Creative thinking is a way of thinking that involves thinking out of the box to generate or, literally, create new and innovative ideas.
This form of thinking encompasses methods and techniques that facilitate idea generation and that diverge from conventional thought patterns. As such, it’s often used synonymously with divergent thinking.
Creative thinking tools range from brainstorming sessions and mind mapping to lateral thinking and visualization techniques. Each of these methods seeks to foster innovation and cultivate a culture of problem-solving beyond traditional boundaries.
Creative Thinking Examples
Brainstorming is a technique for stimulating creative thoughts that involves idea generation in a group setting.
This method is designed to encourage team members to express their thoughts in a free-flowing, spur-of-the-moment manner, building upon each other’s ideas. One idea can spark another, creating a chain of insights.
Healthy brainstorming focuses on quantity over quality. The goal here isn’t just great ideas; it’s loads of ideas. Outstanding concepts often surface from a sea of suggestions.
As a result, criticism is off-limits during a brainstorming session. Every thought, no matter how outlandish, is warmly welcomed.
Brainstorming Example: A team might use a brainstorming session to generate potential solutions for a logistical issue. Off-the-wall suggestions might inspire realistic, efficient solutions.
2. Mind Mapping
Mind mapping is a graphical way to represent ideas and concepts, and their interrelationships, centering around a core subject.
Imagine it as a tree with many branches. The central idea questions the trunk, and the branches are the primary sub-ideas, following branches being the subdivisions, and so on.
Mind mapping’s visual approach helps to organize complex information, enabling efficient solution formations and decision making. It’s a powerful tool for note-taking, memory enhancement, and creative idea generation.
However, bear in mind, clarity and conciseness are key attitudes while crafting mind maps. Over-complication can muddle the simplicity of this creative thinking tool.
Mind Mapping Example: An entrepreneur may use a mind map to break down a business plan, visually representing areas like marketing, product development, and financial planning.
3. Analogical Thinking
Analogical thinking is the process of identifying a common similarity between two or more distinct objects or situations and using it to solve a problem at hand. Literally, you’re creating an analogy.
This method is like solving a puzzle piece by piece. The process involves matching different parts based on their similarities.
Analogical thinking allows people to apply familiar experiences to new, unfamiliar situations, which stimulates new ideas and insights.
However, a word of caution: overextending analogies can lead to incorrect conclusions, faulty heuristics, and fallacies. Make sure to keep the similarities and differences in perspective.
Analogical Thinking Example: A business facing budget allocation issues could use analogical thinking and look at how a household manages finances, utilizing that as a model for distributing the company’s resources.
4. Five Whys
The Five Whys technique is a problem-solving strategy that involves asking ‘Why’ five times, or as many times as needed, to identify and understand the underlying issue.
Envision peeling an onion. Each ‘Why’ removes a layer, exposing a deeper level of the problem.
This is a straightforward but effective method for coming up with new insights. It helps to avoid focusing on surface-level features and instead gets you down to the underlying root causes.
Five Whys Example: If a business is experiencing low revenues, asking “why” might reveal problems with marketing, which might lead to a lack of resources, and so on.
5. Three Ifs
The Three Ifs technique is about stimulating creativity through hypothetical ‘If’ scenarios.
Imagine what could happen if certain variables in the current scenario were altered. Postulate three ‘If’ statements, and explore possible outcomes, thereby developing fresh perspectives.
This technique fosters innovation and flexibility. It challenges people to break away from current limitations and imagine a different reality.
However, remember: not all solutions envisioned in hypothetical scenarios can be implemented in real life. Maintain a sense of realism.
Three Ifs Example: A product designer could use ‘If’ scenarios like ‘What if the product was half its size?’, ‘What if it doubled in functionality?’ or ‘What if it could be used in a totally different manner?’ to create innovative designs.
6. Blue Skies Thinking
Blue Skies Thinking is the act of thinking without any preconceived limits and boundaries.
It’s akin to daydreaming; there are no wrong answers. The sky’s the limit when it comes to ideation.
This technique facilitates out-of-the-box thinking and fosters radical innovation. With all constraints removed, truly transformative ideas can surface.
