How do leaders stimulate more creative thinking?

Creative thinking has been called out as an essential capability in both individuals and organisations to survive and thrive in a fast-paced and challenging environment magnified by technological change.

Apr 28, 2022

By Neil Davidson

On the flip side, individual creative thinking skills are dropping, and many businesses are struggling to cultivate creative thinking in a world of back-to-back Zoom meetings, constant deadlines, and tight resources. To help solve this challenge, leaders need to understand the dynamics of creative thinking and how to help cultivate it.

What really is creative thinking and how do we make it easier?

A working definition of creative thinking would include, ‘the capacity to generate different kinds of ideas, manipulate these ideas in unusual ways, and make unconventional connections to generate novel possibilities to meet a need differently’. Based on this, it’s easy to see why it’s so important to individuals and organisations constantly needing new solutions to new problems. Individual measures of creative thinking have been falling since the 1990’s, prompting debates about why this is. For example, the role education plays in cultivating creativity, or how organisations nurture it by developing more creative environments, and more structured ways to generate ideas when needed. It’s not new – remember Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats? That and Tony Buzan’s mind-mapping were the only training that mattered in the 1990s (or so it seemed).

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To deliver meaningful creative thinking we need to be both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated to do this. Leadership needs to set the right environment through managing levels of challenge and freedom, delivering the right resources, setting up the right group features, and giving encouragement and organizational support.

How can leaders equip colleagues to be better creative thinkers?

Studies have shown that the opportunity to develop creative skills is relatively easy, with as little as 90 minutes of training making a meaningful difference. These techniques can be as simple as learning how to use silent, individual brainstorming and making random connections to generate novel ideas.

Brainstorming alone and in silence is beneficial for the creative process. It allows you to generate ideas without any restrictions, guidelines, or distractions that group brainstorms often suffer from, including the fear of criticism in a group situation, losing ideas due to turn-taking, and individuals dominating a group. Instead, individuals can learn how to brainstorm alone and need as little as five minutes to do this once they have learned how.

Sometimes creative thinking is less about digging deeper, and more about digging somewhere else – that’s the principle behind making random connections and tapping into associative processes. It can be as simple as starting with an object in your room and generating associations with the problem you are trying to solve. This is known as serendipitous creativity, and it encourages the generation of ideas that wouldn’t happen with more deliberated and directed approaches to a problem.

Stimulating creative thinking doesn’t always need so much creative thinking

Creative thinking and creativity are terms that are often confused. Although they are siblings, some of the beliefs about how difficult and purist creative thinking needs to be, come from the world of creativity and art. Creative thinking doesn’t have to be as painful as cutting off your ear, or mean you need to live the life of a tortured artist. At the other end of the spectrum, group creative thinking sessions don’t have to resemble the training day in The Office. Somewhere in the middle is just fine.

Leaders just need to create the right environment for creative thinking, particularly one that is a stimulating and safe place for new ideas. We all also need to be given the right tools, and if they are easy to learn and easy to use they stick: this piece itself started as a mind map, learned in the offices of an advertising agency in Pimlico way back in the 1990s.