15 May, 2023

Here are 15 Powerful Creative Techniques to Spark Your Imagination

By Mike Clayton

15 May, 2023

creative thinking, creativity

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.

Our 15 Creative 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:

Here are 15 Powerful Creative Techniques to Spark Your Imagination
  1. Metaphor, Analogy, Simile
  2. Eureka – Random Input
  3. Inversion – Reversals
  4. Po
  5. Nyaka
  6. Brainstorming
  7. Brainwriting
  8. Mood Boards – Inspiration Boards
  9. Reframing
  10. Reframing Matrix
  11. Systematic Variation
  12. Bissociation – Combining two different ideas to get a new one
  13. Six Thinking Hats
  14. The Delphi Method
  15. Mind Mapping

By the way, if it is a logical, systematic approach to Problem-solving that you want, do take a look at out article:

What is Creativity?

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.

How Our Brains think, Creatively

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:

  • Different experiences,
  • Time for ideas to incubate,
  • Opportunities when your conscious thinking is turned down, so creative ideas can emerge.

Let’s Warm-up

Here are five ideas that I have used often, in my own creative thinking:

Deliberate Creativity

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…

Why is this Important for Project Managers?

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.

Metaphor, Analogy, Simile

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.

Things to think about

Some of my own favorite metaphors are projects as: cooking, a journey, farming, construction, or going shopping.

Eureka – or Random Input

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:

  • Pictures from magazines
  • Words from a dictionary
  • Movie or book titles
  • Objects
  • Types of food

Force yourself to find associations between your problem and the five things, to ignite your creativity.

Things to think about

Here are some random concepts: envelope, precious, hike, geology, nickel, sugar, procession, commodore, wonder, litter, radio, motley, karate, magic, squiggle, rotor, jury, autograph, crisp.

Inversion – Reversals

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.

Things to think about

Thinking about making a situation worse is, of course, the most radical of reframing a problem. What new insight does this give you?

Po

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:

  • ‘Po: The world is flat’
  • ‘Po: Nobody needs Artificial Intelligence’
  • ‘Po: Our company should start making toys’
  • ‘Po: Data is redundant’
  • ‘Po: We’ve been doing everything backwards’

Things to think about

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?

Nyaka

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:

  • We had some particular resource
  • Something were different
  • Someone could help
  • Something was not stopping us (a constraint or dependency)

So, we assume this is true. What now? How do we deal with this blocker to our progress?

Things to think about

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.

Brainstorming

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:

  • Everyone contributes
  • Encourage wild ideas
  • All ideas are valid – and recorded
  • Combine ideas

Things to think about

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:

Brainwriting

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.

Things to think about

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.

Mood Boards, or Inspiration Boards

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.

Things to think about

Mood boards are most associated with the creative design process. But use them to collect random components to stimulate lateral thinking.

Reframing

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:

  • had unlimited budget?
  • Or if we had no budget?
  • worked for Microsoft, or Louis Vuitton, or Ferrari?
  • were Yoda, Einstein, or Walt Disney?
  • Or if we were a child, a carpenter, or a doctor?
  • were our ancestors, 100 years ago, or 1,000 years ago?
  • Or if we were living in 50 years’ time, or 150?

Things to think about

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?

Reframing Matrix

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.

Creativity Technique: Reframing Matrix

Things to think about

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.

Systematic Variation

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:

  • Substitute one part for an alternate
  • Combine two things into a solution
  • Reverse one or all of the parts of the problem
  • Enlarge or increase some aspect of the current state
  • Alter or Adapt your approach to how you do things
  • Multiply up the number of parts, repetitions or people
  • Eliminate some aspect
  • Reduce some aspect of your unsuccessful solution

Things to think about

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.

Bissociation (Combining two different ideas to get a new one)

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?

Things to think about

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.

Six Thinking Hats

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:

  • allow us to play a role
  • help direct our attention
  • give us a language
  • create flexibility
  • establish a mind-set
  • think creatively

White Hat

Color of purity and neutrality

  • Analytical, logical thinking
  • Works with information and data
  • Analyses trend and patterns
  • Seeks out facts and figures and needs to fill gaps in information
  • Like a computer
  • Objectivity, discipline
  • Quantifies uncertainty

Green Hat

Color of fertility and abundance

  • Creative, visionary, dreamer
  • Provocative, proposes crazy ideas
  • Radical thinking: loves alternatives and novelty
  • Sees patterns, shapes, and trends
  • Builds connections, makes links
  • Lateral thinking and leaps of imagination
  • Movement, growth, change
  • Uses humor and wit

Yellow Hat

Color of sunshine, lemons, and butter

  • Positive, constructive, effective
  • Glass half full, hope, optimism, the bright side
  • Converts hope into reason
  • Seeks opportunity, benefit, value
  • Exploring, building, enhancing, speculating, proposing
  • Makes things happen, workable solutions
  • Finds the best-case scenarios, asks ‘what if …?’ ‘if only …’

Black Hat

Color of darkness and gloom

  • Glass half empty
  • Rational concern – Highlights logical flaws – Makes objective criticisms
  • Cautious, defensive, risk-averse
  • Critical, judgmental, tests and firms-up plans, plays ‘Devil’s advocate’
  • Fault-finding, error-spotting, what is wrong
  • Compares with past experience to expose differences
  • Requires strict evidence criteria to be met

Red Hat

Color of passion, love, and anger

  • Intuition, hunch, and ‘gut instinct’
  • Introduces emotion – not rational justification
  • Listening to the ‘inner voice’ of your unconscious mind
  • Acknowledges the very real part emotions play
  • Empathy with other people: how will people feel about this?
  • Structures contribution of reactions and feelings
  • Places feelings in the open, so they can be dealt with

Blue Hat

Color of the sky – cool and calm

  • Process management, directing the meeting, chairing and arbitrating
  • Control and organization of thinking process
  • Sets the focus, defines the problem, shapes the questions
  • Detached: Thinking about thinking
  • Choosing and swapping the thinking style
  • Monitors and enforces behaviors – proper and timely use of the other Hats
  • Observes, comments, summarizes, and reviews

Things to think about

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

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.

  1. Select your panel of ‘experts’ who will work on the problem
  2. Develop your initial set of questions and send them to all participants. Ensure that, as well as asking them for their solution or prediction, you also elicit their reasons
  3. Analyze and tabulate the results, including the reasons. Based on these, prepare a second set of questions
  4. Return the results to each participant along with the reasons and the new questions
  5. Continue looping back to step 3 until little or no change occurs. Then prepare your report and analysis, as required

Benefits of this approach:

  • Eliminates need for group meetings
  • Alleviates some of the bias inherent in group meetings
  • Participants can change their minds anonymously

Weaknesses of this approach:

  • Can take a lot of time to reach consensus
  • Participants may drop out
  • Not as scientific as it appears

Take care with:

  • The form of the questions – which could introduce bias
  • The choice and balance of your ‘experts’ –independence and diversity
  • Keeping your experts informed and engaged

Mind Mapping

Creativity Tool: Mind Map

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.

  1. Choose a large piece of blank paper and nice pens.
  2. Start with a central image or a title depicting your problem.
  3. Images can be more powerful than words.
  4. Draw big branches to the main ideas come into your mind.
  5. Curves and color can stimulate creativity.
  6. Label the lines with keywords or little pictures
  7. From the main branches, split off smaller sub-branches to capture subsidiary ideas
  8. Use color and highlighters to group ideas.

Things to think about

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.

What are Your Favorite Creative Techniques?

I’d love to read about your own creative thinking approaches. Please do put them in the comments section below.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

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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