Understanding Creativity – Person, Place, Product and Process (Part 1)

What do person, place, product, and process (the 4 P’s) have in common? According to creativity researchers, these are the four generally accepted facets to creativity. Additionally these facets are interrelated, which makes creativity complicated to understand and to cultivate, especially in organizations. Understanding its multiple aspects, however, is a critical first step in bringing more creativity, and hence innovation, into a corporate environment. Creativity is generally considered to be a new idea or insight that is recognized by experts in that field as having value. Creativity is the necessary first step to fueling innovation. This first article, in a series of articles about the facets of creativity, will present an overview of the 4 P’s of creativity and how they are interrelated.


Stories about modern eminent creatives such as Steve Jobs and I.M. Pei and past creatives such as Thomas Edison, Madame Curie and Michelangelo warp our image of the creative person. We tend to think of people as being either creative or not creative, like it is a fixed attribute such as one’s height or eye-color. Creativity is not unique or mysterious; we are all creative to different degrees. Creativity has little to do with IQ. It is our usage or under-usage of our ordinary thinking processes that impact our creative output. Creative thinking approaches can be learned by all individuals. Research has shown that the use of creative thinking techniques reduces costs, increases efficiency and positively impacts ROI.


Our families, schools, community, religion, and workplace as well as the overall culture in which we live have major impacts on creativity; this is referred to formally as the press of the environment, which I refer to simply as ‘place.’ The values and norms of our upbringing and current environment dictate whether we are encouraged or discouraged from being creative and whether our ideas or products are recognized as being creative. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Claremont professor and creativity researcher, says that the environment has more of an impact on creative outcomes than an individual intent on creativity. Interestingly, studies have shown that creativity tends to thrive during times of political unrest, civil disturbance, and intellectual diversity. For example many young people were motivated to become artists and architects during the Renaissance. Teresa Amabile, Harvard professor and organizational creativity researcher says that our social environment can significantly affect intrinsic motivation, both positively and negatively. We often become motivated to think and act creatively when we become personally interested in or curious about a new technology, research data or trend. Working on something imposed on us by outside sources, without being personally interested has negative effects on our creativity. For example, the proliferation of the Internet has laid the foundation for an increase in artists and designers. This new surge in visual images has contributed to the current trend in businesses to utilize design thinking in addition to analytical thinking.


Can you make money from it? Do your peers and society admire you because of it? In our Western, materially focused culture, a physical product or outcome is typically the only facet of creativity that is recognized. We look at the finished product and forget there was a process of multiple creative failures that happened first. We may disregard the environment or the team of people that encouraged the development of the product. New products and ideas often have a difficult time getting past the ‘gatekeepers’ who determine the idea’s value, sometimes arbitrarily or with limited foresight. A person known in the field or from a field predisposed to creativity, such as advertising is likely to have an easier time getting past the gatekeepers than an unknown or someone from a ‘non-creative’ industry. Occasionally the product or idea is so radical and ahead of its time, it gets ridiculed or goes unrecognized for years. The concept of Federal Express is a well-known story of a ridiculed idea; van Gogh was considered a sociopathic recluse rather than a genius, and died alone and penniless.


What must occur in order for us to produce a creative idea or product? There are potentially exponential trials of creative processes compared to final products. Edison tried thousands of times to produce an electric filament for long lasting electric lighting. Shouldn’t all those failed attempts be considered creative? Our culture, however, tends to label only the one successful outcome as creative.

Each of us goes through four stages during our creative process. Preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification were originally introduced by Graham Wallas in 1926 in his book “The Art of Thought.” In the first stage, preparation, we set ourselves up for creative success by acquiring some skill, gathering data, or understanding the basic problem that needs to be addressed. This is perhaps the most difficult stage as suggested by Edison in his famous line, “Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” In the next stage, incubation, our brain is working on things in the background. It is the time away from conscious thinking. This is the most powerful of the steps and the one that probably gets overlooked most often. It is hard not to consciously and continually work on a problem to conclusion, since we all have a tendency to want to solve problems as soon as possible, and are often pushed by our organizations to do so. The ‘aha’ or illumination stage, however, can only occur after an incubation period.Sometimes we do not get a solution – but another way to approach the problem. But when we get that ‘aha,’ we know with certainty that we are on the right path. Finally, we need to be able to recognize when a solutions fits the problem. In the last stage, verification, we try and test the solution. We often go back and forth rapidly between the stages. The ability to shift between stages is important to the creative process.

How we think, how the gatekeepers respond to what we produce, the environment in which we live, and the processes we follow all combine to impact the production and acceptance of new ideas, insights and products. It is impossible to consider any one of these facets in a vacuum. We cannot separate the person from their environment, the idea from the person, the process from the environment, or the product from the process. It is complicated, but not impossible, to address all of these facets within an organizational setting. In the next series of articles, I will go into each of the four facets in more depth.