The ABCs of Creative Thinking

While I was working from home on Friday I received a phone call from my youngest son’s (Will) school principal. My initial reaction was “Oh no — what did Will do???”. Hey — if you knew Will, you would understand! Anticipating my response, the Principal quickly stated “Will is all good, I just have a story that I want to share with you”. To summarize, the Principal was observing Will’s 6th grade Language Arts class. The class read Aesop’s fable “The Lion and the Mouse”, a story about a mouse that saved a lion’s life. The teacher asked the class “Why didn’t the lion eat the mouse?”. Everyone in the class responded “because they were best friends since the mouse saved the lion’s life”. Everyone but Will that is. Will said “hmmm…What if the Lion didn’t eat the mouse because he was too small to be a meal?” Now, the teacher tried to overlook his response and move on, but Will was persistent. The Principal was intrigued with this alternative scenario; he then tried to interject to get the class to discuss further. Will’s question was not part of the lesson plan, however, and the teacher quickly redirected the conversation back on her plotted course to deliver the required material. The Principal took the time to call me and share this story because he was impressed with Will’s divergent thinking and his curiosity and disappointed that this teacher did not try to encourage this type of original thinking. The principal informed me that this is something he is trying to change in the classroom.

Will’s situation is actually very similar to the work environment. Many times, the need for speed (who doesn’t love a Top Gun reference??) forces us to the quickest or easiest solution, which in the end, doesn’t typically solve the right problem. It certainly does not lead us to creative solutions. I see this every day. The little secret is that being curious is at the core of learning as well as creative problem solving, which is lacking into today’s workplace. Its the ABCs of Creative Thinking — Always Be Curious!!! If it is that simple, then why don’t we encourage curiosity and divergent thinking more? What holds us back? How can we overcome it?

What Hold’s us back?

Individually, there are many reasons that prevent us from being curious. From an organizational view, I believe there are 3 main barriers for creative thinking:

  • We value ANSWERS — Do you know the age we peak at asking questions? Research shows its between 4–5 years old! This is because answers are more valued than questions. We are taught from an very early age in the classroom on how to answer questions accurately. Our children are tested, graded and compared, which reinforces this behavior. Then, we enter the workplace and, surprisingly, it’s not so different. We work hard to be an “expert” in our domain, which means you have the answers and don’t ask questions and are “graded” accordingly.
  • We value SPEED — If a problem arises with a host of questions, we drive to solutions almost immediately. We are wired, as humans, to find the quickest solution. Problems can be difficult, abstract and hard to understand. It is very uncomfortable to “live and explore” in the abstract world, so filling in the gaps with what is known and concrete (which is typically mired in assumptions) is more comfortable. It takes too much time to explore and ask questions.
  • We value ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE, PROCESSES & SYSTEMS — Over the past several decades, businesses have become incredibly efficient based on the implementation of org structure, processes and systems. However, this has put people in “boxes”, which drastically limits our ability to make broader connections and be curious. Your organizational structure tells you your role, your processes tell you what to do and your systems speed up that process (hopefully). We are conditioned to perform in a “closed” environment based on an overly-defined way of working.

How can we overcome it?

It is difficult to change BUT not impossible! You can effectively make changes within your own sphere of influence. Below are the top 3 practices that I put in place to encourage more divergent thinking, curiosity and creative problem solving:

  • Employ a “question to solution” frame — In my team, we combined a few frameworks together (Stanford’s d.school methodology and Warren Berger’s question framework) to create the graphic below. When starting a new project or work, this frame helps to ensure that we slow down, understand the problem, probe deeper by conducting research, extract great thinking from the team and then create solutions.
  • Create new working habits — For people to question openly, you need to create psychological safety and it is the leader’s responsibility to create this safe space. Since our curiosity peaks at age 5, these are repressed skills. Leaders must encourage, be open, and seek to understand. This is all part of the Thinking Environment (click on the link for more info & the 10 principles: Thinking Environment). The most important new habit is the “set up”. A leader needs to clearly state these new principles and then hold everyone (including him/herself) accountable. As a leader, the key is extracting the best thinking from your team.
  • Become more people, networked focused — This can be overwhelming when you work for a large company. To start small, I always seek to find others inside and outside my circle to help me evaluate a problem. I do this as follows:
  • Research articles, books and authors — I use GetPocket (Get Pocket) or Pinterest to organize my articles and books. When something is directly related to my problem, I will contact the author to request an introductory meeting. Most times, I get a response.
  • Leverage my external network — This takes time but it is so important to create and maintain outside networks. When I started in capability innovation, I knew very little. I researched, took a few open training courses and attended conferences. As a result, I found a small group of diverse thinkers united in applying creative problem solving techniques.
  • Expand my internal network — I recently listened to podcast on Bob Beaudine, CEO of an executive search firm, and he has the power of 12–3–1, which I love. The power of 16 is all you need to be successful: 12 friends you connect with 1/month , 3 close relationships you connect with 1/week and 1 best friend you connect with every day. I have been keeping my list and blocking time on Fridays to do this.

The workplace of the future will be based on solving problems; not defined by roles or jobs. I already see it taking shape in my daughter’s college experience. She has 3 majors across 3 “colleges” at Indiana University. This would have been unheard of when I went to college. The professionals of the future will have a career “portfolio”, which will include their diverse experiences in multiple disciplines. Instead of applying for jobs, this next generation will apply to solve specific problems. To be competitive and relevant, we must work across the organizational silos and hierarchies. We must ask more questions. We must be curious to find out who else has knowledge or passion about a problem. It’s all about people and not about processes or systems. The companies that can effectively tap into the diverse thinking of their talent quickly to solve complex problems will be the ones that succeed in the future. Are you ready to Always Be Curious, like Will?

Let’s Get Started!

There are many articles, techniques and courses, such as IDEO’s Leading with Creativity to jump start your curiosity and creative thinking. To summarize the techniques above, below are some simple steps to get your started:

  • Frame — Frame out your problem statement as a question. The question should be ambitious yet actionable. Warren Berger’s “A More Beautiful Question” breaks this process down simply. Read his book or check out his blog: What is a beautiful question? I LOVED it!
  • Research & Reframe — Find out as much as you can on your problem statement, interview others, empthasize and ask more questions to tease out assumptions. Then, reframe your problem.
  • Connect broadly — The more you discuss the problem statement with others than more insights you will have. The key is to get divergent thinking. It’s even better when you do this in a small group. This is the super fun part!!!
  • Take Action— Take action after your explored opportunities and identified a solution. This is the hard part, which is why you want to prototype, test small to learn, question, and iterate quickly!

Using the steps above, combined with the question frame and thinking environment, you can “spark” and unleash your own style of creative thinking. Also, check out the links too, as there is a ton of useful information to get you started too. Let me know how it goes!


Originally published at sparkworksblog.com on May 1, 2017.