The Creative Process
What are the stages of a Creative Process?
Well, that depends on whom you ask. If you’ve read Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, he argues for a three-stage process. As does Richard Rumelt in his work Good Strategy/Bad Strategy and Fevzi Okumus in his paper delineating the Strategy Implementation Framework. I will hopefully argue, at some later point, that these three-stage processes are not representative of the creative process as a whole, but rather the strategic process that takes us from one creative stage to the next.
But, if that is the case then what is the Creative Process. We would argue that much of the literature suggests a five-stage creative process. We could look at Design Thinking – which offers a clear five-stage process. So do Martin and Lafley in Playing to Win. Similarly, the Blue Ocean Strategy and Shift offers 2 five stage processes. So does the Business Canvas Model. And there are other, older, sources like the Book of Creation which also bring five stages as integral to the Creation Process.
Looking at each of these we can find many similarities. But I tend to find myself resting on the work of Edward Luttwak and his description of the levels of strategy when trying to explain the creative process. While Luttwak presents this as a hierarchy of responsibility within the government-military structure, the undertone suggests that this hierarchy represents five stages in the attempt to manifest Will. What’s more, Luttwak’s hierarchy aligns with most formal business hierarchies – thus allowing us to consider how the creative process and levels of the hierarchy integrate to manifest will.
According to Luttwak, the levels of strategy are Grand Strategy, Strategy, Operative, Tactical, and Techno-tactical. Were we to take the time now, we would find there are many commonalities between these levels and the models above, but that is a longer work than we can undertake here.
Rather, using Luttwak, we will try to understand the stages of the creative process.
First, what is Grand Strategy? According to Luttwak, this is the realm of politics – the great cloud of clashing ideas seeking to manifest in the world. As is the case with politics, these ideas clash and ally as they try to gain traction and inspire us to action. Inherent to this stage is the search for inspiration. Often elusive, we cannot know when inspiration will strike and an idea will grab hold of our mind and push to manifest. In this realm – whether in government, business, or in the home – the focus is an attempt to determine the ideas that best represent the destiny we seek and deal with ideas that are thrust upon us and act as inspiration.
An example from the home – imagine for a moment you are sitting on the couch (you know Netflix and Chill with your spouse) and your phone rings. It is your parents asking if they can come over to visit for Friday evening dinner. Well – did that call take place on Sunday evening or are they talking about tomorrow night? Were you planning a laid-back weekend without a fancy meal? Or do you already have plans?
As these ideas clash with each other, they are whittled down to a select few that become core concepts in our immediate ideational hierarchy – the ideas we intend to pursue and manifest moving forward in our many relations. You could reject your parent’s request. But if you accept it then this idea gives us purpose.
And it is often hard to shake these ideas. They are almost parasitic, creating a symbiotic relationship with us, their hosts, as they drag us down a rabbit hole seeking manifestation. And after these ideas have gained traction, we find ourselves trying to find out everything we can about them.
This leads to the next stage in this process – the Strategic stage – that focuses on the need for information. It is at this stage that focuses on learning as much as possible about the different ideas that are driving us to action as we try to figure out the best way to manifest those ideas. Who supports these ideas? Who opposes them? Is there competition out there also trying to manifest a similar idea? Do we need to consult with partners and allies about the idea?
Did you ask your spouse’s thoughts on hosting your parents?
It is at the Strategic stage that ideal types are defined and delineated. We examine and engage as many channels as possible as we seek information. We acknowledge limitations on our ability to garner intelligence, and that there are limits to our understanding of the data we have. We try to clarify the nature of the ideas and understand everything we can to help us decide on a course of action. We try to figure out the ideal resources to use and the limits we want to set on their use. We decide what is acceptable action, given what we want to see happen, our values, and the limits of our environment.
So, we try to learn as much as possible about ideas so we can determine what we will need to do to maximize successful manifestation. We try to figure out the opportunities and risks we face. And we create a vision for how we will get from where we are to the ideal future state we seek. A vision – not a plan. Why not a plan? Because while we may be planning, our vision cannot be set in stone. It is subject to the will of others and the environment within which we are working. So, our vision acts to guide us as we work towards the future – a destiny we hope manifests how we want, when we want, in exactly the way we want.
Back to Friday night – we come up with our ideal menu. And we do it based on what we know and can learn about ourselves and our guests. Are they diabetic or allergic to something? Are they vegetarian or worse vegan ;P? Is there something they particularly like? Is there a special reason they want to come – an anniversary, birthday, something else we might have missed?
Now, keep in mind, the meal is not ALL that constitutes “visit.” Your parents coming impacts other parts of the “relaxed” weekend plans. We might need to clean the house up a little more. We might need to do some shopping.
So, we create a vision of how we want that future visit and meal to go.
Do we have ALL the pieces to make it happen – perhaps not yet. But in potentia? Sure.
Now, sometimes you lack vital information and may need to clarify for understanding. But that vision becomes the basis for everything else you will do regarding the parent’s visit. That is unless you choose, or are forced, to change your vision.
And yes, you are likely to feel some surprise, perhaps even a sense that you are in a horror movie, at some point as you work through the strategic stage and creative vision. The incoming information defines the nature of your challenge – how messy is your house, how much cooking will be required, how much help do you have or expect to have? Now, imagine what it was like for the people responding to the Entebbe hijacking in 1976, for instance.
That vision becomes the model by which the Operative stage (and the people at the Operative level) sets and prioritizes different objectives. It is at this stage that the Resource-Doctrine divide reigns supreme. It is at this level that ideal types face the reality of limited resources – time, money, HR – that require hard decisions about how and what to prioritize.
