to follow when we are lost in the complexity or fear of a difficult challenge." Would you tell us about a particularly challenging problem that was solved using your method?

Gregg Fraley: There's a decent example in the book but maybe the best example is in my own life.

I struggled for years to write a book. The reasons that blocked me were many—lack of time, inability to focus, fear that I wasn't good enough to do it, and there were, no doubt, more reasons.

I loved fiction as a form and yet I wanted to write about creativity, so I was unsure of the right approach. I also thought, and still think, that creativity books tend to be read by people who already have a clue about it, and the people who need it most wouldn't pick up a creativity book. Is that challenging enough?

I finally sat down and used CPS to clarify my objective—I wanted to write a more accessible book about creativity. I researched other books on the subject and approaches to teaching and discovered a book called The Goal, which taught a complex method using a story. That gave me the Aha! idea to write a creativity book using a novel format.

I used CPS to come up with ideas to get me focused, ideas for the characters and story, and ideas to help me plan to finish the book and find a publisher. I used CPS every step of the way and it helped me accomplish a difficult, complex, life-goal.

VB: Could worldwide crises like climate change and the current economic downturn also benefit from being addressed using CPS? What do you think the first steps should be? In other words, who should be involved, would a facilitator be required?

Gregg Fraley: Great question. Both of those challenges are very complex and therefore they qualify for a process like CPS.

The first thing that would need to happen is for enough people to collectively recognize that there is in fact a problem and be motivated enough to do something about it. So, in a way, we are all the "who"—we all own the problem, particularly the environment, because all humankind will suffer if we don't deal with it.

A facilitator of some kind is required because it would involve coordinating ideation, solution development, and then behavior around the globe. You look at what Al Gore is doing, he's attempting to bring everyone to the point where we all want to solve the problem, and in that sense he's acting as a facilitator, but globally we haven't given him permission to be our collective leader.

The key is the desire to do something and a willingness to cooperate with each other. When that happens we'll solve the problem.

VB: An important step in creative problem solving is "facts and feelings exploration.” Why are feelings also important to take into consideration?

Gregg Fraley: Feelings are important because they are a huge part of who we are and what we do. We need to consider our feelings and the feelings of others in order to solve our problems.

In fact, feelings are intimately intertwined in many problems. Feelings color our view of hard facts. Feelings are facts themselves. For example, if there is no feeling of urgency to solve a problem, all the hard data in the world isn't going to get people off the dime. Feelings are often what stop us from taking action. Feelings also get in the way of admitting we have a challenge in the first place. Feelings can also motivate us to take action, so they can be used to our benefit.

VB: At one point in your story the main character, Jack, undertakes new research into an existing area of interest and takes the stance of assuming he knows nothing about the subject. He finds "a certain freedom in admitting to yourself that you were ignorant.” Would you expand on this idea?

Gregg Fraley: We are often blinded by what we know. Knowing can get in the way of understanding. It takes a conscious effort to pretend you don't know, but when you do, you often discover that what you thought you knew was wrong!

These insights into the real nature of a challenge can be invaluable in solving problems.

VB: You say that "reframing,” or looking at and restating a problem from different perspectives, is "something people rarely do deliberately,” but is key in creative problem solving—that "a problem properly framed is much easier to solve.”

Is reframing best done in collaboration with others who can provide fresh viewpoints?

Gregg Fraley: It depends, but yes, other people are often great sources for seeing things differently. This is especially true if those other people are not involved with the challenge at hand, because they bring a fresh perspective.

However you need to take what they say with a grain of salt, because sometimes other people will pull you back into the typical way of looking at things, in other words, back in the box you are trying to get out of!

If you are working alone it's often a good idea to pretend you are someone else in order to get out of the box.

I had a very wise teacher in my younger days that I greatly admired. He always had interesting things to say. I often put myself in his shoes when I'm really locked into a certain way of looking at a challenge. Sometimes looking at it through his eyes is enough to help me reframe a problem.

VB: You talk about the importance of deeply understanding your own motivation when working on a problem, including all feelings surrounding that motivation, both negative and positive.

Would you talk about the necessity of acknowledging and addressing the negative emotions?

Gregg Fraley: Problem solving often really begins with acknowledgement of fear. Fear sometimes stops us from even beginning to work on a problem. Once you've written down the fact that, for example, “I'm afraid to tackle my writing block,” or “I have anxiety about my weight problem,” or “I don't know where to begin with a new marketing plan for xyz product,” you can move on. You're now in action mode and you can do more research, then problem framing and idea generation.

