Project Management Institute

Breakthrough thinking

understanding creativity and how to increase it


As global competitive pressures increase, so does the increasing need for more creative solutions from the workforce. Businesses, universities, and nonprofit organizations all cry for more creative ideas. This issue applies strongly to the work we do as Project Managers, where often the only hope for living within our triple-constraints framework is breakthrough thinking. Is the solution to hire a different kind of worker, or to create an environment in which people can be more creative? The answer requires a deeper understanding of the creative process.

Enterprises that desire greater creativity from their employees would do well to understand the creative process and to structure pockets of their organizations to support it. Creativity in an organization requires that the best and brightest minds be given the time, freedom, and tools to innovate—and then access to the appropriate field of experts who can recognize the breakthrough ideas from the bad ones. This method of working is extremely counter to the tradition of managers controlling the resources assigned to them with an eye to maximum throughput and no “wasted time.” In this sense, enterprises are often their own worst enemies, inadvertently spending time and effort preventing the very creative thinking that they so deeply desire.

Experts have shown that even highly creative people are not necessarily more intelligent than their peers, although a reasonable level of brainpower is required to understand the current knowledge base and synthesize new concepts. There seems to be general consensus that children are naturally curious and creative, but are socialized into conformity by adulthood. Therefore, we can assume that every team member is capable of creative, breakthrough thinking.

Also, there is little disagreement on the need for creative approaches to accomplishing team goals. With a constant emphasis on faster, cheaper, better in everything we do, the diligent project manager is always looking for new and creative ideas from the team. Unfortunately, our quest for maximum efficiency of team members often gets in the way of encouraging the creativity we desire. Creativity cannot be coerced but it certainly can be encouraged.

Understanding Creativity

Creativity has long been treated as the exclusive domain of the super-intelligent or gifted elite. Various theories on the source of creativity include Arthur Koesler's bisociation theory (cited in Bergquist, 1999), which states that creative people have a unique ability to join unrelated information in new ways. This seems to point to natural ability or biological roots for creativity. Along similar lines, Frank Barron (cited in Bergquist, 1999) defines creative people as those with the ability to deal well with chaos and confusing information. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1997), there seems to be a genetic predisposition to be creative in a given domain such as a special sensory advantage (perfect pitch, sense of light and color, logical pattern matching, etc.).

Grof (cited in Bergquist, 1999) speaks of meaningful and deep “encounters” between creative people and their world, including channeling messages from God. This line of explanation introduces a mystic element missing from all other explanations. Csikszentmihalyi (1997) agrees that historically, highly creative people were seen as mere instruments of a divine presence.

Creativity is described as the process of taking two or more ordinary objects or processes and combining them in a new pattern or form (Fabun, cited in Chapman and Foote, 1996). For creativity to be appreciated, Csikszentmihalyi (1997) describes a model consisting of the creative person, the domain of knowledge, and a field of interested experts. Within this model, the actor must exist in a social context with understandable facts embodied in his creation. The most insightful creation ever has no relevance to society if it is not introduced to a receptive audience. Creativity is also defined as “the ability to generate novel and useful ideas and solutions to everyday problems and challenges” (Cave, 1999).” This definition lifts the idea of creativity from the lofty realms of the great poets and artists, and brings it into the venue of daily life and commerce.

Creating Creativity

The following 10-step program will help you energize your team and allow their creativity to flow.

Step 1—Understand the Kind of Creativity You Are Seeking

Creativity is one of those terms filled with ambiguity. Most creative theory experts agree that there are at least three different forms of creativity: the artistic, the inventive, and the problem solving. Some authors list them as real-time (where there are time constraints), multi-stage (where there is enough time for many solutions to arise, and be revised), and paradigm-shifting (the type of creativity that results in changes in the nature of a domain). Others organize them by Adaptive/Resourceful (tend to accept the paradigm in which a problem is embedded) and Innovative/Original (to “detach the problem from its cocoon of accepted thought,” to step out of the “box” or paradigm). All types of creativity can be defined as combining two or more things (ideas, tools, media, etc.) to create something new.

Artistic creativity produces new cultural expressions: painting, music, poetry, theater, even food or fashion styles. While you might be fortunate enough to have a musical prodigy on your work team, his or her creativity will not necessarily be of value in meeting your timelines or scope.

The second type of creativity deals with truly inventive ideas, such as designing a radically new product line or taking the organization into a totally new business. This type of creativity is extremely valuable to any organization, and cannot be predicted or planned. While an innovative thinker might have launched the concept that your project team is charged with delivering, once the scope is defined, you are really not looking for your team to invent something totally different.

