Over the last 65 years, there have been a wide variety of creative processes used in the business arena. They all have increased conscious competence in creative thinking – what many refer to as “Creativity on demand.”

Each of these methodologies tries to be a solution to three core challenges:





We desire a universal innovation process/language that provides the overarching framework for a variety of creative thinking tools, processes, techniques, etc.

We want comprehensive processes and frameworks that work together (much like a carpenter’s toolbox) to help us design opportunities (create new value) while anticipating and overcoming challenges.

We hope to understand and strengthen an individual’s capacity for creative cognition, collaboration, utilization of diversity and the organization’s ability to support people with a well-managed innovation ecosystem.

Our experience, as the partners at New & Improved, with a collective 250+ person-years in the innovation field, is that Creative Problem Solving comes closest to what we call the Universal Creative Process (UCP). We’ll describe UCP and demonstrate its likelihood of improving success in our common – but competitive – quest for innovation.

Innovation in the field of Thinking by Design: A Short History.

First, however, let’s do a quick review of the many derivations and unique approaches to innovation production, arranged roughly in historic order, beginning in the middle of the last century. They all have their good points, and they all have small weaknesses. At New & Improved, we utilize aspects of each as needed.

Creative Problem Solving (CPS): The grandparent of all creative process articulations, first “taught” in 1949, with the most peer reviewed research validating its efficacy. Based upon observation of humans, it describes the way we naturally solve problems in six steps: identify a goal or wish, gather data, clarify the problem(s), generate ideas, strengthen solutions, plan for action. Very good, but its weakness is in not offering steps assuring that the derived solutions are actually implemented, and continuously refined, after their initial implementation.

Kepner Tregoe (KT): Proof of the “theory of simultaneous invention” or perhaps simply a story about the power of branding, KT is essentially the same as CPS. Development of this model began in 1958. While CPS was kept as an open source methodology, KT is owned by a business and one must be trained and certified by that business to utilize KT’s versions of the creative and critical thinking tools. It has strengths and weakness similar to that of CPS.

Synectics: Like KT, is a branded outgrowth of the thinking that articulated CPS. “Founded” in 1958, it was validated by observing groups in meetings as they did their creative work. Its divergent and convergent methods emphasize the use of emotion over intellect, metaphor as a path to new thinking, and the need for a facilitator to make the process flow. In use, its 9-step process feels similar to Design Thinking (DT) but without as clear an emphasis on “human-centered” design.

Fundamental Design Method:
(FDM) also began its life in 1958, diverging from previously described processes in that it emphasizes an almost “spiritual philosophy of being” as a path to productive creative thinking in service of robust design – especially of engineered solutions. Note that in almost all of the creative methods, as one experiences their efficacy, there is an emotional desire to expose others to that process and meta-thinking. FDM was perhaps the first to really say that out loud. This “religiosity” is territory fraught with difficulty, and for this reason, it never quite caught on. It has been partially revitalized in the current love being shown to DT.

de Bono Thinking Systems: Lateral Thinking
(LT) Six Thinking Hats (HATS) and Power of Perception Tools (PoP) are the work of Edward de Bono and used to assist both creative and critical cognitive processes. HATS is especially useful as a method to help groups behave in more creatively and collaboratively productive ways in meetings. The weakness here is that these specialized tools and frameworks need an overarching infrastructure to sit within – so that users can better decide what type of thinking tool is needed. We’ve found that CPS, Design Thinking, and UCP facilitators conversant with de Bono tools are more flexible and efficacious as facilitators.

This process is a fascinating departure from the methods above. Developed by Genrich Altshuller, and effectively begun in 1971, it focuses on logic and data rather than intuition and the forcing/inviting of neural connections – i.e. creative thinking. Its application is best suited to what might be described as engineering challenges. The basic concept is that there are a finite number of problem types, based upon an internal contradiction (a razor needs to be sharp enough to cut hair yet dull enough to not cut skin). For the various problem types, there are common elegant solution patterns. So the process is to define the contradiction types (originally 39), then to look at solution patterns that the data says work, developing a solution that follows the best inventive principle (originally 40). This method is very attractive and useful for logical thinkers, but one of the more difficult to learn.

Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT): SIT was developed in the mid-90’s in Israel with the intention of making TRIZ easier to learn, retain and use. It does so by emphasizing what is called the “Closed World Condition” which essentially ratifies the constraints around a problem such that the creative thinking boundaries are clearly articulated. This clear articulation then must be met with creative reorganization of the constraints (thinking inside the box rather than outside of it) to arrive at an innovative solution. As with TRIZ, practitioners with an analytically-oriented cognitive preference will find comfort in this method. Because the methods previous to TRIZ and SIT are derived from natural creative process, they are intuitively easier to follow.

Lean Six Sigma (LSS): It began in 1986 as the Six Sigma method of quality production in competition with the Japanese Kaizen method of quality improvement. As a creativity method, it is seen as causing incremental improvement far more frequently than the disruptive breakthrough improvement that is more commonly (yet too narrowly) described as “innovation” and is popular in manufacturing-based business organizations. The LSS creative method, DMAIC, (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) is strong on assuring that effective solutions are repeatedly and sustainably implemented and evaluated for the next improvement opportunity. LSS is weak on tools to drive high-volume divergent thinking and also on utilizing the problem analysis available via TRIZ and SIT.

Design Thinking (DT): Design Thinking is the “new process on the block” but has roots all the way back to FDM. It emphasizes elegance in design elements (almost an LSS approach to the question of elegance) and “human-centered” approaches that derive from deep empathy with the entity experiencing the problem. As in CPS, its most commonly articulated process has six steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, and implement. Its strength lies in constant refinement and the seeking of elegance through repeated, rapid and iterative prototyping. An emerging difficulty is energized by the word “Design”. It has created a sense of exclusivity (does everyone see a need for themselves to be a better designer? If you don’t think like a designer, are you inherently uncreative?) DT’s true intention is to foster creativity in anyone exposed to it, rather than turn them into a designer. An interesting “human-centered” backlash we are seeing is aimed at rethinking the branding and coming back to calling it a creative (rather than design) process.

The 5 Laws a Universal Creative Process must follow to drive sustained innovation output:

We derive 5 key learnings from our practice, our learning from others and the history of this field of thought.

1) Complete Process Understanding: Creative processes exist to generate and energize options, not just ideas. Good creative process will help you uncover goals, discover data, develop insights, clarify opportunities and problems, generate ideas, rapidly design prototypes, define implementation plans, evaluate and strengthen solutions.

2) Intentionally Focused Thinking
: Every stage of every creative process begins by creating a divergent field of options, followed by narrowing down on those options (convergence). Good creative process informs critical thinking, convergence and wise choosing as much as it feeds divergent, creative thinking.

3) Universal Process Clarity
: There is a “universal or meta-process” that shows up in every one of these methods. Some methods to date focus on some of the aspects of this meta-process better than other aspects. None focus on them all. CPS is the most robust, but we believe it’s still missing some key aspects of the Universal Creative Process (UCP). All specialized creative applications do better where there is a common “UCP” in place.

4) Living Innovator’s Values:
No matter the method, individual creative fluency, combined with good collaboration skill is necessary to achieve consistently positive results. General emotional intelligence is a positively correlated variable that hugely impacts the ability to deliver on our individual creative capacity. It’s one thing to generate a creative option. It’s another thing entirely to bring that option to fruition without working well with others. (We’ve written extensively about this in “More Lightning, Less Thunder: How to Energize Innovation Teams” .)










5) Innovative Culture/Ecosystem: Results are far more likely to be steadily achieved if an organizational architecture is designed to specifically support the creation of innovation. Hotbeds of some creative process methodology, scattered about over time and in a smattering of organizational subgroups are stressfully disruptive to the current order of things. Without a comprehensive organization-wide design approach these little hotbeds will experience resource drought and death over time. (We’ve written extensively about this architecture in “Demystifying Innovation Culture Efforts”.)

