Introduction to Creative Thinking

Robert HarrisVanguard University of Southern CaliforniaVersion Date: July 1, 1998

Much of the thinking done in formal education emphasizes the skills of analysis-teaching students how to understand claims, follow or create a logical argument, figure out the answer, eliminate the incorrect paths and focus on the correct one. However, there is another kind of thinking, one that focuses on exploring ideas, generating possibilities, looking for many right answers rather than just one. Both of these kinds of thinking are vital to a successful working life, yet the latter one tends to be ignored until after college. We might differentiate these two kinds of thinking like this:

Critical ThinkingCreative

Thinkinganalyticgenerativeconvergentdivergentverticallateralprobabilitypossibilityjudg mentsuspended judgmentfocuseddiffuseobjectivesubjectiveansweran answerleft brainright brainverbalvisuallinearassociativereasoningrichness, noveltyyes butyes and In an activity like problem solving, both kinds of thinking are important to us. First, we must analyze the problem; then we must generate possible solutions; next we must choose and implement the best solution; and finally, we must evaluate the effectiveness of the solution. As you can see, this process reveals an alternation between the two kinds of thinking, critical and creative. In practice, both kinds of thinking operate together much of the time and are not really independent of each other.

What is Creativity?

An Ability. A simple definition is that creativity is the ability to imagine or invent something new. As we will see below, creativity is not the ability to create out of nothing (only God can do that), but the ability to generate new ideas by combining, changing, or reapplying existing ideas. Some creative ideas are astonishing and brilliant, while others are just simple, good, practical ideas that no one seems to have thought of yet. Believe it or not, everyone has substantial creative ability. Just look at how creative children are. In adults, creativity has too often been suppressed through education, but it is still there and can be reawakened. Often all that's needed to be creative is to make a commitment to creativity and to take the time for it.

An Attitude. Creativity is also an attitude: the ability to accept change and newness, a willingness to play with ideas and possibilities, a flexibility of outlook, the habit of enjoying the good, while looking for ways to improve it. We are socialized into accepting only a small number of permitted or normal things, like chocolate-covered strawberries, for example. The creative person realizes that there are other possibilities, like peanut butter and banana sandwiches, or chocolate-covered prunes.

A Process. Creative people work hard and continually to improve ideas and solutions, by making gradual alterations and refinements to their works. Contrary to the mythology surrounding creativity, very, very few works of creative excellence are produced with a single stroke of brilliance or in a frenzy of rapid activity. Much closer to the real truth are the stories of companies who had to take the invention away from the inventor in order to market it because the inventor would have kept on tweaking it and fiddling with it, always trying to make it a little better.

The creative person knows that there is always room for improvement. Creative Methods

Several methods have been identified for producing creative results. Here are the five classic ones:

Evolution. This is the method of incremental improvement. New ideas stem from other ideas, new solutions from previous ones, the new ones slightly improved over the old ones. Many of the very sophisticated things we enjoy today developed through a long period of constant incrementation. Making something a little better here, a little better there gradually makes it something a lot better-even entirely different from the original. For example, look at the history of the automobile or any product of technological progress. With each new model, improvements are made. Each new model builds upon the collective creativity of previous models, so that over time, improvements in economy, comfort, and durability take place. Here the creativity lies in the refinement, the step-by-step improvement, rather than in something completely new. Another example would be the improvement of the common wood screw by what are now commonly called drywall screws. They have sharper threads which are angled more steeply for faster penetration and better holding. The points are self tapping. The shanks are now threaded all the way up on lengths up to two inches. The screws are so much better that they can often be driven in without pilot holes, using a power drill. The evolutionary method of creativity also reminds us of that critical principle: Every problem that has been solved can be solved again in a better way. Creative thinkers do not subscribe to the idea that once a problem has been solved, it can be forgotten, or to the notion that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." A creative thinker's philosophy is that "there is no such thing as an insignificant improvement."

Synthesis. With this method, two or more existing ideas are combined into a third, new idea. Combining the ideas of a magazine and an audio tape gives the idea of a magazine you can listen to, one useful for blind people or freeway commuters. For example, someone noticed that a lot of people on dates went first to dinner and then to the theater. Why not combine these two events into one? Thus, the dinner theater, where people go first to eat and then to see a play or other entertainment. Revolution. Sometimes the best new idea is a completely different one, an marked change from the previous ones. While an evolutionary improvement philosophy might cause a professor to ask, "How can I make my lectures better and better?" a revolutionary idea might be, "Why not stop lecturing and have the students teach each other, working as teams or presenting reports?"

For example, the evolutionary technology in fighting termites eating away at houses has been to develop safer and faster pesticides and gasses to kill them. A somewhat revolutionary change has been to abandon gasses altogether in favor of liquid nitrogen, which freezes them to death or microwaves, which bake them. A truly revolutionary creative idea would be to ask, "How can we prevent them from eating houses in the first place?" A new termite bait that is placed in the ground in a perimeter around a house provides one answer to this question.

Reapplication. Look at something old in a new way. Go beyond labels. Unfixate, remove prejudices, expectations and assumptions and discover how something can be reapplied. One creative person might go to the junkyard and see art in an old model T transmission. He paints it up and puts it in his living room. Another creative person might see in the same transmission the necessary gears for a multi-speed hot walker for his horse. He hooks it to some poles and a motor and puts it in his corral. The key is to see beyond the previous or stated applications for some idea, solution, or thing and to see what other application is possible.

For example, a paperclip can be used as a tiny screwdriver if filed down; paint can be used as a kind of glue to prevent screws from loosening in machinery; dishwashing detergents can be used to remove the DNA from bacteria in a lab; general purpose spray cleaners can be used to kill ants.

Changing Direction. Many creative breakthroughs occur when attention is shifted from one angle of a problem to another. This is sometimes called creative insight. A classic example is that of the highway department trying to keep kids from skateboarding in a concrete-lined drainage ditch. The highway department put up a fence to keep the kids out; the kids went around it. The department then put up a longer fence; the kids cut a hole in it. The department then put up a stronger fence; it, too, was cut. The department then put a threatening sign on the fence; it was ignored. Finally, someone decided to change direction, and asked, "What really is the problem here? It's not that the kids keep getting through the barrier, but that they want to skateboard in the ditch. So how can we keep them from skateboarding in the ditch?" The solution was to remove their desire by pouring some concrete in the bottom of the ditch to remove the smooth curve. The sharp angle created by the concrete made skateboarding impossible and the activity stopped. No more skateboarding problems, no more fence problems. This example reveals a critical truth in problem solving: the goal is to solve the problem, not to implement a particular solution. When one solution path is not working, shift to another. There is no commitment to a particular path, only to a particular goal. Path fixation can sometimes be a problem for those who do not understand this; they become overcommitted to a path that does not work and only frustration results.

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