The 4 R's of the Creative Process

Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.

There is a process to creativity, and like any other craft, once you understand the process, you can apply new techniques and adjustments to your approach to achieve more impact.

Human beings have been reflecting and writing about creating almost as long as they have been creating. Over and over, key themes emerge. In recent years, neuroscientists have added even more insight to how we create.

At it's most basic level, Creativity can be described in 4 key stages:


The first stage is Research. This is the stage in which we are focussed externally on what has already been learned and created.

New ideas and innovations are not created in a vacuum. They are always some combination of other ideas that already exist. So researching any field, idea, or solution that has any possible connection to what you are trying to create is essential.

Researching can include simple activities like reading, consulting experts, attending conferences, arranging focus groups, and reflecting on one's own past experience--but the key behavior is listening with humility of a learner. The more we can expose ourselves to and observe, the more ingredients we've got to draw from when building the next great idea.

Creative and innovative leaders are constant researchers--seeking out new information and experiences and developing the skills to absorb as much information from them as possible.


From the conscious focus of Researching, next comes Retreat.

Retreating is the stage in which our unconscious mind takes over for a bit. In recent years, neuroscientists have discovered two distinct modes for the brain: The first, the central executive mode, is the mode utilized during the first stage, Research. It is the mode we are in while studying for a test, doing our taxes, or driving to a hard-to-find location we haven't visited before.

The second mode is called mind-wandering mode. This is the mode we often find ourselves in while daydreaming in a lawn chair, taking a long shower, driving that very familiar commute to the office, and during sleep. While it may feel much less taxing than the mental exertion that's required while filling out a tax form, while we are in mind wandering mode our brains are actually still very hard at work. It is during this stage that our brains are sorting, arranging, and storing all the information we've  gathered during the day's research.

Even more importantly, our brains are finding the connections between all those pieces of information. It is those connections that are the key to creativity. When two bits of seemingly unrelated information come together for the first time, we have created something new! We're just not aware of it yet.

Too many of us live and work in systems that don't allow much time for retreating. We are constantly executing, constantly consuming new pieces of information--some meaningful, much of it trivial--but with no time to sort out any of it. While the constant activity may feel productive, we're actually depriving ourselves of a critical set of conditions for innovating.


Realizing is the stage during which the work of the subconscious mind resurfaces to the conscious level. This is the A-ha! moment familiar to many of us in the morning during a long shower or after a good night's sleep. Suddenly, a new new idea full of possibility is apparent to us.

There are many practices we can adopt to help bring realizations forward. Journalling, drafting a rough plan on a napkin or whiteboard, or talking with a trusted a colleague or friend are often all it takes to bring a great idea forward. But many of workflows don't build in intentional time to help bring forward and support realizations.

The realizations that do come are too often lost. A moment after we have them, we dismiss them as unrealistic or otherwise flawed. They never see the light of day. Worse yet, too often we simply do not capture them at all--even the good ones. The idea comes, we don't write it down or record it in some other productive system, and then it's gone forever.

Creative and innovative leaders recognize the value in Realizations and develop practices to capitalize on them.


Researching, Retreating, and Realizing are critically important--but only developing good ideas in your head isn't actually being creative or innovative at all--that's just having a good imagination. Until you have presented your idea to the world in some fashion, however small, you haven't actually created anything.

Revealing, requires somehow making your idea public--in a declaration, a prototype, a plan, a speech, or even a conversation over coffee.

This is where ideas get tested. We find out which ones work, which ones don't. Some ideas will stick. Some you'll find aren't nearly as good as you originally imagined. Others will surprise you when you discover just how impactful they are. But the only way to learn this is to reveal them to others.

Revealing is the stage most people avoid, because it requires risk and vulnerability. It is necessary for us to experience success, but it also opens us up to failure. It is uncomfortable by it's very nature. In fact, if your Revealing process doesn't make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you're probably doing it wrong.

The key to great leadership and innovation is getting comfortable being uncomfortable--giving in to the reality that the only way to create something new and better is by trying lots of stuff that just might fail. The truth is, most of our ideas will fail in one form or another. But the only real way to move things forward towards more meaningful change is to get your ideas out there, in the real world, and see which one's can survive.

Creative and innovative leaders recognize this reality and courageously step into the discomfort and fear of Revealing so that they can effect real change.


Leading, innovating, creating--they demand practice. Leading Off the Cuff provides workshops and seminars that allow you or your team to practice the creative process in a safe and fun environment so that you're better equipped to implement the same mindset in the arenas you care about most.

Improvisers are extremely practiced at the creative process, so much so that they execute it at a breakneck speed.

Intensely amplifying their listening and observing skills, improvisers become excellent researchers.

Acknowledging the need to retreat into mind-wandering mode, improvisers are able to temporarily let go so that they can find new connections and possibilities.

Once new connections manifest into realizations, improvisers learn to bravely seize on them, acknowledging the value in even the craziest ideas.

And finally, improvisers are willing to step into the risk of revealing by making bold declarations in an effort to move a creation forward, grounded in the faith executing a reasonable next step is much more important than waiting for a perfect final step.

If you'd like to learn more about how to implement the 4 R's of the Creative Process in your work to achieve more impact, please contact me. I'd be happy to discuss the particular needs and challenges that you or your team face and design a session just for you so that you can do more of what matters most.

Or consider the very popular Creative Leadership workshop. Download a workshop description here.


© Andy Zimney and Leading Off the Cuff, 2016.

Name *