12 tips for creative thinking in a disruptive world

Skills attributes (large) 2
Alistair Bradley
  • Alistair Bradley

Copywriter at creative communications agency MSLGROUP, Alistair Bradley sheds light on creative thinking techniques you can start using today.

“There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.” - Edward de Bono, creative thinking pioneer.

“Creativity” isn’t a word you hear too often within the business community. You’re much more likely to hear about “innovation” and “disruption” – words that carry a weightiness seemingly more befitting of boardrooms and broadsheets.

But at its core, business innovation really boils down to ‘creativity with a purpose’ – finding ways to meet needs and solve problems that are both new and useful.

In our fast-changing world, we know that formula which was successful last year may no longer be effective. This is why we depend on creative thinkers to succeed. People who can look ahead and bring fresh ideas. People who are not afraid to challenge the way things are done and see a better way to make the world work.

So here are two principles (and 12 practical tips) to help you train those creative muscles for the new, disruptive business world.

Principle 1: Curiosity is king

You’ve heard it many times. Maybe you’ve even thought – or said – it yourself. “I’m just not a creative person.”

Somewhere along the line, we begin to think that if we don’t excel at ‘artistic’ subjects then we must not be creative.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, we are all born to be spontaneous, creative thinkers. Just watch any child play with a simple object like a cardboard box. Within minutes, they’ve transformed this inanimate object into a boat, a horse, an imaginary friend… something that makes their world a better place.

It’s unfortunate that most of us regress in our ability to see the world this way as we get older. Luckily for us, experts in the field such as Edward de Bono agree that creative thinking is not a talent, but a skill that we can learn and practise like any other.

And whether you’re advising entrepreneurial businesses on emerging tech, conducting scientific research or solving complex problems, there’s one mindset which is the foundation of creative thinking: Curiosity.

A curious mind is active, not passive. It trains itself to be more observant of new ideas and to recognise bigger possibilities.

Top tips: Stay curious

Here are some practical steps you can take to develop your personal curiosity meter.

• Always keep an open mind – You may have to learn, unlearn and relearn what you think you know.

• Don’t take things for granted – They don’t have to be the way they are. Challenge assumptions.

• Don’t write something off as boring – You can’t know what possibilities lie behind that door until you explore it.

• See learning as fun – Keep that childlike curiosity and you’ll always enjoy the process, whatever the subject.

• Watch and read widely – Explore other worlds you’re not familiar with and broaden your horizons.

• Keep asking better questions – How? Why? What if? Intelligent questions stimulate, provoke, inform and inspire. Always dig a little deeper.

This last one is something EY is particularly passionate about, so much so that it’s built a way of working around asking better questions. This goes hand in hand with the firm’s unusually entrepreneurial culture, where new ideas can flourish and scale quickly.

Just ask some of EY’s own ‘Entrepreneurs Inside’ – like Jamie, who used his passion for startup technology to create The EY Startup Challenge, a six week training and mentoring programme to accelerate breakthrough startups. And Joe, who answered his own “what next?” career dilemma by inventing the EY Talent Centre as an independent, impartial careers coaching service, helping people navigate the next step in their career, be that inside or outside EY.

But if curiosity is one principle of creativity you should learn, there’s another you may need to unlearn.

Principle 2: Nothing is original

As much as it hurts our egos to admit it, no new idea is truly new. The reality is that even the most creative works or innovative business ideas are built on things that have been done before. Or, as artist and creativity author Austin Kleon puts it, “Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.”

Back in 15th Century Italy, Leonardo Da Vinci was one of the first to discover the principle that you can’t think of two things simultaneously without connections being formed – and he had a peculiar way of exploring it.

When he wanted to come up with good ideas, one favourite technique was to fill a sponge with paint and throw it against the wall – then look at the patterns that emerged. One day he observed that one of his paint splatters looked like a rider and a horse, but the horse looked like it was on wheels. He asked himself, could this be a metal horse on wheels? It was this incident that birthed the idea of the bicycle.

And this principle stands today. Fast forward and take one of the most disruptive business models to emerge in recent years: Uber. This company has completely turned the industry on its head, but it’s done so by combining two existing ideas: the traditional taxi cab model with the on-demand technology enabled by smartphones.

The revelation that creativity is really just about making new connections between existing ideas is should be a very freeing and exciting one. We all have the ability to connect things that already exist, so the skill becomes our ability to see these relationships – perhaps even be the first to do so.

Top tips: Find connections

You may not have the luxury of throwing a paint-filled sponge against a wall each time you want to think outside of the box. Luckily, there are other techniques to harness the power of connections for creative thinking.

• Try lateral thinking – Attack problems sideways, rather than head-on, by playing with what’s possible. E.g. “If assumption X was no longer true, what would we do then?”

• Use ’forced connection’ – Compare your problem to a random object, another unrelated problem, or even a story or natural event. Find the connections to spark new ideas.

• Reframe the issue – It won’t change, but our interpretation of it will. E.g. “What if we viewed our competitors as collaborators?” or “How would one of my heroes approach this problem?”

• Use pictures – A picture can paint a thousand words, so use them more often. If the problem was visual, how would you draw it? This can help people see it in new ways.

• Keep a note – Write down the things you learn and experiences that interest you. Refresh and review regularly, and you’ll start to see connections.

• Take a break (or a shower) – There’s a reason you get your best ideas in the shower. Our subconscious keeps working after we’ve finished intense thinking, and often waits for us to be in a state of relaxation before presenting us with its creative conclusions.

So, however creative (or not) you thought you were when you started reading this article, you now have an array of tools in your toolkit to unlock your inner creativity. Start putting these techniques into action today and you’ll soon become an indispensable thinker for any innovative business.

Alistair Bradley
  • Alistair Bradley

About the author

After launching his marketing career in professional services, Alistair joined creative communications agency MSLGROUP. As Copywriter and Content Strategist for some of the world's best known brands, he's worked on numerous award-winning digital and integrated campaigns, helping to build meaningful connections with people who matter.