The Three-Discipline Creativity Process

25 August 2015 | Napier and Nilsson first introduced a three-discipline method of creativity in 2008, employing:

  1. out-of-discipline insights
  2. best expertise within the discipline
  3. a disciplined process of putting together methodology and inputs in a consistent manner to strive for creative performance and innovations.

Since this is a process, nesting activities (including thinking) in a disciplined and consistent way, it relies mostly on all types of information, and a system of evaluation and measurement for both inputs and outputs of the system. Disciplinary employment of the method resulted in two other methods of creativity – insight or Aha! Moment (Napier et al., 2009; Napier, 2010) and serendipity (Napier and Vuong, 2013).

The 3D method of creativity
Napier and Nilsson (2008) describe three disciplines (i.e., 3D creativity) as critical for implementation of creativity. They include ‘out of discipline’ thinking, ‘within discipline’ expertise, and a ‘disciplined process’.

First, out of discipline thinking involves looking beyond a discipline or field for ideas. Out-of-discipline thinkers absorb information from sources beyond their normal boundaries and fields and then seek to understand how the ideas might apply in their situation.

Second, within discipline expertise focuses on how individuals become the best in their fields and then, with that fundamental expertise base, move onto thinking more creatively. The notion is that when the best in a field work (or compete) together, they can learn and improve faster from each other, allowing them to come up with new ideas in the process.

Third, a disciplined process means that organisations use routine and structure to allow more creativity. The process also combines the two above-mentioned disciplines.

The 3D method suggests a consistent way of pursuing creative performance. That is, as long as one – individual or organisation – patiently and strictly employs the three disciplines a novel and valuable outcome is highly likely to occur.

Insight or Aha! Moments
Insight or ‘Aha! Moments’ is typically defined as the sudden awareness of a problem solution or understanding of some idea (e.g., learning a language, realising a life lesson). The process, which can be mapped, generally consists of several stages (Napier, 2010; Wallas, 1926).

First, an individual (or in the case of a group moving toward a ‘collective Aha! Moment’) gathers or receives overwhelming amounts of information on the topic of interest or problem to be solved. This ‘sort stage’ beings, then, with a sense of too much dispersed and unconnected information, and then moves into a period which involves chunking and sorting the information into understandable categories. At this point an insight – ‘connecting the dots’ – may occur but if it does not, the next phase should begin.

During the ‘spark stage’, individuals and groups can use several techniques to generate the sudden awareness or understanding. Such techniques include, for example, looking at a problem ‘in reverse’, or from an unusual angle, bringing together ideas from very different domains, and allowing for ‘simmering’ or some time to pass when the ‘unseen mind’ works subconsciously on the problem.

Once insight occurs, a final ‘checking stage’ to verify the result is critical to be sure that the ‘Aha! Moment’ lesson can be generalised beyond a single incident. Aha! Moment method suggests that solution to a tough and long-standing problem will finally arrive if one persistently employs the three disciplines.

The concept of serendipity is similar to insight in that it typically involves integrating sometimes diverse ideas but there are distinct differences.

Typical characteristics that emerge in the definition of serendipity are:

  1. unsought, unexpected, unintentional, unanticipated event or information
  2. something out of the ordinary, surprising, anomalous, inconsistent with existing thought, findings or theory
  3. an alertness or capability to notice what others do not, to recognise, to consider, and to connect previously disparate or discreet pieces of information to solve a problem or find an opportunity.

Napier and Vuong (2013) define serendipity as an ability (that can be developed) to notice, evaluate, and take advantage of unexpected information better or faster than competitors.

An important distinction is that information appears unexpectedly and only within the context of a problem or opportunity does it come together to create something of value. Further, the ability to notice the information is also key. Unexpected information appears regularly at the doorstep of individuals and organisations, but if it goes unnoticed, it never has the chance to be leveraged. Thus, the ability to notice, the ability to evaluate, and the ability to turn that information into something of value are key to the process.

