What is it about creativity these days? It’s gained momentum steadily over the last decade, only it’s now such a popular a term that it’s perilously close to becoming an overblown and ultimately meaningless piece of jargon. It gets tossed about the tech industry as some kind of mythical magic solution to any business, alongside its sibling-terms “innovation” and “disruption”. The hype has made it seem so otherworldly and special that ultimately, it seems unattainable for all but the most special snowflakes— which is unfortunate, because that could not be further from the truth.
To be clear: creativity is important. Those who can access their creative minds and apply new thinking to old problems will add value to their workplaces. That means they don’t just have a skill to be envied— they are increasingly high value assets in a highly competitive marketplace. But creativity is just a skill. Anyone can learn it, and anyone can improve their abilities in it.
Professionals whose lives revolve around creativity-on-demand (artists, writers, musicians) have their own methods of accessing the creative mind that works for them. But for the rest of us, a few handy tips and tricks could go a long way— especially if our day to day is more about logic and reason than about free thinking and innovation.
Taking Time To Be Creative
The core of creative thinking is letting go, freeing your mind, and giving room for imperfect-but-new thoughts to take centre stage. For many of us, that automatically equates to brainstorming.
Brainstorming is a familiar idea. Most of us were exposed to it in middle or even primary school, and it’s certainly one of the most called-on methods in business settings for “creative” group thinking. But there is a growing school of thought that believes brainstorming is, in fact, hindering your creative efforts more than helping it.
“One of the joys of the brainstorming session is you, as the group leader, don’t need to spend that much time facilitating or preparing. You just get people in a room and go. But while this makes things easier for you, it’s not good for the group.” - Art Markman, Harvard Business Review
While brainstorming has the generative pull we often look for when it comes to creative thinking, it has a few key drawbacks that make it less than ideal. First and foremost, in a brainstorming session things have a tendency to stall after one or two potentially workable ideas bubble up.
According to Leigh Thompson, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, brainstorming frequently gets trapped on a track early on— and that limits the potential for bigger, more dynamic thinking. “People get bored and are polite about it,” she says, “and if there is status in the room like a president, vice president or manager, once they suggest an idea, there tends to be a bandwagon event. The group often doesn’t get past the second or third idea. They just elaborate on them.”
We have a tendency, especially in group sessions, to latch onto something as quickly as possible, as long as it sounds somewhat good. But good isn’t the aim of creative thinking. The aim of any creative thinking exercise shouldn’t be to come up with good ideas— it should be to come up with lots of ideas. Some of them could evolve into great, exciting solutions and others will be D.O.A., but until we have a surfeit of ideas, deciding something is good is not really good at all.
Art Markman, Professor of Psychology and Marketing at UT Austin, points out a related potential hiccup encountered in a brainstorm session: people want closure. “Another difficulty with brainstorming is that there are often some people in the group who don’t like uncertainty. They want to finish the process quickly and get on with implementing the new solution.”
The impulse to get to a solution is stronger, for many people, than the drive to explore the creative opportunity at hand. Especially in a business context, where there can be a lot of money on the line, having the patience to see an open-ended session through can be difficult. If the purpose is to solve a problem, once a solution has been posed that might fit, it’s hard to keep thinking of alternatives that might fit even better.
So how do we avoid the pitfalls of brainstorming? How can we ensure we’re still giving opportunity for free thinking without landing ourselves in the rut-inducing territory often brought on by brainstorming?
Plan It Out
It sounds counter-intuitive, but the best way to encourage creative thinking is to have a clear plan heading into it. When we enter into brainstorming, part of the reason it doesn’t land the way we hope it will is the parameters are ill-defined and there aren’t clear guidelines for expectations at each stage. That’s why instead of brainstorming, experts are increasingly calling on ideas like brainwriting and sketchnoting to give a creative thinking session more heft.
Brainwriting, recommended by Thompson, is similar to brainstorming, but it removes issues like power dynamics, automatic solutioning, bandwagoning and more from the generative phase of the creative process. In brainwriting, people work independently to start off. Instead of taking 10 minutes to call out ideas in a group, the team takes 10 minutes to write down ideas individually, and then posts them up for all to see at the end.
When everyone in the session is writing down ideas, you get exponentially more options to work from, and the team can spend their time working out the relative merits of each from a much bigger (and ultimately better) group of options. This small change adds a surprising amount of structure to the process and can provide a solid foundation to work from, instead of the loosey-goosey nature of brainstorming.
Sketchnoting—the act of purposeful sketching or doodling while taking down notes and ideating—is another self-driven creative option and there is a growing movement behind it, but really any sketching should be on your list of ways to shake up traditional creative-thinking endeavours. For those working in design contexts, the idea of sketching probably seems obvious. But while it’s extremely common in design circles, the sketching out of ideas is surprisingly rare in most business contexts.
By incorporating a visual component into the creative process, you force your mind to think in a different way. And especially for those of us who face an almost criminal deficit of artistic ability, sketching out concepts and ideas requires us to abandon perfectionism and the desire to be “right”. When we let go of those things, it’s easier to come up with untested theories, suggest wild and weird concepts, and produce more options. And that in itself if a very good thing.
Thompson knows the value of imperfect idea generation and creative thinking. “[I] deliberately say, ‘I want some of your ideas to be impractical’” she says. For her, emphasizing the role of quantity over quality at this stage of the process is important. Again, getting a good idea is fine, but the aim shouldn’t be a “good” anything at this point.
When you are first starting a creative thinking exercise you want to produce a lot. Refining, perfecting, and all the associated components of getting your idea into solid shape are important, but they should come later. Start yourself off with the freedom to make outlandish suggestions— that’s where the truly creative, innovative, disruptive nuggets live.
Do you have a suggestion for an alternative way to start off a creative thinking session? Share in the comments below— we’d love to hear them. Or even better, apply to work with us here and share them in person!