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5 Creative Thinking Methods That Can Help You Make Better Decisions
AdobeStock/YakobchukOlena
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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Coco Chanel was the first designer to use jersey in her fashions.

At the time, jersey was an inexpensive fabric used only for men’s underwear. Chanel had faced difficult circumstances early in her life and elected to use jersey to make women’s clothes because it was inexpensive. With more expensive fabrics being rationed during World War I, Chanel purchased the material at a low cost and used the comfortable, functional fabric in her designs. She became known for her practical clothing line, ultimately revolutionizing the face of fashion forever.

This is just one example of a creative thinker who used problem-solving to change her—and the course of history. And she's not the only one. Creative thinking is a skill that can get you far in the workplace and in life.

What are creative thinking and critical thinking?

Creative thinking involves tackling projects, plans, problems, or obstacles through fresh and unorthodox methods and ideas—in other words, thinking outside the box, or divergent thinking, the opposite of convergent thinking. You may be familiar with the term critical thinking, which is more analytical in that it concerns the evaluation of existing ideas, rather than the creation of new ones.

What is lateral thinking?

While not necessarily synonymous with creative thinking, lateral thinking is one well-known creative-thinking method in which people use logic and reasoning to perceive patterns and find solutions that are not immediately obvious. Edward de Bono coined the term in 1967, noting that it describes the process of using complex problem-solving skills to find a solution, rather the product itself. Lateral thinking distinguishes itself from vertical thinking, the more traditional, step-by-step method of problem-solving.

The classic example de Bono used was that of the Judgement of Solomon. In this tale, King Solomon was charged with settling a dispute between two women claiming to be the mother of a child. Using lateral thinking, Solomon offered to cut the baby in half and give each woman one half. This ruling revealed the truth of the matter: while one woman accepted the terms, the other begged Solomon to give the baby to her rival to avoid harming the child, thus revealing herself to be the true mother. A true indication of lateral thinking, the solution is on its surface is deceptively simple, while its development process involves complex thinking skills.

What are creative thinking skills?

You don’t need to be in a creative discipline such as visual or performing arts to employ creative thinking skills. While thinking creatively can certainly help you in artsy professions, you can apply the process to a wide range of industries and positions. Consider these examples of creative thinking:

• Ancient Greek Orator Demosthenes was mocked and jeered the first time he gave a speech in public. To hone his skills, he practiced with a mouthful of stones. He would retreat to a cave to practice for months at a time, and shaved one side of his head to prevent himself from leaving the cave, knowing that he would be laughed at if he did.

• Although it doesn’t seem like a bold idea now, Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the first thinkers to refute the notion that men were superior to women. In her most famous work, A Vindication to the Rights of Women, published in 1792, Wollstonecraft argued that women only appeared to be inferior to men because they lacked the education that men enjoyed. She envisioned a social order in which women and men were treated as equal, rational human beings. Wollstonecraft, who was also notably the mother of Mary Shelley, née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, is widely considered one of the founding feminist philosophers.

What are the benefits of creative thinking?

Creative thinking is integral to the problem-solving process. Employing creative thinking at work can make you a valuable team member since you'll generate ideas the company can use. 

Thinking creatively can also enable you to develop ideas that might lead you to come up with new innovations. Many great thinkers and entrepreneurs are or were creative thinkers who went independent routes and made some of the greatest discoveries and inventions of all time: Marie Curie, Steve Jobs, Nikola Tesla, Ada Lovelace…the list is endless. While many of these genius innovators had unorthodox ideas and methods that seemed odd to their contemporaries, their results speak for themselves; they made the modern world what it is.

How do you develop creative thinking?

Employing creative ideas can take you far in your career. If this talent doesn’t come naturally to you, there are several techniques you can use to train yourself and others to employ creativity in their work processes.

1. Brainstorm ideas.

Brainstorming sessions can go a long way in generating ideas. They can be especially effective if you have a large team because you’ll be able to generate more ideas. Make sure to include all members of the group or team, even people who aren’t directly involved in the project or whose jobs don’t usually entail problem-solving. These members could have unique insights because they’re coming from different perspectives and may have different ways of approaching the problem from your usual methods.

How to start

When you gather a group to brainstorm ideas, establish some ground rules. Some typical rules include allowing everyone to have a say, valuing all ideas equally (although you probably can’t proceed with every single one, you should write down every idea that team members voice), and avoiding any criticism or disparaging of individual ideas.

