Breaking through your creative blocks

Today’s business pundits urge you to be more innovative, more creative, and think outside the box. Yet most of us keep on defaulting to the same tired ideas, and the same old results.

Most people have blind spots and natural barriers that limit our creativity. If you think you control your brain, creativity consultant Michael Michalko suggests this exercise: While sitting at your desk, lift your right foot and make clockwise circles with it. Then, while continuing to move your foot, draw the number 6 in the air with your right hand.

Did your foot change direction? According to Michalko, your brain can’t prevent your foot from changing direction in line with your hand. “You cannot will yourself to change your thinking patterns any more than you can stop your foot from changing direction, no matter how inspired you are to do so.”

In his new book Creative Thinkering, Michalko offers strategies for regaining control of your creative side. “Creative thinkers get variation by conceptually combining dissimilar subjects, which changes their thinking patterns and provides them with a variety of alternatives and conjectures.”

To develop a better flashlight, he says, don’t think just about flashlights; you’ll only come up with familiar themes. Think about garage door openers, for instance. Then maybe you’ll think up a flashlight that is also a motion detector, or has x-ray vision. It doesn’t really matter which object you choose to spark this creative exercise; what’s important is to explore new paths and make new connections. For instance, a company looking to make better baths played with the idea of hammocks; it developed a baby bath that uses a hammock-like device to hold the infant securely, so the parent has both hands free for bathing baby.

Michalko even shows how a middle-school principal solved a problem by examining unrelated concepts. A janitor was complaining that the female students were testing their lipstick by kissing the bathroom mirrors. Noting a few students munching on pizza, the principal explored that topic. She thought of pizzas, toppings, slices, and pizza parties. Then she explored her own experiences with pizza – and in doing so recalled a boycott of one pizza parlour following a rumour that it was using sewage water to make its dough.

That meandering path inspired a fast solution. The principal briefed the janitor, then invited a number of students into the washroom for a demonstration of why they shouldn’t kiss the mirrors. The girls were grossed out to see the janitor dip his squeegee into a toilet bowl before cleaning the mirrors, and the school never had that problem again.

Can non-business ideas help you solve your business problems? Ask Swiss inventor George de Mestral, whose curiosity about the clinging power of burrs after a walk with his dog led to the creation of Velcro – a fastener with no moving parts, which never gets stuck.

“Creative thinkers form more novel combinations because they routinely conceptually blend objects, concepts and ideas from two different contexts or categories that logical thinkers conventionally consider separate,” writes Michalko. “It is the conceptual blending of dissimilar concepts that leads to original ideas and insights.”

Give it a try; break free of the restraints on your imagination. Looking to make your product or service more attractive to the seniors market? Chew on a concept such as airplane travel, or hiking, or British breakfasts.

You never know where or when inspiration will strike. But you do know that thinking through problems the same old way guarantees it will never strike near you.

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