Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Creative Thinking: In Business and Elsewhere

A banking executive told me recently that she's having a hard time hiring people who can "really do the job." In addition to having industry knowledge, she wants to find "types" who are creative thinkers. But she couldn't define exactly what that means.

I considered this challenge in the context of other recent conversations, particularly with two impressive CEOs and a Senior Partner in a financial services firm. This is what I've concluded:

Creativity is often thought of as a singular quality -- an attractive intangible, a soft skill, a gauzy perspective. At worst, it's thought to preclude common sense or practical application.

In fact, innovative thinking is not nearly so obscure. Most obstacles to creativity seem to come down to a breakdown of one of the following practical behaviors or skill sets:

Curiosity -- In order to see things new, it's essential to sustain a drive to investigate.

Emotional Connection -- Own the ideas about which you feel passionate and in which you feel engaged. Inspiration and curiosity are driven as much by emotional as intellectual impulses. Thinking is associative, so it's easier to create connections with the unfamiliar when you can connect it with an inventory of information to which you already feel an explicit connection.

Strong Critical Thinking Skills -- Observation and Analysis --Observation requires the ability to see what's in front of you, without looking for answers or drawing conclusions. Analysis involves wondering about the patterns and their meanings in the raw data. Each skill requires practice separately. When used in conversation effectively, they provide innovative perspectives that are practically applicable.

Awareness of One's Own Learning Process -- Familiarize yourself with your own learning process through observation and acceptance. What engages you? How do you stimulate your curiosity when it flags? Are you stuck because it's time to find a fresh perspective? What helps you see things new? Or do you just need a break?

Persistence -- Coming up with new ideas requires trial and error over time. It requires space to observe, reflect, and engage. Curiosity can drive you, but discipline works, too.

Braving Change -- In order to learn something new, you need to let go of the familiar. Curiosity can help because fear is rarely present when it's fully is engaged. Confidence also results from repeated and successful forays into the unknown.

An Environment that Supports the Learning -- If immediate solutions are what you're after, there won't be room for creative thinking. Demands for immediate answers don’t leave room for process and discovery. Burnout will inevitably ensue.

The Doppler Effect

Observing your own process changes it and allows it to evolve. Every new and useful connection makes another connection possible. This is true for at least three reasons. First, each new idea allows others ideas to be built from it. Second, clarifying the strategies that help you innovate make it easier to do the job well. Last, each succesful solution builds the innvovative skill sets and the confidence to try again.

Conclusion: How Do You Make it Work for You?

Creativity is the ability to learn continuously across contexts. It demands a curiosity about where meaning resides across situations -- coming to understand and then revisiting the places where significance might lie in different situations.

Creativity comprises a kind of conversation among your own processes and the world outside in which you listen carefully and respond effectively. Once you've identified patterns and arguments, you can construct new perspectives by reframing the terms.

By activating a series of behaviors and tendencies -- curiosity, critical thinking, persistence, awareness, and engagement -- it's almost impossible to avoid creating new connections among familiar ideas. Sustaining and developing these behaviors offers a road to innovation.


Will Stevens said...

I enjoyed reading this. As someone who teaches beginners art I also encounter a lot of preconceived notions about creativity. I'm always interested at how suprised people are that there are so many thinking skills involved in just trying to copy something. Up to that point people just tend to think it's supposed to flow out of your fingertips in some magical way.

Anonymous said...

Only 6 years late in finding this, but loved it anyway! As a creative thinker myself, I felt for years that people think of those of us who work this way as being "dreamers" and less than team players ..... UNTIL such time as they suddenly run into a problem that requires the now famous term "thinking out of the box." Suddenly then we are heroes!

After many years of that kind of attitude, I now find myself in the employ of someone who bounces every problem or situation off me to get my input. Of course I don't solve everything around here .... but it's nice to know that someone finally appreciates my ability to look at a problem from multiple perspectives.

Thanks for giving us creative thinkers some validation in the workplace!