The secret to creativity

The Secret to Creativity

The secret to creative thinking is to start with good problems. Then you need to turn those problems into thought provoking challenges. After that, great ideas will almost invent themselves.

Almost every creative idea is a potential solution to a problem. Einstein's theory of relativity was about solving a discrepancy between electromagnetism and physics. Post-its were about finding a use for not very sticky glue. Picasso's cubist paintings were about solving the problem of representing three dimensional space on two dimensional canvases. And so on and so on.

Before you even think about generating ideas, you need to turn your problem into a challenge. Because if you start generating ideas to solve the wrong problem, you may have great ideas - but they will probably be lousy solutions.

A self-employed woman is window shopping and sees a beautiful dress. She thinks that it would be perfect for an upcoming reception where she hopes to impress prospective clients. Sadly, the dress costs €3000 and her bank account is nearly empty. She thinks to herself: "how could I earn €3000 in order to buy that dress?" She might come up with some great ideas.

But the truth is, her problem has nothing to do with the dress. Her problem is that she needs to develop new business. One way to do that is to acquire new clients. Wearing a stunning dress to a reception might be one method of solving that problem. But there are many more solutions - and a lot of them are probably more cost effective than a €3000 dress, particularly if she hasn't much money.

Instead, she should be asking herself: "How might I acquire new clients for my business?" or better still, "In what ways might I develop more business?"

The latter question or challenge might lead to ideas like offering existing clients new products or services; increasing her prices; asking for referrals and other activities that have very little to do with new dresses and a great deal to do with building her business.

Most people are like the woman in the story above. When they have problems, they immediately look for solutions, sparing nary a thought for the problem itself. Creative people know better. They start by examining the problem and turning it into a creative challenge.

The best way to get started on turning your problem into a challenge is by writing down your problem in the centre of a sheet of paper. Now, try and break the problem down. Ask yourself "Why is this a problem?", "What is causing this?", "What is behind this?", "What other issues are at stake?" and so on. Ask "why?" until you can no longer answer yourself. Write all of your answers on the sheet of paper. At this stage, the core problem as well as key relevant issues will be apparent. Let's call this the big problem.

The next step is to turn the big problem into one or more short, simple challenges. Challenges usually start with

  • "In what ways might I/we...?"

  • "How might I/we...?"

  • "What kinds of... might I/we...?"

Keep your challenges as simple as possible. Avoid:

  • Restrictive criteria
    Restrictive criteria block open creativity. Leave them out of the challenge - but use those criteria later when it comes time to evaluate ideas.

  • Combining two or more challenges in a single challenge.
    Combining two or more issues in a single challenge (such as "how might we earn more income and work less?") tends to confuse brainstormers and results in ideas which fail to solve either problem. Best to divide such challenges into individual challenges and brainstorm one at a time. Start with the most important challenge first.

  • Ambiguous challenges
    A challenge such as "need money" isn't really clear and is likely to result in ideas that are not really clear. Make your challenges clear to everyone. And phrase them using the words above.

Once you have got your challenge, you will find it remarkably easy to generate ideas that solve it. But before you start brainstorming, there are a couple of things you should bear in mind..

  • Generate ideas first. Nothing more. Only after you have finished generating ideas should you even think about reviewing them and decide which one(s) to implement.

  • When generating ideas, whether alone or in a group, prohibit any criticism whatsoever. Moreover, it is essential that you make note of every idea no matter how silly, daft or impossible it may seem. The silliest ideas are sometimes the most creative and often highly inspirational.

  • Do not stop at the first idea that comes to mind. The first good idea that comes to mind is seldom the most creative - largely because it is almost always the most obvious. Better to generate lots of ideas and then decide which ideas to choose.

Thus the secret to generating great ideas is to start with a great challenge. Then generate, generate, generate ideas.


Jeffrey Baumgartner
© 2007 Bwiti BVBA -
Erps-Kwerps, Belgium

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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