How to be a creative thinker, not a creative stinker!

In this blog, Purple Owl’s Director, Tim Osborn, reflects on his own creative process and gives you some tips on how to become a creative thinker.

Renowned physician and psychologist Edward de Bono once said “Creative thinking is not a talent, it is a skill that can be learnt. It empowers people by adding strength to their natural abilities, which improves teamwork, productivity and, where appropriate, profit.”

At this point I consider myself to be a creative thinker. This wasn’t always the case. After 12 years of working in a bank I believed that I was a logical thinker, or as one person once reminded me: “You’re not a creative thinker, you are a creative stinker!”. Forever confined to the left side of the brain. Psychometric testing, line managers, colleagues and, more importantly, myself believed this to be true. It wasn’t until I received effective coaching that I realised I was more capable in this area than I thought.

So began an journey of not limiting my thinking. I have since written poetry, made up games, made up songs and stories for my kids, worked on a movie script, generated many business ideas, created hundreds of training activities, and so on. Now, I am the first to admit not all of my ideas (as my children will tell you) are brilliant – but I do come from the school of thought that the more ideas I come up with the more chance I have of joining the dots and hitting the mark. Additionally, it gives others an opportunity to build and expand on the idea and achieve that holy grail of quality collaboration that we all seek.

It wasn’t until recently however that I stopped and considered how exactly it was that I generate these ideas. Whilst delivering a leadership training course recently, I was sharing some of my unorthodox team briefs that I had previously undertaken with my teams. This led on to me sharing several examples and describing how over the years I had become more and more of a creative thinker. Interestingly, one of the participants then asked “how do you actually come up with the ideas?” and I was stumped! (Which many attendees of my courses will tell you is a rarity). What Michael was asking me was how do you think creatively and what process do you go through. After the course, this got me thinking on what process I actually do go through and how that might help others who may not have considered themselves creative thinkers.

While this article is primarily focussed on some practical aspects of creative thinking, it would be prudent to refer to respected scholars on the subject. Firstly, for a traditional view I would recommend American psychologist J.P. Guilford, who drew a distinction between convergent and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking involves aiming for a single, correct solution to a problem, whereas divergent thinking involves creative generation of multiple answers to a set problem. French teacher and author Sylvia Duckworth described it brilliantly in the following diagram:

image is a graphic showing the differences between divergent and convergent thinking

For a more contemporary view, it is worth considering the Explicit-Implicit Interaction (EII) theory of creativity recently proposed by S. Helie and R. Sunt. This new theory constitutes an attempt at providing a more unified explanation of explicit and implicit knowledge.

Now, for my tips on being creative:

Start at the end

What are you trying to achieve? This fundamental question must be asked. Whether it be writing a story or coming up with a training activity, start at the end and then work backwards. This will give you focus and help you anticipate potential challenges and help generate more ideas.

Clear your mind

This is potentially the hardest. Distraction is your biggest enemy. I have a busy life with a young family and two businesses, so time is precious. Find an activity that reduces or eliminates distraction. For me, it’s running. Before I set off, I choose a subject and focus on that only. As my wife will tell you, when I return the first thing I do is go straight to a pen and paper to write my thoughts down.

Strike while the iron’s hot

I accept that I am not always inspired, so I have to make the most of it when it comes. I always have some way to jot things down when the ideas come to me. Think of the author Stephen King who it is alleged kept a notepad by his bed at night so he could write down his nightmares when they woke him up. I imagine if he didn’t he (much like the rest of us) would have been unlikely to remember.

Allocate time

As stated above, inspiration may not always be forthcoming. It is here that I subscribe to the theory that ‘inspiration comes from perspiration’. Many great musicians will tell you that often their best songs come with a deadline fast approaching. So, block out your space in your diary to allocate appropriate time for creative thinking and problem solving.

Subject interest

Not surprisingly, ideas will come faster if you are passionate about the subject. Not just passionate about the subject, but also passionate about the intended audience of the creative activity. The subject should be driven by the objective. For example, I made up a story (one of many) for my eldest daughter when she was two, which she loved. We ended up making it into our own book. The point being the story (the subject) itself is less important and making my daughter happy (the objective) is the priority.

Join the dots

This is where the shift from logical thinking takes place. Typically, a logical thinker will think in a linear fashion and focus on A to B. The trick is to be aware of things and people around you. Take note, as what might appear irrelevant could be useful for another time. For example, I recently attended a training course and was impressed with the trainer. I made contact and established a relationship even though I had no need for his specialist services at that time. Weeks later, I read an article where I realised that this person could help me with offering a proposition. Chances are had I not made contact, the idea and ultimately the opportunity would most likely have not been seen. Again, take note!

The six tips above should serve you well in breaking open the door to being creative. My view is that most people have creative instincts and have been taught or told otherwise. So remember, if you consider yourself to be a creative stinker it may be that you just haven’t opened the door to creative thinking yet!

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