Creativity for Writers with Dr. Roger Firestien

Do you want to become a more creative writer?

Dr. Roger Firestien is a creativity consultant and senior faculty member at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at the State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo State College. He’s also the author of Create in a Flash: A Leader’s Recipe for Breakthrough Innovation.

Create in a Flash: A Leader's Recipe for Breakthrough Innovation

In this interview, Roger explains:

  • How creativity works for writers (Discover more about this in my Forbes post here)
  • Why it’s important to force connections between different ideas
  • What to do when you feel blocked and uninspired
  • What his writing routine looks like

And lots more.

I start by asking Roger about his new book Create In A Flash: A Leader’s Recipe for Breakthrough Innovation.


Transcript Below

Bryan Collins: Roger, it’s great to have you on the podcast today. You’ve written on covert creativity extensively for years, which is a topic that I’m always fascinated by, and your new book is called Create in a Flash. So I guess, as somebody who’s been writing about this topic for such a long time, what made you decide to write this book?

Roger Firestien: Well, the reason why I wrote Create in a Flash: A Leader’s Recipe for Breakthrough Innovation is a story kind of about my father. My second book that I wrote, called Leading on the Creative Edge, came out about 20 years ago. I gave it to my dad, and my dad is a farmer. Or was a farmer, he passed away a number of years ago. And so, he’s reading the book, and I said, “Dad, how do you like it?” And he said, “Well, I read the first 25 pages, and I fell asleep. Where are the pictures?” And so, the thing about my dad was: he was a farmer, he was visual. He could plant cornrows that were so straight, if you are a good shot, you could shoot an arrow right down and not hit anything. And so, the idea of the format of Create in a Flash is to have a beautiful book. Half of it is actually pictures that illustrate the whole concepts that are there.

Roger Firestien: I really wanted to have something… After being in this business for about 40 years, and I’m in my early sixties, I really wanted to say something about the field. And I wanted to present it to people in a way that’s not so lofty and academic, as sometimes happens with this field, but for anybody to use. The other reason why I wrote it is that the format is: you can pick it up; you can read a couple of pages, as you probably have experienced; and get some value out of it and put it down.

Roger Firestien: But, as I was writing the book, I didn’t want it to be a training manual, because I’ve written a number of training manuals in my time. And so, with the book, we have about 20 videos that actually show you how to do the techniques in the book, show you how to conduct an idea-generating session. So we had to do a clear problem-clarification session, and that’s the reason why I wrote it. The other reason why I wrote it is… it’s interesting. I was doing a bunch of work on my house. I put new windows in and replaced the windows that were 70 years old, and I put a new driveway in, and I wrote in my journal on September 1st, 2018, “Now that I’ve done all this stuff, I think I’ll write a book.” And one year and 19 days later, we had the launch party at the Buffalo science museum, where we had about 200 people and launched the book, so that was that. And I brought together an art director, an editor, and it was… I have to tell you, Bryan, it was one of the most fun, creative experiences that I’ve had my entire career.

Bryan Collins: That sounds good to hear. Yeah, it definitely is a very visual book, and what struck me when I was reading it before our interview is how I was able to dive into a couple of chapters and pull out some nuggets. Whereas I agree, from some of the other creativity books I’ve read, they can be very academic and serious.

Roger Firestien: Yeah. And creativity is fun! Creativity is the highest function of being human, so why make it so serious, and why make it so theory-laden? Although everything in Create in a Flash is based on rigorous scientific theory and research, it’s presented in a way that’s fun, that’s whimsical. I wanted people to turn the page in the book and be delighted. So, yeah, that’s the rationale behind it.

Bryan Collins: You say creativity is fun and whimsical and, in the book, you offer a couple of different definitions of creativity. What do you see creativity as?

Roger Firestien: Well, there’s a couple of things around that, Bryan. First, one of the definitions that I like is by my friend, the late Dr. Morris Stein. He said that creativity is the production of something that is novel and useful. So, creativity is the production of something that is novel and useful. So creating, making, something novel and useful. So, it’s great to have an idea, but you also have to produce it; it also has to be manifest.

