Cakes & Creativity


In my previous post I discussed creative thinking, and the fact that creativity is actually unlearned rather than learned. I presented the ‘Cake Exercise’ which I will elaborate upon here, so if you have not read the post then please complete the exercise before reading on.

In a moment you are going to do a drawing exercise, so please take a pen and some paper.

Once you have your pen and paper, get ready to draw a cake which you will cut four times.

You have just four cuts, and your objective is to come up with the maximum number of pieces of cake. 

You have 30 seconds to complete the exercise, and you should start immediately after you have finished reading this sentence.  Go!

(Please do not read on until the exercise is complete)


How did you do? Would you believe that the answer to this exercise is hundreds, if not thousands of pieces of cake? But in practice, most adults come up with somewhere between eight and sixteen pieces – really quite pathetic. You can see the typical responses to this exercise in the Exhibit at the end of the post.

How to cut a truly creative cake

Creative thinking involves six key components. The first is what is termed problem sensibility which involves reflection upon the task or challenge. In this exercise, the challenge is to come up with the maximum number of pieces, and yet most managers tend to forget this when acting and are satisfied simply to draw a cake – even with as few as eight pieces.

The second component of creative thinking involves liquidity – or the process of having a lot of ideas to come to a good idea. But most managers draw just one cake, often in less than ten seconds, and then stop.

Thirdly, creative thinking involves flexibility or the ability to look at the problem from different perspectives. So for example, one can think flexibly about the shape of the cake or the type of knife being used.

This can then lead to re-definition, for example the cake can come in any shape or size, the knife can have hundreds or even thousands of blades, and each cut can be continuous (like a spiral) rather than straight, and each piece can be just a crum.

Managers who use this kind of thinking engage in originality of thought – they are rarely copying what others around them are doing, and have the courage to try something different.

The final component of creative thinking is collaboration – the process of engaging with others to create solutions built upon multiple perspectives.  But in this exercise, the vast majority of participants act alone and do not engage in any way with those around them.

How has life messed us up?

One of the biggest barriers to expressive and inventive creativity is the Western education system that was designed for a much more linear industrial age.  Since the turn of the century the education systems in much of the Western world have worked towards standardization of learning according to a hierarchy of subjects and the functional division of labour.

At the top of the hierarchy are math and science, typically involving the ability to solve problems using the ‘right’ formula, and measured through an ability to complete standardized tests. Next come languages and the humanities, and then at the very bottom comes anything involving vocational skills physical dexterity or creativity. Indeed, in some education systems expressive creativity through art, music and movement has been almost completely marginalized.

So by the age of just 12 or 13, and even earlier in some countries, individuals are put on a track that leads them into increasingly specialized learning paths that rarely nurture expressive or inventive creativity.

The behaviour that I often see in the cake exercise clearly demonstrate the impact of a Western industrial age education – individual problem solving, a lack of liquidity and flexibility due to one right answer thinking, and a tendency towards conformity rather than originality.

The second barrier to creative thinking is experience, not just through education, but in the sense of the wider world. In the cake exercise, the natural tendency for people is to default to their past experience of cakes and cake cutting. So they might remember a childhood birthday party, or other festive celebration involving cake. In most instances, the cake was round and was cut with a single-bladed knife. Everyone received the same sized piece, as that is the way cake should be distributed.

I also tricked you a little bit, by influencing your thinking by putting an image of pre-cut cakes at the start of the post. So when you were presented with the cake exercise, the answer seemed easy and this lead to a form of cognitive complacency.

The same is true for business – in simple situations in which cause and effect are obvious, or when experimentation can actually be dangerous, and then it makes sense to default to experience. For example, we should not encourage technicians at a nuclear power plant to “think outside the box” and be creative when they come to work every day.

There are very good reasons for relying on experience and keeping things in the box at a nuclear power plant! But when we are facing a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, then defaulting to experience can be very risky indeed because we can make assumptions about cause and effect that might be no longer valid.

The third major barrier to creative thinking is the organizational environment and corporate culture. Dealing with VUCA requires time for probing, sensing and analyzing, but in many organizations there is such a pressure on efficiency and short-term results that people naturally default to their education and past experience – just as we witnessed in the cake exercise.

Daniel Kahneman, says in his book “Thinking, fast and slow”, if a situation becomes too complicated our mind has a tendency to switch to the fast and easy mode – the intuitive mindset, based on experience. This mindset, he says, is a bias to cope with complex situations.

But what is important here is perceived time pressure as it does not actually take a lot of time to engage in the six steps of creative thinking – sometimes just fifteen or twenty minutes for an individual or team to reflect upon the problem at hand.

Creative thinking is also helped by a physical environment in which people can come together to brainstorm, with simple tools like post-its and white boards to capture and share ideas.

But perhaps most importantly, boosting creativity starts with individuals who are inspired to be creative, and who are willing to question their education, their experience, and the environment in which they find themselves in.

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If you enjoyed this blogpost, you might also enjoy my Keynote Talk about Creative Thinking.




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