Until you recognize your negative emotions, you're really not doing creative problem solving.

VB: A quote from the book: "If you really understand a problem, solutions come easy, solutions tend to suggest themselves." Why is this?

Gregg Fraley: Because we often spend a lot of time working on the wrong problem. When we see what the real problem is, often the ideas needed to address it are simple or obvious.

An example is, I was part of a team that developed software for physicians. It was groundbreaking technology in many ways, but it wasn't selling. We were sure our system could save a lot of money automating a doctor's practice.

The partners in this venture—I was one of them—were stumped. How could we get doctors to buy the software? That was our problem frame. Finally one of my partners said, “if they won't buy us, maybe we should buy them.”

It was a radical thought, really turning the problem on its head. We were all against it at first. Doctors' practices are worth millions. How could we raise that kind of money? Further, we were sure we were a software company. Then we penciled out the numbers, and, if we could save as much as we thought, we could buy the practices, pay the doctors a handsome salary, and still make a tidy amount.

It was a compelling business case and we found investors and ended up owning over a thousand practices. We took that company public.

So in this case, the great idea was really about how to look at the problem. Once we had a new view, a solution was apparent.

VB: A concept in your book that some might find surprising is that we need to provide a structure for imaginative thinking. In other words, we have to deliberately plan and make time for imagining—what we used to get scolded for in school!

Imagining as a discipline. Seems like an oxymoron. How did you come to this conclusion?

Gregg Fraley: I came to the conclusion not so much on my own. Other people, academics and scientists, have essentially said the same thing—imagination holds answers for our challenges.

Einstein famously said that imagination is more important than knowledge. We all have imaginative capacity. The key thing is simply giving yourself enough time to do it, and asking the right questions. It's not random daydreaming, it's more lucid than that because you're asking your mind to come up with answers to specific questions.

Your mind likes to answer the questions you give it. If you ask, and keep asking, and let your mind imagine answers, and give it enough time, answers will come.

VB: A "force fit" is when you take the attributes of an unrelated situation or object and impose them onto the problem at hand, using forced association to make them fit. Is this a technique that can be used with any kind of problem or does it suit some types more than others?

Gregg Fraley: Any kind of problem really. A force fit is a way to jog your mind off its typical track, away from its normal pattern.

What does a crystal vase have to do with my selling problem? Well, not much! And, if you think, okay, a vase is transparent, well maybe I should be more direct in my selling. Or, a vase is elegant, maybe I could send a hand written note on fine stationery to ask for an appointment.

Force fits help us have fresh ideas and help us unblock our thinking.

VB: One of your characters says, "Creativity happens when you are self-expressed in all aspects of your life." Would you please elaborate?

Gregg Fraley: I believe that if you are self-expressed in all you do, it's more likely that you'll have great ideas when you need them.

The ability to generate ideas or be imaginative depends a great deal on practice. So, the self-expressed person is always practicing ideational fluency. If a person seeks to be self-expressed or creative with their cooking, clothes, conversations, relationships, and work, they build capacity for creativity.

If you never express yourself, or hold back at work because you are fearful of your boss or peers, or feel that your ideas have no chance of acceptance, what happens is the creative muscle atrophies.

So, I try to make everything I do more meaningful by making it an example of my own self-expression. It means that, in a sense, I'm always brainstorming and taking creative action.

VB: In the book Jack observes, "how your own view of yourself can stop you from doing some simple things that might help you grow." Is an improved view of one's self a happy byproduct of creative problem solving, or does it need to be deliberately cultivated separately?

Gregg Fraley: I think they go hand in hand. Solving a complex problem tends to improve one's self-esteem and confidence. Having good self-esteem, confidence, and a positive outlook tends to help you solve problems.

If you're down on yourself, it's difficult to believe you can come up with great ideas. If you stay positive, I believe, you are more likely to get into a good flow of ideas, and have the breakthroughs you need.

VB: How important is experiential learning, or learning by actively doing something, compared to brainstorming and analysis?

Gregg Fraley: Experiential learning is an important way to learn because experiences, particularly ones with some emotion attached, tend to imbed themselves deeply in our memory. Once we really know something we can call on that knowledge, combining it with other things we know or experience to create something new.

