1. Remove the restraints. What’s preventing you from being more creative? Perfectionist? Being creative operates at well below having everything right. Cautious and reluctant to speculate? Being creative is the opposite. Worried about what people may think? Afraid you won’t be able to defend your idea? By its very nature, being creative means throwing uncertain things up for review and critique. Narrow perspective; most comfortable with your technology and profession? Being creative is looking everywhere. More comfortable with what is very practical? Being creative begins as being impractical. Too busy to reflect and ruminate? Being creative takes time. Get out of your comfort zone. Many busy people rely too much on solutions from their own history. They rely on what has happened to them in the past. They see sameness in problems that isn’t there. Beware of – “I have always...”or “Usually, I...” Always pause and look under rocks and ask yourself is this really like the problems you have solved in the past? You don’t have to change who you are and what you’re comfortable with other than when you need to be more creative. Then think and act differently; try new things; break free of your restraints.
2. Use creative thinking strategies. To be more personally creative, immerse yourself in the problem. Getting fresh ideas is not a speedboating process; it requires looking deeply.
- Carve out dedicated time – study it deeply, talk with others, look for parallels in other organizations and in remote areas totally outside your field. If your response to this is that you don’t have the time, that also usually explains why you’re not having any fresh ideas.
- Think out loud. Many people don’t know what they know until they talk it out. Find a good sounding board and talk to him/her to increase your understanding of a problem or a technical area. Talk to an expert in an unrelated field. Talk to the most irreverent person you know. Your goal is not to get his/her input, but rather his/her help in figuring out what you know – what your principles and rules of thumb are.
- Practice picking out anomalies – unusual facts that don’t quite fit, like sales going down when they should have gone up. What do these odd things imply for strategy? Naturally creative people are much more likely to think in opposite cases when confronted with a problem. Turn the problem upside down: ask what is the least likely thing it could be, what the problem is not, what’s missing from the problem, or what the mirror image of the problem is.
- Look for distant parallels. Don’t fall into the mental trap of searching only in parallel organizations because “Only they would know.” Back up and ask a broader question to aid in the search for solutions. When Motorola wanted to find out how to process orders more quickly they went not to other electronics firms, but to Domino’s Pizza and Federal Express. For more ideas, an interesting – and fun – book on the topic is Take The Road To Creativity and Get Off Your Dead End by David Campbell.
3. Unearth creative ideas. Creative thought processes do not follow the formal rules of logic, where one uses cause and effect to prove or solve something. Some rules of creative thought are:
- Not using concepts but changing them; imagining this were something else
- Move from one concept or way of looking at things to another, such as from economic to political
- Generate ideas without judging them initially
- Use information to restructure and come up with new patterns
- Jump from one idea to another without justifying the jump
- Look for the least likely and odd
- Looking for parallels far from the problem, such as, how is an organization like a big oak tree?
- Ask what’s missing or what’s not here
- Fascination with mistakes and failure as learning devices
4. Apply some standard problem-solving skills. There are many different ways to think through and solve a problem more creatively.
- Ask more questions. In one study of problem solving, 7% of comments were questions and about half were answers. We jump to solutions based on what has worked in the past.
- Complex problems are hard to visualize. They tend to be either oversimplified or too complex to solve unless they are put in a visual format. Cut it up into its component pieces. Examine the pieces to see if a different order would help, or how you could combine three pieces into one.
- Another technique is a pictorial chart called a storyboard where a problem is illustrated by its components being depicted as pictures.
- A variation of this is to tell stories that illustrate the +’s and -’s of a problem, then flow chart those according to what’s working and not working. Another is a fishbone diagram used in Total Quality Management.
- Sometimes going to extremes helps. Adding every condition, every worse case you can think of sometimes will suggest a different solution. Taking the present state of affairs and projecting into the future may indicate how and where the system will break down.
- Sleep on it. Take periodic breaks, whether stuck or not. This allows the brain to continue to work on the issue. Most breakthroughs come when we’re “not thinking about it.” Put it away; give it to someone else; sleep on it. Once you’ve come up with every idea you can think of, throw them all out and wait for more to occur to you. Force yourself to forget about the issue. For more techniques, read The Art of Problem Solving by Russell Ackoff and Lateral Thinking or Serious Creativity by Edward de Bono.