You’ll also want to follow some crucial steps and techniques to ensure that the brainstorming sessions are productive. Establish the purpose for the session and explain why you’re looking for new ideas. You might want to ask some open-ended questions to get everyone's creative juices flowing. Don’t come in knowing you’re probably going to follow an idea you previously developed, or you’re just wasting everyone’s time. You could also be missing out on the larger group's creativity and innovation; other people might have important thoughts to contribute. Once you gather the group, you might ask that every person offers an initial idea and encourage everyone to speak up. You also might record ideas on a large whiteboard or piece of paper, writing down everyone’s contribution to demonstrate that all ideas are valuable.

Through brainstorming, you’ll be able to produce many different ideas and will ultimately be able to choose the ones that seem most appropriate for your project.

2. Role-play scenarios.

Role-playing is a common training method in the military and emergency response groups. Some businesses have begun using the method to train new employees as well.

Role-playing doesn’t need to be limited to new employees, though. When you act out different situations and scenarios, you may develop new ways of looking at an issue and come up with potential solutions. You’ll also help team members develop confidence and become more comfortable when dealing with unfamiliar situations since they’ll need to respond quickly and think on their feet.

Role-playing involves two or more members of a group acting out a situation. It might concern dealing with a new client, giving a presentation, interviewing, or resolving conflicts. Essentially, you can role-play any situation that might be difficult and improved with rehearsal.

When people are able to role-play a scenario before encountering the situation in real life, they’ll have some practice developing resolutions quickly on their feet. You can also view the scenario in a different way and up with unique ways of solving problems.

How to start

When beginning a role-play scenario, start by explaining the task and what you hope to gain from the session. Introduce the problem and describe why role-playing might help, so people in the group will start considering how they’ll approach it. Make it clear that you and other members of the team aren’t here to judge approaches; instead, you want the group to develop solutions and ways of handling different scenarios that might occur in their work. Assign roles and act out the situation.

After the role-playing session, debrief. Have the group members discuss what went well and what could be improved. If the goal of the session is to come up with new ideas for a project or situation, you might write down the various ideas people contribute.

3. Reframe the issue.

Reframing a problem or situation can help you reinterpret it. When you present the issue in a new way, you’ll open up different possibilities for how people react, feel, and examine the situation, which can ultimately lead to new solutions. Consider alternative meanings, contexts, and perspectives for the situation at hand. Also, think about what the problem can teach you. Once you’ve examined these different angles, you might see the situation in a new light and discover a new approach.

You might ask others to reframe the issue for you as well. This can increase the number of angles from which you’ll be able to consider the problem and potential solutions.

4. Make the most of creative flow.

When you become completely absorbed in a project to the point at which you’re so fully immersed that you don’t notice other distractions, you’re in a state of creative flow. This state is correlated with strong creative performance, meaning you might produce some of your best ideas when you’re immersed in it.

While you can’t induce flow, since there are actual changes the chemistry and activity of your brain while you’re in this state, you can seek out experiences that will cause you to produce your best work. Creative flow occurs when you’re deeply involved in an activity that engages you and brings you pleasure, so if you’re passionate about a project, you’re more likely to find yourself in this state.

Creative people make the most of the insights and ideas they develop while in a state of creative flow, so it can be an important part of your creative process. Your thoughts during this state could represent some of your greatest work.

5. Stay open-minded and flexible.

One consistent quality of creative people is that they tend not to see boundaries where others might; boundaries only impede innovation. If you’re constantly noticing the limitations of what you can do, you won’t be able to develop solutions that are off the beaten path. That is, after all, what it means to think outside the box.

Instead of limiting themselves to what the rules allow, people who are innovative thinkers don’t see solutions as limited to what can happen within the confines of rules. Instead, they employ creative problem-solving skills to see the possibilities as virtually limitless.

If you want to improve your creative process and skills, be open-minded to solutions that may extend beyond the parameters with which you’re familiar. Also appreciate the ideas of others, which may involve problem-solving processes that are unfamiliar or atypical for you and your team.

6. Keep your ego out of it.

You may and likely will encounter setbacks in your career and life. Not all your ideas are going to pan out. What will set you apart is your ability to see failures as temporary, rather than permanent. If you keep trying, you’ll eventually achieve success—you might just need to find a new approach to achieving it. Bestselling suspense author Mary Higgins Clark received 40 rejection letters over six years before publishing her first short story. Today, the suspense writer is the author of 51 novels, and every one of them has been a bestseller.

Also, have the confidence in your ideas and yourself to award credit where credit is due. If a team member or report came up with an idea that led to success, let other people know. Part of being a great leader and thinker is recognizing the accomplishments of others and allowing them to have their moment in the spotlight.

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