How is it that some people always seem to be able to generate new ideas and think creatively, and others seem to struggle to do so? The answer lies in their ability to use creative thinking.
Creative thinking is the ability to look at things differently, and find new ways of solving problems. Creative thinking skills are definitely not just for ‘creative types’ like artists and musicians. Everyone can benefit from creative thinking from time to time.
Regardless of whether you view yourself as a creative type or not, you can learn some useful skills and techniques which will enable you to tap into that creative ‘right brain’ thinking and bring a new perspective to innovation, problem-solving and managing change.
What is Creative Thinking?
Creative thinking is:
A way of looking at problems or situations from a fresh perspective that suggests unorthodox solutions (which may look unsettling at first). Creative thinking can be stimulated both by an unstructured process such as brainstorming, and by a structured process such as lateral thinking.
Creativity is the ability to make something new. This might be a picture, or a piece of music—but it might also be a new idea.
Creative thinking, therefore, is the ability to think differently: to see a problem or issue from a new angle or perspective. This often allows you find a new solution, or even to see that the problem does not necessarily need a solution.
The need for creative thinking arises because our brains naturally tend to fall into certain ‘short cuts’. Once we have a piece of information, we tend to use it again: that’s how we learn. This has huge advantages—for example, it means that we don’t have to learn how to use a knife and fork every time we eat—but it also has some disadvantages, in that we tend to stop thinking about things that we do, see or say regularly.
Formal Creative Thinking
Of course it is possible to think creatively all the time. There are some people who simply fizz with new ideas and seem to see everything slightly differently from those around them.
These are the people who are always asking ‘Why?’, and ‘Why not?’.
They are natural problem-solvers and innovators.
However, for most people, creative thinking requires more effort. They prefer to save their creative thinking for when it is really necessary.
Typical examples of times when you might take the time to use creative thinking techniques include:
When you are facing a major problem or issue, and you cannot see an obvious way forward.
At times of change, when it is hard to see what might lie ahead, and you want to think about possible scenarios.
When there is a lot of disagreement about what needs to happen next, and no compromise seems possible without a lot of effort.
When you need something new, that hasn’t been tried before, but you are not sure what.
On occasions like this, it may be worth doing some ‘formal’ creative thinking, and using a trained facilitator to help the group get the most out of the session.
Creative Thinking Techniques
There are a number of tools and techniques that you can use to stimulate creative thinking.
These include brainstorming, drawing techniques such as mind-mapping and rich pictures, and role-play techniques. There is undoubtedly considerable skepticism about many of these techniques. However, most if not all have some science behind them, and certainly some evidence that they work. It is worth keeping an open mind when you try them.
There is more about suitable tools and techniques for creative thinking in our page on Creative Thinking Techniques.
Making Your Thinking More Creative
Beyond ‘formal’ creative thinking opportunities, there are also things that you can do to help yourself think more creatively on a routine basis.
‘Spreading your social wings’ to get to know a wider and more diverse group of people.
We all tend to get on best with people who are like us, and particularly people with the same background and overall views on life. However, associating with people who are like us tends to mean that our thinking gets a bit ‘lazy’. Our assumptions go unchallenged, and our views tend to get reinforced.
Taking time to actively go out and meet new people – and particularly more diverse people, who are not so like you—will help you to challenge your assumptions. Without even realizing that you are doing so, you will start to think more widely, and see things differently.
That, of course, is the first step in starting to think more creatively.
Embracing new opportunities and trying new things
One particular research study tested creativity among people who had lived abroad, and those who had not lived outside their birth country. The study found that people who had lived abroad were better able to think creatively to solve a problem.
Obviously not everyone can go and live abroad for a period, but actively seeking out and taking up opportunities to do something new could have the same effect.
It is worth challenging yourself to learn a new skill, or do something you find difficult, simply for the effect it will have on your thinking!
Challenging stereotypes and forcing yourself to think beyond the obvious
Another study found that people who were asked to think about people who did not fit a stereotype (such as a male midwife) were better able to think creatively than people asked to think about someone who fitted the stereotype.
This is a very small thing, but it shows the effect of conventional thinking on our ability to think more creatively.
Being conscious of stereotypes, and asking yourself ‘But why do I think that?’ will help to surface your assumptions, and help you to think more creatively.
Engaging with art, theatre and music
It seems that people who visit the theatre, go to concerts, or engage with other cultural activities are also more able to think creatively. The thinking is that these activities help us to see things from a new perspective, and therefore to think more creatively. They also, apparently, can help you to feel more connected, and generally kinder.
Taking time to enjoy arts or create something in your leisure time will help you to broaden your horizons more generally.
A final thought
There are huge benefits to learning to think a little differently. It will help to improve your problem-solving ability, and also help you to see others’ perspectives. In an increasingly global world, broader horizons and an ability to think more widely is never going to hurt.