Breaking Through The Creativity Barrier to Better Business Ideas
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
From time to time I've done short group training sessions in which I prepared the meeting room by putting out packs of crayons and paper to draw and color on.
Of course, I got the usual "what kind of craziness is?" this looks from the participants as they entered and took their seats. And you can imagine the expressions when I took out a stopwatch and told them:
"Pretend there is a problem your company is struggling with. The problem can be as simple as 'Should everyone get a 10 minute coffee break twice a day' or as difficult as 'How do I fire my best friend?' Draw a picture of your solution to the problem. Start drawing even if you don't think you know the solution.
It doesn't have to be realistic. People can be stick figures. In fact, abstract is often better. You will not be judged on your artistic skill but on your solution to the problem. The drawing only needs to be meaningful to you. When you are finished, we'll discuss what problem you imagined, what the drawings mean and how the solutions work. Don't think deeply about problems and solutions other than as the theme of your drawing, just pick a problem quickly off the top of your head and draw. Other than the time limit and the fact that you may not ask me any questions until the assignment is complete, there are no rules to the assignment. You have fifteen minutes. Start now."
Few people get the point of the exercise until they start talking about their drawings. Then they discover that they have many answers to many issues that they just don't like to think about. And as long as they don't try to think about them, the answers can just pop out intuitively. Unfortunately, since we tend to do problem-solving with left-brain techniques, intuition is a hampered skill.
And the point of crayons rather than more sophisticated drawing tools is two-fold. First, crayons bring out the "child" inside us, which helps bypass some of the "critical brain" functions that stifle feelings. Feelings are important to intuition and to the kind of empathy that helps solve "people problems." Second, crayons are fun and we all learned how to use them when we were kids, so there's no need to stop and learn how to use the tools.
Now, let me stop explaining in left-brain terms and show you what comes from such exercises. Here's a version of what one man drew in response to his problem of being "unable to communicate" with his new boss:
As you can see, his experience with his boss was a very sad, depressing and probably hopeless one. He came to the conclusion that what he'd been trying to tell himself was that the problem wasn't a lack of or difficulty in communication, it was that they didn't like each other and would never get along. His best solution was to find another job.
Another man drew a picture of a church. It seemed silly at first, since he wanted to solve a problem involving an advertising and promotion campaign. Then, suddenly, it became clear: his current approach wasn't believable and trustworthy to his target market. He needed to give them something that would cause them to have "faith" in his company.
Of course, the above examples are easy to interpret. Not all results of the exercises are as clear. The real lesson here is that to get creative in your thinking and problem-solving you must practice the right-brain processes that help you "think outside the box." Or even better, be able to say, "Box? What box?"
There are many wonderful sources for working on more creative thinking and problem solving. Some include:
Edward DeBono's books such as Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step (Perennial Library)
Michael Michalko's books such as Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques (2nd Edition)
Bob Eberle's book, which was written for teachers to use with children but applies well to adults, Scamper Combined Edition