Innovation is the successful implementation of creative ideas. However, thinking creatively to come up with new and innovative ideas does not always come naturally. There are many different creative thinking methodologies and techniques which can be employed in the innovation process to enhance creativity. Critical and creative thinking, the creative process and specific examples of methodologies useful in innovation will be discussed.
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The word creativity is derived from the Latin word creare meaning to bring into being, conjure up, produce or bear fruit (My Etymology, 2008). Creativity still has a similar meaning in modern times, with contemporary authors such as Schaper et al (2004) defining creativity as an “enabling process” through which new ideas come about. Many people assume that creativity is a unique gift or divine inspiration possessed by only a few people, and that they themselves do not have the potential to be creative. However, academic resources including those by Treffinger et al (2006), Plsek (2008) Runco (2007) indicate that creativity is a skill that can be taught and that everyone has the potential for creative thought. These authors highlight that despite everyone having the capacity for human thought, many people do not use creative thinking as their minds are pre-conditioned to follow patterns and past experiences, rather than thinking in a new direction.
Identifying opportunities for Innovation
In order for a creative innovation to come about, the thinker must first identify opportunities or problems for which there isn’t currently a solution. Lumsdaine and Binks (2006) highlight that although entrepreneurs sometimes stumble upon opportunities for innovation by serendipity or chance, it is possible for potential entrepreneurs to think as explorers and actively seek out opportunities. They suggest several methods for this, including watching current trends, searching the internet and keeping a journal of daily life to identify problems or opportunities. Once an opportunity has been identified, creative thinking is required to find a suitable solution.
Creative and Critical Thinking
Critical thinking and creative thinking are two separate processes, but they both have a role in creativity and creative problem solving. Treffinger et al (2006) highlight theses two types of thinking as contrasting but complementary. This contrast if further shown by Glassner and Schwarz (2007), who use words such as generative, divergent, subjective and associative to describe creative thinking, and the words analytic, convergent, focused and objective for critical thinking. Creative thinking is also described by Runco (2007) and Treffinger et al as a divergent process, starting at a single problem and diverging outwards by generating many possible solutions; whereas they describe critical thinking as a convergent process, focusing towards a single solution to the original problem. These two forms of thinking can be further categorized as left brain and right brain thinking. Critical thinking is a left-brain process, whereas creative thinking is a right-brain process, and Lumsdaine & Lumsdaine (2005) point out that creative problem solving requires a whole-brain process. It can be seen that effective problem solving would require a balanced approach, using both forms of thinking; a creative approach to generate a sufficient amount of possible solutions, and a critical approach to focus the possibilities towards a final solution to the problem.
The Creative Process
The creative process is commonly broken down into four stages called Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification / Implementation. This model was proposed in 1926 by Graham Wallas, and Aryan (1997) states that it has come to be known as the most widely accepted. The first stage of the model, preparation, involves identifying and defining the problem, and gathering data and information in order to solve the problem. The second stage is called incubation, where the unconscious mind processes the information gathered in the first stage. This leads to the fourth stage, illumination, and Aryan calls it the “Eureka” moment, when the ideas the unconscious mind has been working on are passed into the conscious mind. In the final stage, the creative idea is refined and tested to make sure it is an effective solution. Runco, in his 2007 book Creativity, highlights that in modern applications of this four stage model, it is represented as a cyclical process where earlier stages of the model can be revisited if needed.
Wallas’s four stage model describes the natural process a mind goes through when thinking creatively. By understanding this process, it is possible to see that creativity is a skill that can be taught. Runco reasons that by using different methods and tactics, the often unconscious and random creativity process can be intentionally tapped into and controlled. The Open University Creativity Techniques Library (OUCTL) lists many of the modern creative methodologies and techniques, grouping them into four main sub-categories that are comparable with Wallas’s model. OUCTL’s first sub category is called Problem Definition, and includes techniques to analyse or redefine the problem. Next is Idea Generation, divergent methodologies that stimulate coming up with creative ideas. In Wallas’s model, incubation was an unconscious process where the mind generated ideas by linking information gathered in the preparation stage; but Idea Generation techniques can be thought of as conscious ways of tapping into the minds creative thinking potential. Idea Selection is the next sub-category listed by OUCLT, techniques that use critical thinking to converge and refine the many possible ideas into a single solution. In relation to the, It would seem that the critical thinking of Idea Selection is again undertaken by the unconscious mind in the Wallas Model, before the sub-conscious mind “illuminates” the conscious mind with a single solution. The final sub-category of OUCLT methods is the same as in the Wallas model: implementation of the final idea in reality. OUCLT also lists some of the creative methodologies as ‘processes’ if they encompass the overall four stage process.
