Project Management is problem-solving. And, whilst systematic and logical approaches often work, sometimes we need a leap into the unknown. And, for that, we need creative techniques to spark our imaginations and boost our thinking.
So, in this article, I want to share my 15 favorite creative thinking techniques.
We’ll start our survey of creativity techniques by asking and briefly answering the question, ‘what is creativity?’ Then, we’ll look at my 15 favorite creative thinking methods:
By the way, if it is a logical, systematic approach to Problem-solving that you want, do take a look at out article:
Creativity is the process of generating new ideas and possibilities. In problem-solving, it is about seeing the problem in an imaginative way, rather than following a strictly logical process.
Our brains are naturally creative thinkers. They tend to process problems in the background, subconsciously. And, in so doing, they also access all sorts of other references from our experiences.
Whilst these are unlikely to be truly random, because your brain has identified what, to it, is a meaningful connection, they will often seem so. This is because the connection happens beneath your conscious awareness.
The problem we often have, however, is this. In our busy-busy working and family lives, our brains can find few opportunities to let creative ideas surface. So, they sit there and may get forgotten.
That’s why you often have your best ideas in the quiet moments when nothing is going on: in the shower, walking to the shops, or drinking a coffee, for example.
So, to be more creative, you need more:
Here are five ideas that I have used often, in my own creative thinking:
All this leaves us with an obvious question:
‘What if we need to be creative, on-demand, at work, with colleagues?’
Great question. That’s what this article is all about. Because, after I have finished this section, I’ll give you my 15 favorite methods. But first, one more question. And it’s a necessary one…
We have a wide range of structured problem-solving techniques available to us. I have a detailed article, Problem Solving: A Systematic Approach for you. And there are some great videos for you, too:
But, sometimes, a logical approach doesn’t seem to work. It’s almost as if we need to jump in a different direction. That’s, by the way, the meaning of the metaphorical term ‘lateral thinking’. It refers to thinking not continuous with the original problem. The jumping metaphor also leads nicely to the idea of jumping ‘outside of the box’ that seems to hold our understanding of the problem. And hence, ‘out of the box’ thinking.
All of which is a long way to say that, sometimes, we need a new approach. And these 15 creative techniques can all help you.
I deliberately introduce the idea of metaphor because it is, itself, a creativity technique. Let’s not worry about the technical distinctions between metaphor, simile, and analogy. This is not a language essay.
All of them allow us to think of one thing as if it is another. And that opens up new possibilities. What if our mysterious software bug were like a car that won’t start? What would our choices be then? How about I explain the trouble I’m having persuading users to follow the new process as being like trying to get a 5-year-old to try an apple? Each new metaphor or simile offers new ways to think about the problem, which tap into different domains of experience.
Some of my own favorite metaphors are projects as: cooking, a journey, farming, construction, or going shopping.
Pick five words from a dictionary at random – or five random pictures – and start playing word association to produce lists or ideas connected to your seeds. Now take each word or idea and link it to your problem.
Alternatively, write your problem in the center of a whiteboard. Around it, place five random:
Force yourself to find associations between your problem and the five things, to ignite your creativity.
Here are some random concepts: envelope, precious, hike, geology, nickel, sugar, procession, commodore, wonder, litter, radio, motley, karate, magic, squiggle, rotor, jury, autograph, crisp.
If it is too hard to think what would make the situation better; then think of all the ways that you can make the problem worse. If you want to think about how to make something the best it could possibly be, ask yourself what are the qualities that would make it the absolute wort. When you have lots of ideas, ask how each one can be reversed.
Thinking about making a situation worse is, of course, the most radical of reframing a problem. What new insight does this give you?
The concept of Po (and the word itself) was invented as a creative thinking tool by Edward de Bono in his 1972 book ‘Po: Beyond Yes and No’. Po is a ‘Provocation’. We might say:
Anything outrageous or provocative will cause people to deviate from their usual way of thinking. It interrupts our usual behavior pattern and can unleash our creativity. How can you do something different today?
The name comes from the French: il n’y a qu’à. This is French for ‘all you have to do is …’
The idea of nyaka is that is encourages us to thing that ‘this problem would be solved, if only …’
Often it would be easy to solve a problem, if only:
So, we assume this is true. What now? How do we deal with this blocker to our progress?