5. Define the problem. Instant and early conclusions, solutions and how we solved it in the past are the enemies of creativity. Studies show that defining the problem and taking action occur almost simultaneously for most people, so the more effort you put on the front end, the easier it is to come up with a breakthrough solution. Stop and first define what the problem is and isn’t. Since providing answers and solutions is so easy for everyone, it would be nice if they were offering solutions to the right problem. Figure out what causes it. Keep asking why, see how many causes you can come up with and how many organizing buckets you can put them in. This increases the chance of a more creative solution because you can see more connections. Be a chess master. Chess masters recognize thousands of patterns of chess pieces. Look for patterns in data, don’t just collect information. Put it in categories that make sense to you. Ask lots of questions. Allot at least 50% of the time to defining the problem. Once you’ve defined the problem, studies have shown that on average, the most creative solution is somewhere between the second and third one generated. So if you tend to grab the first one, slow down. Discipline yourself to pause for enough time to define the problem better and always think of three solutions before you pick one.
6. Increase group creativity: Selecting a group. During World War II it was discovered that teams of people with the widest diversity of backgrounds produced the most creative solutions to problems. The teams included people who knew absolutely nothing about the area (i.e., an English major working on a costing problem). When attacking a tough problem which has eluded attempts to solve it, get the broadest group you can. Involve different functions, levels, and disciplines. Pull in customers and colleagues from other organizations. Remember that you’re looking for fresh approaches; you’re not convening a work taskforce expected to implement or judge the practicality of the notions. Believe it or not, it doesn’t matter if they know anything about the problem or the technology required to deal with it. That’s your job.
7. Increase group creativity: Define the problem first. A straightforward technique to enable creativity is brainstorming. Anything goes for an agreed upon time. Throw out ideas, record them all, no evaluation allowed. Many people have had bad experiences with brainstorming. Silly ideas. Nothing practical. A waste of time. This usually happens because the problem gets defined in the same old way. So define the problem well first (see tip 5). Allot hours to this, not two minutes to sketch the problem. Challenge your thinking – are you generalizing from one or two cases? How do you know the causes are really causes? They may simply be related. What is fact and what is assumption?
8. Increase group creativity: Facilitating the process. Here are three methods commonly used:
- Brainstorming. Outline the problem for the group, tell them what you’ve tried and learned from the tries. Include things that may have happened only once. Invite the group to free form respond, any idea is OK, no criticism allowed. Record all ideas on a flip chart. When the group has exhausted the possibilities, take the most interesting ones and ask the group to first name positive features of the ideas, then negative features, and finally what’s interesting about the ideas. Follow this process until you’ve covered all the ideas that interest you. Then ask the group what else they would select as interesting ideas to do a plus, minus, interesting analysis. This process can usually be done in an hour or two.
- The nominal group. After the problem definition above, have the group write down as many ideas as occur to them. Record them all on a flip chart for free wheeling discussion. People can add, combine or clarify – “What were you thinking when you said...,” but no criticism allowed. After this, follow the plus, minus, interesting process above.
- Analogies. Lots of creative solutions come from analogies to nature or other fields. Come up with a list (electrical engineering, cats, trees, the sea, biology, shipbuilding), any list will do, and insert it after you describe the problem to the group in the first or second option. Many times this will trigger novel ideas that no other process will.
9. Experiment and learn. Whether the ideas come from you or a brainstorming session, encourage yourself to do quick experiments and trials. Studies show that 80% of innovations occur in the wrong place, are created by the wrong people (dye makers developed detergent, Post-it® Notes was a failed glue experiment, Teflon® was created by mistake) and 30–50% of technical innovations fail in tests within the company. Even among those that make it to the marketplace, 70–90% fail. The bottom line on change is a 95% failure rate, and the most successful innovators try lots of quick inexpensive experiments to increase the chances of success. Watch several episodes of Inventions, a show on cable, about how unrelated ideas come together to form creative inventions. You can buy the series.
10. Put your ideas to the test. Creativity relies on freedom early, but structure later. Once you come up with your best notion of what to do, subject it to all the logical tests and criticism that any other alternative is treated to. Testing out creative ideas is no different than any other problem-solving/evaluation process. The difference is in how the ideas originate.
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