However, it’s critical to bear in mind: while this process provides great ideas, the real world’s feasibility and constraints need to be considered before implementation.
Blue Skies Thinking Example: In a startup brainstorming session for a new product design, Blue Skies Thinking would encourage participants to envision the most effective, cutting-edge product imaginable, without worrying about feasibility constraints like production cost or technology limitations initially.
7. Lateral Thinking
Lateral Thinking encourages unconventional approaches to problem-solving, often leading to innovative solutions.
Picture a maze; instead of going through it, lateral thinking will have you climb over it or bash through the walls.
By breaking free from traditional thinking patterns, lateral thinking facilitates the generation of creative solutions. It encourages you to look at problems from different perspectives.
Despite this, bear in mind: some lateral thinking ideas might seem ludicrous. It is essential to filter out the unrealistic ones while preserving the innovative spirit.
Lateral Thinking Example: An ad company facing difficulties catching consumer attention might use lateral thinking to come up with a unique, unexpected advertising strategy, straying from the typical marketing conventions to better engage viewers.
8. SCAMPER Technique
SCAMPER is a mnemonic that stands for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse. It is a strategic method used to spark creativity in exploring potential improvements for existing products or processes.
Imagine a clay model; you mold, shape, and carve it to improve or adapt it to your interests.
The SCAMPER technique stimulates a broad array of ideas for product or process innovation. It gives you a structured way to think about potential improvements.
Although this tool is highly efficient, ensure it doesn’t confine your creativity. Blend it with other thinking styles for best results.
SCAMPER Technique Example: If a technology company wanted to innovate their popular device, they could use the SCAMPER technique. They might Substitute certain features, Combine it with another device, Adapt it for new users, Modify the design, and so on.
9. Role Playing
Role-playing is a method wherein individuals take on different personas to gain a fresh perspective on a situation or problem.
Imagine wearing somebody else’s shoes. By temporarily adopting another person’s role, you can gain fresh insights and viewpoints.
Role-playing can lead to empathetic understanding, improved communication, and innovative thinking. It helps examine situations through an additional lens.
But remember, it’s crucial to remain respectful and sensitive when engaging in role-playing. Misrepresentation and stereotyping need to be avoided.
Role-Playing Example: A team could employ role-playing to better understand customer needs and perspectives, with different team members taking on roles such as the customer, salesperson, and customer service representative.
10. Reverse Thinking
Reverse thinking, also known as backward thinking, is a problem-solving technique that involves thinking in a counter-intuitive or opposite way.
Consider the process of reverse engineering. This methodology pursues a backward trail from a known solution, venturing to identify the question related to it.
Reverse thinking offers a fresh perspective, encouraging you to step away from conventional logic. But, remember to keep realistic limitations in mind.
Reverse Thinking Example: If a company is struggling to increase its customer base, it could use reverse thinking and ask, “How could we lose all our customers?” By addressing the issues that would push customers away, the company can work on preventing these scenarios, therefore retaining and acquiring more customers.
11. Counterfactual Reasoning
Counterfactual reasoning entails considering alternative versions of events that have already occurred in order to plan for the future or understand the past in a new way.
Imagine looking at history through a lens of “what could have been.” By altering the facts of a past situation in your mind and exploring outcomes, you can gain insightful perspectives.
This helps in honing decision-making skills and planning for future contingencies. However, avoid dwelling excessively on the past, which can prevent forward movement.
Counterfactual Reasoning Example: A project manager could practice counterfactual reasoning by imagining how a project might have unfolded if they had made different leadership decisions, helping them to learn lessons for future projects.
12. Six Thinking Hats
The Six Thinking Hats method, devised by Edward de Bono, involves examining situations from six distinct perspectives represented by six colored hats.
It’s like watching a play from various seats to get the complete picture. Each hat symbolizes a unique mindset – Red for feelings, White for facts, Green for creativity, Yellow for benefits, Black for drawbacks, and Blue for process control.
This technique facilitates holistic thinking, unearths blind spots, and promotes comprehensive understanding. Yet, make sure you are fully attentive to each perspective to reap maximum benefits.
Six Thinking Hats Example: In a meeting, a team might don the “Yellow Hat” to focus exclusively on the potential benefits of a new project, before switching to the “Black Hat” to consider potential problems or risks.