So the process of elimination leaves us with the creative problem-solver as your target. Creative thought can be divided into two types of reasoning or thinking:

•   Divergent—the intellectual ability to think of many original, diverse, and elaborate ideas; involving novelty

•   Convergent—the intellectual ability to logically evaluate, critique and choose the best idea from a selection of ideas; involving appropriateness.

Encouraging your team to employ both types of creative thought will greatly increase your probability of new and useful solutions. By designing new approaches to work, new uses for tools, and other work-enhancing solutions, your team can deliver a quality product with significant savings in time, cost, or effort.

Regardless of the type of creativity in question, experts agree on a creative model that includes three critical dimensions: (1) the individual with an interest in the domain, (2) adequate access to and knowledge of the domain, and (3) access to a field of experts in the domain who can validate the new idea. In most cases, your team will already contain individuals with a passion for their particular field of work, and they will be knowledgeable in their field. Often the one missing ingredient is an audience with sufficient expertise and interest to recognize the innovation as a good and useful thing. That audience can easily be you and your senior team members. With the three elements of the model already in place, the other nine steps below should set the appropriate environment for creativity to flow.

Step 2—Create a Supportive Physical Environment

Not every project team has the luxury of a perfectly configured work space. If you are fortunate enough to have your entire team collocated, you have an excellent opportunity to create a physical environment most conducive to creativity. Elements to consider include proper lighting, freedom from noisy distractions, and comfortable chairs. Beyond those basics, consider visual creativity-enhancers: posters, plants, decorations, art. The key with all things visual is to keep them changing. A poster of Albert Einstein makes an impact when it is first viewed; after two weeks it is no longer noticed. A good way to keep the visual surroundings fresh is to collaborate with a group of your peers and rotate visual materials among the groups, so that each team sees fresh material at least twice per month.

A community bulletin board is a great creativity-enhancer, when used properly. The best approach is a large white board with a plentiful supply of colorful markers, placed in a central spot within the team space. Encourage free expression—doodle art, thoughts for the day, challenging questions, straw polls…the opportunities are endless. The creativity will often amaze you—and spark some useful new approaches.

Unfortunately, in our new global environment, your team may be located in six different buildings in three time zones. Distributed teaming carries with it real challenges to all normal team-building efforts. However, with the pervasive use of collaborative PC software and the Internet, it is possible to create a virtual team space that is visually stimulating. The challenge of fostering a creative atmosphere in a geographically dispersed team deserves a full article of its own, so we will not deal further with it now.

Step 3—Create the Proper Emotional Environment

Without a MAP, creativity does not develop:

•   Motivation—Without the motivation to do so, it is unlikely that a person would complete a creative act, regardless of the person's abilities.

•   Abilities—Without the abilities needed to do the creative act, it is highly unlikely that the individual will do the act.

•   Practice—Without practice, the ability to generate novel and useful responses to problems and challenges will not be developed.

This step is the simplest to explain and possibly the hardest to accomplish. Creativity flowers in an environment of trust and approval. Team members who feel safe and supported will take the risks involved in floating new ideas; those who don't, won't. As Project Manager, you set the tone for the initiative. Make it an environment in which team members can stumble and even look foolish, but always feel appreciated and secure.

Step 4—Foster Spontaneity

Routine, boredom, and complacence are the enemies of creativity. Send someone out for ice cream cones in the middle of a dull afternoon. Declare tomorrow as red-T-shirt day. Take a planning day out of the office and into the park. With a very small “fun” budget and a lot of creativity on your part, you can create a sense of excitement that keeps your team mentally alert and primed to think outside of the boring box.

Step 5—Make Opportunities for Knowledge-Sharing

An old aphorism reminds us that “none of us is as smart as all of us.” One of the most rewarding aspects of project teamwork is the constant learning opportunity. As team members are selected for their particular skill sets (or even just their availability at the right time!), they also bring along their entire domain of prior experience and knowledge. Bits of wisdom from a previous project may seem at first glance to contribute nothing to the current project, but add them to other bits of experience from another team member's past and—voila!—a new way of accomplishing some of the work becomes obvious.

Any project manager who does not create opportunities for team members to teach one another is missing one of the most powerful growth sources imaginable.

Exhibit 1. Team Meeting Agenda Samples

Team Meeting Agenda Samples

Every one of your team members knows something that no one else on the team knows. Every member has used skills in different ways, attended workshops and seminars, read books, or experienced work successes that none of the others have.