Serendipity method suggests one – individual or organisation – to develop ability to absorb and sort large amounts of information, spark insight and check for reliability, which is as important as observing useful – but unexpected and unexploited – information and insights, then evaluate them to decide whether an emergent opportunity should be considered worth pursuing.

A conceptual framework of entrepreneurial information process of creativity

This section is to construct a conceptual frame work of process of creativity. First, random information goes through a filter where the banks of knowledge, experience, skills, a desire for seeking insight, and the three disciplines [introduced by Napier and Nilsson (2008)] are employed to evaluate, connect, compare data, information, even primitive insight in order to produce creative quanta of useful insights. Then, the quanta are consistently absorbed by an integrated process of three methods of creativity – i.e., 3D, Aha! Moment, and serendipity – into innovations of products, services, and processes that sharpen competitive edge and improve productivity. Entrepreneurship nurtures the circulatory process by desires to success and become self-motivated and self-reliant as well as risk-taking.

The ‘creative quantum’
Neuroscience studies suggest that the brain can absorb and process several types of input, especially through the senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Information is then compared to existing knowledge in a ‘permanent bank’ of understanding and experience.

The brain evaluates the information, connects separate pieces of info for future response or reaction – which is also affected by surrounded social environment. The speed and quality of information ‘digestion’ depend on not only the size of the permanent bank (understanding and experience) but also on what might be called a ‘soft bank’ of skills (Purves, 2010).

Figure 1 illustrates the process more conceptually in terms of the inputs of information and filtering process. Several ‘steps’ exist in this initial processing and filtering procedure within an enterprise’s management IS.

First, information is collected and contributed in by clients, staff members, or suppliers, and is then stored in the hardware or the ‘permanent bank’. In a firm, this would be a normal server, which authorised people access to find needed in formation for making decisions. Analytical software (the ‘soft bank’) helps them gain insights more efficiently. The expectation is that when the filter is the conceptual ideas of the three disciplines (Napier and Nilsson, 2008), creative outcomes may come more readily.

To support the creative process, information and the way it is filtered or processed, organisations and individuals could receive and process at least three types of input into the creativity process. They are:

  1. data or quantifiable facts
  2. information, or qualitative evidence, events or anecdotes that are less quantifiable and perhaps less tangible
  3. basic or ‘primitive’ insights, or initial connections drawn between or from the first two types, which can result in new bit of knowledge that completes some understanding or solution to a problem.

Such primitive insights are useful in understanding but just create marginal or incremental knowledge or adjustment.

In Figure 1, inputs (data, information, and primitive insight) enter the organisational members randomly and equally but are not digested in the same way. Only self-motivated person whose desire is to success and become self-reliant, turns the radar on. For instance, a news of corporate tax adjustmentvibrates an accountant who is willing to improve the corporation’s tax shield while just being ignored by his colleague totally focusing on making correct accounting records.

All sorts of knowledge, experience, skills, and disciplines help one digest the inputs faster and better. A legal counsel, who is knowledgeable about judicial system, may classify a tax adjustment proposed by an accounting expert as possibility in future. A manager, who has experienced the experts those are highly appreciated by lawmakers, may consider a higher chance that the tax adjustment will be legally introduced if it is proposed by an influential name. An expert opinion is regarded as a primitive insight. A Microsoft Excel-proficient financial analyst may figure out how much the adjustment affects the corporation’s P&L accounts.

In an ideal situation, the vibrated accountant looks out of his discipline, then talks with the counsel, the manager, and the analyst. When the dots are connected by a disciplined routine for noticing, assessing, seeking opinions, analysing and double checking, it is expected that the corporation will enjoy handsome profits resulted from an innovative process of accounting.

