5 Steps to improve your creative thinking skills

Problem solving requires creative methods to look at the problem and come up with new and innovative ideas.

Photo: Harry Parvin

Are you struggling to find unique ideas?

Are you stuck inside the box and want to think outside of the box?

There are many people who think that creativity – is just not their “thing”. It is for the geniuses. Some also think these geniuses are born creative.

So, What is Creative thinking?

Creative thinking is looking at a problem and coming up with a good solution by connecting different ideas in a new way.

According to the World Economic Forum, creativity will be the third-most-important skill for employees by 2020, behind complex problem-solving and critical thinking.

Organizations need people who can creatively approach problems and tasks across all business roles, from software engineering to HR. Focus on honing your ability to bring new ideas to the table in 2020. – Linkedin Learning

While robots are great at optimizing old ideas, organizations most need creative employees who can conceive the solutions of tomorrow.

Adobe conducted a study through Forrester Consulting to understand – How Creativity impacts Business results. This study found that companies that embrace creativity outperform peers and competitors on key business performance indicators, including revenue growth, market share, and talent acquisition. They enjoy a high- performance working environment, driven by progressive leaders and managers who provide processes, methods, and funding to back creative initiatives.

The study surveyed senior managers from corporations across a diverse set of industries to quantify and qualify how creativity impacts business results.

75% of respondents said they are under growing pressure to be productive rather than creative, despite the fact that they are increasingly expected to think creatively on the job.

Across all of the countries surveyed, people said they spend only 25% of their time at work creating. Lack of time is seen as the biggest barrier to creativity (47% globally, 52% in United States).

Thinking outside of the box

Teams find it hard to step out of the box to see the problem differently. With growing demand for creative problem solving in the workplace, I’ve put some tips for you to improve your creative thinking skills.

Just like any new skill, this one needs practice too.

With deliberate practice you can develop creative thinking skills overtime.

See below for a summary in the Infographic page

Light bulb moments happen to people who are already in the process of thinking about new and creative ideas to solve problems.

5 Steps to improve your creative thinking skills

  1. Set aside time for creative thinking:

Like learning any other new skill, you must be intentional about spending time every week to practice the skill. Start with a weekly time slot and move it to daily to sharpen the skill.

 Tune out all distractions.

2. Generate Rapid thoughts:

Exercise the brain to think about several possible ways to solve a problem.

Take a puzzle such as the crossword, or Rubik cube or the wooden snake cube, Set a timer and get to it.

Another method is to take any object and list down new ideas for the future of that product.

an example – A Desk is an object. Can you come up with innovative ideas for a desk? Write it on a paper and set it aside.

Do this as your reading- pause and write down all new ideas you have for a desk.

Count the number of ideas you came up with and leave it in the comments. 

3. Think about a stupid idea

Here’s something professor Jack Matson at Penn State University said in an interview with Chicago Tribune:

My students have learned to analyze very well, but not to think expansively,” he said. “People in general are much more creative when they’re asked to design something ugly and stupid than when they’re asked to design something innovative and useful.’‘ So, he tells his students to design a consumer product that’s idiotic.

Aha! Let’s review our desk ideas and take another stab at it, just this time you will write down the stupidest ideas for a desk. Do this under a minute. Run a clock for 60 seconds, write your ideas and count your total ideas. 

Here are a few from my past desk experiments:

  • Floating desk for the pool days.
  • Backpack with a desk

Ideas don’t have to be smart, it’s the stupid ideas that make up a useful idea.

4. Look from different perspectives

Define the problem from different viewpoints to come up with multiple possible solutions and ideas. A well-studied problem is halfway to a well thought out and new solution.

From time to time we can all get into the rut of things. This makes it very hard to think beyond our strong beliefs, and experiences. I’ve learnt over the years how gaining multi- perspectives on the problem can enable broad set of ideas and make problem solving so much faster.

There are different ways to develop thinking from different perspectives, here are few ways I’ve found effective in my personal journey on improving creative thinking.

4.1 People – Your circle of Influence – Engage other people – I look at my circle of influence, my network who I know have different personalities and different beliefs.

This is where I learn a lot. I observe and learn how they each react and respond to the problem. What solutions they come up with if they were to resolve the problem.   

4.2. Learn about cross-industry practices – with access to the internet you can quickly learn about different opinions, research and literature to empower yourself with knowledge about the problem.

My favorite approach is looking at how the problem would be perceived in another industry and how would it be solved.

4.3. Gather new experiences – Trying new and different things, travel to a new place, explore a new culture, try to build something.

Gathering experiences while learning something new can expand the way you view the world.

It’s the challenge and the fun that comes in the state of exploration and the state of learning through the unknown can help promote and foster creative thinking.

Building a collection of knowledge and memories ideally by seeking new experiences, increases the dots in your brain that we can connect to create new ideas.

Just saying “YES!” opens the door to new experiences.

4. Broaden the scope – Generally, problems are solved keeping the end consumer in mind within a narrow scope of who we understand the consumer is.

Consumers have different personalities, socioeconomic status, and generational preferences and consumers connection and loyalty with the brand. Some of these are known and some are unknown.

Thinking from these different perspectives can help you step out of the box.

Generally, ideas generated tend to stay within the current construct of how the object or service exist.  Challenging the status quo through different viewpoints exposes your mind to expansive thinking and thus brings to light a whole new list of ideas.

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” – Albert Einstein

5. Connecting the dots

Creative thinkers do this quite easily, they’re able to see the relationships and connect different dots to create a new approach and idea. It begins with a strong desire to want to change. It’s about the big picture and connecting dots that may have no existing logic but it makes sense to you in your imagination. Its is seeing something when others don’t and knowing that it will change the world.  

Seth Godin is passionate about the need to make better connections. He wrote how students today are educated in collecting dots, but almost none of it spent teaching them the skills necessary to connect dots. This requires confidence and creativity, to think bigger and laterally, rather than just pass exams. “The magic of connecting dots is that once you learn the techniques, the dots can change but you’ll still be good at connecting them“.

  1. Think in the future – Begin to live in the future to imagine the change you want to see. Here are some questions to begin this thinking process:
    • What is the change?
    • Who will benefit from the change? How will this benefit and differ across geographies, sectors.
    • How would the new way of life for the consumer look?
      • How are consumers compensating today due to nonexistent innovation?
  2. Reverse engineer – In simple terms reverse engineering is an approach used to break down an existing product or concept to reconstruct it. This can be an effecting method to generate novel ideas and breakthrough technologies by simply looking at what makes up the service or the product and making improvements.

Steps to reverse engineer:

  1. Understand who the customer or end user is.
  2. List down the customer needs – must have vs. nice to have
  3. What makes your service or product unique from the customer perspective
  4. How is the service provided to the consumer – Map out the process flow
  5. Identify opportunities for improvement and suggest ideas
Erlin Kakkanad
Erlin Kakkanad

Hi, thanks for reading my article. My name is Erlin Kakkanad and I’m the founder of Engineer Creative Thinking® providing strategies and tools for problem solving, disruptive innovation and creative thinking. In my 15+ years as a process improvement consultant and Lean six sigma coach, I’ve learnt how so many leaders and teams struggle to come up with creative ideas and solutions to address the business problem and improve customer experience.
Employees often say to me that they’re not creative.
I’ve led several ideation sessions and developed approaches, proven methods over these years that has helped teams discover and develop the skill to solve business problems with fresh, imaginative ideas and perspectives.

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