There are a lot of articles out there claiming that creative thinking is vital to the success of a business and essential if a business is to remain competitive in an ever-changing market. Such comments are not very helpful, however, if it is not clear exactly what creative thinking in a business setting is and how it may be applied. Rather than being helpful, these comments induce anxiety because we are told that we should be doing something, without being properly told what it is and how we should be doing it!
As soon as we hear the word ‘creative’, our minds generally conjure images of people such as visual artists, composers, photographers, novelists and so on. We tend to describe ourselves as being either creative, or not creative and we associate the word ‘business’ with rational, logical and analytical thinking. The truth is, we are all capable of thinking creatively and many business decisions depend on a creative approach.
Creative thinking means to actively step outside of a set way of doing things and to think about them in a different way. It requires us to let go of any rigidity in our approaches to problem solving and allow our minds to wander and come up with ideas – no matter how unrealistic or seemingly crazy they might be. It can involve devising something completely new using factors that have not been considered before, making links between ideas to arrive at a new outcome or combining existing ideas to form a new whole.
For some people, ideas flow easily because their minds respond readily to stimuli around them. For others, it takes practice. Like with most activities, the more time we devote to it, the better we will be at doing it.
What are our brains doing when we think creatively?
There is a misconception that the left side of our brain is responsible for logical thinking and that the right side is responsible for creative thinking. Research shows, however, that creative thinking is more complex than that and involves both sides of the brain and a strong interaction between three brain networks. These networks are called the default, executive control and salience networks and among other things, they control our abilities to daydream, focus and detect environmental stimuli.
For our purposes, it is not necessary to go into detail about these networks. The key point to understand is that creative thinking involves cognitive effort. It is not an automatic process some people are gifted with and others not. This is great news, because it means we all have the power and ability to think creatively if we approach it with purpose and push our thinking in the right way.
So how do we push our thinking into being creative?
1. Before you solve any problem, you must first understand the problem thoroughly. Research its various facets, parameters and contributing factors.
2. Allocate a set period of time to free your mind to think. Remove all distractions. Aim to be in a calm and positive frame of mind.
3. Now do something your teachers probably told you to do when you were very young. It may sound overly simplistic and a bit silly, but it helps to put you in the right frame of mind. And that is: put your thinking cap on.If only there were an actual cap you could put on your head so that your mind emptied of irrelevant thoughts and incredible business solutions flowed through. It is unfortunately not that simple, but it is amazing how your brain starts to work if you give it permission to just stop and think; to daydream. As adults, we rarely let ourselves do this because we think we are being unproductive and wasting time.
4. Next, we must give ourselves permission to make mistakes and to fail. It is impossible to be creative in our thinking if we impose restrictions on our ideas because we fear doing the wrong thing or looking foolish.
5. It may sound counter-intuitive, but after some time focussing on the problem, we should then step away from it and deliberately not think about it. Leaving the desk to engage in a completely unrelated activity, such as physical exercise, listening to music or meditating, assists our brain in working unconsciously through a problem. Some psychologists refer to this as the incubation period of the creative process.
What else can we try?
The steps outlined above all seem relatively straightforward, but it is in fact not an easy process. Certain exercises may help our brains activate a creative way of thinking. Some of the suggestions listed below may seem tedious or too basic, but it is worth trying a couple in case you stumble across a method that helps get the creative juices flowing.
• Use different terminology or phrases to ask questions or describe the problem. The language we use to frame our problems can restrict our thought processes. Using different words may open our minds up to new possibilities.
• Conduct brainstorming sessions. Make a list of the top 5 words relating to the problem and do not use any of those words as you brainstorm.
• Create mind maps. Start with the major problem in the centre and branch out into sub-topics.
• Make lists
• Ask “What if?” questions
• Consciously let go of the established way of doing things and break the rules. Think of what you would typically do and then do the opposite.• Role play
• Play music in the background as you work.
• Exercise the creative muscle by doing something creative for at least 10 minutes every day. Draw, write, play an instrument.
• Keep learning. Read as much as you can, watch documentaries, talk to people, listen to podcasts.
• Work out the time of day you feel most likely to generate ideas and work productively.
• Put distracting devices in another room.
A quick search online yields many suggestions for exercises to boost creativity. The important things to remember are that creative thinking is a deliberate action, it can be improved with practice and effort and it is important to schedule time for it.
How will my business benefit from a creative approach to problem solving?
As we daydream, brainstorm, enquire, collaborate with others and experiment, we develop confidence and less dependence on the old way of doing things. It becomes easier to adapt our business operations to the ever-changing business landscape. A commitment to a creative approach to problem solving helps with the development of faster and less expensive ways of getting things done. A fearless and optimistic approach to problem solving makes a business seem fresh and exciting. Employees are stimulated and motivated and customers will keep coming back for more.