Uncapping Your Creative Potential

The Light Bulb Goes Off

We’ve all seen it happen on the Big Screen:  The critical point has been reached and our Hero is totally stumped.  His sidekick starts making some irrelevant small talk when – BAM! – something he says ”clicks” and our Hero sees just what to do to save the world from total destruction, or whatever the crisis de jour is.

This Hollywood formula is such a staple in movie making because it rings true.  While most of us have never been faced with saving the world, we have all experienced that flash of insight that comes from a source somewhat removed from the context of the problem that has us in its grip.  As satisfying as that flash is, both in the movies and in real life, we would like to be able to get that illumination before everything is coming down around our ears.  Can we really hope to become creative on demand? Or is creativity reserved for a few artists and eccentrics?

This post will examine how the way you think encourages or discourages your creativity, and will give you a couple of techniques that have consistently proven themselves fruitful, to apply to your business situations.  And don’t be surprised if you think up something creative by the time you finish reading!

Defining Creativity

You are probably more creative than you think you are simply because of the way you define the term.  If you think that being creative only means that you ‘invent something new — such as a gadget, painting, play, book, musical — then most of us would have to say we are not creative.

But creativity, in essence, is coming up with something that has not quite existed before – whether that be any of those things previously mentioned, or a new or different way of doing something, a satisfying solution to an employee problem, a good way to use up an overstocked item, ad copy that appeals to women aged 19-34, a company slogan, a way to get a $3000 bang for a $300 buck, and the list goes on.

When you bring together bits of information and apply them in a novel or specific way, you are definitely being creative.  So some of the thinking processes you already employ can be commandeered for your more creative pursuits, perhaps simply by pushing past the first thing that occurs to you.


Let’s take on the age-old problem of employees congregating around the water cooler.  The most common solution is an edict from management that says don’t congregate around the water cooler.”  Then management has to occasionally police the area to make the edict work.  But what are some other ways to discourage congregating?

Consider location:  Would they congregate if it were right outside your office door?  Would they congregate if there were no room to stand around it?  What if the cooler was right in the middle of a bustling area, offering no privacy?

Now consider the problem from another point of view:  Is there a way to make congregating a productive use of time?  After all, congregating people often come up with good ideas!  How about posting data that might provoke thought and discussion – latest sales figures, number of days left until new product launch, the new product’s prototype, info on the competition.  What if you put the suggestion box next to the cooler?  What about write-ups on employee accomplishments?  Or about your biggest customers?

Anything that gives an alternative something-to-talk-about that is positive, company-oriented, and productive may not cut down on the time spent at the cooler, but may make that time worth more money.

Is there currently nagging problem in your business that you can try thinking of from a new point of view?

They Aren’t Called Free Thinkers for Nothing!

Brain researchers have confirmed what we have suspected all along: our minds prefer to take information and fit it into its proper place. That place was often carved out when we were young, and since then we have only put things into new places when we had to.  Most of us might rightly be called, Controlled Thinkers.  Free Thinkers, on the other hand, are people who have their proper places open for debate.  Admittedly, some Free Thinkers are just plain annoying, either because they come up with oddball stuff too often, or because they don’t even try to make it fit anywhere.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could come up with stuff – oddball or not – and make it fit somewhere?  Maybe the Controlled Thinkers can learn a thing or two from the Free Thinkers, and vice versa.

Did you hear about the two dogs named Timex and Rolex?  They were watch dogs.

We appreciate humor because we can see that we were being led down one path and then  jumped over to another at the punch line.  We appreciate this after the fact, of course.  What about the person who made up this joke?  What were they thinking?  This particular joke seems so simple now that you may feel like you could have made it up, and creative ideas do tend to have that characteristic – they make sense.  We can see that what was required to make this joke work was to play on the two meanings of the word ”watch.“  Two unrelated ideas had a common meeting ground.  In a similar way, you can take two unrelated ideas and make them fit.


A group was given the assignment to pick up an object in one room of the house and deposit it in another room.  They had to leave the object there until they came up with a novel idea.  One person grabbed a hammer on the way in from the garage and set it down in the bedroom.  Now what could possibly make a hammer at home in a bedroom?

After thinking about all the pounding, prying, paper-weighting types of things, she thought about a hammer in a child’s bedroom.  This sparked a vision of a child’s little plastic workbench with hammer, screwdriver, wrench, plastic nails and screws.

Then she remembered that some children’s beds are made of formed plastic.  Why not make a child’s bed with the headboard shaped like a tool cabinet with little plastic tools in it?  The frame of the bed could have a couple of non-essential plastic planks that could be hammered and screwed into place, moved around, etc.

