// 6 steps for a Creative New Year!

Creative thinking is not just for artists, scientists or ‘creative types’. It can also make all the difference in your business. Creative thinking leads to innovation, and innovation will set you apart from your competitors and give you the edge in your marketplace, says Joanna Maxwell.

In these changing times, creative thinking is not optional. The Australian Graduate School of Management’s The Leader magazine has said that ‘innovation’ is no longer ‘just a word to be bandied about. The economy is forcing us to get creative. Innovation could be just what we need and it could be very good for business.'

Think about this for a minute; is there an area of your business in which you’re not getting results? Is there a gap between your goals and current reality? Have you left some of your business activities on autopilot, without questioning them for years? Are there clients, members and staff with whom you struggle to find the best approach? These are all good opportunities to practice creative thinking. In fact, creativity is useful in most business situations, but these are good places to start.

What is creative thinking, and how can you tap into it?

We all know about logical, analytical, rational thinking (generally called convergent or left-brained thinking), where you put bits of a puzzle together to get to a single ‘correct’ answer. It’s the kind of intelligence most often tested in school exams and IQ tests. Our culture, school system and definitions of success all favour this logical and linear way of thinking, so for many of us this is the most familiar style. It’s vital for running a successful business.

However, equally important is holistic, synthesising, intuitive, subjective thinking (divergent or right-brained thinking). A big part of this is the ability to generate lots of ideas without having an expectation of a single correct answer. This style of thinking is also vital for business.

To be creative, you need to be able to tap into both thinking styles, and to switch from one or the other as the situation demands. You probably have a preference for one style, but you can train yourself to use both (yes, you can – I promise!).

Creative thinking is a mindset rather than a list of techniques or something you only use occasionally, but just telling you to ‘be creative’ is about as useful as telling an anxious colleague, ‘don’t worry, be happy’. Unless you have some practical tools to work with, it is useless, and can even be harmful.

Here are my top five tips and tools:

  1. Go on creative adventures with yourself, do things you wouldn’t normally do (like painting, cooking Thai food or staying up all night), be curious about how other people do business, go to a seminar or do a course in a new field. It doesn’t matter what kinds of adventures you choose, so long as they expose you to something out of your usual routine.

    A couple of years ago, I interviewed one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, Professor Elkhonon Goldberg, who teaches at the New York University School of Medicine. I asked him for his advice on the best way to maximise the brain’s creative thinking powers and he said it all in five words: ‘Novelty, diversity and more novelty’.
  2. Recognise that not all ideas are winners. Aim for lots of ideas, rather than holding out for one perfect one, and be prepared to redefine your failures as experiments and not to find the ‘right’ answer straight away. Because creative thinking doesn’t always run to a timetable, you may need to sit with uncertainty and with unconnected pieces of the puzzle for a while, and see what happens.

    Some experts say that finding one promising idea among every twenty ideas you have is a good hit rate, and some say it’s more like 1 in 100 ideas or even 1 in 1,000. So, the more ideas you come up with, the more likely you are to hit pay dirt.

    It’s good practice to encourage your staff to put forward ideas, with equal praise for every idea, not just the ‘winners’.
  3. Suspend that inner critic, tell the voice of judgment in your head to go out for a long lunch while you daydream and generate ideas. When it returns, it can help you evaluate your new ideas – but only if it’s well-behaved!

    The inner critic can be a real problem for many people, so you may need to experiment to find the best strategy for dealing with it. The main thing is to recognise that it is just a voice in your head, and not necessarily an accurate voice, either. However you handle it, be very clear that it is not the boss of you.
  4. Being curious is a cornerstone of creative thinking and innovation, so it’s good to get into the habit of asking questions like;

• Why?
• Why not?
• What if?
• What else?
• What assumptions am I making?
• What if there were no constraints?
• How would a scientist, or the Dalai Lama, or a child, or my wisest friend deal with this issue?\
• What are three ways to handle this?

We often come up with a quick solution, and this may be adequate in most cases. But spending just a few more minutes drilling down, being curious about what’s missing, asking questions about what you are assuming or what changes or improvements you might make, can turn an average idea into a groundbreaking one.

  1. Record your ideas, however far-fetched or impractical they seem. Keep a ‘mad ideas’ book and review it every now and then. You may be surprised at what it sparks.

    Even if your wildest ideas are not feasible, they often contain the seeds of something seriously innovative, something that will set you apart from the others in your marketplace.
  2. Think about your work systems for a minute. Are you following rules set by someone else or by yourself years ago – rules that may no longer apply and which are restricting your creative choices?  Are there some processes or practices that could be dropped or replaced with something more useful?

    Run your mind over every aspect of your business, as if you were an interested stranger. Explain to this stranger what you do, how you do it, and why you do it. If the answers are not compelling, think again. How could you do it differently?

    You’ll need to exercise caution before throwing all your procedures out the window (and please don’t start by deciding to ignore the tax man!), but you might be surprised what a difference a fresh look can make.

By implementing the tips above, you can train yourself to think differently, approach challenges from a fresh perspective and come up with creative ideas that can help grow your business in bold and interesting new directions.

And by the way, yes, I know there are six tips above, not five as promised – but that’s what creative thinking is all about!

Joanna Maxwell
Joanna founded Work In Colour to help people tap into all their thinking skills and strengths and to ‘work in colour’ every day. She runs training and coaching for businesses large and small. Sign up for her newsletter at www.workincolour.com.au and receive ‘Thriving in Changing Times: 10 tips for Business’ free. 

Club Network • Spring/Summer 2010