Many of you may be thinking at this point, “How would I ever justify time out of my project schedule for random training exercises?” True, most projects are on tight timelines with little slack built in for learning or sharing. However, virtually every project schedule has allocation of at least one hour per week for an all-hands status meeting. Status meetings are notoriously unpopular with most team members—they are described as boring and useless or stressful and scary, depending on the management style of the project manager. Since written status reports can convey the preponderance of information normally covered at the status meeting, the “status hour” can instead be used as team time, including the opportunity for learning and thinking. See Exhibit 1 for comparison of a standard status meeting with a dynamic team meeting.

A short knowledge-sharing experience will often be the catalyst for a new synthesis of ideas among the team members. The worst that can happen as a result of team knowledge sharing is that each team member will pick up new information for future use; the best that can happen is an outpouring of new, innovative models.

Step 6—Use Creativity-Enhancing Tools

Who among us has not used brainstorming techniques? Since the brainstorming concept was disseminated widely in the early 1980s as part of TQM and similar work movements, it has become a staple of our planning toolkit. The basic rules of brainstorming (generate as many ideas as possible, write them all down, no comments on anyone else's idea) still work, but the familiarity with the technique can breed boredom if overused.

Some variations on brainstorming models can create more participation and output. Try some of the following with your team:

•   Roundtable brainstorming—This variation ensures that all attendees will participate and makes the recorders job much easier. After the topic is announced, the facilitator starts with one person at the table. The first person offers a suggestion, which is recorded. Then control passes to the person on his or her right, who also offers a suggestion, which is duly recorded. The process is repeated around the table and continues as round #2 when the starting point is reached again. If a participant cannot think of anything when it is his turn, he may say “Pass.” When every member of the group has passed twice, the brainstorming session is over. Although it may sound as if it would take forever, this model of brainstorming is actually as fast as the freeform model, in which the recorders always have to stop the flow and catch up with writing down the ideas. An extra benefit: quiet members get the same exposure as their conversation-hogging peers.

•   Brainwriting—This is a quiet, orderly form of brainstorming, in which each participant has a stack of “sticky-notes” and a pen. When the topic is announced, each person writes one idea on a sticky-note and sets it aside, then goes to the next sticky-note, capturing as many ideas as he can in the time allotted. The job of the facilitator is to circle the room continuously, picking up sticky-notes and posting them randomly on a white-board or the wall. Once all notes are posted, the group can use affinity blocking or any preferred grouping method to sort out the ideas. Benefits? In general, brainwriting generates 2–3 times as many responses as any verbal brainstorming method. Responses are anonymous, so contributions may be freer and more honest. By purposely allowing duplication, trends and consensus ideas are immediately obvious.

Exhibit 2. Examples of Obstacles to Creativity. From: Conceptual Blockbusting by James L. Adams (1986, Perseus Books: Reading, MA)

Examples of Obstacles to Creativity. From: Conceptual Blockbusting by James L. Adams (1986, Perseus Books: Reading, MA)

•   Mind-mapping—This method builds an affinity diagram on the fly, by allowing participants to post ideas in logical sequences. Necessary materials include a large chalkboard or white board, or an entire wall covered in butcher paper, with plenty of writing implements. The topic is written in a central box, and then participants draw different trains of thought as branches from the central box. Each branch then spawns sub-branches and leaves, as one person's contribution triggers an extension from another participant. The advantages of mind-mapping include the group-as-you-go concept with ideas, which eliminates the normal second step of other brainstorming methods. The visual representation of one idea leading to several others serves as a thought accelerator for most participants. The only downside is that results may be less successful in a group not accustomed to this sort of exercise.

Computer software exists now to support brainstorming and mind-mapping activities for virtual groups. See the “Suggested Resources” section at the end for some programs to try.

Step 7—Recognize Creativity Blocks and Deal With Them

There are times when even the best thinkers on your team sit in stony silence as you are asking for suggestions. Often, when this happens, it is the result of personal obstacles to creatively addressing the subject. Creative blocks can occur without conscious recognition, and your job may involve skillfully addressing and facilitating the root reluctance. Exhibit 2 lists the most common blocks to creative thinking.

In “Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas,” Adams (1990) give a number of suggestions to “busting” these blocks and more detail on describing their characteristics.

Reducing or eliminating these roadblocks can be made a fun experience for team members by helping them recognize when they occur and what to do to overcome them. Once the mental road block is recognized and addressed, the creative ideas can start flowing freely again.