Roger Firestien: That’s one way to look at creativity. But, oftentimes, when we think about creativity, there are some myths around creativity, and one of the things that I find that… When I talk to people, a common response is, “Well, I’m not creative.” And so, there’s actually what we call the “four-C” model of creativity… A number of my colleagues came up with… Kaufman and Beghetto. They look at creativity in four aspects.

Roger Firestien: One is the “big C” creativity. That’s the eminent creators: the Einsteins, the Marie Curies, the Mozarts, the Helen Kellers. Then, there’s the “little c” creativity, and that’s the kind of creativity that we do every day. So, it’s finding a way to fix a piece of machinery on the farm with wire and duct tape, or making a delicious meal out of the leftovers in the refrigerator. That’s “small C” creativity. Then, there’s “mini c” creativity, which is the creativity that comes when you’re learning something, or when you just get a breakthrough. And then, there’s “pro c” creativity, which is professional creativity. These are professional creators, but they haven’t reached the eminent stage yet. So one, creativity is novelty that’s useful, and two, there’s actually four types of creativity: the eminent, “big C”; “little c” that we do all the time; “mini c”, which is learning; and “pro c”, which is professional creators that are not quite eminent yet. That’s the way we like to look at it.

Bryan Collins: In those four examples, that makes sense to me; but I’m just curious about the fourth one, the professional creators who are not eminent, is that right?

Roger Firestien: Yeah. That would be like the musician or composers that write student musical arrangements, the art director who illustrates books, interior designers who make the house beautiful, a college professor that finds new ways to instill creativity into their lessons. So, your job is… As a writer, you’re a “pro c.” You’re a professional creator, that’s what you do. Now, some of us, or most of us, don’t make it to the eminent stage. But, still, your business is really the business of creativity, and that’s “pro c,” yeah.

Bryan Collins: So, who would be eminent? Are we talking about classics? Classical writers, or-

Roger Firestien: Yes, the classics. Sort of like… Well, a classical writer. Name some of your… Shakespeare would be eminent. A writer…what are some of your favorite writers, would-be eminent writers?

Bryan Collins: Would Stephen King be an eminent writer?

Roger Firestien: You know what? I think so, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, because he’s reached a prominent level, you certainly characterise him as creative, and he’s going to be around for a while. So, yeah, I think that would probably be a good analogy, Bryan.

Bryan Collins: You also have some interesting examples in the book. So, writers are definitely creative, but you use one particular example that stood out: somebody who helped you train. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Roger Firestien: Oh, so, we’re talking about trainers? Okay.

Bryan Collins: Yes.

Roger Firestien: By making that an analogy in the book, if…we want to talk about this a little bit. When you do a group creativity session, it’s important to have clearly-identified roles in the group. What is the client? This is a person that owns the challenge. The second is the resource group, and this could be 5-7 people that you bring in to use this creative problem-solving process, that we can talk through in a minute, to help the client move from a goal or a wish or a challenge, redefining the problem, generating ideas, evaluating those ideas, and then putting those ideas into action. So, a resource group, they help you to come up with that input.

Roger Firestien: And then, the role of a facilitator. The facilitator is, essentially, the person who manages the creative process when you’re working with a group. They help the group get warmed up; they guide the group through identifying what the problem is; they guide the group on help; they help you to select ideas. And so, it occurred to me that a facilitator is very much like a fitness trainer.

Roger Firestien: I actually was talking with my fitness trainers about this, If you take a look at what a fitness trainer does, they design an exercise program; a creative problem-solving facilitator designs the innovation session. A fitness trainer manages the fitness process; a creative problem-solving facilitator manages the creative process. A fitness trainer keeps the client on track; a creative problem-solving facilitator keeps the group on track. A fitness trainer knows the exercises inside and out and a creative problem-solving facilitator knows the creative process inside and out.

