Fall 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA1

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Creativity - Extension's Future

Being more creative with only a little aspiration and almost no perspiration.

Peter Warnock
Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
University of Florida - Gainesville

Busyness is an idea killer. Agents, specialists, staff, and volunteers rarely have quiet time for reflective thinking–a precondition to creative problem solving and decision making. Along with overcommitment comes stress that also limits our ability to be creative. Recent Journal of Extension articles have described the high stress levels of 4-H agents and Extension families resulting from long and irregular hours of work.1

Fortunately, the lion's share of our daily tasks can be done through habit and routine. For the most part, these procedures are designed to accommodate stress and busyness. But on occasion, special problems require extraordinary solutions found primarily in creative thinking and decision making. In these unique instances, Extension workers need time to think, ask questions, listen to their preconscious selves, and laugh often with colleagues. Each of these actions can enhance our creative thinking.

Creativity Is

A creative experience can be compared to eating a Chinese meal, enjoying it thoroughly, but not really recognizing what you've eaten. It's seeing the forest and the trees. It's imagination and intuition at work–a process of divergent thinking that then converges through evaluation and combination on workable solutions and alternatives. Creativity is Satori–a flash of enlightenment! Creativity is looking at a situation and seeing something different from everyone else, that eventually is accepted as a "good" idea.

Everybody has the ability to be creative. Maslow found no correlation between genius and creativity.2 He discovered that ordinary people of average or slightly higher intelligence were solving daily problems with novel, inventive, and unconventional solutions. These ordinary folks tended to be more spontaneous and expansive, less inhibited, and less self-critical than most people. They appeared to have little self-consciousness and lots of selfconfidence.

Importance of Creativity

Most of us will agree that Extension's basic mission is to transfer needed research information to citizens and encourage its use and adoption. Over time, practically every major Extension program has been perceived as an innovation that was preceded by creative thinking on the part of the researcher and Extension agent.

Salk, discoverer of polio vaccine, views our world as a biologist. He believes in the biological evolution of ideas, where "strong" thoughts prosper and "weak" ideas fail.3 To Salk, the secret to survival is in the creation of a sufficient number of "strong" ideas to preclude mass starvation, over-population, nuclear war, and other horrifying events. How do you foster creativity? Salk says: "It can be recognized and encouraged. The important thing about creativity is for us to recognize that our future depends on it. It is not a luxury."

Extension's future depends on creativity, as it has in the past. In the mid-80's, we must be creative educators when dealing with computers, growing international markets, the urbanization of sunbelt states, continuing rigorous fiscal accountability, environmental degradation from agriculture, jobless black urban youth, human nutrition's fiction and fact, declining agricultural school enrollments, etc. Only new solutions can ever hope to solve these 1985 problems.

Four Approaches

The following four approaches to creative thinking are recommended for busy Extension professionals. They require a little aspiration and almost no perspiration. Nothing needs to be learned or practiced. What's required is an awareness of what naturally stimulates creative thinking and activity, in ourselves and groups, and a desire to be creative.

Welcome Preconscious Self

Welcome your preconscious self, encouraging and enjoying it. Noted correspondent Bill Moyers learned from his study of creativity that you must pay attention to your preconscious self that slips messages to you, much as a note is slid under the door.4 In workshops in creative problem solving and decision making, Extension audiences readily describe novel ideas that unexpectedly come to them while driving, dreaming, relaxing, showering, listening to the Extension dean, or facing deadlines under pressure. It happens frequently to almost all of us on an involuntary basis.

The trick is to expect and welcome the voice of our preconscious self and record its messages on a scrap of paper, 3 x 5 card, hand-held tape recorder, or shirt cuff.

Seek Others' Advice

Seek advice from others. Law schools teach students to prepare their briefs by first writing the opposing arguments–with the expectation of finding a more cogent position for their client. All of us are limited by our knowledge and perception of a certain phenomenon. Therefore, we should force ourselves to move from a familiar position to one that's different and unique. Likewise, when our thinking is complicated–the opposite of keeping it simple (KIS)–we stand a better chance of finding elusive, never-thought-of-before solutions.

