Creativity and coaching

Charmaine O’Brien manages the coaching program at The Helmsman Project. She is also a writer and author of several books and has recently completed a PhD (pending award) in creative writing. The exegetical component of her thesis focused on the psychology of creativity and coaching for creative development. As creativity is considered critical to the future of education and work—and thriving in our “liquid modernity”—we thought it might be valuable to our supporters to have her share some of her learning, and understand how it applies to her work at The Helmsman Project.


What are your key understandings about creativity?

1. Creativity is multi-factorial phenomena—a complex system. There is no aspect of human functioning not considered to play a role in creative achievement, from genetics to external environment. I will single out some aspects of creativity here with the caveat that no element operates independently of another, although some are more operational at different points in the creative process.


2. Creativity is most commonly understood as artistic endeavour—literature, music, dance, painting, sculpture—leading people to claim ‘I am not creative’ if they don’t produce ‘art’. Yet, the capacity to be creative exists in most human beings. There is no universally accepted definition of creativity, however a widely accepted ‘standard’ describes it as something “original and effective, or novel and useful”. A classification that significantly widens the scope of what is creative: it could be a new theory, a practical invention, a scientific method, a recipe, a leadership model, or a garden style. Just to problematize the matter though, the creativity research is predominantly western (as is typical of psychology literature). In eastern cultures, maintaining tradition in creative practice can be more highly valued than novel departures from it.


3. Creativity is problem solving. Most creativity training focuses on ideation—teaching cognitive techniques for generating new ideas/solutions. ‘Brainstorming’, or variations on it, is the most commonly used method, even though research indicates this process results in less creative outcomes when used in groups. Emerging original ideas is an absolute necessity for creativity; still, those ideas have to be possible and acceptable—i.e., not pure fantasy or dangerous—hence the equal criticality of ‘usefulness’. You can generate a multitude of new ideas, but you then have to do the work of developing and testing these, a process that requires persistence, conscientious and confidence, amongst other personal characteristics. In popular imagination, creativity arrives in a light bulb moment and is fulfilled in a burst of flowing activity. In reality, it largely comprises routine work and takes a long time with much back and forth along the way.


4. By its very nature creativity is unique and therefore significantly individualistic. Nonetheless, environmental and contextual conditions exert considerable influence on creative performance. External environment is important in supporting creative productivity, for example providing time and resources to develop an idea, and to allow for mistakes during the process. A product also has to be recognised by others, external to the creator, as novel and useful; achieving that recognition requires a different set again of skills and resources.


5. Creativity can be developed. Creativity was long conceived as a divine gift showered on a chosen few, a myth that lingers despite concrete evidence dispelling it. The truth is, creativity, for the larger part, is just really hard work. According to the eminent creativity scholar, Howard Gardner, it is “intrinsic motivation linked to purpose” that drives the intense focus required for creative achievement. The importance of purpose is demonstrated by the fact that many creators persist in creating work despite the lack of material benefit; indeed, extrinsic factors such as monetary reward can negatively impact creativity (or not!). As a coach, motivation is of keen interest to me, and part of my research explored how coaching might be a useful modality for supporting the development of creative capacities.


Can you tell us a bit more about coaching and creativity?

There are notable similarities between creativity and coaching. Reflection is at the heart of creativity as it is an endlessly reflective process. Reflective capacity is key in understanding our own intentions and is a key skill for coaches. Coaching is a relevant approach for examining and developing creativity because it is reflective and aims to understand how an individual makes meaning: creativity is essentially a meaning making process. Coaching aims to develop a holistic understanding of individual thinking and action: creativity is a holistic process. Coaching is applied curiosity: curiosity is a key skill of creative individuals. Creativity, by nature is a deviant process and requires a willingness to be different. This is not easy, particularly in a structured social environment such as a school or workplace. I believe coaching is particularly well suited to providing the level of support needed to persist with emerging new and useful ideas and doing the work to bring these to fruition.


How have you applied your learning on creativity to coaching on The Helmsman Project?

Before I do that, let me point out that The Helmsman Project is a creative achievement: it is new and useful (participant and school partner feedback attests to that); it has required the enormous hard work and persistence of many individuals (and continues to); and acknowledgment and support from our external environment has been critical (and continues to be).


In respect to my own coaching, I have made incremental changes along the way, for example introducing creativity exercises to help students generate ideas for their community projects. In a bigger sense, my scholarly learning on creativity has increased my capacity to support The Helmsman Project participants to realise the program aim – enhancing their hope, self-regulation and resilience towards achieving their potential. To wit: Creative ideas derive from putting things together in a new way, which requires seeing things differently, or taking a new perspective (“hope”). To do this you need to be open to what arises, and flexible and adaptive in response, which requires a level of confidence in coping with change and difference (“hope” and “resilience”). You also need persistence to bring any new idea into usefulness (“self-regulation”). 

Charmaine O'Brien

Charmaine O'Brien is Coaching Manager at The Helmsman Project. She can reference research for any of the claims made in this interview. Please feel free to contact her on if you have any questions.

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