Nyaka helps you solve the problem by replacing it with another. Well done, you have created movement. Keep going and eventually, when you have tried lots of different routes, you will find one that gives you a complete solution.
This familiar creative technique works best with lots of positive energy. Write every idea down and resist the urge to analyze them until you are finished. Build on other ideas and ensure everybody can contribute. The rules of brainstorming:
The process is important. How will you facilitate the process to ensure the quieter, less confident team members do not get shouted down by their louder, more assertive colleagues? If you have too many people, how will you ensure you capture all of the ideas?
Learn more about facilitation:
Often more productive than Brainstorming, in Brainwriting, each participant writes their ideas on separate cards (one per idea). Then participants swap cards and use each other’s to modify the idea or to stimulate a new idea, so that each card contains a trail of ideas and developments.
Brainwriting can be useful when it is hard to make brainstorming work well. It’s particularly helpful with large groups, allowing people to work in parallel and not requiring the facilitator to keep up with an exceptional number of contributions.
A mood board is a collection of images, text, icons, doodle, colors, etc, which you can use to stimulate creative thinking. You can use them as a source of inspiration or a way to make abstract ideas seem more concrete, a piece at a time.
Mood boards are most associated with the creative design process. But use them to collect random components to stimulate lateral thinking.
A great creative technique is to look at your problem from different perspectives; from the points of view of different types of people. By approaching your problem from another angle, you are free to think in different ways, without the constraints of reality. How would we solve this problem if we:
Is there one person, real or fictional, alive or dead, whom you think of as brilliant? Someone whose advice you wish you could have at any time? Someone who seems to solve problems with ease? How would they solve it?
Place four different perspectives on your problem into four boxes. Place your problem in the center. Now look for questions that will help think about your problem, from each of the four frames.
If you are not making progress with the frames you have, think of more. You could even use four of the perspectives from the previous section.
A systematic approach to creative thinking is to start with the current process, system, product, or configuration, and then vary it systematically to find an alternative that may solve your problem. Take an existing idea or solution and vary that systematically to find additional solutions. For example, you can:
There are lots more systematic variations you could apply. In the Russian ‘Triz’ methodology, which is frequently applied to manufactured goods, there are forty parameters that can be varied.
Gutenberg had had many years doing many different jobs, before he invented the printing press. When he took this experience and combined the idea of a coin punch with the idea of a wine press, he changed the world. What about crossing a yacht with a surfboard? Preposterous? Or maybe, a windsurfer?
Very little is new in the world. Most ‘new’ inventions combine existing ideas. Originality is little more than putting together things that nobody else has thought to put together.
The idea was developed by Edward de Bono in his book ‘Six Thinking Hats’. We put on different Hats to help us think in different ways. They:
Color of purity and neutrality
Color of fertility and abundance
Color of sunshine, lemons, and butter
Color of darkness and gloom
Color of passion, love, and anger
Color of the sky – cool and calm
You can use the model for team discussions. Plan in advance the right sequence of hats for the team to wear, for example, when looking for ideas, you might try: White-Green-Yellow-Black-Green-Blue-Black-Red. When assessing an idea, you might try: Red-White-Black-Yellow-Green.
Alternatively, you can use the different hats for your own thinking process.
The Delphi method is a structured way to pool the opinions of many experts to reach a group solution. It was developed in 1969 by the Rand Corporation to facilitate technological forecasting.
It has the benefit of overcoming the bias introduced by some voices being more dominant than others – by virtue either of personality or eminence.
The Delphi Method tends to produce robust predictions based on experience, by eliminating the wilder contributions. However, when the past is a poor guide to the future and there is a possibility of massive and discontinuous change, the Delphi Method is not suitable.
The primary uses of the Delphi method are in forecasting and decision-making. Here is a process for using the Delphi Method for Problem Solving.
People have been arranging information in this format for hundreds or even thousands of years – Wikipedia claims since the third century. The modern use of the format and the term ‘mind map’ stems from Tony Buzan, in the 1970s. Here is how to create a Mind Map to help with creative thinking and problem-solving.
Mind maps can be powerful tools for thinking through problems, recording information, planning a presentation or written document, memorizing a set of facts, or developing a project plan. Many schools around the world are teaching mind mapping to their children Tony Buzan’s books are ‘must read’ additions to any businessperson’s bookshelves.
I’d love to read about your own creative thinking approaches. Please do put them in the comments section below.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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