While the operative level, and those at the operative stage, continue to seek out information and understand incoming intelligence, the primary focus is not on establishing or adjusting vision but rather determining the reality with which we are working and the necessary steps to making vision manifest. Not only do we set objectives at this stage, but we also delineate expectations – goals (or Key Results if you like) that will help attain that objective.
This is the stage where we determine and delineate “shopping,” “cleaning,” and “cooking.” It is where we make our first foray into the pantry, cleaning closet, and freezer – a tactical recon maneuver in order to have the necessary information for the objectives – and the goals for each. For shopping, this might include a shopping list with specific goals and stores that need to be “hit.” For cleaning it might be the different rooms that must be prepared for the visit – are they only coming for the meal or are they planning to stay the night? And cooking, each dish is determined by vision and the reality of the operative stage.
This is, perhaps, one of the hardest positions to hold in a hierarchy – middle management – and it is one of the most perilous stages in the creative process. We make these decisions based on our understanding of the world and the doctrine we hold. And prioritization of objectives means assigning resources to specific missions and tasks over a specific time, which also means limiting the resources available to other projects and programs – all of which are working towards the vision.
The Tactical Maneuvers
Once we have set objectives and assigned the available resources, Tactical maneuvering begins. In Design Thinking, this is the stage of prototyping. For the military, this is the act of moving forces to engage the enemy. The tactical stage in this process is the attempt to meet specific goals that represent necessary metrics for each objective. It is here that we find different teams undertaking tasks that, on their own, may seem detached from the vision but in reality lay the groundwork for future actions that will manifest will.
Was the new vision for the weekend only formulated on Thursday? Is your spouse stress-shopping on the way home on Friday while you do cleaning or did you have the week to maneuver – sending your spouse out to several different stores to get exactly what you want? Is there a smooth transfer of responsibility of cleaning to your spouse once they walk in from shopping? And as you get closer to the deadline, are your kids helping set the table while you cut a salad. Is each team or individual on the team working towards their goals, meeting objectives, and fulfilling vision?
How much Command and Control must you use in your relationship with the other teams and team members? Can you trust them to get the job done with little intervention allowing them greater Mission Control? Are you able to take that risk? Or do you need to be present to guarantee they successfully engage in their mission?
This is the point of greatest friction – both internally and with the world around us. It is where reality comes and throws vision out of alignment. If your parents called on Sunday, and you had time, then any missing items from the shopping list from a first shopping run might be available at another time or place. If you are stressed for time, the ability to get everything on the list may be limited by what is available at the one store your spouse can stop at with the available time. All of which may impact objective cooking and its goals.
This is where we will move back and forth between tactical maneuvers and utilizing specific techno-tactical skills as we prepare for the upcoming encounter. And we work to maneuver and engage on different fronts, using different skills to play.
Which may impact vision.
And we have to remember that each team member brings their own level of skill and technical knowledge to these interactions. So something that is relatively “frictionless” for you might be hard for your kids or spouse. Some people are better at cooking, others baking, others can’t boil an egg. So, each small task is a techno-tactical engagement as you move through the different tactical maneuvers.
Until you reach the moment of ultimate friction – the knock on the door.
At this point, you can no longer maneuver. Either you were successful in the different tactical endeavors – met your key performance indicators, achieving key results and metrics – or you did you fail to meet your goals. If you met your goals and objectives, how does that impact your feeling of security as you move into the core tactical engagement – the visit with your parents.
This, the techno-tactical, stage in the process focuses on the soldier experiencing the war through the soles of his boots. He has maneuvered and gotten to the point where he is in direct contact with the enemy. Does he have the skills and know-how to use the different tools at hand? This is the salesperson stepping up to ask a customer how they can help -hopefully having a sense of the different skills they will need to effectively finalize the sale. It is the team of programmers presenting their work to higher levels of the hierarchy, a partner, or a client.
And it is you and your family in relation to your parents as they come in the door. You put on a smile on your face, maybe nudge your eldest to get out of the book they are reading, and acknowledge who just came in. It is the hope that any small techno-tactical mistakes from the earlier tactical engagements will largely go unnoticed and will not leave you open to an assault from the rear (or an unexpected comment about a dirty sock).
Ultimately, whether you succeeded in every other maneuver to this point, it is in this techno-tactical engagement that you will feel the greatest friction – positive and negative – that will impact your ability to meet this ultimate objective of “a good visit.” Will you have the patience and energy left to engage your parents? Did you include that in your strategic vision for this visit? Was it part of your operative stage objectives – a nap, a shower, a few minutes to breath? Did reality allow you to meet this objective in addition to the others you set?
All of these will impact the techno-tactical experience and be part and parcel to our ability to declare the overall process a success or failure.
And after the engagement is done, is there a post-op? What did we learn? What could have been done better? What were the pain points? Where did we fail, and why did we fail, and can we make some doctrinal changes that mitigate failure in the future?
This might seem overly simplistic, and on some level it is. This is the theoretic ideal type with no reality to make it muddy and messy. We have not really acknowledged how much the fog of war impacts the clarity of this process.
Nonetheless, this five-step pattern seems to repeat itself time and time again as people create new technology, engage in international affairs, and as we make our way through our daily lives. Each stage creates an interdependence with the other stages. And each stage of the process seems to have a core focus.
And, as we mentioned, we recognize that the five-stage creative process described here is only one perspective on creative engagement. And while the seeming abundance of literature pointing to a five-stage process suggests there is some validity to the belief in an underlying nature to the creative process, there are those who hold by a three-stage process. And yes, while we can align Sinek, Rumelt, and Okumus’ three-stage progression with some of the stages of the creative process discussed here, they also stand alone as a possible method of moving from stage to stage of the creative process – something to discuss another time.