Creative thinking goes hand-in-hand with problem solving. Those who are able to apply creative thinking skills to solving problems are those who will be most successful. Luckily, the ability to think creatively is a skill that can be developed and improved. In Creativity & Problem Solving, author Brian Tracy provides practical techniques anyone can use to become a more creative thinker and a better problem solver.
THE ROOT SOURCES OF CREATIVITY
The ability to think creatively, and the effective problem solving this ability leads to, is a hallmark of success — in business and in life. Creativity is an inherent ability. All people are creative, but the level of creativity each person displays depends on three primary factors:
1. Past experiences: Upbringing and previous work experiences influence how creative a person is. An environment that supports and encourages creative thinking inspires more creativity, while one that does not stifles creativity.
2. Current situation: Similarly, people’s current environments affect how creative they will feel free to be in any given moment or circumstance.
3. Self-image: People’s views of how creative they are affect how creative they will become. There are many ways to be creative. For people to see themselves as creative, they must identify where their own “creative genius” lies.
While these various influences have an impact on a person’s creativity, individuals can also increase their level of creativity simply by imagining themselves as creative and working to develop their creative skills. This is very important, because those who are good at problem solving are the ones who lead, while those who are not are the ones who follow. Additionally, the more creative ideas a person generates and the more problems that person solves with those ideas, the higher up the corporate ladder he or she is likely to climb. Becoming more creative and better at problem solving is a matter of learning and applying creative thinking techniques.
THREE TRIGGERS TO CREATIVITY
There are three ways to “stir up” inherent creativity, all of which require dedicated attention:
1. Articulate intensely desired goals. Selecting one life-changing goal and focusing thought and attention on it often triggers creative ideas for taking action toward that goal.
2. Address a pressing problem. Identifying the single, most daunting obstacle to achieving a particular goal leads the mind to generate ideas for overcoming that obstacle.
3. Ask focused questions. Probing and precise questions that seek to get to the heart of a problem or issue help focus the brain on finding answers, and therefore solutions, to a problem.
Equally important is making sure assumptions are correct. Acting on false assumptions is a path to failure. Individuals should always question assumptions for accuracy.
THE MINDSTORMING METHOD
The human brain is able to generate a potentially infinite number of ideas. By practicing mindstorming, which is a process of generating no fewer than 20 answers to a specific question about a problem, individuals can reveal an abundance of possible solutions.
While generating the questions, think in terms of the four ways to change: what can be stopped, started, done more of, or done less of. The goal in this process is quantity, not quality, of answers. When the process is complete, select the best answer and act on it immediately.
QUESTIONING TO STIMULATE CREATIVITY
Asking the right questions has a strong influence on identifying the best solutions. Focused questions stimulate the brain. Among the important questions to ask are:
*What are we trying to do? There must be absolute clarity on goals.
*How are we trying to do it? If obsolete or ineffective methods are being used, the goals will never be achieved.
*What result or outcome do we desire? Imagine the ideal outcome.
*Are there other (i.e., better) ways to achieve our goals or desired outcomes? Make an honest and fearless appraisal, then change methods if necessary.
Brainstorming remains one of the most effective methods for generating new ideas and inspiring people to think creatively. Regular brainstorming is an ongoing source of creativity, but it must be done properly and in an environment that encourages free expression.
The following six guidelines help ensure an effective brainstorming session:
- Include no fewer than four and no more than seven people.
- Keep the session to between 15 and 45 minutes long.
- The more ideas, the better. Quantity matters.
- Maintain a climate of positivity.
- Assign a leader to keep control of the session and ensure that everyone participates.
- Assign a recorder to keep track of all the ideas.
OPTIMISM IS THE KEY
Optimistic leaders inspire optimism and free thinking in their organizations and foster creativity. An optimistic attitude is expressed and encouraged through what people think and say as well as how they act. Optimists speak the language of optimism — they articulate problems as opportunities, situations, or challenges. Rather than focusing on failure, they look for the lessons when things go wrong. Finally, optimists regularly “feed their minds” with positivity, taking in new positive ideas and engaging in positive interactions with others. To be more creative, individuals should strive to be more optimistic and positive in every way.
DEVELOP THE QUALITIES OF GENIUS
Genius does not come from having extraordinary intelligence. It comes from thinking creatively. People who are considered to be geniuses exhibit the following common behaviors:
*Concentration: A single-minded focus that excludes distractions leads to clarity, and thus to great ideas.
*Seeking causal relationships: Open-minded and flexible thinking at the big-picture level enables the free flow of ideas, without attachment or investment in a particular solution.
*Using a systematic method: Idea development is a process that requires acute focus on a goal, asking the right questions, and choosing the best solution.
If individuals work at improving these behaviors, they can further their own geniuses and become more creative thinkers and problem solvers.
PROBLEM SOLVING IN SEVEN STEPS
A methodical approach to problem solving is the best approach. Effective problem solving comprises seven steps:
1. Define the problem clearly, and in writing. Writing something down incorporates many senses, embedding it into the brain more deeply. Putting the problem in writing not only clarifies the issue, it immediately brings more brainpower toward its solution.
