4 Tactics To Cultivate Creative Thinking

4 Tactics To Cultivating Creative Thinking
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Summary: Today, leaders are charged with sparking innovation in their teams and business units. Innovation is hard and does not happen overnight. The first step to innovation is cultivating a culture of creative thinking. This article offers 4 tried-and-tested tactics to cultivate creative thinking.

Observe Precedents, Clear Your Mind, Think, Act

To tackle the volume, velocity, and complexity of change, organizations and their teams must consistently and continuously generate innovative solutions to old problems. A vital element of innovation is creativity and the generation of new ideas. Creativity is, in fact, the fuel of innovation. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines creativity as "the competence to engage productively in the generation, evaluation, and improvement of ideas that can result in original and effective solutions, advances in knowledge, and impactful expressions of imagination." [1]

In his classic book Creativity, Inc., President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, Ed Catmull, clarified and underscored that creativity is not simply a skill but a way of thinking, working, and solving problems as a team. As a leader, you will need to sharpen your creative thinking skills and foster the same for your team. This article offers 4 tried-and-tested tactics based on research by William Dugan and Amy Murphy in their book The Art of Ideas, published by Columbia Business School. The 4 tactics include examining precedents, cultivating presence of mind, experiencing a flash of insight, and achieving resolution. These tactics apply across industries and points in time.

1. Examine Precedents

This tactic pertains to practicing structured problem-solving and asking new questions. Through these sub-steps, you can spark curiosity, which in turn helps you see things in their separate parts and how they come together. A precedent is different from a best practice, usually about a complete process that someone else has customized and perfected for their context. A precedent is a snippet of a process, product, or service that addresses a problem for the particular step you are looking to solve. A precedent is an example of how someone solved a problem. For example, Steve Jobs got the idea for the Apple Genius Bar by observing a hotel concierge desk. Henry Ford was reportedly inspired by the process in the slaughterhouse when he created the car assembly line. The CEO of Zoom initially worked for Webex and was inspired by all the snags and challenges present in Webex to create a new online meeting platform called Zoom.

2. Cultivate Presence Of Mind

For this tactic, you need to practice mindfulness by clearing your mind and remaining in the present moment. Your mind functions like an extremely powerful computer: by clearing the cache from unproductive thoughts, worries, and ruminations, your mind is free to explore its own crevices and connect the dots of learnings and experiences stored in new ways. To cultivate presence of mind, you have to practice being "where your feet are," or at the moment. Observe around you, stay open to visual cues, and allow your mind and senses to process unencumbered.

3. Experience A Flash Of Insight

This is the eureka moment Archimedes experienced when he entered the full bathtub and displaced the amount of water equal to his volume. Archimedes had suspected a gold crown was a fake and was trying to prove it. He knew the weight of the crown and the density of gold but had no way to calculate the density of the crown. Once Archimedes immersed the crown in water, he could measure the amount of water the crown displaced, which equaled the crown's volume. Next, he divided the weight of the crown by its volume to calculate the density of the crown and compare it to the density of gold.

Before Reed Hastings created Netflix and became the CEO, he was a loyal Blockbuster customer. He rented movies every week and returned them on time. Once, however, he forgot to return the movie Apollo 13 on time, and his late fee was $40. He was sad and embarrassed. He then went to the gym and had a flash of insight, wondering whether video stores could charge a monthly membership fee without having to pay late charges. And just like that, the concept of Netflix was born: unlimited movie rentals for one flat fee. To practice this step, you will need to be patient and also open to new experiences or serene moments that will allow the insight to flash in your mind.

4. Implement Action

You asked new questions, thought about precedents, observed around you, and had a flash of insight. Now is the time for action. You pull all these elements together and think practically about how to solve your original problem. Reed Hastings thought about how Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, at the time, was shipping books out of his garage. His idea about Netflix was to ship movies. So, he went to Tower Records, bought several DVDs, and then went to the post office and mailed them to himself. A few days later, the DVDs arrived intact. He then scaled out his idea. Later, with the advent of the internet.

Netflix switched to streaming movies online. The premise remained the same: unlimited movie rentals for a fixed price per month. This is the tactical step where you put your idea into action and materialize it. It is the magical and challenging journey of transforming an idea from your mind's eye into the three-dimensional world. This is the step that takes the most time, effort, and resources. This step requires several other elements and skills that you can find in my article series, "eLearning Skills 2030."


Often, leaders like yourself are charged with sparking innovation in their teams and business units. Innovation is hard and does not happen overnight. The first step to innovation is cultivating a culture of creative thinking. Creative thinking is foundational and the fuel to innovation. One practical way to practice creating thinking and generate new ideas and solutions to business problems is to follow four tactics: examine precedents, cultivate presence of mind, experience a flash of insight, and implement action. These tactics are not easy and require focus and commitment. However, they are tried and tested, and research proved that they work. Implementing these tactics can help you cultivate creating thinking and foster the same for your team.


[1] PISA 2021 Creative Thinking Framework