Stuck on a problem at work? Try the Four Stages of Creativity
Graham Wallas, social psychologist and co-founder of the London School of Economics, shared his theory of the four stages of creativity in The Art of Thought, published in 1926. The theory will help you think about how to create the right conditions to spark your own creativity – whether at the office or pursuing other creative projects. In this article, MeaningSphere’s Roz Duffy breaks down the four stages for you and offers some tips on how you can apply them.
In 1926, Graham Wallas published the book The Art of Thought, sharing what he called "The Four Stages of Creativity" – a theory of the creative process based on his own experience and the observations of prominent thinkers, inventors, and artists of the time.
The four stages of creativity have influenced countless creatives since the book's publication. The stages are applicable to everything from complex creative pursuits like creating a movie, to simple, everyday activities like cooking your dinner. They can also provide a helpful model for how we think and nurture our own creativity in the workplace. Preparation
The preparation stage of creativity is the moment when you’re at the beginning of a project and you start to gather the materials you need to learn more about it. You might surf the internet, browse a store, or get out and talk to people. The point is to collect as much material as you can and try making a list or drawing a mind-map to get all the ideas out.
At this point, you might find yourself feeling stuck: you’ve got all the ideas out of your head and you don’t know where to go next. That’s a very normal reaction and the best thing you can do is take a break – which leads us to the second stage of creativity: incubation.
Incubation is when your brain is doing unconscious processing. At this stage, the best thing to do is get up from your desk and do something else – it could be as simple as going for a walk. When you walk, there’s a repetitive motion that happens with each step you take, as your arms swing and you allow your mind to wander somewhere else too. Couple that with walking in nature and now you’ve got all these beautiful things around you, providing stimulus, and that helps your mind open up even more.
But it doesn’t have to be walking. It could be knitting. It could be doing the dishes. It could be organizing your closet. Have you ever cleaned your house because you're stuck on a project or something you don't want to do, and then had a breakthrough while you’re doing it? That’s what the incubation stage helps with. So don’t feel guilty for stepping away from your desk. Trust in the process and give the magic of incubation some space to unfold.
Incubation creates wonderful conditions for the stage, illumination, to happen. The simplest way to explain illumination is that it’s an "a-ha" moment. It’s that moment when you suddenly know exactly what to do or try. Illumination often arrives at unexpected moments: at random, in your dreams; in the shower; even in your car. And usually that happens because you've stepped away from the problem itself during incubation. So there’s a partnership that takes place between incubation and illumination.
An important thing to note about illumination is to be ready when that a-ha moment strikes. It’s a good idea to have a system in place for capturing those insights. They’ll disappear just as quickly as they arrived. You don’t want to miss them!
The final stage of creativity is verification. Verification is about going out into the world and testing whether your idea works.
Of course, what the verification stage looks like will depend on what you’re working on. For example, if you’re a writer, you might decide to get some feedback on your work. Or if you’re crafting something, verification could mean trying out whether it works by making a prototype. Or perhaps you’re planning an online project and verification means launching a part of it, testing the response and learning from the feedback.
Putting the four stages into practice
When you’re starting out with the four stages of creativity, it’s really important to do what you can to declutter your mind. For example, Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way, suggests a method called “morning pages,” where you write three stream-of -consciousness pages each morning. This can be a great way to dump everything from your head onto the page at the start of the day, or any time during the day.
But you don’t have to commit to writing so much if you’re short on time. It could be as simple as writing a to-do list of what you need to get done or what you’re worried about at that moment. The act of doing this can help diffuse any stuck energy, so you can approach your creative work in a clearer way.
Alternatively, if you don’t already have a daily ritual that you do to anchor yourself in your day – try one out. It could be making a coffee or tea in a way that’s slower and more intentional. You could try using a drip-filter for your coffee or brewing loose-leaf tea. It’s about creating more space for your brain during the day.
When it comes to illumination, it’s about creating the right conditions for it. It’s difficult to force an a-ha moment. So it’s important to slow down, pause, or do an activity away from your desk – whether it’s talking to a colleague or going for a walk. And if you’re working remotely, consider making some of your meetings walking meetings. That’s what phones are for!
Finally, on verification, it’s important not to be too attached to the outcome. Think of it as a test and focus on what you can learn from it. It can be really easy to resist sharing your work until it’s finished – which is often you saying: I can’t let anyone see it until it’s done. Don’t let perfectionism get in the way of sharing your ideas with the world.
While not all feedback is helpful, it might open up a new way of seeing something and help strengthen your idea. Don’t be afraid of failure, whether working alone or in a team. Temporary failure can always lead to something better. It is simply part of the process. Embracing failure is essential for unlocking creativity.
So try exploring the four stages of creativity and see where it leads you. Maybe it’s something you want to try out together with your team or on your next project. It’s a fascinating process that moves between conscious and unconscious processing, and will help you tap into unexpected insights.
Roz Duffy is an independent coach and facilitator and works as a creative strategist at MeaningSphere.
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