Problem definition is an important step in creative thinking so that the thinker fully understands all facets of a problem. Lumsdaine and Binks (2006) discuss the need to look beyond the face value of an apparent problem, as many problems may only be symptoms of deeper problem. One creativity methodology that can be used for this purpose is the “Why Why Why?” method. This method gets the thinker to delve deeper into the problem to define the problem that really needs to be solved. For example, designing a new type of space heater may have been identified as the problem to solve. But why do people need heaters: to keep warm. Thus the core problem that needs to be solved here is keeping people warm. In this way, the problem has been expanded so that the thinker is not limited to ideas about heaters – perhaps better insulation could be a possible solution.
As can be seen from the example above, having a problem that is too narrow limits the creative possibilities of the solution, yet having a problem that is too general will also increase the difficulty of the creative process (Lumsdaine & Binks, 2006). A variation of the “Why Why Why” method can also be used as a converging method to define the problem as something more manageable. For example, the problem may be to increase productivity in your company: What causes reduced productivity? Unhappy workers. What causes the workers to be unhappy? An inability to voice their suggestions and improvements to management. What can be done to allow workers better communication to management? In this example, what could have been a very broad problem has been broken down into something more manageable.
Assumption Busting is another creative thinking methodology that can help in defining the problem. This method involves listing all the assumptions that have been made about the problem, including those that seem obvious and that couldn’t be challenged (OUCLT, 2009; Straker 2010). The next step is to challenge each of the assumptions listed and thinking of ways to make the challenge reality. Assumption Busting helps the thinker to shake off standard thinking patterns, and is particularly useful when it seems that all possibilities have been exhausted.
Once the problem has been defined, the next step in the creative process is idea generation. Perhaps the most commonly known and used creative thinking method for generating ideas is Brainstorming. There are several variations of brainstorming, but the four basic rules are the same (Schaper et al 2004; Treffinger et al 2006; Straker 2010):
Separate the generation of ideas from the judgment of ideas. Write everything down, and defer the critical analysis of the possibilities until after the brainstorming session has finished.
Quantity is the goal – this is for two reasons. Firstly, the most obvious and least creative ideas tend to be suggested first, and secondly, more options means more possibilities to choose from.
“Freewheel” – think outside the boundaries and accept all possibilities that come to mind.
Combine and build on the ideas of others. The group should look for ways to connect ideas that have been suggested or ways to change them or improve them.
Despite brainstorming being a popular method for generating ideas, it does have some disadvantages. Runco, in his 2007 book on creativity, discusses the main disadvantages of brainstorming. He states that performance matching occurs during the brainstorming session, where the group members match their productivity levels with that of the least productive person in the group. Runco also mentions “evaluation apprehension” occurs, whereby original ideas are avoided by group members as they are afraid of a negative reaction from the rest of the group. Thus it can be seen that brainstorming can cause less productive and less creative idea generation than individuals. However, group brainstorming has an advantage over creative methodologies used by individuals, as group members are able to build on the ideas of others in the group and think in directions that an individual might not come up with on their own.
SCAMPER is another creative thinking methodology that can be used to generate ideas. SCAMPER is an acronym for Subsitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate and Rearrange (OUCLT, 2009). These words are used as a checklist or stimuli to think about a problem differently and generate new ideas, and are particularly useful for innovating new products from existing ones. For example, the problem may be to create a new pie product for a bakery. Using the SCAMPER method, ideas could be to substitute organic ingredients for standard ones, combine existing pie products eg shepherd’s pie topping with steak and kidney filling, et cetera.
