Recently, with the downturn in the economy precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve observed a corresponding downturn in business peoples’ ability to think creatively. Ironically, right at the time when more creativity is most needed.
Creative thinking is the economy’s fuel – discovery, invention, and entrepreneurism.
Geniuses produce because they think fluently and flexibly.
Michael Michalko in “Cracking Creativity”
Fluency of thought demands the generation of large 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 and innovative thinking in your organization, you must encourage the generation of “quantities of ideas.”
However, you can quickly stifle creative thinking by sending subtle or not-so-subtle messages. If you spend your time doing things the same old way, simply because they worked, then you’ll never find a better, more efficient method. Meanwhile, your innovative risk-taking competitor will!
That’s how Microsoft climbed past IBM and why they continue to invest 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.
Methods to assist creative thinking
Flexibility of thought is a willingness to consider different perspectives and alternative ideas. According to Michalko, there are three primary methods needed to help creative thinking:
- 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 fostering fluent thinking
If you’re lucky, from the plethora of ideas you generate, one or two will be worth something. So, if you want to increase your luck…produce more ideas. Yes, more is better.
Remember that most of Edison’s patents ended up pretty worthless but, that one about the tungsten light bulb sure paid off. Therefore, the more ideas you generate the more likely you’ll come up with your light bulb.
To enhance the production of new, creative, fluent ideas:
- Defer judgment when looking for ideas
- Generate as many ideas as possible
- List ideas as they occur and keep a written record
- Constantly elaborate or improve on ideas
- Allow your subconscious to generate ideas by incubating the subject (based on Michalko’s delineations, in Cracking Creativity)
- Defer judgment and keep the creative juices flowing. The moment you say to yourself or your team… “Dumb idea,” is the moment you, or your team, 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 they may initially seem.
- Generate as many ideas as possible and fill the well. The more ideas, the better the odds that you’ll find something novel that actually works. Accept that most of these creative ideas will end up on the cutting room floor, but all you’re looking for is one or two good ones.
- 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 life.
Importantly, creative ideas often don’t look creative until combined with other, often dissimilar, ones. By writing down your ideas and musings you won’t lose them. Then you can mix, match, reshuffle and recombine them and see what comes out down the line. Leonardo da Vinci kept dozens of journals and often referred to them years later to find ‘that something’ that he hadn’t seen the first time round.
In addition, there are numerous methods that you or your team can use to connect the apparently unconnected. Try creative thinking tactics and games to discover the unusual and novel within the obvious or mundane of your cataloged ideas. For example, having different work groups (say, marketing and finance) look over a list of ideas generated by the other group, will often generate different, innovative, and unpredictable connections. And integrate the teams, as an added bonus.
- Constantly elaborating or improving on your team’s ideas helps generate 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.
- Allow your subconscious to generate ideasby 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 to produce.
Innovative ideas need time to incubate. So, work on a problem, generate ideas, then walk away and do something completely different. Take a walk; sculpt, paint, or sing; play ball; play with your kids…mix it up, as much as COVID-19 restrictions allow. Don’t think about the problem for some time. Give your mind subconscious thinking time. Then return to the problem and try the four preceding steps again, and see what creative ideas emerge.
This is a vast subject and we’ve only scratched the surface here. But try playing with these five steps and see what happens.