NEW! Universal Creative Process – 7 Steps to Producing Value

So, where has all of this practice and learning taken us? What’s the next improvement on our ability to creatively collaborate together?

We articulate the most comprehensive and effective creative process as possessing 7 distinct functions – each with unique methods that assist divergent and convergent thinking for that function. Although we present the UCP here in a linear way, a master facilitator can move among these stages to good effect in any combination of orders. Different ways of flowing through the stages make sense in differing situations, including entering the process at different stages in some instances and using only a portion of the overall process in others.

The 7 Stages of the Universal Creative Process (UCP)

1. Identify a Goal, Wish or Opportunity: Begin creating a better future.

Diverge: What does the individual, team, organization or culture have “care, concern or desire” for?

Converge: Of all of the things that are cared about, which one carries the most energy or excitement in this moment? Which care, if resolved, will move you or the team more fully in the direction they’re wishing for at this moment?

2. Gather Input and Insight: Getting ready by learning.

Diverge: What is everything knowable that might have impact on our thought processes as we move forward in having our most important care resolved? What is important data? What human aspects of this should we develop empathy for? What are the feelings from various groups about this focus? What seemingly unrelated information is there that might have an influence as we move forward? What have we not considered that we might be wise to consider?

Converge: Of all of the input we have considered in the divergence, which input does the data, group-think and personal intuition cause us to see as most important?

3. Clarify the Challenge(s): Finding the problem(s).

Diverge: What might be all of the obstacles, challenges or problems that we would need to overcome to achieve our goal/wish or take advantage of our opportunity?

Converge: Of them all, which ones are most important to work on solving, and in what order?

4. Generate Ideas: Create some options.

Diverge: What might be all of the ways to solve the challenge/problem that we are focusing on at this moment?

Converge: Among all of those ways, which of them (often more than one, or a combination of many) does the data, group think, personal intuition and current capacity/skill attract us to implementing?

5. Prototype and Strengthen: Try out and test some solutions by creating concept illustrations, models, mock-ups, validational experiments or storyboards.

As we test our hypotheses about which ideas will best help us overcome our challenges and achieve our goals, what are we learning? How might we strengthen our solutions? What new challenges are inherent in our solutions that we’ll need to overcome and strengthen for our ultimate strategy or solution to be successful?

Which solution is good enough (for now) to implement?

6. Plan for Action: Design a project plan.

Diverge: What are all the specific actions that must be implemented to make our solution a reality?

Converge: Which are the priorities, who will do them, by when, reporting success (or unforeseen obstacles to solve) to whom?

7. Implement and Evaluate: Assure that the chosen options are implemented consistently and that where modifications are needed, you understand why – and make them happen.

Diverge: What is the project management process? Who will hold individuals accountable for hitting their deliverables in the plan for action? What is the mechanism and timing for review of the effectiveness of the solution? In what ways will we assure control and consistency as this solution scales and repeats itself throughout the system? Each solution is always the seed-bed for the next set of challenges to overcome. When, where, how and with whom will we next convene to identify new challenges that need application of the UCP?

Converge: Put it in the project management system and assign the Project Manager.

Yes, there is more:

Each of the stages of the UCP has both divergent and convergent elements to it – creative thinking and critical thinking, first generating options and then picking a subset of those options to move forward. Within each of the stages, there are cognitive tools that are unique to that stage in their efficacy. There are divergent and convergent methods to choose that keep us moving forward, creatively and efficiently.

Master practitioners
in the legacy creative process methods have a wide variety of these tools in their toolbox, and our experience is that because of their care about results being well achieved, their innovation-producing creative practice has morphed into something that closely resembles the UCP.

Bottom Line:

Innovation leadership requires integrity. Doing what you say you’ll do.

We feel the next evolution in innovation practice will be the widespread acceptance and use of the UCP, cross-fertilized with various tools from the legacy process methods. When this happens, individuals, teams, and organizations will garner greater success in their innovation efforts, and the world will be a more creative place. With your help, we are doing everything we can to make that happen.

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