Roger Firestien: The key about that is… I had some fitness goals. Could I have gotten to them by myself? Well, it’s probably pretty unlikely, because I haven’t done so well so far. So, I bring in a trainer to help to keep me on track and, if I follow that process, I’m going to increase my fitness, my stamina, my energy, lose weight. All I have to do is follow the process that the trainer lays out. That’s the thing about the creative process that we talk about in Create in a Flash: really, all you have to do is follow this creative process that the facilitator will help you to keep on track with, and you’re going to get some breakthrough ideas. The creative process that we talk about in here has been researched for over 60 years.

Bryan Collins: What advice would you give to somebody who is looking for that culture? That trainer, or that instructor?

Roger Firestien: The advice I would give is… I would give them the advice to get somebody who’s trained in the creative problem-solving process. We do that over here at the Center for Applied Imagination at SUNY Buffalo State, where you have a master’s degree in creativity and change leadership. So, I actually train people to lead this creative problem-solving process. So, one, get someone who’s trained in leading the creative problem-solving process; two, someone that has some good group-facilitation skills. And here’s the main thing, Bryan: the facilitator is not the leader of the group.

Roger Firestien: Oftentimes, what tends to happen is that you have a business problem where you have a meeting that’s going on, and the group leader or the boss runs the session. Unfortunately, what tends to happen is that just really screws up the group dynamics there because the boss is not only boss, but he has investment in what the outcome of this session is. So, we recommend that the facilitator be what we call “content-neutral.” In other words, all they do is manage this creative process, manage the redefining of the problem, manage the sharing of ideas, manage the implementation plan of those ideas. But they don’t contribute to the content of the session: that’s the job of the boss, that’s the job of the people in the work group. That’s the thing that really makes this distinct. The facilitator has these skills, to be able to ask the appropriate questions to keep the group on track, to keep them moving forward in a creative process, just like a fitness trainer has the skills to keep me on track with my fitness program.

Bryan Collins: I certainly agree a fitness trainer will help you find and fix errors in your training that’s not possible alone, and that actually brings me to another question. You talked there about a group setting. A couple of years ago I was in….working as a copywriter within a marketing agency, and we had these group brainstorming sessions. At the time I thought they were great, but then after several of them, I realised that one person was just writing down all the ideas, his ideas, at the end. It was more just a box-ticking exercise, and I got quite frustrated with the whole process, and I didn’t work with the agency anymore. But what I’m getting at is, how can somebody who struggles with creativity in a group setting manage moments like that?

Roger Firestien: Well, there’s a couple of things that are going on there. There’s a lot of dynamics there. First off, if you’re going to do a creativity session, from a leader’s perspective, make sure that you want creative ideas. Make sure that you are willing and open to more ideas, to the ideas that the group is wanting to come up with. We recommend that you have some ownership of the problem, you’re motivated to work on it, and you really want to use some imaginative thinking.

Roger Firestien: Essentially, what was going on in there is you were kind of being used. It’s like, “Yeah, let’s get those ideas out there, but I’m going to pick the ideas that I want anyway.” That’s inappropriate use of this process. So, when we go into a session, we make sure that the boss, usually who is a person who’s going to have to direct the implementation of this, the boss is willing to come up with some new ideas, that wants to see some new approaches. In that way, we were able to say, “Hey, look, you said you wanted some new ideas. Why are you just taking your ideas that you’ve come up with?”

Roger Firestien: Now, the other thing that goes on is we use a technique called “brainstorming with Post-Its,” which you’re probably familiar with. You write your idea on a Post-It, you say it, you put it on the chart. The beautiful thing about that is, and we can talk more about this when we talk about the warm-up, is that, in a really well-generated…well-run idea-generating session, it’s not uncommon to come up with about a hundred ideas in 10 minutes. When that begins to happen, and when it’s facilitated well… And, once again, here’s the need for a facilitator. When it’s facilitated well, everybody has heard all those ideas get out there; so, the ideas that the boss puts up, and the ideas that everybody else puts up, really are pretty much equal.