The SCAMPER technique is similar to another idea generation method, attribute listing. Like SCAMPER, attribute listing is useful for innovating and improving already existing products. Attribute listing works by breaking a product down into its component parts and then listing improvements on its current attributes. Improving a torch is an example used by Schaper et al (2004); the torch components include a plastic casing and a simple on/off switch. Example ideas for improving the current features were to use a metal casing and a three way on / low-beam / off switch. This methodology is limited compared to the SCAMPER technique, as it only considers how to improve current attributes without considering excluding current features, including completely new ones or combining different products such as SCAMPER does. However, it is quick and helpful for quality improvement of complicated products (Schaper et al 2004). Both SCAMPER and attribute listing methods can be incorporated into the brainstorming process, especially as part of modifying and building upon ideas already suggested by the group.
Once the ideas have been generated, they need to be examined and sorted into realistic possibilities. This is a converging process, and Treffinger et al (2006) outline four guidelines for focusing options in the idea selection phase. The first is to analyse the ideas constructively, rather than finding fault with them straight away and discounting them. Both positive and negative aspects of an idea should be considered. Secondly, is to be deliberate and methodical in the approach to evaluating the selecting the options. This is where creative thinking methodologies such as and evaluation matrix or force field analysis would be beneficial. Thirdly, Treffinger et al urge that both the novelty (originality) and appropriateness of the option be considered. Both are needed for an idea to be implemented. The final guideline is to keep your eyes on the objective and maintain focus.
The idea selection could be as simple as taking a democratic vote, which is advantageous because it is quick and fair. However, it does have its disadvantages: without adequate analysis of each of the options, the most obvious or simple idea may be chosen which may not necessarily be the most innovative or best option. Straker (2010) also mentions there is also the possibility that later voters may be influenced to conform to the choice made by earlier voters.
More complex creative thinking methods include force-field analysis and evaluation matrix methods. Force-field analysis involves drawing a line down the centre of a page then listing all the forces for an idea on one side and all the forces against on the other (Straker 2010). The significance of each of these forces is indicated by the length of its arrow. After this diagram has been drawn, it can be used to ascertain whether the overall ‘force’ of the idea is for or against, and examine what can be done to increase the forces for and reduce the forces against the idea. The advantage of this method is that it highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the idea, and explores ways to further refine ideas. It also makes it evident when to abandon an idea if the negative forces are too dominant.
In contrast, Treffinger et al (2006) explain that the evaluation matrix method allows for direct comparison and judgment of the generated ideas using specific criteria. Each of the options is given a score for how well it performs against a specific objective, and these objectives can be weighted based on their perceived importance. An example evaluation matrix for the design of a new torch might look like the following:
Table 1: Evaluation Matrix for New Torch Design
From the above matrix, it can be seen that Option 3 would be selected as the best option. This method is advantageous as it allows the selection process to be methodical and systematic. However, caution must be taken with this method as it can be subjective: the weighting and scoring of each objective may vary from person to person. This method also doesn’t take into consideration how the weaknesses of each of the options could be overcome as the force-field analysis does.
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There is more to innovation than thinking creatively and coming up with an original idea to solve a problem. Implementing the idea and getting people to buy into it is the most difficult part of the process, and Schaper et al (2004) write that ‘too often there is an assumption that creativity automatically leads to innovation’. There are several creative thinking methodologies that can be used to overcome this problem. CATWOE is one such method that Straker (2010) lists on his website that can be used for this purpose. CATWOE is a checklist used when implementing a solution to consider the complete system of the solution: who and what is involved and how will the implementation impact the people involved. A Day In The Life Of… is another creative thinking methodology that can be used at the idea implementation stage (it can also be used as a tool to identify problems or opportunities for innovation). This method allows the thinker to see through the eyes of the people who will be using the creative solution in the future, and test how the solution will be put into practice in reality. This testing through role-playing allows the thinker to better understand the practicalities of the solution and how to implement and market it to consumers.
Summary and Conclusion
Innovation through creative thought is a skill that everyone is capable of, and that can be taught. In order for a creative innovation to come about, the thinker must first identify opportunities or problems for which there isn’t currently a solution. By understanding the create process as outlines above, and implementing the various creative thinking methodologies, a thinker is able to tap into their creative potential to turn an opportunity into innovation. There are creative thinking methodologies that assist in each of the stages of the creative process.
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