Hi, I’m Fiona, and welcome to our session focusing on how to have your next great idea. In this session, we’ll cover what creativity is and why it matters, try out a couple of creative strategies, highlight common barriers to idea generation, and leave you with some next steps.
What is creativity? Fletcher and Benveniste’s 2022 paper states that creativity has long folk history of being viewed as an ineffable, even supernatural power. We want to define a more practical working definition of creativity. We found a few quotes.
One defines creativity as an evolved cognitive mechanism for solving non-recurrent problems, and another defines creativity as the ability to generate original and useful ideas or products. This concept of creativity as a process to generate original ideas but linked to usefulness starts to creep over into innovation. Placing too much emphasis on practicality can inhibit the creative process, so here we limit our definition of creativity to be about the ability to generate novel ideas.
Creativity and innovation are related, but they’re not interchangeable. Innovation takes these ideas creativity has created and then either selects or adapts them to make them useful. It’s important to note that creativity is not a fixed innate gift or ability you either have or you don’t. Creativity is a skill that can be developed.
We’ve defined what creativity is, but why is it important? Well, highlighting several factors of the importance of creativity on both a personal and societal level, creativity has a positive effect on personal and professional growth, mental and emotional health and greater psychological resilience. Creativity is important to the economy. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020 listed creativity, originality and initiative at number 5 in their list of the top 15 most important skills to employers in 2025. They also list complex problem solving at number three, which may also be addressed by enhanced creativity.
Now I’ve set the scene with the definition of creativity and why it’s important, we’re now going to look at some practical approaches to idea generation. The first question is are these practical approaches even necessary? You might be asking yourself, ‘Can’t I just go away and be creative and come up with some ideas?’ Well, yes, you can. In fact, this approach has got a name and it’s called Simple Ideation. However, data suggests you’ll do better if you use a tool or a practical approach. To give some context to the practical tools we’ll present, it’s useful to consider several types of thinking. We’ll work through this list.
As researchers, throughout your education and research career you’ve been trained in critical, logical, analytical thinking. In this type of thinking, you consider a range of data or evidence, process it logically in your mind, and then come to a considered single solution or outcome. This is termed evidence-based convergent thinking. Whilst convergent thinking is great for things like data analysis or assessing creative ideas you’ve created, it doesn’t lend itself to initial idea generation. For that we need to access other thinking processes.
Associative thinking is where you connect ideas that otherwise have no connection to create a new idea. Identifying and being interested in how similar problems are approached in other fields, going to talks and reading papers from another area can help build your associative thinking. Networking with others, discussing the problem you’re trying to solve can also help If you’d like to try out some tools around associative thinking, in the PDF handbook that accompanies this presentation you’ll find tool number 5, metaphors; number 11, idea tunes; and number 17, mind maps, useful. We’ve picked a few examples of associative thinking.
One of them is the production of silicon transistors. The problem they faced was how to make small, detailed features necessary in the manufacturing process. A similar challenge was faced in printing, and the solution printers created was to make their printing plates using a technology called photoengraving. Jules Andrews and Walter Bond adapted this pre-existing technology to their problem, and photolithography was created. Fibreoptics are another example, initially used to provide illumination in dentistry but now have a wide variety of applications. Again, individuals from different fields used and adapted fibreoptics to the solution they required.
Lonnie Johnson was working on creating environmentally friendly heat pumps for refrigeration, and noticed one of the nozzles he was working with produced an impressive column of water. He wasn’t a toy designer, but he saw how this nozzle could be applied, and the Super Soaker water pistol was the result. ,
Lateral thinking is where ideas are created, breaking away from the rigid steps of convergent thinking. Some examples of lateral thinking are on screen. We accept that some of these could also be examples of associative thinking and vice versa. If we take the example of the Biro ballpoint pen, Biro didn’t just want to make a better fountain pen. He came up with a new alternative solution. In a similar way, Grace Hopper didn’t just want to continue to use mathematical symbols to interact with computers. She broke away from the norm to create the first compiler, an English language-based computer language. Key to all of these examples is curiosity, being open to using unconventional procedures, chance and serendipity, all of which are needed to come up with these new creative ideas, and following up on unexpected or unexplained results to provide new insights.