Roger Firestien: Then, when you’re beginning to select those ideas, here’s where roles come in again. If the boss’s problem is the problem, if the boss has the problem, then it’s really his role to select those ideas that the group came up with; however, if the group owns the challenge, then everybody comes up and starts to select those ideas. So, I think in that situation, what you found…yes, it was a box-ticking exercise because there really was no follow-through to it.

Roger Firestien: The other thing that we talk about, too, is that, when you’re looking at doing some idea-generating or using creativity in a group, most of the time needs to be spent on selecting those ideas, not in generating those ideas. Say you have an hour session with a well-trained group. You can take the first 10-15 minutes to generate 75-100 ideas, and then the remaining time to select those ideas, to sort them, and refine them. Oftentimes, what tends to happen is people get it backward: they spend all this time generating these ideas, and then they have five minutes left, and they say, “Well, let’s just pick the ones that look good.” That’s not doing a really good job of converging. So, that’s my recommendation around that. Does that make sense?

Bryan Collins: It does, it does. One other topic related to that is alone time versus group time. How important is alone time for coming up with original ideas?

Roger Firestien: In the book, I talk about “drive in a tractor, get creative.” I actually…when I find myself getting stale, I go out and do some work on a friend’s farm about 40 miles from here. There’s a couple of things that help me with that. One, when I do that, my friend tells me what to do; I don’t have to make decisions. Oftentimes, I’m setting out on a tractor working in a field mowing, or something like that, and that gives you a chance to just kind of let those ideas begin to bubble up and surface. So, what we recommend is… And that’s a change of pace. What’s behind the alone time is, essentially, a change of pace, doing something differently. So, what re recommend is, as far as group time and alone time is concerned… One of the things that happens in a group is that people can become deliberately creative. You follow these guidelines, you’re going to get these ideas out there.

Roger Firestien: What we also find is that we tend to get some of our best ideas when we’re not at work when we’re not at the execution mode, we’re not at the “make it happen” mode, we’re not at the judgment mode. Oftentimes, ideas will come to us while you’re falling asleep at night, taking a shower, driving in the car… When I ask groups where they get their best ideas, most people don’t get their best ideas at work. So, that alone time, that time where you’re able to just sort of pay attention to something in an almost automatic way, that’s where the ideas begin to surface. My recommendation is you keep your smartphone with you so you can record those voice memos, or have a sheet of paper with you. Because I’m sure you’ve had the occasion where you’ve had an idea, you go, “Oh, that’s a great idea,” and then you’ve forgotten it. So, capture those ideas whenever and wherever they come to you. That’s the value of the alone time; that’s the value of stepping away from the problem.

Bryan Collins: When it comes to actually doing the work, there are a number of warm-up exercises that you recommend using. Could you elaborate on those a little bit?

Roger Firestien: Yes. Here’s one of the things that tends to happen: what we recommend, and I’ve done this throughout my entire career, is, before you go and work on the actual really, really tough, serious problem, do a warm-up exercise first. And a warm-up exercise is…admittedly, it’s a silly little exercise. And so, what you would do is… Some of my favorite warm-ups might be like, how to get a hippopotamus out of a bathtub. What might be all the ways to improve a refrigerator? What can you do with 10 pounds of… I’m sorry, what can you do with 10 tons of Jello? How to get a bear out of your living room. What might you do with 50,000 bowling balls that are flat on one side? These are really silly challenges, not related to the problem at all.

Roger Firestien: What you do is you come in, and the facilitator, the person that’s going to run the group, proposes this…asks this question to the group. Then, you just generate some ideas for solving that problem. The purpose of doing a warm-up exercise is threefold.

Roger Firestien: First, is to briefly train the group in the methods that they’re going to be using to generate those ideas. You’re not going to judge ideas, we’re going to go for quantity. We’re going to go for unusual ideas, we’re going to build on other ideas.

