Modeling Language Spotlight
Seven Stages of the Creative Process
December 18, 1996

This is one of the oldest of the MG Taylor Models, developed in 1979 by Matt Taylor and Richard Goring as part of an unpublished book entitled Designing Creative Futures. The original rendering was done by Matt by hand and is extremely rich in meaning and detail. It shows four levels of recursion, beginning with the bipartite division between subjective and objective; creating the problem and solving it; individual and collective. It continues with the seven stages arranged so that the Insight stage is divided by the bipartite model beneath it. Each of the seven stages is further divided into six components, and these are divided into another seven pieces. The diagram clearly identifies and classifies 294 stages of the creative process at this deepest stage.

A related article shows the full complexity of the model down to the third level of recursion. This paper only introduces some of the more general characteristics of the model and how they apply to situations we commonly encounter in the enterprise.

Like the other models of the MG Taylor Modeling Language, the Seven Stages of the Creative Process Model is protected by copyright. You can use it only by meeting these four conditions.


Basic Model Components

Here's the model at the second level of recursion:

The most striking feature is the bipartite division that separates the Using stage from the Identity stage and cuts the insight stage in half. The model "starts" with the Identity stage and the purpose of the first half is creating the problem. The second half has the job of solving the problem which the first half created, thereby producing a new Condition in the Using stage, out of which the first half will again have to create a new problem. Well, after all, it's a cycle--no beginning and no end, with one stage feeding the next.

The first half of the process is individual and the last half collective. This is so because until an idea has a physical manifestation, it cannot be perceived in a useful collective manner. Ideas have no value merely as ideas; they must be expressed in specific form. Likewise, manifestations have no value unless they can be translated into ideas to be transported, improved and evolved. In the mid 80's one iteration of the Creative Process model had the following phrase forming a circle around its periphery: "A model is a representation of reality is a manifestation of a model is a representation of reality is a manifestation..."

Consider the process of writing a song, for example. Until the tracks are laid down in the studio, the musicians, songwriters and lyricists have different ideas [Vision], regardless of how they have struggled [Intent] to communicate them to one another. But once the song begins to materialize digitally [Insight], the process becomes necessarily collective and the fields of visions collapse into the various takes [Engineering], one of which will be packaged [Building] for distribution and consumption [Using]. This doesn't necessarily mean that the artists are satisfied with the fidelity of the finished product to the original vision. Constraints of ability, budget, timelines, and other factors will have modified the vision and the finished product may be quite different.

This doesn't imply that the first half excludes collaboration, for quite the opposite is the case. Collaboration is a necessary component of every stage of the model. So is independent work.

It has already been mentioned that the second half of the creative process creates a new Condition for the first half to act upon. The term "Condition" is key to understanding the significance of what we mean when we say "creating the problem." Many of us equate conditions with problems. The United States has a "problem" with students meeting educational testing standards, or a problem with drug abuse. Companies have cash flow "problems" or a problem with low sales or low productivity. But these are not problems; they are conditions. Nor are they symptoms of problems. This is more than just semantics, and in a sense it embodies much of the philosophy of MG Taylor Corporation. Stafford Beer, the organizational cyberneticist coined the phrase, "the purpose of a system is what it does." Low educational testing results are therefore a product of some system, whose purpose (by virtue of the way it's assembled and the interactions between its components) includes such results. It's hard for us to grasp this because we bristle at the use of the word "purpose" with unpalatable conditions. After all, it seems a harsh accusation of the hard working teachers, parents and administrators in the education system. But it is no such thing. It's not an accusation at all. It's an invitation to discover how the system generates the result that seems so undesirable. An invitation for understanding. If we cannot discern how the result is created, we shall never hope to support the evolution of the system into a different channel, and our interventions may cause more harm than good or perpetuate a system that ought not to be supported.

The whole purpose of the first half of the creative process is to investigate, discover and discern the operating mechanics, cybernetic connections, and principles of self-organization of the existing system. Then--maybe--we can act upon the system with intelligence. Or at least envision a new system that produces different conditions more in line with our vision.

We generally lack the patience to do this, however. We label the condition as a problem, automatically designating individuals in the system as the cause, thus alienating them from effective collaboration, and then begin hacking away at it and grafting new subsystems onto it. We call these subsystems solutions, even though they are only new subsystems. Meanwhile, war has erupted between the guardians of the system and the interventionists. The best possible outcome of such a zero-sum game is that each side thwarts the efforts of the other (a draw is the overall best outcome of a zero-sum game). All along, the system continues to churn out its conditions because we have failed to work together to understand how it does what it does (not "why" it does what it does).

We call this problem solving.

There must be a different way...


The Seven Stages
| information on the glyphs we use for the stages of the model |

Explore, discover and understand how the system produces the conditions. Even if you think you know how it's done, think again. Use techniques of collaborative, creative design to see the system from different vantage points. Break out of common assumptions and past practices (you can always go back to them if you need to). Build a working model of the current system that replicates the conditions you see. It probably won't be right but it will lend some needed insight. Creativity is the elimination of options. So generate some optional ways of seeing the system and its components. Work until you can see the truth in everyone's viewpoint. This means building models of these viewpoints. Then, maybe you can assemble components of the viewpoints together to get a more robust map of the system and conditions than you could by clinging only to your own opinions.

