Re-Imagining the Creative Process

By Karen Thickstun, NCTM

American Music Teacher, December 2022/January 2023

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We all seek innovation—for our studio, our association, the profession. How do we develop a fertile environment for the most creative ideas to emerge? In the book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant examines the evolution of innovative ideas, suggesting that there are practical ways that anyone can generate more creative and original ideas.

Procrastinate Strategically

It seems counter-intuitive, but some procrastination is productive. Research shows that those who finish a project early are not as creative as those who procrastinate near the beginning of the project. Some procrastination allows a task to remain active in the back of one’s mind, permitting new ideas to percolate. Leonardo da Vinci worked on his Mona Lisa painting for 16 years off and on. During this time, he also worked in optics, which changed how he painted light. Interestingly, there are two different words for procrastination in ancient Egypt—one translates as “laziness,” the other as “waiting for the right time” (Grant 2016, 96).

With group projects, the midpoint of a task is likely the best time to brainstorm or seek change, according to Yale researcher Connie Gersick. The group still has “plenty of time to try new things, which makes them receptive to radically different approaches. And since they’ve used up half of their time, they’re highly motivated to choose a good strategy” (Grant 2016, 101).

Embrace Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is the generation of many ideas (example: brainstorming). Convergent thinking is the selection of a single idea from many ideas (example: funneling). Procrastination provides more time to engage in divergent thinking, allowing for a wider range of ideas.

Most people are more comfortable with convergent thinking skills, which can lead to evaluating ideas before the divergent thinking phase is done. “It is important to engage in both for roughly the same amount of time. A hundred new ideas mean nothing unless there is a rational convergence upon one with which to move forward; likewise, a single idea with which to move forward means nothing if it was not picked from a large enough pool of ideas” (Cian 2022, 3).

Research shows that there is “a direct correlation between the quality of an idea and how many ideas came before it” (Cian 2022, 3). It is typical to come up with conventional solutions first, and only then to give consideration to unconventional ideas.

Ask Good Questions

I n all aspects of the creative process, it is essential to ask good questions—questions that provoke curiosity, discovery, possibilities. Ask open (“what if”) questions instead of closed (“what is”) questions. Ask “why” and then ask “why” again. Doubt the default or status quo.

“The future belongs to the curious. The ones who are not afraid to try it, explore it, poke at it, question it, and turn it inside out” (Maxwell 2014, 14). Questions lead to thinking and discussion. Creating a positive environment for questions allows the process to be as valuable as the answer.

Explore a New Domain

Immersion in a new domain broadens our frame of reference and increases originality and innovation. “When Galileo discovered mountains on the moon, his telescope didn’t actually have enough magnifying power to support that finding. Instead, he recognized the zigzag pattern separating the light and dark areas of the moon…He had the necessary depth of experience in physics and astronomy but also breadth of experience in painting and drawing” (Grant 2016, 48).

A combination of broad and deep experience to enhance creativity is also evident in Nobel Prize-winning scientists, as the winners are more likely to be involved in the arts than less accomplished peers. (Grant 2016, 46)

Seek Feedback from Colleagues

Who is best at predicting the success of a new idea—me? Friends/family? My manager? A focus group? Grant’s research indicates that none of these options are reliable. I and my friends/family are not fully objective. My manager has a bias toward what is profitable or sustainable. A focus group is predisposed to identifying flaws. Instead, we should seek feed-back from our peers and colleagues who are not invested in the idea and can see the bigger picture of the profession. (Grant 2016, 42–43)

This speaks to one of the “superpowers” of an association—not just the personal connections that we make, which are highly import-ant, but our abilities as colleagues to support, nurture, challenge, question and push each other to new heights and directions. Cheers to a new year of discovery, creativity, inspiration and innovative ideas!


Cian, Luca, and Alex Zorychta. 2022. Deliberate Creativity for Innovation, Part 1: Process. Accessed July 30, 2022. deliberate-creativity-innovation-part-1.

Grant, Adam. 2016. Originals: How NonConformists Move the World. New York: Viking.

Maxwell, John C. 2014. Good Leaders Ask Great Questions. New York: Hachette.

Karen Thickstun


Karen Thickstun, NCTM, teaches piano pedagogy at Butler University and directs the Butler Community Arts School. She holds degrees in music, economics and business. Thickstun is MTNA immediate past president.

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