Stimulate Creative Thinking to Make Innovation a Reality

While innovation has always been the purview of R&D, an increasing number of companies expect professionals in all roles and at all levels to innovate. Many professionals say, “Innovate? My brain has been trained to do the opposite. I’m supposed to keep things ahead of schedule and under budget.” People feel perplexed, if not intimidated, by the imperative to “innovate.” For many, coming up with new ideas—ideating—is the biggest challenge.

Enter creativity, the key to ideating. Stimulating creativity to drive innovation is partly a matter of recognizing obstacles to navigate around them. It’s also a matter of engaging people in ways that leverage their strengths, creating a dynamic of constructive dissonance that fuels their thinking.

4 ways to promote creative thinking and innovation

Here are some techniques that encourage creativity:

Understand what creative thinking involves. The ability to think creatively—to ideate—is not innate. It is a learned set of cognitive skills, including reasoning by analogy to adapt what exists and thinking metaphorically to imagine new possibilities. All of us can learn these skills and refine them through practice.

While creative thinking involves both the right and left brain hemispheres, many observers of 21st-century businesses would say that our work lives call for, and perhaps privilege, cognitive functions that occur mainly in the left hemisphere: being sequential, literal, textual, and analytical.

Our right hemisphere, which grasps patterns and the big picture, may need a metaphorical trip to the gym to stimulate creative thinking. One simple technique, for example, is to think of a favorite story or fictional character. Imagine how you would reset the character in a totally new context (say, Sherlock Holmes reset as a genius surgeon in a research hospital). This activity can help you practice analogical reasoning, which will help the next time you have to ideate.

Allow for “serious play.” Isn’t this self-contradictory? By definition, play is fun, not serious. But consider games of strategy, such as chess or football. Play can be fun and serious at the same time.

The word “play” in relation to creativity probably conjures images of young creatives playing ping-pong or team-building activities involving Koosh balls or Play-Doh. Such activities do contribute to creativity and innovation by providing important mental breaks, which can allow for a “lightbulb moment” of insight.

Serious play functions differently. A number of companies have experimented with “innovation labs” and design studios—places where employees can relax and brainstorm. Not all of these experiments have been productive. Experience is showing that play often has to be goal-oriented and related directly to an issue at hand. For example, to create a new onboarding web portal, serious play might involve taking on the persona of new hires and improvising a role-play with colleagues, in which new hires chat about their experiences with the portal. In this persona, you might ad lib which features new hires would complain about, and thereby gain insight into avoiding user challenges in the actual portal.

Leverage diversity when building creative teams. People sometimes plan collaborative work by asking, “Who will get along most easily? Who has the same personality type? Who thinks the same way?” This is reasonable, because no one wants a group to be sidetracked by interpersonal disputes. However, when composing a team whose task is to create and innovate, it’s important to realize that new ideas often come from the collision of different, sometimes opposing points of view.

Composing an intellectually diverse team is key. If all members have similar areas of expertise and training, it can lead to groupthink and hinder the “collision” of ideas that’s essential to creativity. Research on the sources of breakthrough innovations finds that creativity is cross-disciplinary. In studies of the most productive creative teams, the members each have a unique area of subject matter expertise and can relate to each other by shared, broad knowledge of one another’s disciplines.

Creative teams also function maximally when members differ in working styles. Some members should be comfortable with uncertainty and iterative, nonlinear processes, while others should prefer certainty and linear processes. Finally, consider including people with different professional skills.

Seek out constructive dissonance. Like leveraging diversity, intentionally orchestrating intellectual and experiential dissonance is often a catalyst for the collision of ideas that yields innovation. To develop constructive dissonance:

  • Mix team members’ experience levels, from novices to seasoned experts.
  • Mix people based on what motivates them, such as a strong promotion motive (the belief that one new, great idea is worth any number of mistakes) and a strong prevention motive (the belief that most mistakes should be avoided by using proven ideas and techniques).
  • Mix thinking styles, such as people who are timely and ask “how” questions (“How will we actually do this? Is it realistic?”) with people who prefer concepts and ask big-picture questions (“What if…? Why not…?”).

Deliberately orchestrating constructive dissonance, leveraging diversity, and paying attention to “serious play” are effective ways to stimulate creativity and make innovation a reality.

Learn a creative, collaborative problem-solving method that can be used to generate more rapid, empathetic, and innovative products and services.

About The Author

Haywood Spangler, PhD, is the founder and principal of Work & Think, LLC. He brings a unique perspective to keynotes and seminars given his background as an instructor of business ethics at UVA McIntire School of Commerce, a researcher using original psychometric instruments, and a V.A. counselor. His clients include Johnson & Johnson, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, Morgan Stanley, the U.N.’s Pan American Health Organization, and NASA.