The bedspread and pillows could look like a workbench top.  The child could even have pajamas that look like a red flannel shirt and jeans with an image of a carpenter’s tool belt slung low on the hips and slippers that look like work boots!

Try this today yourself.  Just pick up something when you walk from one place to another and see where your mind goes when you try to make it fit into the new surroundings.

Force an Association

This method of generating ideas by forcing two unrelated ideas together has proven the most valuable to many people.  It requires little preparation, no special training, and often does not even take much time to produce results.  It can be as simple as taking an object out of context, as in the hammer example, or choosing a word at random to see what it makes you think in relation to the problem at hand.  You can find a random word by just looking at the newspaper, opening the dictionary to any page, or with word-generating software available at sites like Random Word Generator (http://www.gammadyne.com/rndword.htm ) or CreativityGames.net (http://creativitygames.net/random-word-generator/ ). CreativityGames.net offers other fun games, challenges and resources to develop your creativity as well.

You hear so much about ”thinking out of the box,” and that is exactly what this method is intended to make happen.  The normal places your mind has put stuff are disrupted, so your mind will try to form a new association.  Websites such as MindTools.com/ (http://www.mindtools.com/ ) or CreatingMinds.org (http://creatingminds.org/ ) suggest several activities along these lines, and include articles and reference books with many more to try.  Forcing an association can be done alone or with a group.  Most times it is fun, but people should be forewarned that there is a certain amount of mental uneasiness (called cognitive dissonance) involved in this, so they need to cut themselves – and each other – some slack.


A manager was being constantly interrupted during the workday by phone calls and employees.  He needed ideas about how to cut down that number, and his random word was ”mosquito.“   He could see immediately that the interruptions were like mosquitoes that he wanted to swat, but that was not the purpose of this exercise!

He began by listing what he knew about mosquitoes: they bite, the bites itch, they suck blood to get their nutrients, they are drawn to some people more than others, they are most active at dawn and dusk, deet repels them, deet stinks, they can breed in the smallest amounts of water, they buzz, they bite you more than once until they are full, and so on.

Not all of these ideas were helpful, but he saw that he had made himself too juicy a target and needed to delegate some responsibilities so that people would not always be seeking him out for answers.  He also thought he could repel interruptions by not being physically available during certain times, and that he could shift some of his productive time to the early morning, since employees came in later, and he was a morning person anyway.

He also realized that he had one employee in particular who would keep coming back until he was sucked dry, so he tried setting up a scheduled time with that person to lay out a plan for her workday, and cover all the issues she could think of all at once.

Now you try this.  Start small so you can get a quick result.  Describe your problem or issue then find a word at random.  List its definitions or characteristics and see which you can apply to your issue.  If you don’t get anything right away, give yourself a little more time and put some additional thought into it.  If you are still getting nowhere, choose another word and start over.  Actually, you may want to select a second word just for the fun of seeing what else you can come up with!

Define the Boundaries

Another method that often produces good results is to define the boundaries, parameters, or criteria that an idea has to fulfill or meet.  Many times, solutions to problems or new product ideas must meet some specifics, and knowing these specifics can force you to think outside the box.

It’s like saying, Product Z has to meet conditions A, B, and C, and fit criteria L and M.  These criteria often compete with each other, and you must balance the trade-offs in order to find a winner.  For instance, time and money often compete:  to accomplish something in less time will require spending more money, but spending less money may draw it out too long.  (For example: printing, cutting, and assembling a company catalog yourself vs sending it out to the printer.)


An employee had to write a feature article for the company’s newsletter.  The boss said that the article had to be about 200 words, feature one of the new products each month, give the sales reps insight into what the customer would be thinking about the product, imply a response to the customer without outright telling the sales reps what to say, and be infused with the personality of the employee writing the article.

These became the parameters the employee used when deciding what to write.  Each article’s theme and selection of wording had to be compared to this list, with the employee in turn accepting, rejecting, and modifying until it fit all of them.

Now you try this with one of your issues.  List the specifics that the product or solution must meet, and run each idea by all of them until it fits perfectly.

Weeding Out the Good from the Not So-Good

Nobody loves your brainchild as much as you do, and it seems totally unfair that after you expend so much effort to birth the thing that everybody else wouldn’t love it, too.  Some brainchildren only need a bit of tweaking, others demand a total overhaul; some may even need to be scrapped.

