“Are you a creative person?” If you’ve ever asked yourself this question, or been asked by someone else, you might have found yourself stumbling to answer. We asked this question of our colleagues during a recent Lunch and Learn at our office. At first, we were met with a long pause, then some qualified answers: “I have creative moments, sure.” “I guess I can be creative.” “Yeah, sometimes.”

None of us exactly rushed to label ourselves as a “creative person” full stop. This is partially a result of how “creativity” has, historically, been defined, in comparison to the reality of how creativity is experienced day to day.  But if we agree that, at a minimum, we all have creative “moments”, what’s allowed these creative moments to happen? And, if creativity is only going to increase in importance in the workplace, how do we foster more of these moments to unleash creativity?

Before we dive into how we can unleash our creativity, we have to first dispel forever the myth that creativity is only ever apparent in Creative Geniuses.

The Four Types of Creativity

As we mentioned in our last post on creativity, some think of creativity as synonymous with genius. We do not.

James Kaufman suggests four useful categorizations for thinking about creativity. At one end of the continuum is Big-C creativity: this is where “Creative Genius” lies. At the other end, there is “everyday creativity” or Mini – C. In between these two extremes are Little-C and Pro – C.

Mini – C Everyday creativity. This can be as simple as developing your own recipe for a dish.
Little – C Everyday problem solving and creative expression. This can be writing poetry, creating short stories for kids, making paintings for the walls of your house, designing and stitching a dress for yourself.
Pro – C Professionally or vocationally creative, though not necessarily eminent (i.e., you begin to earn your living through your creative pursuits). For instance, you become a travel photographer, a graphic designer, dancer, or an interior designer.
Big – C Creativity considered great in a given field. Big-C means that your creativity has made a lasting impression on your specific field of creativity. If your creativity finds you a place in history, you’ve exhibited Big-C creativity!

How to Unleash Creativity

Back to our original question, then: “Are you a creative person?” Even if you don’t consider yourself a creative genius (and most of us don’t), you’ve probably felt like our colleagues when asked this same question: that at some point or another you’ve exercised creativity— anywhere from Mini-C to Pro-C. So, if we’re all creative to some degree, at some point in our lives, the question becomes not, “Are you creative?”, but “What facilitates creativity?”

Throughout much of human history, creativity was thought to be mediated by minor deities – the Muses. Human beings were believed to lack the capacity for genuine creativity, unless they were “touched by the gods” or came into possession of “that divine spark”.

However, we now believe the challenge surrounding creativity is not so much how to infuse a person with creative capabilities, but rather releasing the capabilities they already possess, and identifying what’s holding back these capabilities. The primary barrier to unleashing creativity is fixedness: the tendency to think of something as having only one property or one function.

The Archenemy of Creativity: Fixedness

To illustrate fixedness on a small scale, here are two tasks. The first task is to connect all nine dots in the graphic below with four straight lines.  In the second task, add a single line to the Roman numeral 9 to change it into 6. (answers at the end of the post)


nine dot grid                     IX

Most people struggle to complete these tasks because they unconsciously create limitations; thinking there is one “right” way to do it or adding rules that have not been imposed. They make assumptions about how they can solve the problem and, because they become “fixed” on these assumptions, they cannot consider a novel or creative approach.

Here’s another mundane example. Unscramble the letters to find a word, and as a hint we will tell you the answer is not “nurse”.


You may get the answer, but most people get the answer more slowly because they were told the answer was not “nurse”. By mentioning an answer, even though it is made clear the answer is incorrect, most people will become fixed on it.

To exercise creativity, individuals must overcome fixedness. How is this done? Well, it’s as simple as gaining a new perspective!

Breaking Fixedness

To extend our example with the scrambled word, one of the authors has discovered that if he becomes “fixed”, rearranging the letters into sets can help to break his fixedness. Like this:



Simply by altering the visual presentation of the problem, the answer often  comes to him. In this example, gaining a new perspective is done literally. The problem looks different and a new approach can be made.

Disrupting fixedness and thereby gaining a new perspective can take many forms. Consider these common examples of workplace experiences that can result in a new perspective:

  • Talking to someone who challenges your assumptions.
  • Visiting another company and seeing their approach to a particular operation which opens one’s eyes to new possibilities.
  • Being forced to abandon past approaches due to budget restraints or changes in personnel
  • Reading a book or watching a video that presents new information (or old information in a new way)

Many organizations unintentionally invite fixedness when they adopt procedures and job descriptions designed to ensure reliability and quality assurance. By doing the same thing the same way over and over, people lose their capacity to see new possibilities. But, there are ways to reverse that sense of fixedness.

  • New Technology: We have all seen how new technology fosters innovative approaches to established industries. Consider AirBnB. AirBnB’s efforts, in turn, prompt the industry to respond. One disruption triggers other changes. Once fixedness is overcome, creativity can occur, and, in the business world, it often must occur.
  • Off-Site Meetings: Taking employees to a new location gives them the opportunity to refresh their thinking and escape the fixedness of the everyday
  • Employee Rotation: New assignments keep employees fresh and prevent fixedness from taking hold.
  • Cross-Department Collaboration: Google designs office space to increase the probability that employees from one unit will interact with employees from another unit in the expectation that such encounters will  spark new thinking.

Fixedness can be overcome by altering the context in which people approach the problem they are facing. You do not need to be “touched by the gods” nor do you need a visit from a Muse. To a certain extent creativity – “Mini-C creativity”, “Little-C creativity”, and “Pro-C creativity” – can be released under the right set of conditions: those which allow one to break from fixedness. This spur of creativity can be the catalyst to new ideas, processes, and products, pushing your business forward. And as creativity becomes increasingly important for business success, unhinging fixedness will be key.

So, now that you know about the varying types of creativity and how to increase creativity, tell us: Are you a creative person? How do you express creativity in your daily life? How do you break from fixedness at work? We want to hear your techniques! Don’t have any? Don’t worry!  In our next creativity post, we will be sharing some more ideas for increasing creativity at work and discussing techniques already being implemented in organizations to create environments that foster creativity!

This post was co-authored by Richard McGourty


Answers to the fixedness problems:

To get the 9 dot answer one must “think outside the box”.  Most people assume the four lines cannot extend outside the imaginary boundary made by the nine dots. They get fixed on that assumption and cannot get beyond it.

The second problem has a solution that requires escaping the assumption that the answer must also be a Roman numeral or that the line must be straight.

The unscrambled word, of course, is not “nurse” it’s “unsure”

.unleash creativity        unleash creativity