How do you see the system working in the future? Be careful not to merely derive a list of anti-conditions. Instead, build working simulations of how the new system will operate. Add new system components and delete others. Ask yourself to describe the difference between the existing system and the new system in terms of operational properties, components, cybernetics and self-organization. What is it about the new system that will allow it to produce different conditions? Describe parameters of autocatalytic closure for the new system to emerge. Whatever you do, don't write some nonsense vision statement. Get in the mud and do the work of building the vision, don't just talk about it in flowery terms.

Visions need to address the new system at all of the vantage points, from philosophy to task.

Frequently we have to shatter cherished beliefs during the visioning stage. Otherwise we're wasting time that would be better spent (although in vain) tweaking the system according to our current beliefs. We forget that our belief structures are mapped into the system as well as our perception of the system. They are integral to creating the conditions we're trying to change. Fortunately, we emerge stronger from these encounters with our personal philosophy, weeding out dogma and adding vibrance and wisdom to our intercourse with the world.

Are you excited yet? Do you have the juice to live in the vision and do the work to bring as much of it it back to the present each day as you can? How long can you live with the ambiguity and paradox of working in two different worlds? Can you assume the mantle and the risks of the prophet and advocate? Intent is the well of energy that you'll return to over and over while you're working to bring your vision to the present. The greater the distance on the fitness landscape between the old and new system, the greater the challenge and the more energy you'll need to succeed.

At this stage, there's only one stumbling block: your vision is full of holes. You will have figured this out by now. Sometimes when working on simple problems, the vision really will contain a clear definition of the problem, and the answer, but usually there are lots of unknowns and gaps in understanding. The problem--the PROBLEM--is how to conceive of, invent, allow for the emergence of, or create the subsystems and ecosystems that will fill the gaps in the vision--that will rework the vision to make it more powerful. The problem is not how to fix the conditions. The problem is how to imagine, design and allow for the evolution of new components of the system (or new systems) that will help the system create different (and hopefully more healthy) conditions. There's no other problem you can solve. You can't fix the conditions.

Imagine a group of people in a room. There's a thermostat on the wall connected to a heating system which is operating, but the heating vents in the room have been closed. It's getting cold in the room and the thermometer indicates that the temperature has fallen to 45F (apologies to our European friends). The temperature in the room is the condition. One member of the group comes up with a response. He breaks the thermometer, pours in more mercury, and then reseals it. Now the gauge shows 72F. Has he addressed the problem? No, he's messed with the gauge, and it's still cold in the room. Another member of the group begins hunting through the heating system, checking its various components and how they work together--troubleshooting the system--and discovers the blocked vents, which she opens, allowing the warm air to circulate through the room. The condition now has truly changed but only through an applied understanding of how the system works, and in this instance, changing the state of one component of the system. Of course now the faulty thermometer reads 99F!

Problems with human enterprises are much trickier, being organic and not mechanical.

Think of Engineering as a laboratory where various components of the vision, and perhaps different visions themselves are fully designed and tested. It's a breeding ground for new variations as they vie to see which is more fit (not necessarily "better" but more resilient in the current environment). The term Engineering can be misleading if you imagine one or several individuals running carefully controlled experiments. Instead it's more like a confusing market place filled with vendors, hawkers and customers buying and selling their stuff to each other. At least that's the metaphor to use when the problem to be solved is organizational in nature.

Simpler problems may actually be solved in controlled environments, particularly those that involve the design of physical materials, goods or services.

Engineering challenges involve cycles of rapid design, testing, and failure in order to ferret out the more resilient designs. Due to this type of cycling, a pendulum effect is set up between the Intent and Building stages. At each engineering failure, the designers must retreat to the Intent well to gather more resolve, push through for the next Insight, and test it in Engineering until an idea survives well enough to proliferate on its own. If this pendulum effect is full of friction, it can generate enough heat to damage the process, or cause enough energy to bleed away to grind the process to a standstill.

Nothing can be engineered without being built. This stage works hand in glove with the previous one. This applies in particular to organizations and enterprise-wide environments. While companies can run pilot tests to limit risk, remember that the people participating in the pilot--investors, producers and customers--are all real and committed and at risk. [For more about investors, producers and customers, see the Business of Enterprise model.]

If the problem is an organizational one, this stage really refers to assembling complexity. Very few human endeavors are actually built like a machine. Instead, ecosystems of ideas manifest themselves and self-organize into an autocatalytic whole, meaning that each idea creates niches to be filled by other ideas, and occupies niches created by them in turn. We can play a part in this assembly as designers and builders, but a major portion of the process is beyond the individual or collective control of anyone.

At this stage, the idea has been manifested, and the system is now producing new conditions. All of the people in the enterprise, whether they are investors, producers or customers, are users and participate in the system. They can now truly evaluate whether the new conditions are better than the old conditions. Of course, in the process of using, they all develop attachments and dependencies on the system as it is. The cycle begins over again with Identity.

A sense of control that we were looking for in the Building stage can be found instead in this stage, as the new system will work to maintain its own homeostasis--its unique identity and viability--across a broad range of environmental conditions. So, for example, our current government and educational systems are extremely resilient in their ability to resist fundamental change that may threaten what they are. This is good (and bad)! It's good because without this ability, systems would never be stable for long enough to be of value. It's bad, clearly because it's what makes them so hard to change.


 For a different look at the Creative Process, read about the Scan Focus Act model.

copyright 1996, MG Taylor Corporation. All rights reserved
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