Your creative approach must include a way for you to decide which ideas pass muster.  One of the most thorough treatments is deBono’s “Six Thinking Hats” method, described more fully at Debonogroup.com.  Basically, this six-step process takes you from generating ideas to finding the keepers.  This activity can be done alone or with others, but preferably with others, since they will bring a variety of insights.  DeBono uses the hat colors to help key in on the activity involved at each stage:

Green Hat thinking is for thinking creatively and coming up with new ideas, which is the color hat you have been wearing so far, employing the techniques described above.  The questions you ask when wearing the Green Hat are, “We have a problem; could we do this in a different way?  Here is a situation where we need some new approaches; any ideas?  This is how things appear; could there be another explanation?  Can we come up with some alternatives?  What new toy/widget/apparel can we make?  Is there another way of using a paper clip/hammer/accounting program?” 

Red Hat thinking has to do with feelings and intuition.  Some people rely too much on their feelings and some people don’t pay enough attention to theirs.  But people who buy things often make emotional decisions.  That’s one good reason to get emotional with your ideas.  But more importantly, you want to be able to use your gut feelings and intuitions without getting so caught up in them that you don’t see your idea clearly.  So, agree to spend a specific time on this, and fit what you find out into the overall picture.  Red Hat thinking says things like:  “This is how I feel about this.  My gut reaction is that people won’t like this.  I sense this will be a real hit with younger women.  My intuition tells me this will take longer to do than we’re planning on.  I believe that we are onto something here but we need to make a slight change in it along these lines.”

When you use Yellow Hat thinking, you are going to be only positive and optimistic, while remaining logical.  You want to identify some of the benefits and strong points of an idea.  You look for ways to make the idea work, believing that is feasible.  These are some ways to employ Yellow Hat thinking:  Begin to verbalize why the customers would want this, how it would benefit them.  Further identify ways to make it of more value to them.  You can note what you really like about the idea, and what you find really interesting about it.

Black Hat thinking, as you can imagine, is the critical judgment hat.  It is often far too easy to find fault, and you want to get the benefit from scrutinizing your ideas without killing them in the process.  This hat helps you identify potential problems to avoid.  Here, spend time looking for what can go wrong, what you need to be cautious about, why some idea might not be profitable, what customers might dislike about it.  You can imagine what could go wrong in the marketplace that you would be liable for.  You can question how much a trade-off there is among time, money, resources, employee skills, equipment requirements, etc.

White Hat thinking makes an assessment of information pertinent to the idea.  Every idea has to fit into some context, be measured against some criteria, be launched in some location.  You should make every attempt to know as much about this context as possible, hence the age-old question, “Will it play in Peoria?”  You take an inventory of what you know, what you need to know, what you don’t know, and where you can find the missing info.  You can ask if there is something you would like to know, and decide if there is a place to find the answers.  For instance, do you know enough about Peoria to know if it will play there? 

When you put on the Blue Hat, you are stepping outside yourself and viewing the goings-on of your Hat-thinking process.  Are you spending too much time criticizing, or are you leaning too far into optimism?  Is the process being dominated by an individual to the exclusion of other valid points of view?  Blue hats stop to summarize, make conclusions, come to decisions.  Blue hats sense when it’s a good time to take a break, or revisit a point brought up earlier.  With your Blue Hat on, you plan your next steps, give out group assignments, set a time to meet again.  The Blue Hat pulls the output from all the other Hats together and lets you measure your progress.

The end result of this process should be an idea that has been toughened up to the point where everyone is confident of its value.  It may not be the exact brainchild that you first birthed, but it should now be one that has a chance at a productive life.  This scrutinizing process often also yields ideas about the procedures it will take to make the idea happen, and how you will need to go about marketing it.

In Summary

Nothing changes until someone changes their own thinking, and then that of others.  Since our minds prefer order and stability, we have to shake up their status quo if we want to produce a creative idea.  We can do this by using some simple but effective methods that make our brains build new associations, and then work over those ideas to make them solid enough to stand on.

IMPress Action Checklist

Use this list to help you work your way through to generating creative ideas:

  • Define a problem or
  • Identify an issue or
  • Think about a new product
  • Force an association using unrelated objects or random words
  • Define the boundaries and come up with an idea that fits
  • Hone the idea by viewing it from a number of perspectives
  • Finalize your idea and game plan

Written by

In 1999, Lisa Rae created her first online small business eCommerce website. She successfully achieved a client base of over 15,000 active customers by implementing customer creation and retention projects. Her execution of online advertising campaigns, as well as print media campaigns that lead to annual revenue of over a million dollars annually. After six years of leadership, Lisa Rae sold the company and began offering marketing consultant and website services on short and long term contracts for businesses of various sizes. She meets her clients’ objectives through customized marketing plans using a wide range of marketing tools including WordPress website creation, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Social Media Marketing, print collateral, email marketing, and more.