5 steps to creativity

"And so it is, I thought, with ideas. They appear just as suddenly above the surface of the mind - and with that same air of magic and unaccountability…"

— James Webb Young

Ideation is fun, but it is also hard work! Creativity as a driving force of Innovation usually does not happen on command. There are driving and limiting factors, regardless of whether we work alone or in a group. Sometimes we notice that the creative sparks just do not want to fly. This could cause frustration, especially when you want to achieve a specific outcome. If you understand how our brain wires when it comes to Creativity, it helps to optimise the process, avoid unnecessary frustration, and ideate effectively.

A Process like Assembling Cars

Ideation is all about generating ideas. As Adam Grant (Originals) put it, innovators usually have hundreds of bad or average ones for every great idea. According to this, the essential aspect is create as many ideas as possible. But what is an idea exactly, and how does it come into existence. Is it an epiphany that suddenly rises above the subconscious level, or is it the final stage of a process? James Webb Young addressed this question in his book “A Technique for Producing Ideas”, firstly published in 1939. He concludes that producing ideas is a definite process like assembling a car. 

In 1939 there was no backing up this conclusion with insights from Neuroscience. This is different now. Research on the creative brain using either EEG (Electroencephalography) or fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) has provided valuable insights. These help to understand better how to ideate more effectively. First and most important of all: The whole brain is involved in the process!

Step 1

Defining and Framing the Problem

The whole process starts with the awareness of either a problem or an opportunity – the Innovation Process’s Awareness stage. The problem needs specification.

When the brain realises a problem or an opportunity, an area named the Prefrontal Cortex (short: PFC, the logic center of the brain) assesses it and understand that it has to solve a challenge. It probes if a solution is available directly. If not, it activates other brain areas that might be suitable to provide valid results. The brain will work to understand, specify and elaborate the challenge.

Step 2

Gathering Raw Material

To support this, providing it with material to digest is the way to go. Generating ideas is stimulated by gathering data, facts, and all kinds of information. The information needs to be topic-related and general to foster the mind to create connections. 

The brain will sift through the gathered material and see if it includes a solutions or at least helpful information – using its activated regions.

Step 3

Conscious Mental Digestive Process

Going through the gathered information, digging deep into them, working focused on the problem, regarding it from various perspectives, logic deduction, trial and error, or creating analogies kicks off a mental digestive process. It means reading related literature (both topic related and general to provide the setup for new connections), articles, searching the web, checking market data, or talking to experts. The research should focus on topic-related information, but it is also essential to add more range to it as this helps to work out new creative combinations. 

Various techniques can provide both individuals or groups the right stimulus for this step with an icebreaker at the beginning (e. g. Inversion Thinking (how to avoid the opposite outcome), watching a picture or a film, drawing, one-word relays). When working as a group in a Design Thinking Workshop, it is crucial to share the meeting’s purpose and goal and ask everybody to get prepared. It helps to set in motion the Mental Digestive Process a little more early to get the most out of sessions later.


Using various methods, such as mentioned above, helps involve other brain areas in the mental digestive process. Toolboxes might stimulate specific brain centers (e. g. Lego Serious Play helps to activate the motoric sensors). If the brain cannot find a solution right away, it is essential to stay on the course even if the going gets tough. The brain will subsequently activate more connections to other brain regions to search for a proper solution or a piece of valuable information. In the early stages of creative thinking, failing and making mistakes also helps. A little frustration is helpful because emotions improve the memory performance. The brain will remember the challenge better this way.

If the innovator calls it a day and the problem has not been solved so far, the brain will continue to identify and evaluate solutions – however, not consciously, but subconsciously.

Step 4

Subconscious Processing

The next part of the process does not seem to make any sense at first sight. That is because it is to take a step back and either do something completely different or nothing at all and not actively working on the problem anymore. James Webb Young suggests to “drop the subject and put it out of the mind. “There are good reasons why great ideas are seemingly appearing out of nowhere while relaxing or even sleeping. Famous examples and research prove how important taking a step back can be for the entire creative process. 

While taking a step back and loosening the focus, the brain continues to subconsciously work on the problem. The Prefrontal Cortex might turn its attention to something else, and the brain starts to change its activation patterns. It seems as if it changes the strategy to determine if other brain regions can provide useful insights. Research has shown that relieving the PFC from its activities where less focus is required is helpful. EEG-research shows that high alpha wave activity in the brain is characteristic of mental relaxation and a state of openness or daydreaming. This particular state fosters divergent thinking, making new connections and trying new combinations. This explains why many good ideas come under the shower or during a walk, because the mind enters a relaxed mode.

Step 5

The Idea: AHA!

James Webb Young elaborated, it is the result of continuously thinking about a specific challenge that creates the sudden insight or the idea. Sometimes it might take longer to reach this point, but quite often a EUREKA moment suddenly seems to appear out of nowhere.

The PFC subconsciously validates all-new combinations created through different activation patterns. Solutions, the high order thinking system regards as valid, are then raised to the conscious level. At this moment, the flash of inspiration occurs.

Just before (a few hundred milliseconds to be exact) the sudden insight, the brain produces a spike in gamma waves, the fastest brain waves. The activity in gamma waves signals a new binding of neurons in a new neural network – or as James Webb Young put it: “An Idea is nothing less than a new combination of old elements.“

Don't forget

No criticism in the Ideation Phase. It is an Ideation killer! The neuroscientific findings also underline why any form of negative feedback can jeopardise Ideation. Judging or criticizing inhibit the subconscious divergent brain activities as the PFC directly puts focuses on this feedback. Therefore, it is essential to separate Ideation from Validation where possible. However, once narrowing down the useful ideas generated, it is necessary to get as much feedback as possible. 

In reality, the creative process is much more nuanced and complex, as Daniel Goleman, author and science journalist (The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights) elaborates. However, he concludes that both the intense focus on the challenge combined with relaxation are essential to succeed in coming up with ideas and solutions.