In last week’s Power Idea, we left off our discussion of imagination with the question of how we can actually start the creative process and stimulate the flow of ideas.
To find an answer, Diane Janovsky, Strategic Partner, turned to one of the classic books on creativity, A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech. An easy read, it’s packed with practical advice, examples and exercises on how to unleash our creative genius. Enjoy this week’s Power Idea.

As the book title implies, sometimes it’s an external catalyst or a “whack on the side of the head” that turns on the light bulb for us. It may be a problem like losing a job, a forced change like needing to drive on a different side of the road when traveling abroad, or an unexpected twist in a scene from a movie. These may be random or surprise happenings that disrupt us and force us out of our familiar paradigms.

Unlearning What We Know

Rather than wait for that “whack”, we can also be proactive in thinking differently. The underlying attitudes, perceptions and mindsets that guide us generally serve us well, but they can also be a significant constraint to our imagination. By consciously recognizing and then temporarily forgetting what we know, we can open these “mental locks”.

Although von Oech provides many more options, as a starting place, I’ve selected one suggested key to open each of the 10 locks he describes.

1) LOCK: The Right Answer
Our formal education conditions us that there is only one right answer. While that may have worked reasonably well for school children, it does not necessarily serve adults who need to innovate and solve real world problems.

KEY: Seek the Second Right Answer
Once you’ve found what you think is the right answer, change the question and seek another right answer. For example, rather than asking what a door should look like, an architect can ask what type of passageway should connect two spaces (hallway, courtyard, etc.).

2) LOCK: That’s Not Logical
Logical or “hard thinking” is narrowly focused and emphasizes differences or what won’t work. “Soft thinking” is more diffuse with fewer boundaries and is oriented to finding similarities. Nurture the not-so-logical soft thinking first in the creative process.

KEY: Use Metaphors
Metaphors imply the similarity of one thing to another. Thinking metaphorically can link an unknown to something familiar or help better explain a complex concept. For example, Danish physicist Niels Bohr posited his nucleus and electrons theory of the atom using the analogy of the sun and planets in our solar system.

3) LOCK: Follow the Rules
Accepted conventions enable us to function in the world in an orderly fashion. However, circumstances change over time, which is why we need to question the attitudes of “we’ve always done it this way” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

KEY: Destructive Before Constructive
Pablo Picasso said, “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction”. Try breaking some rules or challenging a sacred cow, like the story of Alexander the Great and the Gordian knot.

4) LOCK: Be Practical
As humans, we have the unique ability to suspend our assumptions and dream up things that don’t yet exist. The ability to implement eventually becomes important, but first we must give ourselves a license to be unfettered by what is practical.

KEY: Stepping Stones
Most of us have participated in brainstorming where the process starts by generating ideas without criticism or judgment. Some of the suggestions may turn out to be unrealistic, but when they are combined, modified or applied in another way, they become stepping stones that lead to the final answer.

5) LOCK: Play is Frivolous
While creativity can spring from a problem or a deadline, it’s also true that some of the best ideas come when we are otherwise engaged. Von Oech describes this as “necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father”.

KEY: Laugh At It
Channel your inner comedian and make fun of the problem or topic. We are more likely to cross boundaries and stretch our thinking when we use humor to take things less seriously.

6) LOCK: That’s Not My Area
We live in an era of specialization where people know more and more about less and less. This limits the diversity of our knowledge and experience, which in turn limits our ability to connect concepts and cross-pollinate ideas.

KEY: Go Explore
Take up a new hobby, visit a museum, walk the aisles of a flea market. Or commune with nature. The inventor of Velcro was inspired when he removed burrs from his dog’s coat and decided to look more closely at why they stuck so well.

7) LOCK: Avoid Ambiguity
In daily life, clarity and specificity are usually desirable, especially in communication. However, seeking alternate interpretations and multiple meanings in the world around us can stimulate the imagination.

KEY: Listen to Your Dreams
Who hasn’t woken up after a strange dream and wondered what it meant? EIias Howe invented the sewing machine needle after dreaming he was attacked by spears with holes in the points.

8) LOCK: Don’t Be Foolish
Conformity is the norm for getting along in society, but when everyone thinks the same way, creativity is stifled.

KEY: Put On Your Fool’s Cap
Kings and pharaohs depended on the fool to counter-balance the “yes-men” in their court. He was expected to be absurd and irreverent, to ridicule assumptions and to ask crazy questions. Occasionally play the fool and shake up the process!

9) LOCK: To Err is Wrong
A powerful paradigm that limits innovation is the fear of failure, yet success and failure are both by-products of the same creative process. Thomas Edison famously said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

KEY: Flex Your Risk Muscle
Practice taking some chances and learn from mistakes. Take the risk of trying something new every week, even if it’s only a new recipe.

10) LOCK: I’m Not Creative
This statement is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are all creative, but for a variety of reasons, we have been conditioned to believe and behave otherwise.

KEY: Give Yourself A Creative License
Look for the second right answer, break some rules, seek a variety of experiences outside of your regular expertise and ask the crazy question.

In the quest for innovation and creativity, the main thing to remember is that there is a time for being imaginative and a time for being practical. Be the artist first and break free from the usual paradigms by using one or more of these keys. Then be the judge and apply what you know to successfully implement those great ideas. And yes, be on the lookout for those “whacks on the side of the head” when they happen, and take advantage of them.

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