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Creative thinking

Why read this? : We explore how creative thinking grows your business. Learn how you create a culture to help creative thinking thrive and deliver a consistent stream of great ideas. Read this to start thinking more creatively about creative thinking.

Creative thinking

How this guide raises your game :-

1. Understand the benefits of creative thinking. 

2. Explore different ways to encourage, enable and execute creative thinking.

3. Learn the key steps in the creative thinking process like idea generation, screening and testing.

Market research helps you better understand customer needs. But you need creative thinking to come up with and implement ways to meet those needs.

Creative thinking is a way of working that helps you build new ideas to win customers and beat the competition.

It’s about identifying which ideas are most likely to succeed. And how and where you use those to drive better customer experience and brand activation.

We’ll look at how to set up a strong creative culture and share practical tips on running an effective creative thinking process. But let’s start by outlining the specific benefits creative thinking offers your business. And then the challenges you’ll face in realising those benefits.

Yellow post it with illustration of a lightbulb pinned to a wooden pin board

Ready to test your knowledge?

What’s your starting level of knowledge about creative thinking?

Take the 2 minute, 5 question Three-Brains creative thinking quiz and see how much you know about creative thinking already.

The benefits of creative thinking

Your business runs on ideas. Ideas about customers. Ideas about your brand. And ideas about how to combine your customer and brand ideas to grow your business. Ideas come from thinking creatively. The benefits of these ideas to your business include :-

Creative thinking slide showing three benefits - differentiate from competitors, drive customer experience, develop brand assets

Challenges to creative thinking

With those benefits in mind, you’d think it would be obvious that creative thinking is good for your business, right? And yet, creative thinking can often be a challenge

Most businesses like the “idea” of creative thinking. But the “practice” is usually much harder. There are often many barriers to creative thinking

Most business activities focus on routines. On being efficient. Day-to-day processes in operations, supply chain, IT and finance rely on being predictable. Being certain.

Creative thinking is the opposite of that.

Person holding light bulb with blurred out light effect in the background

Creative thinking is unpredictable and uncertain. It often disrupts existing and invents new routines. It’s about effectiveness, not efficiency. There’s no direct relation between the time and effort you put into creative thinking, and what you get out of it. In fact, often you discard lots of ideas. This feels inefficient. Wasteful, even. But you have to get used to that to excel at creative thinking. Accept that there will be some failures along the way before you succeed.

This is how creative thinking works. 

Creativity AND efficiency

Creative thinking doesn’t replace routine and efficiency. But it acts as a harmonious counterpoint to them. Like the yang to business efficiency’s yin.

Your business is stronger when you can be both effective and efficient.

And in fact, they aren’t always mutually exclusive. You can apply creative thinking to operational efficiency problems to find ways to be more efficient. To do things better. 

And you can be efficient with your creative thinking, to reduce some of its more chaotic nature. You can apply efficient ways of working to make it a more ingrained and repeatable process.

Creative thinking - operational efficiency

There are 3 areas to work on to encourage, enable and execute creative thinking :- 

  • Culture – you build a creative culture so people see creative thinking as a core part of your business. 
  • Process – you build your creative process. to generate, screen and test ideas. This delivers a steady pipeline of creative thinking into your business.
  • Activation – you connect the creative thinking outputs to drive activities in your business, like brand activation and customer experience.

Creative Culture

Your culture drives how things get done in your business.

It’s how things work and what your business looks and feels like to the people in it.

However, it can be hard to picture this intangible concept. So, it’s often broken down into more tangible action areas. 

These cover 3 main themes which we’ll now go through, sharing examples along the way :-

  • People.
  • Leadership.
  • Environment.
Diagram with culture written in the centre and eight spokes - people, organisation, values, reward, leadership, environment, standards and policies, systems and resources

People

People can be a cultural factor on its own, but as an overall theme, it also pulls in organisation and rewards. 

It’s important to consider creative thinking and creative doing as 2 separate (though related) skills. Creative thinking is about coming up with ideas. Creative doing is about applying those ideas to make things happen. 

