Creativity can seem magical. We’re impressed by those who can come up with world-changing ideas, design unforeseen but integral gimmicks, or write compelling works of fiction seemingly from scratch. But magically, most people desire creativity, but no one knows a surefire way to learn it.
Angus Fletcher, an English professor at Ohio State University and also trained in neuroscience, thinks he may have found one. Along with colleague Mike Benveniste, Fletcher described his creativity training program in an article published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
The idea is grounded in the notion of narrative theory, which holds that stories are essential for humans to make sense of the world. Interpreting stories from everyday life leads thinkers to solve problems. Imagining new stories prompts new inventions to weave those stories into reality. Creativity arises by envisioning ourselves as reflective agents in our own stories as well as those of others.
Fletcher and Benveniste have already created a creativity training program, and it is currently being piloted at the U.S. Army Command and Staff College, U.S. Army Special Operations Community , at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the Ohio State College of Engineering.
“The new formation can […] be subdivided into three categories of narrative techniques: world-building, perspective-shifting, and action-generating,” they write. “The first uses narrative techniques to help the mind imagine new environments; the second, to help the mind imagine from different perspectives; and the third, to help the mind imagine possible future actions.
For worldbuilding, trainees are asked to identify unique events and actors in their operational domain (in a geopolitical or commercial realm, for example), and then imagine what threats or opportunities these events and actors might create.
In a perspective-shifting creativity training session, students are given a character description and asked to imagine how that person might act.
“We’ve translated this technique into creativity training at Fortune 50 companies, where we (1) pair executives with a partner, (2) ask each executive to solve a problem, then explain their reason for solving it. problem (i.e. their causal thought) to their partner, and (3) ask each frame to solve a second problem using the pattern of their partner,” describe Fletcher and Benveniste.
Finally, to teach creativity through action generation, trainees are asked to “speculate on unexpected events that might be brought about by the introduction of a new actor into a known environment – or by the introduction of a known actor in a new environment”. For example, what would happen if a historical figure suddenly found himself in the distant future?
Fletcher and Benveniste admit that because of the novelty of their creativity training, they have not yet collected data on its effectiveness. Early anecdotal reviews are promising, however. Kenneth Long, an associate professor at the College of Command and General Staff, called it “valuable for creative strategy training.”
Ann D. Christy, professor of engineering education at Ohio State University, said it “revolutionizes the teaching of engineering design skills and improves professional development and career readiness for students.”
Fletcher and Benveniste are not the first researchers to formulate a way to train creativity. Other methods exist — most are based on the notion of divergent thinking and aim to generate ideas by exploring many possible solutions (brainstorming, for example) — but they generally produce mixed results.
Fletcher and Benveniste’s story-based strategy for teaching creativity is certainly an enticing entry into the field. But before the duo popularizes it in a dodgy self-help book or translates it into a cushy advice gig, it’s hoped they’ll conduct future research to critically measure its effectiveness. To their credit, that appears to be their plan, with randomized controlled trials underway.