Roger Firestien: Second, it is to what I call, “sanction the time for speculation.” What’s behind that is, as you go through your day, you’re in a judgment mode, you’re in a make-it-happen mode. When you come into a creativity session, you’re in the creative mode at that time. So, to jump from your regular judgment mode into trying to be creative, without some kind of a warm-up in there, just doesn’t work. So, it’s like, “Okay, from here on out, we’re going to be speculative. We’re going to play around with these ideas just a little bit.” The warm-up essentially sanctions the time for speculation. So, “We’re going to speculate now, we’re going to dream.”

Roger Firestien: The third thing it does is it creates a judgment-free zone. By working on something that’s admittedly silly, something that’s admittedly whimsical, people loosen up, they lighten up a little bit, they have some fun with that.

Roger Firestien: And then, after you’ve done the warm-up, which takes about 5-7 minutes, then go to work on the tough challenge at-hand. But in my entire career, when I’ve neglected to do a warm-up…I did that twice. Either because, one, I thought the group was already warmed up, or I thought I couldn’t take the time to do a warm-up activity. That was early on. Ever since then, I’ve done a warm-up every time. And people will say, “Roger, a warm-up is silly. We have serious people in there.” Well, I’ve done this with army generals, with chief executives, with people in government… They love it because it gives them a chance to play, gives them a chance to laugh, it gives them a chance to think just a little bit differently. So, one of the big takeaways that I’d recommend to your folks that are listening is: do a warm-up activity first, then work on the tough challenge at-hand.

Bryan Collins: I’m reminded of what I do in the morning. It’s journaling for a few…10 or 15 minutes or, potentially, using a writing prompt. I’m just wondering, is that similar to what you’ve described?

Roger Firestien: It’s similar to that, yeah. That’s doing it individually, this is for the group. When you have a group of 5-7 people working together on a challenge, that helps people to become familiar with the dynamics, how to behave in the group: “Hey look, we’re not judging these ideas, we’re just getting them out,” how to build off of each other’s ideas. So, yeah, what you’re doing is a writer’s exercise for working individually creative, this is a warm-up exercise for working group creativity.

Bryan Collins: Do you have an ideal early morning routine for…that helps you?

Roger Firestien: I have a number of routines, a couple of things. One of the routines and this is one of the things that I just love, is that… because at this stage of my life, I can pretty much set my own schedule, I love to take naps. I’ll take, about two o’clock, three o’clock in the afternoon, I’ll take a 15-minute nap; and after that nap, I’m refreshed and I’m ready to go after… essentially, it gives me two days. So, napping is really helpful. The other routine to get ideas is just that whole thing of spending that time either taking a walk or just kind of some quiet time, but always having that recorder there with me because I never know when I’m going to be coming up with a new idea. And by capturing it, you capture it, you get it out of your brain, and then you get ready for the next ideas to come in. You don’t have to worry about remembering that idea. You always already have it recorded, and you leave space for the other ideas to surface.

Bryan Collins: So, what does your writing process look like?

Roger Firestien: Oh, that’s really fun! My writing process is pieces. So, what I’ll do when I’m working on a project is, if something strikes me, I’ll start at a particular paragraph or something like that; I’ll, essentially, do a section of it. When we wrote Create in a Flash, we did an outline for it, but I didn’t go: one, two, three, four, five. As I went through it, I kind of used it as a checklist; “Gee, I need to write about this.” If I had the energy to write about this section, I would write about that; if I had the energy to write about this section, I would write about that.

Roger Firestien: So, it wasn’t chronological order, it was in small pieces. Also, it was starting from just little gems, little vignettes, and then building it from there. So, I wouldn’t say it’s linear, I’d say it’s much more jumping around, and kind of going where I’m moved to, where the energy is. Then, as the book begins to finish up, then whatever the holes I need to fill in, and work it from there. I also work with a very good editor, and so when we did this book, it was a collaborative process. I would begin to get my thoughts out, and then I had that freedom to say… Heather’s the editor’s name. “Heather, why don’t you take it from here and see if you can polish it out just a little bit more,” and we’d go back and forth that way. So, as pieces, and then it was collaboration.