Here, we focus more on creative thinking. This happens before the doing stuff like writing and design. And it’s something everyone can help with if given the chance. Successful creative-led businesses encourage creative thinking to come from ALL parts of their business.

Organisation

You get more and better ideas when they come from a wider and more diverse group of people. You want open-minded and curious types who like to nurture rather than kill off ideas.

There are many different tools you can use to make sure teams are made up of diverse, but compatible styles. As per our creative culture article, one of the most common is the Kirton Adaptive Innovation (KAI) model. It shows how some people prefer easy-to-implement but relatively safe ideas. While others prefer to go after more breakthrough ideas.

Other common tools used to organise teams to have diverse styles include models from Myers-Briggs, Insights and Belbin.

Rewards and motivation

How you reward and motivate creative thinking is also part of the people element of your creative culture. 

It can be a challenge to set Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for creative thinking.

You should have some sort of quantifiable measure (e.g. number of ideas generated), but also some sort of quality measure. It’s not just about how many ideas people come up with but how many good ideas make it. 

These can be monetary rewards. Raises, bonuses and promotions based on increased sales and profits when ideas make it to market, for example.

Close up of a hand with thumb up

But usually, motivation is more intrinsically driven when it comes to creative thinking. You want to recognise and encourage more breakthrough ideas, and the responsibility for that is usually up to the business’s leadership team.

Leadership

The leadership team is responsible for setting the direction on creative thinking in the business.

It’s up to them to acknowledge its value and encourage it in people in their teams. 

For example, it’s normally the leadership team that drives areas like creative evaluation and approvals. These shape how ideas make it through a business.

It’s up to the leadership team to demonstrate the open-mindedness and curiosity which support good ideas. 

They also need to set boundaries on how conflict works when it comes to discussing and building on new ideas. 

Close up on a man's hand on the steering wheel of a ship

Constructive conflict which results in better ideas is good. Destructive conflict which kills ideas isn’t good. It’s up to leadership to show what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

Standards and policies, systems and resources

How and where that leadership shows itself is usually in the standards they set, and the policies they apply. These drive the systems used in the business, and how and where resources are deployed. 

For example, you see it in key areas of the brief. The goals you set for projects in innovation and communication, for example. The mandatories which drive how projects get delivered. It’ll also drive whether the business uses a formal innovation process or goes more agile. 

It’s also built into how, where and when leadership gives project teams feedback on their progress.

Small metal statue of lady of justice holding scales

Feedback should always be given with positive intent to help ideas thrive. It should always relate to meeting the target audience‘s needs and growing the business.

The leadership team must make sure that happens. They should ensure resources – people, budget and time – are deployed in the right creative areas. They encourage teams to make the best use of those resources to come up with the most creative ideas.

It’s key to your creative culture so teams feel safe pushing the boundaries with new ideas. The leadership team should encourage teams to take calculated risks and not shy away from risk.

Environment

Environment in terms of creative culture covers where and when creative thinking happens.

Where is all about physical location. For example, is your office layout conducive to creative thinking? Do you have spaces where people can collaborate on new ideas? And other areas where people can have quiet time to think about new ideas on their own? 

Many business spaces are set up to focus on operational thinking, rather than creative thinking.

A change of venue from the normal workplace often helps creative thinking. That’s why so many workshops happen at off-site locations like hotels and agency offices.

Many open rainbow coloured umbrellas

It’s also why those locations come with lots of support materials for creative thinking. Whiteboards, flip charts and marker pens, for example.

When creative thinking happens can be trickier to plan for.

People often get ideas in random places. Out for a walk. In the shower. Looking at their phone on the train. You need your environment to be flexible enough to let people’s minds wander like this but also structured enough that there are places where new ideas can come together so they don’t get lost.

Many businesses encourage idea boards in the office, for example. Or they set aside specific times when people can just think about new ideas.

Ideas

While culture helps create the right conditions, it’s ideas which are the lifeblood of creative thinking. But how do you actually start the process of coming up with new ideas? 