2. Read, research, and gather information. Data gathering is extremely important. The more information that is available, the more likely it is that a solution will emerge.
3. Do not reinvent the wheel. Many problems are similar to other problems or have actually been solved previously. Consult experts and do the research to avoid duplication of effort.
4. Let the subconscious work. After spending time on a problem, shifting attention away from it can inspire a new idea or solution.
5. Use sleep. The brain continues to work during sleep, processing, analyzing, and categorizing information. Thinking about the problem right before bedtime can reveal a solution in the morning.
6. Write it down. Breakthrough ideas can happen anytime. It is important to record ideas and insights — whether on paper or electronically — for future evaluation.
7. Take action. Hesitation can make the difference between a good idea being implemented or wasted. Act on a solution as soon as it is selected.
Information without practical application is of little use. However, most people hold on to a lot of knowledge. Individuals can use the following techniques to stimulate their minds and make the most of the knowledge they have acquired by putting it to good use in solving problems:
*The quick list method: Take 30 seconds to quickly write down three important life goals, assign a grade to each one in terms of current level of satisfaction and fulfillment, and then select the one with the lowest grade to work on.
*The brutal questions: Ask, “What are today’s three most pressing problems,” then commit to focusing efforts on those areas.
*The 20/80 rule: This principle states that the source of 80 percent of problems is internal. Therefore, identify which problems are internally based, then focus attention on internal factors to solve them.
*Identify favorite excuses: Articulate the excuses for any particular problem to better target a solution. The excuses provide an opportunity for focus.
*Practice idealization: Creating a clear vision for the future and then taking deliberate steps toward achieving that vision is the path to success. Keep the vision in sight.
*The magic question: Imagine success without the option of failure and create a step-by-step plan to achieve that success. Even small steps make a difference.
USE YOUR THREE MINDS FOR THINKING
All people have “three minds.” Each is different from the other and each plays an important role in creative thinking.
*The conscious mind: The conscious mind thinks both quickly (reacting to immediate situations) and slowly (giving careful, deliberate thought to information as it is presented). While fast thinking is necessary for decision making in a crisis (such as a medical emergency), slow thinking is important for more in-depth problem solving. Writing things down can help the brain transition from fast to slow thinking.
*The subconscious mind: The subconscious mind stores huge amounts of information and helps the brain make sense of the world. Instinct comes from the subconscious mind and can help tip the balance in decision making. The subconscious mind is also the storehouse for positive thoughts.
*The superconscious mind: The superconscious mind represents a deeper level of the subconscious mind. This is where insight, intuition, and breakthrough thinking dwell.
The best thinking happens when people learn to use all three of their minds, taking time to gather and absorb information, process it in a thoughtful way, then relegate it to the subconscious, trusting that the superconscious will help reveal a solution.
PRACTICE TWO APPROACHES TO THINKING
People’s thinking styles impact their levels of creativity. While every person’s thinking style is molded through experience, each individual also has the power to alter the direction of his or her thinking toward more creative thinking.
Mechanical thinking, which is narrow, rigid, and inflexible, lies at one end of the thinking style spectrum, while adaptive thinking, which is flexible and open, lies at the other. The goal is to move from mechanical thinking to adaptive thinking. By deliberately suspending judgment, asking probing questions, and working toward an optimistic and positive attitude, individuals can become more adaptive, and thus more creative, thinkers.
PRACTICE LATERAL THINKING
People tend to think in a linear fashion, with one thought logically following another. However, to think creatively, people need to learn to thinklaterally — to consider totally different and unusual solutions from what is typical or logical.
Lateral thinking can be developed by:
*Reversing keywords: Word play (like labeling a problem as an opportunity) can change a person’s mind-set.
*Restating the dominant idea: It is helpful to consider an issue from a different context or a different perspective. This is similar to the concept of “standing in someone else’s shoes.”
*Focusing on the customer: Too often companies are focused on product development rather than customer development. Knowing and identifying with customers, then developing solutions from their perspectives, is a more lateral approach. Businesses should focus on how they can develop (in other words, improve) their customers’ lives.
*Fantasizing: People can visualize a world in which all obstacles to achieving their goals are gone, then imagine how those goals would be achieved. Solutions are often leveraged from those imaginings.
HOW THE MIND WORKS
The mind is an incredible information processor, taking in information from all five senses. The mind processes information for creative thinking through three main methods:
- Visual (seeing).
- Auditory (hearing).
- Kinesthetic (doing and “feeling”).
Each person’s thinking and learning style is dominated by one of these three methods. Even though one will naturally dominate, to boost creating thinking it is good practice to pay attention to and use all three — especially when sharing information with others. People should know their own dominant methods, and leverage those in self-learning, as well as adapt teaching and information sharing to others’ dominant methods and styles.