Step 8—Make Work Fun

A good sense of humor and the ability to think creatively are strongly linked. The processes involved in humor (making sense of incongruities) and creativity (making something new from two existing entities) seem to use similar mental capabilities. Therefore, it follows that if you can keep your team laughing and enjoying the environment, the mental stage is properly set for new ideas.

Experience has shown that more creative and productive persons laugh more readily than their more humorless counterparts. The goal of the manager is to make sure that the humor is “inclusive” rather than “exclusive.” Inclusive humor brings people together in a positive manner. Because everyone feels positively involved, new ideas are generated and learning is facilitated while laughing. While exclusive humor depends on stereotypes and can diminish morale, inclusive humor provides its audience with a fresh perspective.

Besides the scientific linkage of humor and creativity, making the work enjoyable has logical benefits: lower stress levels, higher team spirit, and more of a feeling of belonging. Psychologists who study humor describe laughing together as an extremely social event; for example, a moderately funny story told in a group of friends will generate plenty of laughter, but a much funnier story will be met with little or no mirth if the listeners are not comfortable with one another. The team that laughs together is more liable to be trusting and open, which in turn will improve the odds of creative solutions being offered.

Making work fun certainly does not mean that you need to show up wearing a clown nose at the office. It does, however, require that you set a light tone whenever appropriate and create opportunities for your team to relax and enjoy time together.

Step 9—Recognize Good Ideas When You Hear Them

Remembering from Step 1 that the proper audience is critical to innovation, understand that the pressure is on you, as the Project Manager, to ensure that good ideas get a fair hearing. As team members offer creative approaches or new models for project work, you must be able to recognize instantly which ideas have potential. If you do not have the necessary depth of domain knowledge for the ideas being proposed, bring in some domain experts to help evaluate the practicality of suggestions.

This is a time when you need to be brutally honest about your knowledge level—far too many brilliant innovations never get off the flip chart and into production because the audience evaluating them did not have the expertise to recognize the value!

Step 10—Reward Good Ideas—Very Carefully

When a team member contributes a really good idea for the success of your project, it is certainly appropriate to express appreciation. Surprisingly, though, several key studies have found that rewarding innovative ideas can actually lessen the flow of good ideas in the future. For many creative/intelligent people, the urge to make things better comes from an intrinsic (inner-directed) drive to contribute. Once rewards are attached to the process, the intrinsic drives gives way to a dependence on the extrinsic (outer-directed) stimulus. Monetary rewards for creative ideas may stifle the future creative process.

Even with knowledge of the possible negative effects of reward systems, you will still no doubt want to acknowledge the contributions of your team. Good creative ideas should be publicly recognized as coming from a particular team member, and the positive effects of new processes or methods should be documented in your status reports, giving full credit to the innovator. A thank-you note to the team member from the project sponsor or other related executives would certainly be a nice touch.

It is very important to let your team members know that their ideas are appreciated. Just be cautious with establishing a reward system that could end up tanking the free-flowing innovative environment that you are working so hard to create.


By focusing your attention on making your team environment more conducive to creativity, you may be amazed at the side benefits: less stress, more enthusiastic team members, and more success for everyone involved. Your current project will be enhanced, and—even more important—you can become the Project Manager that everyone wants to work for on future projects.


Adams, James L. 1990. Conceptual blockbusting. Perseus Press.

Balch, David. 2001. Class notes.

Berger, A. A. 1998. An anatomy of humor. Transaction Publishers.

Bergquist, Carlisle. 1999. A comparative view of creativity theories: Psychoanalytic, behavioristic, and humanistic. Retrieved February 23, 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Cave, Charles. 1999, August 4. Definitions of creativity. Retrieved March 10, 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Chapman, A. J., Foot, H. C., and Derks, P., Editors. 1996. Humor and laughter: Theory, research, and applications. Transaction Publishers.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1997. Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. HarperCollins.

Suggested Resources

A Comparative View of Creativity Theories:

Conceptual Blocks:

Creative Thinking:

Creativity Café:

Creativity Connections:

Creativity Pages:

Creativity Web-Resources for Creativity and Innovation:


Critical Thinking:

Establishing Environments for Creativity:

Get Creative with Knowledge Sharing:

Great Ideas:

Humor University:

Idea Generation:

Mind - Brain Links:

Mind Mapping:

Obstacles to creativity:

Out-of-Box Thinking: Analysis & Commentary:

The Power of Humor:

The Seven Creativity Tools:

The Step by Step Guide to Brainstorming:

Two Types of Creativity:

Types of Creativity:

What can I do to increase my creativity?

What is Creativity? Children Know:

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 • San Antonio, Texas, USA



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