Bryan Collins: Bringing those pieces together, is that a good way of establishing connections?

Roger Firestien: Yes-

Bryan Collins: I know connections are something you talk about in the book, as well. Do you have any tips for establishing connections between different ideas?

Roger Firestien: Yeah, the technique is called “forced connections,” and here’s, really, the essence of creativity. Say you’re working on a certain problem. Maybe you want to work on ways to save money, all right? Oftentimes, you’ll come up with the usual ideas, and then you’ll get stuck.

Roger Firestien: What we recommend that people do is that they begin to make some connections with the… You usually don’t relate to the problem at all. For example, if you’re sitting at your desk, you might look at your lamp, and what ideas does the lamp give you for saving money? Use less electricity, or buy cheap light bulbs or something like that. Or, what ideas does looking outside at my pine trees give me for saving money? Well, instead of using electric heat, use wood heat; walk around in the backyard more to be warmed up.

Roger Firestien: This whole concept of forcing connections is really the essence of creativity, so as to take a look at the problem that you’re working on, come up with something completely different, and making a connection from that. That connection-making process really is what moves the creative process along. And I can give you a couple of examples of that if you’d like.

Bryan Collins: Yeah, if you have one example, that would be great. Yeah, yeah.

Roger Firestien: Here’s one of my favorite examples, and we actually talked about this in the book: this is an example of a General Motors forge plant here in Western New York.

Roger Firestien: At this plant, what they do is they make ring gears; a ring gear changes a direction of power in your automobile. So, if you have a rear-wheel automobile, the differential power comes in one direction, hits the ring gear, ring gear puts the power out to the sides. The way you make a ring gear is to take a hot piece of metal that looks like a donut, you put it in a stamp…in a die that puts about 50 tons of pressure on it, and the ring gear comes out the other side. It’s a slotted gear.

Roger Firestien: That worked just fine until a number of years ago at this plant. The ring gears were getting stuck in the dies. When the ring gears got stuck in the dies, the operators would put a slab of grease on the die, the die would hold scale or residue and, eventually, the die would break. At this plant, they were breaking about 10 dies a week, and dies cost between $4,000-$5,000 apiece. That’s a $40,000-$50,000 apiece problem.

Roger Firestien: So, we trained a number of people in this plant in creative problem-solving. At the end of the day, one of the people in charge over there just brought a group of folks together: the group of folks that were trained in this process, and they set about to solve the ring gear problem. So, they started to generate some ideas and, as happens, they kind of slowed down. So, the facilitator said, “Well, let’s take a look at something that doesn’t relate to this problem at all.”

Roger Firestien: I was really interested because one of the people in the group said, “You know what? We’ve got a sticking problem here.” He said, “My wife has this vegetable product, it’s called Pam. You spray it on the pan, the vegetables don’t stick to the pan. What if we sprayed the dies with Pam?” There was a chemical engineer in the group. He said, “You know, Pam probably won’t work, but an oil-and-soap solution just might do it.”

Roger Firestien: They stop the session. Half the group goes to the nearest department store, picks up a spray bottle; the other half goes to mix the solution. The spray bottle cost about a dollar, the solution cost about 50 cents. They spray it on the die, the dies don’t break. So, a $1.50 solution saves this organisation $50,000 a week.

Roger Firestien: And what it was, was there were a number of things that were working there. First off, they had a really well-defined problem, and that’s crucial in the process; it was: how might we prevent the ring gears from getting stuck in the die? They came up with some ideas, a number of ideas. They tried this “forced connections,” and then they tested those ideas out. And it was in this forced connection-making process where the new idea began to surface. They made a connection.

Roger Firestien: Let me give you another example: do you know who Wilson Greatbatch is?

Bryan Collins: I don’t, unfortunately, know.

Roger Firestien: Okay, well, not many people do, unless they live in Western New York. Wilson Greatbatch invented the Pacemaker, and he has some wonderful things to say about failure and learning. I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Greatbatch and interview him a couple of times before he passed away.

