Stages of Creativity and Coaching – Part 1

By Dr. Joe Isbister

The idea of creativity having developmental stages is not new. It has been around for a long time. It is as relevant now though, as it was in the past. Creativity and innovative outcomes are always needed in business. Concepts that work in reality have great value.

These stages can help you support your client’s creative thinking and their outcomes. Successful inventors or researchers have followed through on these phases. The stages are distinctive although often not usually linear – more iterative. Yet remarkable innovation and breakthroughs follow a similar developmental patten. Just think of the remarkable creative results achieved by Bill Gates, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Marie Curie.

The Four Stages of Creativity:

The idea of creativity being about a staged, process derives from the seminal the work of British Psychologist Graham Wallas’ Book ‘The Art of Thought’, which stretches back to the 1920s.

He described 4 stages:

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Illumination
  4. Verification

Graham Wall’s work was based on many years of observing and studying accounts of inventors and other types of creative work. Ironically, needing to go through the four stages of creativity himself, in order to come up with such as original and insightful theory.

Here are the four stages briefly summarised with real life examples:

Stage 1: Preparation

The creative process begins with preparation: A process of gathering information and materials. This is an internal process (thinking deeply to generate connections) and also going out into the world and gathering the necessary data, resources, materials and expertise. Ideas never exist in a vacuum. If you are looking to come up with a good idea, feed your brain with input and correct stimuli to work with.

Bill Gates

Think of Bill Gates taking a ‘Think Week’, two times a year. He went to Cedar Forest in the Pacific North-West, residing in hideaway cabin, away from distractions, immersing himself in papers written by Microsoft employees pitching new innovations or potential investments. Sometimes reading continuously for up to 18-hours a day. This was said to be the inspiration behind his ‘Internet Tidal Wave Paper’, in which Bill Gates explained how the internet would ‘change everything’, throwing his company’s weight towards supporting, enhancing and profiting from the internet.

Stage 2: Incubation

Ideas and information need time to marinate in the mind. During this process, the person will need to take their focus off the problem and allow time to rest, engaging purposefully in less cognitively demanding tasks.

Charles Darwin

Think of Charles Darwin walking his fox terrier dog (Polly) along his ‘thinking path’ in the woods of Down House, Orpington (Kent), for four hours a day. Whilst engaging in this activity, he pondered ideas which eventually formed to create the ‘The Origin of Species’. Considered the foundation of evolutionary biology.

Stage 3: Illumination

The elusive ‘aha’ moment. After a period of incubation, insights arise and break into our consciousness. Making the ambiguous, crystal clear. It’s the sudden ‘Eureka’ moment that comes in the shower, when you are cooking or when you take a walk. Creating these moments, vastly increases the likelihood of solutions presenting themselves.

Albert Einstein

Think of Albert Einstein in Bern, Switzerland and looking at the clock which towers over the city. At that moment, Einstein imagined what would happen if the car was in raced away at the speed of light. Realising quickly that the clock would appear to be stopped, since the light could not catch up with the street car. But yet his own clock, in the car would continue to beat normally. Thus, making the breakthrough that time will unfold at different rates throughout the universe, depending on how fast you move. Five weeks after this, Einstein published his ground-breaking Theory of Relativity. Transforming our way of looking at the Cosmos in the process.

Stage 4: Verification:

Words get written down, actions are put in place and the idea is made tangible. The person will use further critical thinking to hone and improve on the idea.

Marie Curie

Think of Marie Curie, ‘mother of modern Physics’, and painstaking, methodical investigative work that went into isolating and measuring the previously undiscovered element of radium. Eventually opening up a new avenue of research for which she was awarded two Nobel Prizes, spawning a whole new avenue of research into the treatment of cancer.

James Taylor’s additional stage in creativity

Take a look at the interesting video link below, created by James Taylor, an award-winning speaker and internationally recognised expert who specialises in the field of creativity. He is easy to listen to and explains the ideas clearly.

In this talk, James elaborates on the stages described above and breaking them down further into a five-stage model.

His five stages are:

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Insight
  4. Evaluation
  5. Elaboration

The Verification stage becoming a two-step ‘Evaluation and Elaboration stage’. James Taylor’s clip goes on to offer a number of important real-life insights into the process that is creativity.

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As he explains, creativity rarely ‘just happens’, it may feel messy ‘in-the-moment’, but it is better thought of as a process which is purposeful. Under the right conditions, the stages of creativity reveal themselves across all types of human endeavours. Therefore, we should avoid the type of thinking that categorises people as either creative or not. You do not have to be Bill Gates, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein or Marie Curie. The Four Stages of Creativity takes away some of the mystery and prestigiousness that surrounds the idea of creativity. It exists in all of us, it is possible for anyone to boost their creativity.

Secondly, as mentioned earlier, the stages do not always happen in an orderly, linear manner. Looking more like a zig-zag or ‘iterative’ process. With each stage following a time sequence, which relative to each other goes along the lines of long stage, short stage, short stage, long stage.
The first stage (Preparation) and last stage (Elaboration) being overwhelmingly the most time-consuming. The Insight moment, the bit that is usually recognised as the ‘creative bit’, usually happening very quickly. Although lots of time and energy needs to both precede and follow this moment.

Thirdly, James Taylor goes onto to talk about the creating ‘the better environments’, creating different effects for each stage.

For example, how the preparation stage (absorbing information) is usually best achieved. At this stage, working in a quiet area is usually best. Illumination happening most often when you are doing some kind of low-level activity (for example, in the shower or out walking). Whilst the Evaluation Stage working better in an environment which allows feedback from your peers.

What relevance does The Stages of Creativity have in a coaching context?

There may be occasions where your clients are describing activities or problems which fit with one of the stages of creativity. Most people can attest to creativity not feeling like a linear process but more of a messy one. Knowing about these stages can then act as a kind of broad road map. Both with respect to expected timescales, the type of thinking required and what environmental conditions what best at each stage.

The Stages of Creativity Model shows that creativity has two sides. It has a robust quality but also a fragility to it. Creativity takes time, trust and patience. Not something that is naturally compatible with a workaholic culture or a high-achieving drive. In today’s fast-paced, results-driven coaching world, are we in danger of inadvertently thwarting the journey and conditions that creativity needs?

Clients facing complex problems need time and the right conditions at the right time, in order to creatively problem-solve. For example, if your client is in the preparation stage of creativity, perhaps what they need next is Bill Gates’ immersive ‘Think Time’. Or what they might need next, is actually to take their mind off a problem and engage in low-level cognitive tasks, their own ‘think walk’. Or perhaps they have already had their ‘aha’ moment. What they need next is to hone their critical thinking and test out their new ideas, by engaging with their audience and gaining feedback from their peers.

Could a Stages of Creativity Model be a useful concept for you to work with as a coach? It worked for Bill Gates, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, maybe it will work for you…

If you would like to explore more, here is the link to Part 2 in our creativity blog series.