Creativity and idea work is a team sport, claims Arne Carlsen at BI Norwegian Business School. He presents ten qualities of great ideas.

KNOWLEDGE @BI: Creativity at work

How do we find oil in an area where many have tried, but failed? How do we design buildings that will become prize-winning cultural landmarks?

What do the best architects, oil prospectors, business lawyers, journalists and business developers in banking and trading analysis have in common?

“Very different work groups operate in astonishingly similar ways when they work creatively and develop extraordinary ideas,” claims Associate Professor Arne Carlsen at BI Norwegian Business School.

Hunting for ideas

For most organisations, idea work is the most important basis for creating values and maintaining their long-term competitiveness.

This applies to everyday project work and interaction with customers, but also when the business wants to develop completely new products, services and processes.

Idea work is all activity associated with developing, selecting, selling, maturing, reshaping, realising and communicating ideas within organisations.

Some businesses seem to be cleverer than others in coming up with extraordinary ideas. What can we learn from the most innovative businesses?

Mastering many things at the same time

Carlsen led a team of Norwegian and international researchers who carried out a comprehensive study within six selected, very different organisations: Snøhetta, Statoil, Advokatfirmaet Thommessen, Thompson Reuters Point Carbon, SpareBank 1 and Aftenposten’s A-magasinet.

The research was carried out over four years, and encompasses over 200 in-depth interviews, 500 hours of observation and over 20 workshops in order to compare practices and discussing findings.

The results of the study are now available in the book Idea Work.

The researchers identify ten practices and qualities of idea work which lead to extraordinary ideas.

“Extraordinary idea work isn’t about doing one of these things well, but about mastering many skills at the same time. The ability to unite conflicting skills makes idea work flow,” the BI researcher explains.

Learn from the best

Carlsen believes these qualities are important for great idea work.

  • 1. Prepping: A practice whereby you with great care prepare, build, revitalise and share knowledge in a way that maximises its potential for effective use in creative moments.
  • 2. Wonder: The sensory experience of being in a mystery, a combination of feeling wonder or admiration and being involved in a passionate search for new ideas. Wonder underpins all imagination, empathy and deep interest in something outside oneself.
  • 3. Creative opposition: Using doubt, friction, opposition and criticism actively as tools for questioning accepted truths and creating better ideas, and not treating them as a disturbance you try to avoid.
  • 4. Prototyping: A form of work whereby you quickly produce, test and improve half-finished ideas and challenge the solution envelope so that ideas are shared and strengthened at an early stage.
  • 5. Make it physical: Work where you distance yourself from a total dependence on electronic media and instead touch ideas, sketch out and materialise ideas in artefacts, gesture around ideas and move around alone or together during idea work.
  • 6. Drama: Calling people to action – to battles, mysteries, mission work, cathedral building, treasure hunts or making a difference for other people – in ways which activate the best of what you are and what you want to be. Why do we work here? What’s at risk?
  • 7. Liberating laughter: Processes for energising co-creation through everyday jokes, informal competitions, small games and humour which create social ties, do away with limits of thought and encourage original combinations of knowledge.
  • 8. Guidance: The practice of showing the way in unknown territory by creating mutual barrier-breaking ideas, cultivating an opportunity-creating language, managing errors and encouraging others.
  • 9. Zoom out: Moving from a detail level and the analysis of individual parts to seeing the bigger picture, thinking of the whole and seeing wider contexts, explanations and strategies.
  • 10. Punk: Use of reckless and direct, self-initiated action to mobilise against the established (truths, practices, authorities), open up and realise ideas with high originality and value.


Arne Carlsen, Stewart Clegg and Reidar Gjersvik (2012): Idea Work. Om profesjonell kreativitet (About professional creativity). Cappelen Damm.

Text: Audun Farbrot, Head of Science Communication at BI Norwegian Business School (E-mail: forskning@bi.no


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