Multi-filtering Process of Innovation
Figure 1: Multi-filtering Process of Innovation

When the disciplined procedure (illustrated in Figure 1) filters information and produces useful insights – for instance, an innovation of accounting process – a ‘creative quantum’ is considered generated. It is likely that the more creative quanta are generated, an organisation has more inputs for its later filtering process aiming at making creative performance.

The term ‘creative quantum’ is borrowed from quantum theory of physics that represents main ideas as follows:

  1. Energy is not continuous, but comes in small but discrete units.
  2. The elementary particles behave both like particles and like waves.
  3. The movement of these particles is inherently random.
  4. It is physically impossible to know both the position and the momentum of a particle at the same time. The more precisely one is known, the less precise the measurement of the other is.

In light of the theory, useful insights are regarded as energy for making creativity. Such insights arrive neither continuously nor regularly. One hardly knows where the right insight – that helps in solving a critical problem, for instance – is and when it comes. The problem solver is just likely certain that it follows patiently practicing the above-proposed information filtering procedure. People – with various personal characteristics, levels of understanding, experience, and skill – have their own ways of perceiving the ‘energy of creativity’ and transforming the energy into idea, response, and action in specific social context.

A conceptual design for creativity process
To better appreciating the role of information in a typical creativity process, we propose an initial set of factors or major blocks that link information and creativity:

  1. an input (data/information/primitive insight; each singleton is called a ‘creative quantum’) block
  2. a creativity processing block
  3. an innovation outcomes block, as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2 A conceptual design for creativity process
Figure 2 A conceptual design for creativity process

The input block, which is comprised of informational creative quanta together with the relevant ‘filtration system’, helps one spot and select useful insights as they engage in a disciplined process of creativity. The filtering function also helps in sorting input and identifying (and tossing) ‘garbage’ so that the system will not have to expend energy for ‘waste treatment’. Input, consisting of qualitative fast-moving information, data and primitive insights, flows into a main processing system, which incorporates several aspects that support a creative process.

A disciplined creative process includes reviewing/generating/testing and implementing ideas. Using these factors, the process plays an integrating role, by bringing together inputs and a set of techniques and methods to generate creative outcomes and innovations. For a disciplined creative process to be a permanent part of any management system, an organisation needs to have an innovative, supportive culture to promote useful insights, and a way of identifying and using best practices. Thus, creativity, when pursued in a disciplined way, comprises activities that include finding useful information, data and insights to processing them in a systematic manner so they become significant inputs for key decisions to evaluating them in terms of whether they have the newness and added value of creative outputs.

Part of the disciplined process includes encouraging and taking advantage of both Aha! Moment and serendipity. Insight or Aha! Moment is sudden awareness or understanding, involves gathering, absorbing and sorting information before using common techniques to spark new ideas, and then validating the idea to see if it is generalisable (Berkun, 2007; Napier, 2010; Wallas, 1926). Serendipity (Napier and Vuong, 2013; Runco, 2004) is similar except that the information is unanticipated.

Because of not expecting the information, the receiving agent may not take advantage of it. The person who is open and recognises possible benefits in unexpected information, then, can perhaps tap and use it to her company’s advantage. In exploratory studies in Vietnam that bring national culture and business stage come into play (Napier et al., 2012; Vuong et al., 2013a), the three factors – creativity, culture and business stage of development – appear to be related. Of the elements relating to creativity, it appears that having a disciplined process is important for business organisations in the early ‘entrepreneurial phase’.

Perhaps unexpectedly, it appears that serendipity can represent a useful way to capture or observe unexpected and often unexploited inputs (i.e., information, data and primitive insights). An open manager or entrepreneur spots information, relates it to her situation or problems, evaluates its usefulness (often in terms of an opportunity) before deciding to take advantage of it.

During the process of a typical Aha! Moment, a manager absorbs and sorts what might seem like an overwhelming amount of input, and then uses simple techniques to spark new ideas (e.g., connecting odd dots, looking at an idea in reverse), before validating the idea to see if it is generalisable.

