Alan Iny is Senior Global Specialist: Creativity and Scenarios for the Boston Consulting Group, a global management consulting firm. He is also co-author, with Luc De Brabandere, of Thinking in New Boxes, published this month by Random House.
Do you follow a creative process?
Yes, absolutely! Our approach is called Thinking in New Boxes, and our book by that title is published by Random House (September 2013). In essence, “thinking in new boxes” can help you be more creative because the first thing it does is make you aware of your existing mental boxes. Then it provides a methodical process for fostering doubt and challenging those boxes. This kind of focused creativity increases the odds dramatically that you’ll come up with something useful.
For us, focused creativity means getting beyond random “blue sky, unconstrained” type thinking, which is the reason so many people are frustrated with “thinking outside the box” and typical brainstorming. It requires a thoughtful approach, for example challenging yourself with questions like: How would I describe my company to someone else? Instead of looking at my customers the way I always do, what would somebody outside the company say is my customer set? If forced to define my competitors differently, how would I do it?
Questioning your assumptions in this way can help identify competitive weaknesses, spot new opportunities and emerging trends, even spark the re-invention of entire industries.
We give people a simple but powerful five-step process to guide the creative process:
- Doubt: Understand that all our current ideas are only working hypotheses, and we need to see the world through fresh lenses.
- Probe the possible (explore): Re-examine the world with diligence and refreshed self-awareness, and establish a clear sense of the issues you want to address and the objectives you hope to accomplish.
- Diverge: The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas—so create as many new models, concepts, ideas, and ways of thinking as you can, even if at first some of them may seem unrealistic, contradictory, or impractical.
- Converge: Engage the analytical process to test your ideas, narrow your list, and decide which ones you want to pursue and implement for breakthrough change.
- Re-evaluate relentlessly: In a world of perpetual change no idea remains good forever – everyone needs agility and a penchant for taking thoughtful risks in order to know when it’s time to discard an old box and develop new ones.
Do you use any tricks or techniques to come up with ideas?
Absolutely, especially in the divergence phase. To paraphrase Linus Pauling, the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas—so this step is about creating as many new models, concepts, ideas, and ways of thinking (“boxes”, as we call them) as you can, even if at first some of them may seem unrealistic, contradictory, or impractical.
For example, one you have a very specific question you have decided to tackle, there can be exercises like describing your organization without using five key words. Or they can be exercises of imagination, like waking up one day as a completely different person—how would you describe your company, or your job from a completely different perspective? You could try to re-imagine not just your industry, but the entire world, by imagining what newspaper headlines will say 20 years from now. Using analogies and trying new combinations is also a source of many techniques. Overall, divergence works best when you include a wide range of these kinds of thought experiments.
Does technology help or hinder creativity?
Yes! We believe that technology can absolutely help AND hinder creativity, depending how it’s used. For example, technology can bring fantastic value to the creative process by of gathering possibilities from a broader range of people (“open innovation”), sparking ideas in completely new ways, and selecting and prioritizing among the ideas generated more efficiently. At the same time, if you haven’t taken the time to think about the right question you’re trying to answer, or been thoughtful about how to set up your brainstorm, technology will not help – it will simply make you more effective at doing the wrong thing.
Do you use group brainstorms? If so, how do you run them?
We strongly encourage group brainstorming – we’ve come across many corporate leaders who are frustrated with the process of “thinking outside the box”, but if that is your situation, you’re probably just doing it wrong. It’s always easier to blame the tool than to question your technique – but would you blame the hammer if you hit your thumb?
In terms of improving people’s technique, some of the tips we offer are as follows:
- Never forget that framing the question effectively is half the battle. Albert Einstein famously said, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend fifty-nine minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” Extreme, perhaps, but the importance of using an effective question, and laying out specific constraints and criteria for success in advance, cannot be overstated. A good question for brainstorming will be narrow and concrete, so that people feel they know how to begin answering it. Typically, such a question starts with “How could we…?” or “What if…?” It is visceral, enabling people to instinctively understand it in the context of their situation.
- Create conditions that foster creativity. Be thoughtful about the environment you create for a brainstorming session. Gather a range of people with diverse perspectives, potentially even some customers or experts. Try to take people away from their daily routine, to change their perspective and remove their inhibitions. Explicitly encourage full participation, and ensure that junior and senior members alike feel comfortable sharing their ideas, even ones that may seem silly or far-fetched. Make sure that everyone is on board with the plan throughout the exercise: a significant impediment to successful brainstorming is when people in one half of the room are freely generating new ideas while those in the other half are criticizing the ideas.
- Don’t jump straight into a brainstorming session—begin by revealing and doubting your own boxes. Any significant creative leap begins, first, with a shift in perception. Whether one is engaged in growth, change management, strategic planning, cost-cutting, or product or business model innovation, the first step in the creative process entails identifying and doubting one’s current boxes and determining which ones require reevaluation or replacement. Start by making an expansive list of many of the shared beliefs and assumptions about your organization. Discuss them and try to determine which of your organization’s boxes are still relevant and which ones need to be redefined.
- Bring some potential new boxes to the session to nurture ideation; they can dramatically increase the odds of a useful result. People often lament that the ideas shared in brainstorming sessions are either too trite and expected or too “out there” and impractical. This is a delicate balancing act, and being clear in advance about what you’re after will help. Try conducting a dry run using your proposed question along with some brainstorming techniques, such as changing perspective or experimenting with analogies. This will lead to a clearer sense of what should be on or off the table and what success might look like, and help you to develop some examples to share with the group. More broadly, this point underscores the need for a well-prepared and effective facilitator. Think of this role like that of a bus driver – a good one is well-trained and prepared, but also adaptive and alert. S/he knows the rules of the road – and there’s only one per bus.
Brainstorming participants need to focus on the right challenge to produce breakthrough ideas. And the first step is an open mind: You need to challenge your existing ideas before you can come up with new ones.
What’s the biggest challenge facing creative people?
The biggest challenge facing “creative people” and less-creative people alike is not coming up with new ideas – it’s changing existing ones. Thoughtfully taking inventory of your existing mental models and perspectives, and only then deliberately changing some of them, is the best way to be creative – but it’s not the most common. And whether you’re a “creative person” or not, you are a human being with a tendency to get stuck in your existing mental models, who runs the risk of being blindsided by the cognitive biases and blinders that affect us all.
Can creativity be taught?
Absolutely! The process of Thinking in New Boxes is meant to offer a new paradigm for creativity, taking the time to deliberately challenge your existing perspectives before coming up with new ones. And it is eminently teachable.