A very (very) close woman friend (OK, a relative) of mine last summer declined my offer of an all-expenses paid trip to Las Vegas to see Lady Gaga in concert. Luxury hotel, presidential suite, all meals, VIP seating at the show. Ughhh … nope. Why not? “I’d feel guilty going somewhere myself because the kids haven’t been on a vacation in two years.”

When I shared this story with a colleague, he instantly piped up, “I’ll go with ya!” expressing no guilt in imagining his explanation of the getaway: “Kids, I gave you life. My work is done here.”

His flexible and creative mental work-around cracked me up.

But when a “my work is done here” mentality comes out at work – especially in the creative work of media product development – it’s not nearly as amusing.

Agency creatives are used to a “turn-and-burn” work pace, often focusing on problem solving instead of true breakthrough concepts. Need a Web site? Boom, here you go. A brochure? Sure, we know how to do that.

Newspaper and media company staff in particular can get caught in this trap; our deadline-driven culture and a “good enough” rule often result in sub-par initiatives. This means sub-par engagement with our audiences.

Stefan Mumaw, creative director at Callahan Creek, in Lawrence, Kansas, laid out three simple steps for those of us tasked with satisfying audiences:

  1. Get stupid.

  2. Want the box.

  3. Can the critic.

Mumaw spoke recently as part of the American Advertising Federation – Spokane’s professional development series. He has guided clients including Pioneer, Sony, Coca-Cola, and Hurley, and authored “Chasing the Monster Idea,” “Caffeine for the Creative Team,” and “Caffeine for the Creative Mind.”

“As tools and access get easier and cheaper, the execution of ideas becomes a commodity. This is awesome in its own right, this Maker Movement environment, but it also brings to light the quality of the concepts behind the things we make,” he said.

“Imagine an empowered, enlightened, sharpened creative force out there making stuff with their newfound tools and access? That is change-the-world type power, and it’s the most inspiring of all creative endeavours.

I do this as a creative who simply wants to be inspired by the ideas of others. When people think of creativity as an improvable skill, and they act on it, they create more inspiring work. They change the world. And I get to see it.”

It’s easy to see how this creative process works. Attendees paired up for a timed assignment to come up with a list of cereal box toys for a brand called “Wild Westios” based an old west cowboys and Indians theme.

“Go!” Of course there were horses, bows and arrows, spurs, and sheriff’s badges. Mumaw pressed us to share more. “Brothel admission tickets,” someone yelled.

“Uh, we had a … a HUMAN SCALP!” I shouted (yes, I was always that kid). And lucky me, I got to be Exhibit A for the “Get Stupid” point. Mumaw said that brainstorming begins with relevance and, when pressed, dips down into stupidity, then comes up on the side of novelty, which can mean brilliant ideas for product development.

“If you stay stuck in relevance, you might come up with 12 average ideas,” and remain in problem solving mode, Mumaw said. If you can get into stupid (or “absurd,” as he quotes best-selling author and fascination researcher Sally Hogshead), you can get to brilliant ideas with one that is almost always usable.

“Want the box” means that creatives (surprise, surprise!) tend to do better work with time or other restrictions. Mumaw spoke of the brilliance that is Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion in Anaheim.

Back in the day, Disney Imagineers were tasked with essentially working around (or under, in this case) restrictions presented by placement of the Disneyland steam train’s berm and tracks. Guests enter the antebellum house above ground and enter the mind-bending “stretching room,” an elevator that takes them underground for an unforgettable theme park experience.

“Can the critic” does not, in fact, only apply to external critics. It refers to our internal critic, which can destine creativity to mediocre results.

Mumaw described the work of researcher and musician Charles Limb, who was curious about how the brain works during musical improvisation. Searching for answers about what parts of the brain are involved in deep creativity “when a musician is really in the groove,” he put jazz musicians and rappers in an MRI to study them as they played sheet music, then moved on to improv.

To round out the day, Mumaw again paired up attendees, this time with the task of brainstorming “Medieval Happy Meal” toys. On came the swords, brick walls, jewels, and catapults. But this time poison vials, mirrors, chainmail, and turkey legs grasped by portly eating-with-their-mouths-open diners joined the list.

My partner and I came up with 15 “Wild Westios” ideas. “Medieval Happy Meal” prompted a list of 35 items.

Creativity can be learned and improved upon, Mumaw said.

“The creative process can permeate more than just the work,” he said. “We’ve seen creative business models, human resources, media, research, environment, and philosophy all come from the agency world. These help to prove that creativity and artistry aren’t mutually exclusive but that problem solving with relevance and novelty can happen in any aspect of the individual or corporate ecosphere.”