To evaluate the inputs and measure the innovativeness of an output, the three-discipline creativity process (Napier and Nilsson, 2008) may employ critically important ‘mathematical’ ideas such as: differences (good vs. bad, small vs. big, old vs. new, and so on), limits (how far the process can go toward the ultimate end), and relationships between opportunities to spot, methods to be developed, and outcome to be generated.

Information and information processing play a pivotal role in all three methods and is a natural connection among these methods, especially when the shared goal is innovation. Each of the three methods of creativity has a unique strength, thus it makes sense to use all. Serendipity, on the one hand, demands an ability to spot unexpected information and then tap that for advantage; it may not, however, be enough for making consistent and substantial innovations. The Aha! Moment approach, conversely, could be useful for solving a particular problem, but also may not be the best approach for consistent innovation if it focuses solely on solving immediate or smaller problems. The 3D process, though, builds a unified system for taking into account production opportunities, methods and solutions, and disciplines to make insights and related effort to succeed the production process until the innovative outcome.

In Figure 2, the three methods are shown as separate elements of a system, but in reality, separating these three is almost impossible as they are so seamlessly and closely connected. A better view about their relationship may be illustrated in a trefoil knot in Figure 3, although degree of reliance on each method could vary between organisations or industries or timing.

Figure 3 Trefoil knot
Figure 3 Trefoil knot

In fact, information, data and insights can be regarded as forming the so-called ‘creative quantum’ that should travel to processors (using the creativity methods of serendipity, Aha! and 3D) in discrete (not continuous) packets, in diverse forms (e.g., a dream can give a good hint for a problem-solving process), and unexpected timing. Without a real discipline in place and performs consistently, serendipity and Aha! Moment, perhaps, hardly fully employ the value of ‘creative quanta’ to produce genuine creativity and innovations.

A simplified diagram of 3D in formation process of creativity
Considering the 3D process a generalised methods of creativity – perhaps, consisting of both Aha! Moment and serendipity – a simplified 3D information process of creativity is presented in Figure 4.

Figure 4 Diagram of 3D information process of creativity
Figure 4 Diagram of 3D information process of creativity

Given their desires to make difference, creativity pursuers (individuals and institutions) typically first seek information. As inputs arrive, the process activates simultaneously three disciplines of creativity proposed by

Napier and Nilsson (2008). As mentioned above, the disciplines are

  1. being the best expertise within the discipline in order to identify useful insights and/or ‘primitive solutions’ available
  2. connecting the best expertise out of the discipline to work out a somewhat (near) optimal solution
  3. strictly following disciplined process of permanently employing methods of creativity until innovations arrive.

Although one discipline often prevails in a creative outcome it is impossible to separate the information process into an order of disciplines, i.e., (1) is followed by (2) then by (3) or different pairs of disciplines, i.e., (1) and (2).

Here an analogy to the theory of knots is of help (Courant et al., 1996). Flows of information continuously enter the process. Discipline (1) helps spot insightful information or assess which input is already an insight. Discipline (2) helps connect separate insights logically/optimally to work out a solution. At its most basic, more than two insights are needed to connect a line and the more insights/dots we have the better logics and connections are possible. Therefore, discipline (3) is needed to produce the insightful dots. Connecting the dots is also trial-and-error efforts. The discipline of employing methods of creativity is everywhere.

In light of this, creativity, which is often perceived as a qualitative concept, can be measured by popular algebraic difference and/or standard error.

* An excerpt from Vuong & Napier (2014).


  1. […] Serendipity of innovation. After witnessing a huge load of work is finished, it is not difficult to admire the contribution of science and technology advances and innovations. It takes days to solve a problem by many people. The same problem can be solved in hours, even minutes, by a personal computer. Innovations include not only new products and services but also new ways of solving and existing problems. Innovation may create serendipity, but innovation process is not serendipitous. Innovation is a discipline process. […]


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