Divergent thinking is based more on imagination than logic, the opposite of convergent thinking, and it’s where you’re able to generate numerous options. Techniques focusing on enhancing divergent thinking is where the majority of creative tools employed today target. We’re going to focus on three tools in particular. SCAMPER, random connection, and schema violation. Each of these three techniques is thought to train a different cognitive process. SCAMPER is thought to address conceptual expansion, allowing you to develop new ideas by adapting existing ones. SCAMPER is a seven-step acronym which you work through your challenge sequentially.
I’ll go through an example to demonstrate. The challenge we’re focusing on here is how to improve the function of a table. The first step is substitute. What could we remove and replace with something else? This could be materials, rules, or processes. For this example, we’ll substitute the material to carbon fibre. Combine; what could we bring together to create something new or additional? Could you bring or integrate features or components of another product? To our table we’ll add coat hangers, charging ports and plant holders. Adapt; could we readjust to another sector, setting, space? Where else could we make this table work? Could you change parts or characteristics of this product here we’ve said we’ll adjust the height of the table so that it can be a coffee table at home, or a desk height for work. Modify; can you add or change the shape, the colour or traits of the product? Can you magnify, decrease or exaggerate an aspect of the product? We’ve said for this table we’ll modify the table to be large enough for meetings. Put to another use; challenge your assumptions about the purpose or intention. How could you adapt the product for a different purpose?
In our example here, perhaps our desk could also be used as a ladder if we made it sturdy enough and added a nice handrail. Eliminate; what could you simplify, reduce or remove entirely? Do we in fact need to have legs on our table? Could we have one central leg? Perhaps we could even wall-mount it. Rearrange; what would happen if we changed the sequence of things? Reverse them. Turn them upside down. Change the pace. Perhaps for our table example here, we could suspend the table from the ceiling and allow it to be raised and lowered as required to make the room it’s in more flexible. Now you’ve seen how SCAMPER works. We suggest you pause this now for ten minutes to have a go at this for yourself.
The task here we are proposing is improve a coffee cup, just a normal everyday item. Just work through each step of SCAMPER to see if you can come up with a solution to improving a coffee cup. The next technique is called random connection. This is thought to build your conceptual combination cognitive process. As you may have guessed from the technique name, you think of a random object, nothing to do with your challenge, and then you think of all the characteristics of that selected random object, and then you apply these to your challenge or problem.
To work through this, we’ll use an example of designing a new type of sunscreen. Our random unrelated object is a ballpoint pen. The characteristics of a ballpoint pen are that it’s portable, mess-free, dries quickly, comes in lots of different colours. It’s got a roll-on function. It’s got a clip that helps its portability. It’s lidded or spring loaded with a click to open. It’s easy to see the level of ink you have left. We could carry on, but those are some of the main things that we could think of that define the characteristics of a ballpoint. If we apply these characteristics to our challenge, we could design a new sunscreen which is colourful, applied via a roll-on, quick-drying, and easy to carry around. We’re going to invite you now to pause for five minutes and have a go at this task using random connection technique that we’ve just talked through.
You can either have a go at the task to design a new type of Thermos, or the task to design a child’s bed that helps parents to get them to go to bed easily. We just want you to spend five minutes having a go at that. We’ve also got a random list of some objects on screen that you might want to use as your random object, but feel free to choose one of your own. Pause this for five minutes and have a go.
Schema violation challenges our stereotypes or common assumptions, beliefs or conventions, hopefully building our cognitive flexibility. The feeling of surprise often found in humour or comedy is a type of schema violation. For example, in the joke, three men walk into a bar; you’d have thought one of them would have seen it, the humour comes from the surprise that the bar you’d expected from this common type of phrasing and joke setup wasn’t a pub, but in fact was an actual physical bar or pole. It’s about challenging your assumptions or the accepted way things are done, forcing yourself to do and see things differently, like with the mirrored writing on screen. What things can you do to break out of your routine? How can you do things differently? You can start very simply, perhaps by writing or typing with your non-dominant hand and go from there.
As a really quick example, right now, if you can cross your arms and just notice which way you’ve placed them over each other. Now unfold your arms and this time cross them deliberately the opposite way around and just notice how much more effort this takes, just doing this one small thing differently from your usual. The last type of thinking we want to draw your attention to is narrative thinking.