Storyboarding is a technique that visually narrates your ideas, breaking them down into sequences.
Picture it as creating a comic strip. Each box is a scene, illustrating a part of the narrative. Through writing your storyboard, you can be creative and playful in your story-making process.
Storyboarding can showcase a concept’s flow and feasibility, pointing out any structural gaps. They’re typically employed in video production, website design, business strategy planning, and more. Always remember, clarity is the key quality in this tool.
Storyboarding Example: In developing a new software user interface, a design team might create a storyboard showing how a user would navigate through each feature, allowing them to better visualize and enhance the user experience.
14. Morphological Analysis
Morphological Analysis is a creative problem-solving technique that involves breaking down complex problems into simpler parts and exploring various combinations to generate a wide range of possible solutions.
Consider it as solving a puzzle, where each piece represents a different element of the problem. By examining each piece and reassembling them in novel configurations, you create a wealth of potential solutions.
This promotes a deep understanding of the involved elements, their interactions, and potential impacts. Remember to ensure each solution is realistic and feasible.
Morphological Analysis Example: A manufacturer could use this technique when designing a new bike, breaking down the bike into different parts (frame, tires, gears, etc.) and evaluating alternative options for each, aiming to create the optimal combination.
Daydreaming is the process of letting your mind wander freely and imaginatively, which may lead to innovative ideas.
Imagine yourself lounging on a cotton cloud. Your mind roams, exploring novel ideas and possibilities. Far from being non-productive, daydreaming can provide a departure from habitual ways of thinking and foster creativity.
Though this technique nurtures creativity by exploring alternative realities, it’s imperative to balance it with action-oriented activities for practical implementation of these ideas.
Daydreaming Example: An author experiencing writer’s block may resort to daydreaming, allowing their mind to roam freely through different scenarios and characters, eventually unearthing a breakthrough thought for their narrative.
16. Doodling and Sketching
Doodling and sketching involve spontaneously creating drawings or diagrams, often while brainstorming or contemplating ideas.
Imagine your thoughts flowing onto paper through the strokes of a pen. These spontaneous drawings can capture complex ideas and concepts in simple, visual forms.
These methods can provide a creative outlet, facilitating the synthesis and assimilation of new information. Nonetheless, do ensure the essence of ideas is not lost in the excitement of the doodling process.
Doodling and Sketching Example: A teacher might doodle while brainstorming lesson plans, using sketches to visually organize concepts and highlight connections between different topics.
17. Metaphorical Thinking
Metaphorical thinking involves understanding one concept in terms of another, providing novel insights and perspectives.
Picture metaphors as bridges, joining together seemingly unrelated concepts by illuminating their shared characteristics.
This technique fuels creativity by breaking traditional thought patterns and fostering the exploration of new connections. However, it’s important to choose metaphors that are relevant and appropriate to the situation to avoid confusion or misinterpretation.
Metaphorical Thinking Example: A coach could liken a sports team to a symphony orchestra, stressing each team member’s distinct role yet highlighting the importance of harmonious cooperation for success.
18. Cross-Pollination (merging ideas from different sources)
Cross-Pollination involves combining elements or ideas from different fields, disciplines or sources, leading to innovation and fresh perspectives.
Think of it as creating a fusion cuisine. You’re mixing ingredients from diverse culinary cultures to create a unique dining experience.
This method stimulates comprehensive thinking, bringing together heterogeneous viewpoints, fostering innovation, and combating tunnel vision. However, take care to integrate ideas in a way that maintains their original essence and value.
Cross-Pollination Example: A graphic designer might merge elements from architectural structures and natural landscapes to produce a unique piece of art with an interesting interplay of the natural and built environment.
19. Incubation (taking a break and letting the subconscious work)
Incubation in creativity involves giving your subconscious mind time to process and develop ideas without conscious effort.
Picture it as planting a seed and giving it time to grow. You’ve sown the idea in your mind, now let it mature and flourish.
Incubation allows for ideas to grow in depth and expansion. It also fosters connections between otherwise unrelated ideas. Remember, good thinking is often a blend of conscious effort and letting your mind wander.
