As you know, writing a council document is about more than getting the words on the page — it’s also about coming up with new solutions to problems and critically assessing those initial ideas.
When facing significant deadline pressures, it can be difficult to justify investing in more time in creative and critical thinking processes. However, the better we all become at problem solving, the more valuable we will be to our organisations and communities.
The New Zealand Transport Agency’s (NZTA) practice note ‘Innovation and Creativity in Business Case Development,’ identifies five steps of creativity: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation and elaboration. The first two are divergent (seeking as many ideas as possible), the second two are convergent (making choices in order to finalise an idea) and elaboration is about explaining the idea so that it can become a reality.
Advice on the creative process
Here’s what the NZTA has to say: “Decision makers are placing increasing scrutiny on the need for investment proposals to consider real alternatives to traditional transport interventions. Lightly skimming over the idea generation needed to create alternatives and options is likely to result in real delays and expensive rework later.”
This quote should provide all of us with confidence that it is worthwhile investing in the divergence phase of developing a business case, report or asset management plan.
Here’s some more detail about the first two (divergent/ideas generation) phases of the creative process as proposed by psychologist Mihaly Cxikszentmihlyi.
Five steps to the creative process
1. Preparation — Becoming immersed in problematic issues that are interesting and arouse curiosity.
2. Incubation — Ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness.
In ‘What Made You Think of That?’ Gary Bertwhistle says: "True creative thinking will have you developing loads of ideas that are not necessarily useable, but in amongst them all, there will be treasure.”
This is the time to ask questions and make suggestions even if those questions and suggestions could turn out to be laughably wrong. Don’t hold back your ideas, hide your mistakes, or edit yourself in order to save face. As Patrick Lencioni says in ‘Getting Naked — A Business Fable, “keep in mind, for every seemingly dumb suggestion that turns out to be insightful, there are plenty that are in fact dumb. But without taking the risk of putting an idea out there, the good ideas will never see the light of day.”
Another way to generate new ideas is to initiate two or three creative conversations with individuals in different departments from your own. Ask for and listen to the other person's ideas related to a specific question with an open mind (for further consideration in the convergence phase).
Do you give yourself and other staff permission to spend time mulling on and trying out new ideas? Making time for this ideas generation process is the first obstacle to overcome if it’s not part of your organisation’s existing culture. Consider how you can encourage yourself (and any staff) to make room for the whole gamut of idea generation methods. Introverts are more likely to arrive at their best ideas in quiet environments and in solitude, and extroverts may be more likely to generate their best ideas in workshops and brainstorming sessions.
"Given the importance that thinking plays in the success or failure of your business, it is vital to analyse how much time you and your team put aside to really think.”
The next two stages of the creative process (as proposed by Mihaly Cxikszentmihlyi) involve selecting the best idea.
3. Insight — The 'Aha!' moment when the puzzle starts to fall together.
4. Evaluation — Deciding if the insight is valuable and worth pursuing.
The “Aha moments” are a natural progression from asking yourself (and others) a question and mulling on the range of responses. They’re not something you can schedule in because they rely on your subconscious, but just be glad when they occur!
Here is some advice from NZTA on evaluating which is the best idea to progress.
5. Elaboration — Translating the insight into its final work.
This is the final stage of the creative process. NZTA's creativity practice note says elaboration is about clearly explaining a new idea in terms of concepts that are already known and understood. An article on the Creativate website explains “… within an organisation, this is the stage where the creative idea must become an innovative presentation that is 'bought into' by other members, to help make it a reality.”
‘Three Steps to Successful Council Documents’ provides guidance on telling an engaging story about a problem and a recommended solution, and a three step process which makes documents easier and quicker to write and edit. You can access this free guide here.
 https://www.nzta.govt.nz/assets/resources/bca-practice-notes/BCA-practice-notes-5-Innovation-and-creativity-in-business-case-development.pdf, page 4
 https://www.nzta.govt.nz/assets/resources/bca-practice-notes/BCA-practice-notes-5-Innovation-and-creativity-in-business-case-development.pdf, page 6
 NZTA BCA Practice Notes: Innovation and Creativity in business case development, page 4
 Gary Bertwhistle, What Made You Think of That? Thinking Differently in Business, Allen & Unwin, 2009
 Patrick Lencioni, Getting Naked — A Business Fable, Jossey-Bass, page 2018
 Gary Bertwhistle, What Made You Think of That? Thinking Differently in Business, Allen & Unwin, 2009,
 https://www.nzta.govt.nz/assets/resources/bca-practice-notes/BCA-practice-notes-4-Critical-thinking-and-the-importance-of-asking-questions.pdf, pages 2-3