Roger Firestien: It’s my understanding from our conversations that the inspiration for the Pacemaker was a hazard-flasher on the side of the road where you’re at a construction site. So, Dr. Greatbatch is coming back from this meeting where he’d been working on this Pacemaker concept. He sees this flasher, and he makes the connection with the flasher and the electrical flash in the Pacemaker. That was one of the insights that led him to develop the Pacemaker.

Roger Firestien: We’re always making connections, and what we can do in the creative process is we can make those connections deliberately. So, when you’re working with a group, we recommend that you have some pictures in with the group, and we use little picture cards. We use four categories: we use people, we use nature, we use machinery, and we use food. So, when you find yourself slowing down, just take a look at those pictures, see what ideas one of those pictures might give you to get the process going again. Now, the idea that you get from the picture might not be the breakthrough that you’re looking for; but what it does do is it gets the idea-generating process flowing again. And that’s my go-to tool for creativity and coming up with new ideas.

Bryan Collins: So, just to stop you there: the pictures that you use, do you have four pictures? The four same pictures each time?

Roger Firestien: They’re just four categories so, on a table, I’ll have 20 or 30 pictures of food or 20 or 30 pictures of machinery. And people just, kind of look around, and sort around, going, “Oh, what ideas do you get from this?” “Oh, that’s…” and make a connection from that. Because what our brain looks for when you’re working on a creative process is… When you’re generating ideas, what we find is about the first 10-12 ideas tend to be the usual ideas, the ideas you’ve thought of before. And we recommend setting an idea quota or an idea goal, and we’ll talk about that in a second. But then what begins to happen is you run out of that fuel, and what the forced connections technique does is it gives you fuel for new insights. Different perspectives, different stimulus.

Roger Firestien: And pictures are great, we love pictures, but… I love to work with pictures, but you can do things like tastes, various…a variety of tastes. What does cinnamon, the taste of cinnamon, give you for solving this problem? Or you can use smells, or you can use musical selections…anything like that to just enhance that connection-making process for coming up with new ideas. So, that’s the idea behind it.

Bryan Collins: No, I like that, I like that. I’ll have to work that into my process.

Roger Firestien: Yeah, it’s really simple, and it’s really, really fun. And when we’re working with groups, these groups just light up because it’s like, “Wow, I never thought about that before. Making those connections.” So, it’s a blast, yeah.

Bryan Collins: And finally, you just talked there about idea goals. So, what’s an idea goal?

Roger Firestien: Yeah, well, so, here’s the idea behind that, Bryan: what we recommend is that, when you’re working with a group, you set an idea quota. I like to use between 30-35 ideas when you’re working with a group, and here’s the thinking behind that: back in the early ’80s, I began work…I started a little consulting firm called Multiple Resource Associates, and we lived and died by new ideas and new breakthroughs. And so, we would look at transcripts of sessions, and when people came up with their breakthrough ideas…the new ideas, the ideas that they eventually took and did something with. And it was usually about at 30, 35, 40, or somewhere in there. Then, when we tracked this, we found that what the idea-generating session…broke out was…into three thirds. So, We have one-third, one-third, one-third. This is the “one-third, one-third, one-third” principle.

Roger Firestien: The first third, about the first 10-12 ideas, tend to be the usual ideas. These are the ideas people have thought of before. The second third, from idea 12-20 or -25 or so, tend to be the…kind of the wacky, the crazy, ridiculous ideas. What happens there is people have exhausted their usual associations, and then they get a little crazier, they loosen up a little bit more. The third, at idea 30-35, that’s when the new idea… that’s when the new insights come. So, people have taken the original stuff, the kind of wacky ideas, and begin to make some combinations from that, and that’s where you hit the pay dirt. That’s where you’re really coming up with some new ideas.

Roger Firestien: Unfortunately, what tends to happen is people will generate 10-12 ideas. And If you’re just generating 10 or 12 ideas, you’re not getting creative, all you’re doing is getting those ideas out that are already running around in people’s heads. The creativity comes in the stretch; the innovation comes in the stretch. So, when you give a group a goal to work for, they’ll hit 30-35 ideas; oftentimes, they’ll do more than that. But it gives them a target for where to go, and you’re pretty well assured that you’re going to get a new insight in there.