Experiential learning works well with structured problem solving because it's a good way to explore, generate ideas, or get into action.

VB: You say that having lots of ideas, and thus options, is a way of maintaining hope when faced with barriers, and that "with hope, you are less likely to make poor decisions based on desperation." How prevalent do you think the desperation response is in our culture's business and personal lives?

Gregg Fraley: I think it's quite prevalent. I've done work with prisoners and was struck by the fact that these are people who get into action very easily. This is usually a good thing, but not when your idea is illegal or unsafe. Even a little bit of divergent or imaginative thinking may have given these people better options.

When you are desperate, you don't think you have the time, but in reality taking time at that moment is essential. More broadly, in our culture, in the USA, we see quick, and in my opinion, somewhat thoughtless responses to emergencies like the car industry collapse. We are preserving something that fundamentally isn't working aren't we? There are other options, and those options haven't been explored.

Seth Godin wrote a brilliant blog about how the car industry could be re-structured to allow for innovation and it makes a ton of sense. As it is, we're nowhere near doing something brilliant and innovative. Ultimately, we'll suffer as a result.

VB: "Observation,” you say, "is a skill that needs to be practiced." It allows us to see what others miss, including potential business opportunities. What keeps us from being good observers and what techniques might we employ to improve this skill?

Gregg Fraley: What keeps us from being good observers is thinking we know or understand something. What we will see is colored by what we think we're going to see.

If you want to really see something you have to forget everything you know and try to see it as a child would. You need to watch everything and not assume or make meaning until you've really spent a lot of time taking something in. You need to also ask questions and ask them even if you think you know the answer.

You'll often be surprised by people's motivations for doing things. The best way to become a better observer is to simply do more of it. Make a game out of it. Notice who's behind the counter at your coffee shop, sit and quietly observe everything going on around you without judgment. You'll be amazed at what's going on right under your nose.

VB: Would you talk about the role of passion in problem solving?

Gregg Fraley: Passion implies a deep motivation to do something and there is nothing more powerful to stimulate your creativity. Creative tools and techniques can only take you so far.

If you don't care about the challenges you are working on, it's not likely you'll solve them.

VB: Manny's last words in your novel are, "I've reframed rest as doing something interesting. No, check that. Doing something creative." Is this because being creative is rejuvenating? Please elaborate.

Gregg Fraley: Creativity is rejuvenating and energizing. Having a creative outlet, be it work or home related, taps you into a source of energy. It might even be something as deep and essential as the life force. Doing something creative can make time stand still.

Have you ever noticed that when you are doing something you love, time sort of disappears? I once spent six hours in a darkroom developing prints and I could have sworn I was in there for 90 minutes.

VB: How do the business people to whom you teach creative problem solving respond to your methods? Are they surprised by how effective these methods are?

Gregg Fraley: It depends. If they are people who are forced to attend a program it can be hard work. On the other hand, sometimes those resistant folks are the most surprised by the results.

I often do a 30-minute problem solving “walk through” as a way to teach the steps of the CPS process. It's not intended to actually solve a problem. And yet, it's interesting that many people do experience breakthroughs in that short time.

It's amazing how even just a little bit of deliberate creativity can take us to another level of effectiveness.

VB: Are you working on another book? What is it about, and when will it be available?

Gregg Fraley: I have two book projects in the works at the moment. One is a book about using creative thinking in selling and the other is an inspirational book I'm creating using my own drawings. I would look for those to come out in the second half of 2009. There will eventually be a sequel to Jack's Notebook, but it's not right around the corner.

Gregg Fraley's method is primarily one of making lists, followed by making choices. But most important is knowing how to make the right kinds of lists and understanding how then to use them to make choices. He uses the novel form in order to show us, first hand, how the method works and to engage our emotions so it will be easier for us to assimilate and remember.

Gregg Fraley works as an innovation process consultant to Fortune 500 companies and does keynote speeches and workshops on creative thinking, innovation, problem solving, and new product development. He is a partner in The Innovise Guys, an innovation and entertainment podcast. He's CEO and founder of the Peregrine Panel, a start-up venture to use social media tools for market research.


I think Gregg's first comment--innovative ideas are always result of creative thinking is inaccurate--creativity is determined by the creator--innovation, on the other hand, is determined by the marketplace--I can have an idea which for me is not creative, but for others, who may be its recipient it's innovation at a high level. I would be interested in his response.
- S. Grossman

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