from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 3
Creative Thinking—Make It a Habit!
Oliver, a geophysicist, is the Irving Porter Church Professor of
Engineering at Cornell University. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and former
president of the Geological Society of America and the
Seismological Society of America.
Dr. Oliver is author of The Incomplete Guide to the Art
of Discovery, (Columbia University Press, New York 1991).
is something mysterious about creativity.
We can describe it, admire it, strive for it and experience
it, but we can never understand just how or why a certain
innovative idea springs up at a particular time in the mind of a
particular individual. Indeed,
most people never expect to understand or master that process.
Let's hope we do not, for our world would be far more
dreary if we ever fully harnessed the creative process and learned
to produce results only on schedule or on demand.
the other hand, we can imagine a brighter future if we were able
to stimulate the creative process and produce more innovations.
Can we, indeed, take action to stimulate creativity?
"no," that due to their mysterious origins, creative
acts can only arise without warning to those blessed by fate. According to this line of thinking, it's inappropriate or
even futile to encourage creativity.
don't subscribe to such a dismal view; I think investigations in
the history of innovation show that we can, indeed, enhance our
studies show that creativity is repeatedly associated with certain
types of behavior and reasoning.
I do not mean to imply that a simple formula can be
derived, or that one technique will work for everybody, or that
success is guaranteed. But
based on the historical record, certain steps seem likely to
increase your creativity.
by conditioning yourself to be restless and uneasy about
the status quo. Don't
overlook the familiar just because you've seen it so often. Rather make yourself even more aware of it, then change the
pattern slightly. If
you invariably drive to the supermarket along a particular route,
try a new one. If your spouse always buys the groceries while you
return books to the library, switch jobs.
If you eat a grapefruit like everyone else — one half at
a sitting — eat both halves and compare the taste. (This
exercise may astonish you!). If you always make a measurement or
an evaluation in a fixed manner, change your routine. Sooner or later —
I'd bet quicker than you expect —
breaking your routine will help you invent an improved process or
your mind to see things differently —
in a new light, from a new angle, from another scale of time or
distance, or from the perspective of someone with a different
beyond the bounds of your expertise —
you may have the exact perspective needed by a colleague in
you have the germ of a good idea, preserve it by jotting it
down immediately. Then,
when you have time, think the idea through until you discard it as
worthless or elevate it to the "significant" category.
Great writers often scribble inspired thoughts when they
arise, then subject them to the time-honored writer's formula:
"l) revise 2) revise and 3) revise again." Consider your
idea a rough draft that needs to be polished by a few cycles
through the idea-processor.
Getting Useful Ideas
bones ideas are plentiful, but the trick is to identify the
good ones. Ideas
derive their importance and durability in relation to data,
problems and other ideas. In
other words, ideas must be tested against reality.
Good ideas will have two effects.
They will be useful in their original context and they will
create surprising, intriguing connections among things that once
seemed to exist in separate contexts.
your thinking into two distinct styles.
One style should promote carefree, blissful dreaming.
Would these compounds rapidly combine if "A" were
true? What wonderful
process could we invent occur if "B"
were correct? Questions
like these help you outline the fragile essence of an idea.
once the idea is fleshed out, energize your analytical thinking.
Test your idea against the data in the most dispassionate,
objective manner. Most dreams deserve to fail, and it's best that you scuttle
them, rather than allowing someone else the chance.
not be constrained by the critical side while you dream, but be
sure to use those "reality-checks" once the idea has
taken shape. In other words, learn to bounce back and forth from
dreamer to critic.
an idea from elsewhere if necessary. (Naturally, be sure to give the originator credit in an
ethical manner.) If
you admire a new product in another field, immediately try to
apply the underlying idea as a springboard for improving something
regular times for creative thinking. I walk to and from work
daily, about 35 minutes each way. After many years of following
the same route (sometimes I do vary it!), the journey is routine,
but I've dedicated the walk as a scheduled time for free, creative
thinking, for dreaming, for envisioning what might happen, for
devising imaginative solutions.
I jot down my ideas immediately after reaching my
also use sporadic, spontaneous times for creative thinking.
At meetings of scientific societies, for example, I'm often
so stimulated by news and unconventional events that I have
difficulty sleeping. Those
sleepless nights usually produce lots of ideas, some of them quite
think the fundamentals for improving creativity are pretty clear
from the literature on history's successful innovators.
If this is true, then why not follow their lead — and
improve upon their techniques?
its essence, my advice is, "to be creative, think
muddle around hoping for a great idea to strike like a bolt of
yourself to think in ways that have worked for others.
Everyone knows a habit can be acquired through repetition.
Why not make thinking creatively a habit?