Bryan Collins: Yeah. You’ve kind of reminded me of… I set goals around how many articles I write, or the amount of hours I’ll spend working on one particular project, like a book chapter. Do they sound like idea goals, or is there any way I can improve those?

Roger Firestien: Well, I guess there’s a couple of things. If you take a look at a writer’s sketch…at an artist’s sketchbook… Good friend of mine is an artist. She has hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of sketches that she uses for her raw material. So, I guess what I would recommend is coming up with just a variety of different small, little vignettes of ideas, and stretch from there, as far as writing is concerned. And not judging them. The big thing is when you’re working by yourself, set out the problem, state the problem in a way that can be solved using words like “how-to” or “how might,” and then, whatever comes to mind, get it out, get it out.

Roger Firestien: But, to your point, what I’d recommend now as I’m thinking about it, is to say, “Okay, I’m going to sit down, and I’m going to generate 20 ideas for this story. I’m not going to judge them. Whatever comes to mind, I’m just going to get it out.” And as you go through that, you might find that you’re going to get stuck. That’s when you look at your window, that’s when you pull out a picture of something. Use that to help you create some new ideas from that. That’s a great way to work individually. Does that make sense?

Bryan Collins: It does, yeah. Yeah, I am reminded of…there’s another author, James Altucher, who recommended writing down 10 ideas every day. It was a practice I used to follow, but I haven’t done much recently.

Roger Firestien: And the thing is, you can make it quick and say, “Okay, I’m going to write down 10 ideas, but I’m going to do it in two minutes,” because it’s easy for you to come up with 10 ideas in two minutes, or three minutes. And the key behind that is to not judge. We talk about… In your example, we use the writer’s mind and the editor’s mind. The writer’s mind is coming up with all these ideas and these concepts, and just getting things out, freewheeling. The editor’s mind is, once you’ve got those concepts out, then going through editing it and refining it. So, the writer’s mind first, then the editor’s mind.

Bryan Collins: Oh, I like that. I like that. So, when is the book out, Roger?

Roger Firestien: The book is out now, and it’s available on Amazon. It’s also… So, Create in a Flash: A Leader’s Recipe for Breakthrough Innovation on Amazon. Also, you can get it from my website at, F-I-R-E-S-T-I-E-N. And, as I mentioned earlier, Bryan, there are 20 videos that accompany this that actually show you how to do an idea-generating session, a forced connection session, a warm-up session…and as you go through the book, the videos are indicated with little video icons. And in the back of the book, we have what we call “video cooking lessons.” We’re using the analogy that this is a recipe for innovation: you follow the recipe, you’re pretty sure to get the innovation. And to play around, to continue with that analogy, we call these your video cooking lessons.

Roger Firestien: So, it’s how to clarify the problem, how to select the best problem, how to do a warm-up…and you actually see me facilitating a group working on a real challenge, working through this entire process. So, you can use it to stand alone; you can also use it as a training program in an organisation, or in a university, or in a business. Also, there are about 10 downloadable PDFs that are free. So, whether you buy the book or not, you can always take a look at the videos for free, and…take a look and use those to help you with your creative efforts.

Bryan Collins: That’s a lot of great resources for readers; you’re certainly over-delivering.

Roger Firestien: Well, the thing is, Bryan, I’ve been in this business a long time and, unfortunately, as happens when you have a field that’s as popular as creativity or innovation, you get people in there that have maybe read a book on innovation, or gone to a conference, and declare themselves an expert, and do not real good work. I want to get stuff out there that’s good work that people can use, and be a good model for folks, and so… Yes, take it, use it. It’s all in the effort to make the world a little bit better, a little bit more creative place, and so I’m really happy to do it.

Bryan Collins: It was great to talk to you today, Roger.

Roger Firestien: Bryan, my pleasure.

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