By consulting with others especially from varied backgrounds, can we extend our thinking? This process can be illustrated by remembering the last argument you had with a colleague that resultedperhaps unexpectedly–in a reasonable compromise. If you listened well and thought openly, the agreement reached was probably quite different from what either party initially had in mind. In this dispute, solutions were there, but beyond the grasp of each person's normal thinking.

Defer Judgment and Ruminate

Defer judgment, build in lead time. Deferred judgment simply stated means think first, criticize later. The essence of this concept is to allow adequate time to ingest all pertinent possibilities without judging them in any way. This is a cardinal rule for group brainstorming as well as individual thinking. What apparently happens in this extended thinking is that preconceptions, habits, and other psychological barriers are broken down by "strange" associations and combinations that evolve over time. We humans unfortunately have a tendency to grab hold of the first idea or solution that comes to mind to reduce our anxiety and get about our business.

Closely akin to deferred judgment is the concept of incubation which to Extension folks is like ruminating. Rumination defined by Webster is to ponder, chew, turn over in the mind, meditate.5 This slow, deliberate process helps to increase the probability of finding the better decision or solution to a problem.

Both deferred judgment and rumination encourage Extension professionals to slow down–keep open to new ideas–and chew. Time to think and rethink can pay handsome psychological dividends in creative thought. Unfortunately, this is why creativity is no panacea for busy Extension workers who have limited ability to extend time and judgment.

Use Humor

Use humor appropriately in groups. The positive power of humor can't be underestimated in any aspect of living, including group interaction. It's our reaction to the immediate incongruities of life. Humor expresses the freedom of the human spirit and our capacity to stand outside of life and see it in its entirety.

Extension professionals value colleagues who can use humor without demeaning others. Many of our most effective deans, advisory committee chairpersons, secretaries, specialists, and agents are respected for their keen sense of humor and ability to use it at the right time and place.

Dik and Warnock reason that advisory committees are more productive if humor is used discreetly to fit the occasion.6 They've observed that humor in groups can build trust, lessen social differences, relieve individual and group tension, and facilitate creative problem solving and decision making. Thus, if Extension committees and work groups are typified by the above characteristics, they'll be more enjoyable, creative, and productive.


By nature, Extension is a creative self-renewing organization even though Extension professionals are busy and often stressed. Land-grant scientists anticipate technological and social change through innovation. County agents and lay leaders respond in turn by blending local needs and idiosyncrasies into effective educational programs.

Our critics claim we're irresponsive, duplicative, steps behind the private sector, and tradition bound. Creative problem solving and decision making are our best defenses against these criticisms, that can quickly become reality. Remember: Our future depends on creativity. It's not a luxury.7


  1. Robert J. Fetsch, Robert Flashman, and David Jeffiers, "Up Tight Ain't Right: Easing the Pressure on County Agents," Journal of Extension, XXI I (May/June, 1984), 23-28 and Leo Hawkins, "The Delicate Balance: Work and Family," Journal of Extension, XX (September/October, 1982), 38-42.
  2. Tom Taliaferro, "Instructor's Film Guide for Creative Problem Solving: How To Get Better Ideas" (Del Mar, California: CRM McGraw-Hill Films, 1979), p. 4.
  3. Peter Stoler, "A Conversation with Jonas Salk," Psychology Today, XVII (March, 1983), 55.
  4. Bill Moyers, "The Urge To Create," Family Weekly (December 27, 1981), p. 9.
  5. Webster's New World Dictionary, 2nd. ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), p. 1245.
  6. David Dik and Peter Warnock, "Enhancing Volunteer Productivity–Humor in the Bored Room," Lifelong Learning–The Adult Years, VI (December, 1982), 6.
  7. The material in this article has been drawn from a mini-book Two Heads Are Better Than One in Creative Problem Solving and Decision Making: A Practical Reference for Cooperative Extension Workers (Buffalo, New York: Bearly Limited, 1985).