How to advance your creativity skills

Albert Einstein once said that creative imagination is “to regard old problems from a new angle.” Indeed many modern business studies suggest that the workplace in the 21st century requires creativity skills and these skills are in high demand in our rapidly changing world. My students typically ask me for some magic key or formula to develop their creative thinking and creativity skills. It is not that simple, but it is possible—and here is how you can go about it

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1.  Starting point: imagination and divergent thinking

Legend has it that it was a falling apple striking Isaac Newton on the head that allowed him to imagine a new idea. However, it was probably a very different apple, as modern apples do not seem to work that way in the 21st century.

Real life is not that simple, and creativity has many components and requires many steps. Luckily, many decades ago, great scholar Ellis Paul Torrance developed the simple Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. The tests involve exercises on divergent thinking and problem solving in four steps: Fluency, Flexibility, Originality and Elaboration.

I usually start with the very first additional step – which is exercising imagination. My observation of students suggests that imagination is not an ability given at birth: it is a very practical skill, which every student can and should develop through regular exercises. One way to train your imagination is by looking around you for what should be changed for the better. I always give this advice: look at any challenge, inconvenience or problem around you and then try to imagine how to address it, and what you can do to solve the problem.

A good example of exercising imagination and divergent thinking is our MDP program at al Farabi Kazakh National University (KazNU) in Almaty City. Our very first sessions include developing the imagination by an exercise of mentally walking through the campus or the streets of Almaty, finding various problems and challenges. Once you clearly identify a problem, you can exercise your creativity for solving it step-by-step.

2. Popcorn ideas ... and “Fluency”

As a next step, I encourage my students to think about “Fluency” and come up with at least 10 meaningful and relevant ideas for how to solve the identified problem. We brainstorm ideas using a “popcorn approach”: it is like a speed-date 15-minute session where every team member should simply fountain ideas and write them down. Then comes a critical thinking stage of working in small groups of 3 to 4 people who look through ideas, exercise critical thinking and select the best 5 or 6 do-able and practical ideas for presentation. Indeed students can come up with hundreds of ideas, but in this super-busy university life, we have only enough time to listen to a very limited number of relevant presentations.

3. Hard work on “Flexibility”

I love citing business case studies, which suggest that in 90 percent of situations creativity comes from hard work. Flexibility means that students will think about various solutions from different angles. Indeed, the nature of hard work in the intellectual environment of startups, business incubators and our seminars lies in working on an exhaustively long list of possible solutions.  I suggest to my teams that hard work in this context means disciplined work where it is essential to ask a simple question: when are the deadlines for the next benchmarks, and for finalizing the ideas into the creative project.

4. Working on “Originality” of ideas

Working on “Originality” of ideas is a very useful step in the modern era of technological revolution and rapid social change. This is a very important part of developing and exercising creativity skills, as students have to identify not only relevant but also original ideas where they can identify a very new angle.

This is a stage where soft skills—such as out-of-the-box thinking, team-building skills and working on online collaboration platforms—are of great importance. At this stage, the students not only communicate their ideas, but also work in teams to assess originality of every idea.  Sometimes, some of my students complain that team building among millennials is hard, and ask me if they can work alone. I usually quote an old oriental proverb: “If you want to go fast—go alone, if you want to go far—go together with your team!” In the end, when my students prepare their project presentations, I always ask them to clearly identify and highlight at least one novelty and one new angle.

5. “Elaborating” your creative project

At the final stage, students exercise their creative thinking by elaborating on the project—explaining in detail their proposals and solutions. Here it is very important to think outside of the box and to ask yourself—what should I take into consideration without missing important details. Success in creative thinking comes not only through reflecting about novelty, improvements and innovations, but also through elaborating many details. After all, Steve Jobs did not invent the smartphone from scratch, what he did was creatively improve the existing smartphones by inventing thousands of small incremental innovations.

 6. LOOK for lessons to learn

Now, when the students have completed their work, I suggest that they sit down either alone or with a team and identify the most useful creative skills they learned. This is a step where students should look back, evaluating the entire process and developing the lessons learned, so that they are better prepared for meeting the next problem that presents itself, and for learning more creativity skills.

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