By Len Brzozowski
When asked the question, “How many uses can you think of for a shoe?” most adults can generate 10-12 responses before running out of ideas. But someone who is really good at thinking creatively (which most of us can be with the right mind set and a little practice) can generate 100 or more ideas from a question like this. Would any of us have considered a planter, such as in the example to the right? How about a coffin for a pet hamster? Or even non-conventional ideas, such as a bookend, a fly swatter, a cup, shovel, hand warmer, or even a piece of jewelry?
Innovation and creativity researchers use questions like this to measure a crucial skill related to creativity called divergent thinking. This is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions.
While generating many possible solutions is not in itself considered true innovation or creativity, this ability to create multiple responses to a given question often manifests as a fundamental skill of creative people, who seem naturally less constrained by conventional thought patterns.
Creativity researchers George Land and Beth Jarman recently used questions like “how many uses are there for a shoe?” to create a sort of IQ test for creative thinking. In one interesting study, they administered their test to groups of 5, 10 and 15 year olds. The results are described in their book “Break Point and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today”. What they found is illustrated in the chart at the left.
An impressive 98% of 5-year-olds scored at the “genius” level in such a test of divergent thinking. Test-takers age 10 however, saw their number drop to 32%, and only 10% of high-school-age test-takers scored at the “genius” level. It seems that as students mature through the educational system, they have some of these creative instincts “driven out” or socialized out of them. Why should this be?
It is fascinating to watch pre-school children at play. They are fearless, willing to try almost anything, inventive, and exploratory in outlook. Their lack of formal knowledge and life experience seems to allow them to be free to think and create without boundaries. If asked to try anything – whether intellectual, artistic or physical – they will likely try with abandon and without fear of ridicule. From an adult perspective, we might say that “they don’t know any better” – but what does that say about our own willingness to try new things?
It seems reasonable to conclude that we are all born with the innate ability to be creative, to think divergently, and to be “outside” the so-called “box”. Even Pablo Picasso once opined that: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
The human brain has two mainly separated hemispheres. The right side of the brain connects us through our senses to the outside world. This is where raw feeling and emotions mainly live. The left side of our brain is the rational thinking part. It is linear, it absorbs facts and sensations, associates them with other things stored in our “memory banks” and draws conclusions.
Our education system in the western world is greatly influenced by the leaders of the industrial age, who valued a variety of analytical and problem solving skills. This is what we have been taught to value in terms of intelligence. Accordingly, our educational system is designed to lean in a pronounced way . . . to the “left” side. In addition, our education system is predominantly designed around conformity. Within this system, we value convergent thinking. We frame problems as having only one “right answer”, and we praise our students when they reach that ‘right’ answer. Over time, this reward system conditions students to take fewer risks – for fear of being wrong. Students at all levels of the learning process become less willing to try things that they don’t think they will be good at, since the goal is to be ‘correct’ and therefore rewarded at every step. Is it any surprise that as adults, many professionals have been conditioned against risk-taking, divergent thinking and creativity?
Five Ways to Innovate Today
1. Practice It may take a few tries to ‘be a kid again.’ Practice asking the question “what are some other ways I could solve this problem? Even for the problems that you currently feel are solved quite nicely.
2. Get out of your box. Go for a walk outside, change your environment, or simply move: many innovators tap into great ideas when they physically get into a ‘creative zone.’
3. Make three mistakes. Give yourself permission to try three things that may fail today. Start with something small—changing your schedule, taking a new way home from work, or reading something unexpected.
4. Write it down! Many innovators keep a journal to jot down ideas and thoughts. Whether you prefer a notebook, a voice recorder or a digital assistant, keep record of your “aha!” moments or observations about your experiments.
5. Persist. Don’t just dream it—do it! Put ideas into action. Each “failure” is one step closer to “eureka!”
If we accept the premise that everyone is born with inherent creative abilities, then everyone should be able to rediscover those abilities – even as adults. Organizations like Procter and Gamble and the Mayo Clinic have learned that it can be helpful to create innovation centers (separate organizations) that encourage creative innovation development by removing people from many of the bureaucratic influences that can constrain creative pursuits. 
Professionals who value a more methodical and organized approach to the innovation process might instead appreciate the work of HP’s Phil McKinney – particularly in the realm of product and service innovations. McKinney calls his approach “Killer Innovation”. He proposes a simple innovation “formula” — F+I+R+E together with P+O. This formula means we need Focus, Ideation, Ranking, and Execution together with Perspective and Observation.
For most of these process steps, there is a need to exercise different sets of filters, and there are many learnable techniques that can help participants along the way. As an example, the ideation process can be greatly enhanced by first developing a series of “Killer Questions” that change our perspective. Instead of asking the question “what does my customer want?” we could also ask “What does my customer most hate about using my product?”
The questions we choose greatly influence the kind of answers we get, and the ideas we generate.
Another technique XLC has used with selected clients is called Playing With Purpose. Telling someone to THINK on the spot can often be constraining. However, sometimes ideas come naturally when we are doing other things that stimulate our brains in new ways. Some of us need to move (or even dance) to think. For others, music is a trigger. Some can read and reflect privately. Others need to see things for themselves before their minds are unlocked. Purposeful Play is one set of keys to unlock that creativity. It is a tool for ideation, allowing participants to take a problem from their own organization and use play exercises to help create an environment that stimulates divergent thinking.
Have you known actors or other people who seem to you to be “creative types”? Can the ability to improvise effectively be learned – even by a non-actor? Happily, the answer is yes.
Improvisational Problem Solving uses the art of improvisation which is practiced routinely in the acting and music communities. In essence, “Improv” is the skill to capture from one’s surroundings a flash of inspiration and then to follow that inspiration in a way that seems intuitive. It requires participants to become keenly sensitive to the unspoken ideas and energy in others who share the stage (or the boardroom), so that we can build upon others’ inspirations to cause a musical or comedic or creative idea to grow organically. Once again, observing and listening to others and then using their energies and thoughts to develop ideas is critical. As in Playing With Purpose, this program starts with a common problem to be “solved” learning and practicing some improvisational skills and then applying them to the problem at hand.
While there are many tools and approaches available, each individual and organization must choose the learning tools that are best suited to their own company culture. The only mistake is not to start. In essence, then, we should all consider being more child-like. We were good at it once in our life. Perhaps we can be so again.
 At the top of this page, you can download the case study adaptation: MAYO CLINIC: Design Thinking in Health Care based on the case developed by the Yale School of Management.This case study is the second in a series of case studies on Design and Social Enterprise funded by the Rockefeller Foundation through a grant to the Winterhouse Institute. The text and videos in this case are published by the Yale School of Management and Change Observer, part of the Design Observer Group, under a Creative Commons License for free noncommercial use with attribution, and may be used, disseminated and taught without fees or permission. However, documents or external web sites linked to in the case may be covered by their own terms of usage as indicated on the web site or document in question. For more information about this web site and the Design and Social Enterprise case series please consult the About/Credits page. Registered faculty interested in using this case are urged to contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further information, including teaching notes. We also welcome any comments about faculty classroom experiences with this case.
The ideas of “Killer Innovation” have been pioneered by Phil McKinney, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) Personal Systems Group. Some people call Phil HP’s CIO (Chief Insight Officer). http://philmckinney.com/