Unpacking the

creative process

Archimedes. Einstein. Edison. Their genius seems to have followed a formula. And we discover this same eight-step model when we examine countless other cases of successful invention and innovation. In fact, if we look at any creative business today—e.g., advertising, design, architecture—or at countless R&D labs around the world, we are likely to find some variation of this basic methodology being employed every day in the deliberate search for original or breakthrough solutions.

For well over a hundred years, scientists, psychologists, and practitioners have been reflecting on and studying how creativity works, and their conclusions all point to the same basic process.

It was back in the late nineteenth century that a German physiologist by the name of Hermann von Helmholtz first began to describe creative thinking as a multistage activity. He defined three distinct phases in the act of creation:10

1) Saturation – exploring a topic through information gathering

2) Incubation – unconsciously joining the dots between thought elements

3) Illumination – the moment when a new, recombinant idea is born

French polymath and scientific philosopher Henri Poincaré (whose own theory of relativity was a major inspiration for Einstein’s), described the path to innovation in similar terms in his 1904 tome The Foundations of Science, but added a fourth stage to the process—verification.11 His model was as follows:

1) Working consciously on a particular problem ...

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