5 Ways to Think More Creatively

Whether in a startup or a multinational corporation, these tips can help you discover new innovations.

When your work centers around innovation, a big part of your job is searching for new ideas. But in our world of instant global information, there are so many new ideas that keeping up has become a full-time job.

You just don’t have the time to read them all, much less digest them.

Don’t get me wrong. You must anticipate where the world is heading – and act accordingly.  But how do you actually get ahead? And how do you lead?

The most successful companies today don’t imitate. They blaze their own path.

In a way, they think like toddlers. Hear me out on this one …

Toddlers are like little scientists. They’re always coming up with new experiments. The way they interact with the world revolves around testing and testing again – then extracting rules and building expectations.

Think about it: You give a toy car to a toddler … he grabs it … it’s solid … it can be thrown … it’s bouncy … then he’ll try to put it in his mouth… can he eat it? No … does it taste good? No.

Finally, a new rule starts to form: Cars are not food. Don’t eat cars.

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The most successful companies today don’t imitate. They blaze their own path.

Our perception of physical reality is built by years of testing, coming up with rules for how the world works, then believing in those rules.

Limiting creative thought

While practical, this mindset isn’t great for creativity. The same rules that help us navigate the physical world can easily become barriers that block us.

Think about the first time you saw an open flame. You probably thought: Wow, that looks really interesting.

But it burns, and that hurts, you tell yourself. And you’ve learned the lesson so well that today you don’t even allow yourself to consider touching any orange, glowing object.

But how do you know the object is actually hot? You don’t. You assume it’s hot, and that’s enough for you.

In our professional journeys, many of us believe we’ve learned all the rules. But if we don’t challenge the rules, how are we going to create something new?

Great expectations

Visionaries have one thing in common: They have a little less faith in reality and its rules than other people. They push boundaries. Most people, after a few times of seeing the same results, extrapolate a prediction.

Let me give you an example:

One, two, three, four … what’s the next number?

Five?

Actually, we don’t know. It could be any number.

I’d argue that the most creative people are more open to new possibilities. This is especially important to startups and small business owners looking to leave their mark in a world defined by trailblazers.

So how do you condition yourself to think more creatively? Here are five ways to boost creative thought:

1. Question everything

Question everything, and when you’re done questioning everything, look at what’s left and question that too.

Start by identifying a problem you want to solve, then deconstruct it to its most basic components – and challenge those.

For example, if you want to develop a plant watering system, your basic components are the water, the plant and how to carry the water. You then start to devise some kind of container to store the water and some piping to bring it where you want.

Try this instead:

  • Why does it need to be water?
  • Why does the water need a container?
  • Why assume water is liquid? Is it easier to carry the water as a solid? Or as a gas?
  • Why can’t you move the plants instead?

And so on.

2. Evolution or revolution?

Not everything needs radical change. When you sit (or in my case, pace) in front of your desk, ready to work on your next idea, it’s important to consider whether to break the mold or just give it a polish.

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You just need to steer clear of the land of marginal improvements.

The automotive industry is successful at producing better iterations of the same product. There are of course brilliant bits and pieces in each new car model, but if we look past the shiny paint and the streamlined aerodynamics, the basic concept hasn’t really changed that much in the past century (until driverless or flying cars become reality).

But improving upon a solid concept is also a good way to make progress. You just need to steer clear of the land of marginal improvements.

That’s where you start making changes just because you need to justify your own existence as an R&D professional or your company needs to bring out the new seasonal collection (often just a different color).

If you’re going to improve something, make a meaningful improvement.

3. Beware of shiny objects

It becomes obvious when someone is focused on finding an excuse to use a particular technology rather than the best solution for a problem.

First, everything was better with an LED light, then we jammed Bluetooth onto anything, and when Bluetooth wasn’t enough, we turned to the Internet of Things.

You‘ll find yourself wondering: How could I use a drone to solve this problem? Or what could I 3D print to solve my company’s troubles? Or how could I use smart glasses?

In most cases, it’ll be the wrong approach (although some IoT concepts are actually quite good).

As much as possible, focus on solving a problem rather than building something shiny. Make your solution as practical as possible, and if you can make it low tech, rejoice in the thought that it’ll be easier to justify financially.

Not everything needs an AI brain working gazillions of calculations behind the scenes.

4. Be cool

Before you ask, no, I’m not contradicting myself. You should not force a particular technology onto your solution, but once you have your solution, put a little effort into making it look nice.

This includes a nice, clean presentation, maybe with a 3D rendering of your concept. You could design a sleek cover or come up with a creative name or pleasing color scheme for your product.

As much as hardcore business people see through theatrics, looks do matter – especially if your product requires public acceptance.

If your robot looks like a killing machine full of gears and sharp edges or your drone looks like it was built with junkyard spares, it’s probably not going viral – at least not for the right reasons.

5. No shortcuts

When you’ve had enough and think you’ve reached your limit, keep going past it. You’re not going to wake up tomorrow and realize you’ve become Leonardo Da Vinci.

But it gets easier.

When somebody calls you crazy (assuming they say it with a kind smile), it probably means you’re on the right path to unleashing your creative genius.

The world – especially the corporate world – is powered by real innovation. So why don’t you give this new mindset a try?

Challenge your assumptions and push past boundaries. The world needs your ideas.

Julio Gil is an Innovation and Advanced Technology Manager, based in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

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