5 Steps to Thinking Creatively

Recently, with the downturn in the economy, I've observed an upturn in the negative influences on business peoples' ability to think creatively right when more creativity is most needed. Creative thinking is the fuel to the engine of our economy - discovery, invention and entrepreneurism. For this month's briefing, I will draw on research I conducted while writing my doctoral dissertation on creative thinking and synthesize recent findings from the literature as well as outline a few key strategies that can help you increase and enhance creative thinking. It's a vast subject so we'll only scratch the surface in this briefing. If you like what I write this month, let me know and I'll follow up in other editions with more ways to enhance creative thinking.

"Geniuses produce because they think fluently and flexibly," says Michael Michalko in his book "Cracking Creativity."

"Fluency of thought means generating quantities of ideas." A key characteristic of genius is immense productivity. Thomas Edison held 1093 patents. Einstein published 248 papers. Darwin wrote 119 papers besides his theory of evolution. Therefore, if you want more creative/innovative thinking in your organization, you must encourage the generation of "quantities of ideas." However, if you stifle creative thinking by sending subtle or not so subtle messages that "we must just spend our time doing things the way we have always done"...because they have worked, you'll never find a better more efficient method. Your innovative risk-taking competitor will! That's how Microsoft climbed to success passing IBM and why they know they have to continue investing mega-millions in R&D. You must encourage people to think creatively and take risks.

"Flexibility in thought means looking for alternative ways to think about a subject." It is a willingness to consider different perspectives and alternative ideas.

The three primary methods employed by creative geniuses according to Michalko's research are:

"Generate a multiplicity of different perspectives about your subject until you find the perspective you want. Genius often comes from finding a new perspective that no one else has taken."

"Generate a large quantity of alternatives and conjectures. From this quantity, retain the best ideas for further development and elaboration."

"Produce variation in your ideas by incorporating random, chance, or unrelated factors."

Five steps to foster thinking fluently:

Michalko delineated 5 different but related ways to improve your ability to generate more ideas. And, yes, more is better. Out of the plethora of ideas you generate, only one or two will be worth anything if you're lucky and, if you want to increase your luck...produce more ideas. Remember that most of Edison's patents ended up not being worth much but, that one about the light bulb sure paid off. Therefore the more ideas you generate the more likely you'll come up with a light bulb. The following are guidelines to enhance the production of ideas:

  1. Defer judgment when looking for ideas
  2. Generate as many ideas as possible
  3. List ideas as they occur and keep a written record
  4. Constantly elaborate or improve on ideas
  5. Allow your subconscious to generate ideas by incubating their subject

1. Deferring judgment keeps the creative juices flowing. The moment you say to yourself or your team..."dumb idea," is the moment your mind or your team will stop producing those so-called dumb ideas. Wait to decide which ideas are worth pursuing until you've generated lots of ideas...no matter how stupid or unrelated to the problem at first they may seem.

2. Generate as many ideas as possible fills the well. The more ideas, the better the odds that you'll find something novel that works. Most of your ideas will end up on the cutting room floor but all it takes is one or two good ones.

3. List ideas as they occur and keep a written record. Creative ideas are flighty. They can disappear from your mind the moment you get distracted by the routines and distractions of the day. But more importantly, creative ideas often don't look like they're creative until combined with other, often dissimilar, ones. By writing down your ideas and musings you won't loose them. Then you can mix, match, reshuffle and recombine them and see what comes out at the end. Leonardo da Vinci kept dozens of journals and often referred back years later to then find something useful that he didn't see the first time he wrote or drew it. In addition, there are numerous methods (creative thinking tactics, games, etc.) that you or your team can use to connect the unconnected or discover the unusual and novel within the obvious or mundane if you catalog your ideas. Remember those drawings from your psych 101 class where you look at the picture one way and can only see an old woman's silhouette but when you refocus your eyes you then see a goblet. For example, having different work groups (marketing vs. finance) look over a list of ideas generated by the other group will often generate different and unpredictable connections or elaborations (creative ideas).

4. Constantly elaborating or improving on the ideas you or your team generate helps you find novel combinations, mutations and surprises. Creative people look for alternative ways to think about a subject even when the old ways work well. Look for and entertain different perspectives and ways of doing things.

5. Allowing your subconscious to generate ideas by incubating on the subject. Einstein is often quoted as saying, "Why is it my best ideas come to me while taking my morning shower?" Your subconscious mind is constantly working but cannot be forced at times to produce. Good ideas need time to incubate. So work on a problem, generate ideas, then walk away and do something completely different. Take a walk; go to a show; sculpt, paint, sing; visit an art gallery; play ball; play with your kids...mix it up. Don't think about the problem for some time. Then return to thinking about the problem and try the four preceding steps again and see what new ideas emerge.

Try playing with these five steps and see what happen. There are more ideas about enhancing creative thinking where those came from but, I will save them for other editions when the Muses move me!