Incubation Example: An advertising copywriter faced with a challenging campaign might step away from their desk to take a walk, coffee break, or even sleep on it, allowing their subconscious to generate fresh insights and connections.
20. Challenging Assumptions
Challenging assumptions involves questioning and testing the accepted beliefs, norms, or practices that constraint creative thinking.
Think of it as a detective examining every piece of evidence before drawing conclusions. It’s stepping back, reevaluating the status quo, and asking if there’s a better way.
This forces you to adopt a fresh perspective, often leading to more innovative and sustainable solutions. However, it’s important to challenge assumptions responsibly to avoid fostering an environment of contentious communication.
Challenging Assumptions Example: In business, a manager might challenge the assumption that employees must work nine-to-five hours, leading to the implementation of flexible scheduling that could increase productivity and job satisfaction.
Journaling involves recording ideas, thoughts, and experiences in a personal or professional diary.
Imagine pouring your thoughts into a river of words. The act of journaling allows you to reflect on your ideas and emotions.
Journaling fosters clarity, helps you trace thought patterns, sparks creativity, and allows for emotional expression. However, remain mindful, strike a balance between personal reflection and incorporating constructive feedback from others.
Journaling Example: An entrepreneur might keep a journal of their experiences while founding a start-up, detailing the challenges, triumphs, and ideas, providing critical insights for future ventures.
22. Meditation and Mindfulness
Meditation and Mindfulness involve focusing your concentration and calming the mind to foster clarity and enhance the creative process.
Imagine a serene pond, undisturbed, reflecting everything with clarity. Just as the still pond renders clear reflections, a tranquil mind gives rise to clear thinking.
By reducing stress and enhancing focus, these techniques can increase receptivity to new ideas. However, remember to balance introspective practices like these with active problem solving and decision making.
Meditation and Mindfulness Example: A scriptwriter facing creative block might engage in mindfulness exercises, such as focusing on the breath or sensations, which could clear the mind and unblock the flow of creativity.
23. Dream Analysis
Dream analysis is a method of exploring the unconscious mind and its influence on our thoughts, using our dreams as the main source of information.
Think of it as diving into a world painted by your subconscious. By examining the elements of your dream, you can uncover surprising insights that aid the problem-solving process and enhance your creativity.
Dreams can offer a wealth of creative material and novel perspectives. However, it’s important to interpret them wisely, using them as a guide rather than a definitive answer.
Dream Analysis Example: A fashion designer might base a new clothing line on the extravagant garments and environments depicted in a dream, providing a unique inspiration for their collection.
24. SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats)
SWOT Analysis, used typically in strategic planning, is a logical framework that assists organizations in identifying their Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.
Imagine it as a compass, pointing you in the direction of suitable strategy. It helps in understanding your capabilities and surroundings, thus smoothening the strategy navigation.
The SWOT Analysis enhances decision-making by providing a comprehensive assessment of a situation. However, be on the lookout for biases that may influence the accuracy of your analysis.
SWOT Analysis Example: A restaurant manager might conduct a SWOT analysis to identify strengths such as excellent service, weaknesses like an outdated menu, opportunities including a booming local food scene, and threats such as increasing competition.
25. Visualization (using visuals to spark creativity)
Visual Thinking involves using images, diagrams, or visual metaphors to understand concepts and express ideas more effectively.
Imagine translating thoughts into doodles or diagrams on a whiteboard. By moving away from verbal communication and using visuals, you can communicate complicated data more compellingly.
Visual thinking fosters comprehensible presentations and stimulates creativity. However, ensure visuals are accessible and do not limit interpretation breadth.
Visual Thinking Example: A project team going through the project planning phase might use visual thinking to graphically represent timelines, dependencies, and milestones, ensuring clearer understanding and better engagement.
Employing creative thinking can lead to novel insights, innovative solutions, and improved decision-making. Sourcing from a wide range of disciplines, creative thinking methodologies encourage multifaceted perspectives, leading to enhanced effectiveness in addressing complex problems.
In an increasingly competitive world, the ability to think creatively is more critical than ever. It enables individuals to navigate the complexities of modern life and businesses to stay relevant in an evolving marketplace.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]