SYSTEMATIC PROBLEM SOLVING REVISITED
One of the goals in problem solving is to keep emotions out of the process so as to arrive at the best solution. Below is an expansion on the step-by-step process to problem solving that helps ensure objectivity and the best results:
1. Assume a logical solution. Maintain a sense of calm and the belief that every problem can be solved logically.
2. Use positive language. Reframing a problem in positive terms (i.e., as an opportunity) encourages creative thinking.
3. Define it clearly. Getting clarity on the situation ensures that efforts are targeted in the right direction.
4. Diagnose the situation. It is important to know if the issue is a one-time situation or something more systemic that requires broader change.
5. Expand the possibilities. Look for all possible resolutions to make sure nothing is missed. A thorough investigation is an objective investigation.
6. Make a decision. Typically a solution will emerge if the previous steps have been performed properly.
7. Assign responsibility for action. Without accountability, the best solution can go by the wayside.
8. Set deadlines. Establishing a time frame for execution ensures the solution is more than simply a topic for conversation.
9. Take action. Solutions without action are wishful thinking.
PRACTICE ZERO-BASED THINKING
Zero-based thinking is like starting from scratch. It means considering every problem and potential solution as if it were brand new, in a different context. Zero-based thinking is founded in KWINK (Know What I Now Know) analysis, which asks if individuals would make the same decisions they made in the past if they knew what they know in the present. If the answer is no, the decision needs to be reconsidered.
Zero-based thinking applies to relationships, business practices, and investments of any kind. If a no answer is a result of the KWINK analysis, change needs to happen quickly. This change can be difficult to implement, because people tend to have a hard time letting go of something they have invested time, energy, and sometimes money into. But continuing to invest in a losing proposition is a waste of resources.
Zero-based thinking enables the clarity that creative thinking requires in order to come up with better solutions.
The key to creative thinking and effective decision making is the ability to see the situation clearly — as it really is, not as it is wished to be. The first question that should be on anyone’s mind when approaching a problem is, “What is the reality?”
Individuals should do a KWINK analysis on every area of their lives, then make the necessary changes. Acknowledging reality can be very freeing, because it opens the door to changing the situation. Making that change requires the willingness to embrace the following key statements: “I was wrong”; “I made a mistake”; and “I changed my mind.”
DON’T LET ROADBLOCKS BE A PROBLEM
Knowing what obstacles are impeding progress toward a goal is the first step to removing those obstacles. Creative thinking can help reveal unrecognized obstacles so they can be removed. Often there is one big obstacle that is causing most of the problems. Once that obstacle is dealt with, the others fall away. While it is easier to address smaller issues, the “Big Rock” must be identified and removed.
THE SEVEN SOURCES OF INNOVATION
Everyone has access to the seven common sources of innovation. Efforts to identify creative solutions should leverage these seven sources:
1. The unexpected event: A serendipitous event, an accidental success, or even a failure can all unexpectedly trigger a solution.
2. Incongruity: An unexpected occurrence or outcome is often the seed for a creative solution.
3. Process need: One change in a process can make a big difference in the outcome.
4. Changes in industry structure: A disruptive technology can spawn many other innovations.
5. Demographic changes: Shifts in demographics (e.g., aging baby boomers) open new opportunities.
6. Changes in value and perceptions: As customers’ values change, new innovative opportunities are born.
7. New knowledge: New knowledge, such as scientific and technology discoveries, inspire innovation that can transform products and industries.
TEN CREATIVE SOLUTIONS TO OBSOLETE PRODUCTS
The world is changing rapidly, which means that products become obsolete at an astonishing pace. Ongoing questioning about relevance therefore becomes even more important in driving creative thinking and innovation that will meet market needs. To avoid obsolescence and reach creative solutions, the following 10 questions should be routinely asked and answered:
- What other uses could current products serve?
- What can be adapted from other businesses’ products to improve the current business’ products?
- What changes could be made to make an existing product seem like something else?
- How could a particular product be magnified to seem better?
- How could a particular product be minimized to seem better?
- Is there something in or about the product that could be substituted to make it more appealing?
- What could be changed or rearranged to make the product more appealing?
- How could reverse thinking be applied to improve the product?
- What could be combined or bundled with the product to make it better?
- Is there a by-product that would add value?
THE VALUE-ENGINEERING PRINCIPLE
Value engineering is about providing the best product at the lowest cost. This principle often leads to offshoring and outsourcing. By asking a number of questions about the product with relation to cost and functionality, innovative solutions can rise to the forefront.
EVALUATE YOUR IDEAS
The majority of new products that come to market fail. An even larger majority of new ideas never come to fruition. Therefore, ideas must be subject to deep scrutiny and evaluation. Any idea needs to be assessed in terms of:
*Efficiency: Is the new product more efficient than the old product? Does it help customers more?
*Compatibility: How well does the new product fit with how people live their lives?
*Likability: Is the product liked not just by customers, but do the people in the business like it too? Does it meet customer and business goals?
*Simplicity: The best inventions are simple inventions that make life easier in some way. They can be easily explained and used and they appear in the marketplace in a timely way to meet a timely need.
It is important to remember that everyone has the potential for genius. Success is simply a matter of honing one’s creative thinking skills.