As I mentioned earlier, divergent thinking is the most commonly addressed type of thinking by creativity training. However, narrative thinking is complementary. An action or actions causally sequenced to one another create a narrative. For example, you collect firewood, arrange it into a suitable pile, light the firewood, whack a marshmallow onto a suitable stick and heat it over the fire, you get a lovely toasty marshmallow. This is a narrative, a number of actions sequentially arranged, ultimately resulting in a toasty treat. How can narrative thinking help with coming up with creative ideas?
Well, Fletcher and Benveniste suggest three techniques: world building, perspective shifting and action generating. In world building and stories, it’s often achieved by focusing on the unexpected to prompt the audience to start hypothesizing about new possibilities. For example, if a story begins with the character flying into the room on a broomstick, the audience will start to speculate that in this world magic exists and people are able to fly.
You can frame your creative problems in a similar way. Start by identifying the unique events and characters in your situation, and then conjecture what new risks or opportunities these events and characters may lead to. An example of this world-building technique could be that new virtual reality training devices have been found to deliver enhanced knowledge transfer benefits to learners over physical-world pedagogy. What does this reveal about the rules of how pedagogy works in the physical world, and how could these rules be used to improve pedagogy in the future?
Perspective shifting is often achieved in stories by the author revealing the character’s motive so the audience can then hypothesise how the character might act in new situation. You can use this approach in a few ways to help your creative idea generation. You and a peer can each come up with a solution to a problem. You can then explain your motive to solving that problem, so showing your causal thinking. You can then swap motives and use each other’s motives to solve a new problem.
Alternatively, you can select three people and create possible solutions to a problem as if you were them, viewing the problem from their perspective. You can even approach problems from the view of your former self. Perhaps you could cast your mind back to a time when you were a child, selecting a time when you had the courage to forge your own path and go your own way, and approaching a current creative problem you’re having from this mindset.
Finally, we have action-generating techniques. In narrative literature, action is often generated by bringing characters with different motives together or in a different or strange environment to build a plot. To generate new creative ideas, you could imagine what a character would do dropped into an unfamiliar or unexpected environment.
For example, what would David Attenborough do if he woke up tomorrow and carbon capture had reversed global warming and species extinction? We’ve now covered all of the thinking styles we wanted to take you through. It’s worth pausing to note that generating new ideas is both something that you can do by yourself and with others. It’s been shown that the ability to solve complex problems can be significantly higher when groups work together rather than independently. This does depend, however, on the group being collaborative and not hierarchical, but it’s definitely worth bearing in mind. We’ll now highlight some of the barriers you might encounter when coming up with new ideas.
You may have noticed some of these things coming up for you when we were going through the worked examples, or when you were trying out SCAMPER and random connection for yourself. Do bear in mind that even too much information can be a block to creating new ideas. You can start to recognise some of the barriers coming up for you in phrases or language, both internally, in your own internal dialogue, and externally by perhaps some of the people you might be discussing your creative solutions with.
If you hear phrases such as, that’ll never work, that’s not the way we do things here, that’s too expensive, it’s too complicated, who will do that, or, no one in their right mind would use that, that’s a ridiculous idea, people will laugh at you if you suggest it, all things along those lines, suggesting new things and trying them out really can feel daunting. If you’re not getting enough rest or are in the same physical space all of the time, all of these things can dampen your ability to generate new ideas.
Lastly, one I think we all commonly do is merge idea generation and evaluation of the ideas into one step. It’s really worth making the deliberate effort to generate all of your ideas first before you move on to assess and evaluate them to decide on the solution you’ll move forward with. If you merge the two steps, you risk stifling your creativity, coming up with only very safe ideas, and missing out on some innovative ideas and approaches. Being aware of these barriers and keeping an eye out for them popping up can help you notice them and change or challenge behaviour. As we draw to the end of this session, what are the next steps?
All of the examples we’ve taken you through have been straightforward, quick demonstrations of the various techniques, but now you need to have a go at applying them to your own challenges which need a creative solution. Check out the workbook. It’s got many more techniques than we’ve covered here, and also goes beyond idea generation to cover idea selection approaches. It’s got a mix of individual and group creative techniques too.
Collective creativity lends itself really well to networking. Think about who you would like to get together with to generate creative ideas for your particular problem or issue or challenge, and try out one of the creative techniques for real on one of your own particular challenges, both in your research and in your career development. We’ve got a couple of pages here of references should you wish to read any of the papers that we’ve referenced in full. I’d like to thank you very much for your time, and I hope you found some of these suggestions and techniques in this session useful.
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