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Theory behind the ContentPlay creativity sessions

The balance of process and randomness to create great ideas: the reason why ignoring things for a while can often lead to the best ideas.

We are about to run a ContentPlay session to generate potential angles for impactful content with a lovely agency tomorrow, which we’ve broken into 3 stages:

  1. Part one: Insights
  2. Part two: Idea Generation
  3. Part three: Ignition: Choosing the best

We’ve split the sessions up with time for people to do their day job in-between and there is good reason for this (beyond not taking away too much time from the day job). The very sensible scientific reasons for doing this are explained below by our Creativity Coach partner Aran Rees of Sabre Tooth Panda

Divergence and Convergence Thinking

Alex Osborn, in his breakthrough book, Applied Imagination (1953), noted two distinct kinds of thinking that are essential to being creative:

  • Divergent Thinking: Generating lots of options
  • Convergent Thinking: Evaluating options, making decisions


English social psychologist and London School of Economics co-founder Graham Wallas, wrote The Art of Thought in which he outlines four stages of creative thought — preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification – balancing between elements of conscious and unconscious work.

  • Preparation: During the preparation stage, the problem is “investigated in all directions” as the thinker readies the mental soil for the sowing of the seeds. It’s the accumulation of intellectual resources out of which to construct the new ideas. It is fully conscious and entails part research, part planning, part entering the right frame of mind and attention.
  • Incubation: This stage is a period of unconscious processing, during which no direct effort is exerted upon the problem at hand. This stage has two divergent elements — the “negative fact” that during Incubation we don’t consciously deliberate on a particular problem, and the “positive fact” of a series of unconscious, involuntary mental events taking place.
  • Illumination: This is the creation of insight that the conscious self can’t will and the subliminal self can only welcome once all elements gathered during the Preparation stage have floated freely around during Incubation and are now ready to click into an illuminating new formation.
  • Verification: a conscious and deliberate effort of testing the validity of the idea and reducing the idea itself to an exact form.

Idea techniques – Understanding the structure of intellect

J.P. Guilford established the structure of intellect, but his sources came out of cognitive psychology. Alfred Binet invented IQ tests at the beginning of the 20th Century. The IQ test was created to give us an approximation of how well a person will probably learn from reading and listening to verbal instruction. Whilst intelligence was being studied, Guilford began to see that there was an unknown that was not being acknowledged, that intelligence did not delve into. They begun to explore what is called factor analysis, establishing what abilities were actually measured by the different tests. Guilford begun to organize it into a single system: The Structure of Intellect.

Within the structure of intellect, they delved into the concepts of divergent and convergent thinking and how we use cognition and memory throughout: ‘What do you know?’ and ‘How are you storing information?’ In divergent activities we are calling upon our memory stores to identify data, meaning, behavioural groups and forming views on how these may trigger more insight. In convergent thinking we use our memory stores to name, categorise, rank and deduce.

It is upon this basis that we use various creativity techniques to draw out these different questions at the right time. To get more from our memory stores given the right focus and encouragement.

Improvement mindset & Team dynamics

  • Team dynamics: How we behave and think during a creative problem solving activity is driven by our personality style and preferences. This is called out by the Foursight tool, created by Dr Gerard Puccio. It helps increase your awareness and of and preference for perhaps the data gathering and research stages vs idea gathering or implementation. Being aware of this can help you understand if you are pulling/pushing the team in the stage you are in and whether you should stop or continue a particular stage.
  • Improvement mindset: Some of the principles that have emerged out of the Lean methodology have encouraged an improvement mindset across businesses globally. It started as Womack and Jones studies Toyota as a business in the early 80s, observing their techniques one important aspect was captured – the words of Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho asking his employees to “Go see, ask why, show respect”. These key words developed into a set of principles that drive businesses in how they approach any improvement activity.
  • Go See: Spend time with people delivering the work so you can understand the actual conditions they are trying to manage.
  • Be Curious: Be aware of your own bias & identify your assumptions. Adopt a curious mindset & gather different perspectives. Ask why.
  • Respect people and drive value: Reduce wasted effort that is preventing people from delivering value. Increase autonomy, mastery and purpose, so people have some input and control over their work, a chance to grow and contribute to something bigger than themselves. Emphasise the insight people have on their work environment .  Give employees responsibility for recognising and addressing problems within the scope of their work. 

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