The first step is usually to define the problem. Frame this positively. It’s often worth setting out this problem as a question, starting with, “How to …”

E.g. “How to persuade more customers in (customer group) to try more (your product)?”. Or “How to switch (customer group) from choosing (competitor) to (your product)?” 

It’s also worth making sure you’re clear on what the real problem is. Not “losing sales” but “convincing customers of the need for (benefit)”, for example.

Many businesses use the creative problem solving technique of 5 Whys for this. You repeatedly ask “Why” to diagnose the underlying problems. You keep asking “why” till you get to the problem’s root cause.

Get more playful

It’s often said we lose our creativity as we get older. We fear it more and our minds become less open as we leave childhood behind.

Many experts suggest looking back to childhood and the world of play is a great way to reignite your creativity.

Many common creative techniques originate from the world of childhood behaviour. This includes the previously mentioned 5 Whys.

But there are many other similar techniques which can help you get in a more creative mood.

Young child holding a blue paint tube and squeezing it out

Creativity is often driven by curiosity and a lack of knowledge of what the answer is. Asking “naive” questions or thinking through the problem from the viewpoint of a non-expert often leads you to new solutions.

Example – write a future headline

As an example, one brand we worked with was trying to set out its 5-year brand vision. It was challenging to articulate.

So we set them the task of writing the vision in the form of a future headline. We asked them to mimic the style of various newspapers, magazines and online sites. For example, what would a tabloid writer say about your brand 5 years from now? What about a sports journalist? What would your biggest customer’s PR manager say?

Removing preconceptions of what the brand is and seeing it from a different perspective helps you build more of a creative thinking mentality.

Man calmly reading a newspaper while it's on fire

Gather data and knowledge, but don’t drown in it

The more you know about customers, competitors and the category, the more likely you are to avoid wrong answers. But there’s a point where you can get “stuck” with too much marketing data.

This analysis paralysis can kill creative thinking and stall decision-making. It creates too many options and drowns people in presentations and spreadsheets. So work out the key knowledge and data you need before you start the creative thinking process. Be concise and relevant.

For example, spell out ideas which definitely won’t work for legal or other reasons. Review ideas which have been tried before and failed. Capture the key lessons learned from those experiences. Just don’t dwell on the details. 

The creative thinking process

There are many books on creativity and creative thinking.

One of the best-known authors in this area was Edward De Bono. He proposed a couple of different techniques including the Six Hats approach. But for this guide, we’ll use his suggested approach from his book Lateral Thinking*.

In this, he outlines 4 types of creative thinking tools. Firstly, idea-generating tools to break current thinking patterns. Then focus tools to review the idea search area. Next harvest tools to create more value from ideas. And finally, treatment tools to build in real-world constraints.

In reality, most businesses do this as 3 steps.

For example, our marketing innovation guide shares examples of how this works to launch new products and services. Creative thinking drives the first 3 steps of the innovation process. 

The first step is an idea generation (aka ideation) session to get lots of potential ideas out. 

The second step is idea screening. This refines your list to identify the one or more ideas most likely to succeed.

This then drives a business case to secure the resources to test the idea with customers. You use market research to gather customer feedback. From this, you make the idea stronger and more relevant.

Marketing innovation process - formal approach to screening and approval

Step 1 – Idea generation

Most people would recognise this as ‘brainstormingA group of people come together to generate multiple ideas of how to solve a problem.

The name brainstorming dates back to 1942 when advertising executive Alex F. Osborn first coined it.

You start by finding a facilitator. Someone to own the process of running the. Their role is to manage the process so participants can focus on coming up with ideas.

They should make sure everyone gets an opportunity to take part and that the required outcomes are delivered. 

hand holding a black marker over a blank paper page with other marker pens and ruler

Example idea generation activities

When you have articulated the problem, some examples of how you could generate multiple ideas from different perspectives include :-

  • How would “x” do it? Where “X” might be a celebrity, politician, competitor, alien or member of your family and so on. It doesn’t matter who the “x” is too much. For example, how would “Donald Trump” sell more dog food? Or how would “your mum” attract more visitors to your cafe? This can generate new and outside-the-box thinking.
  • Pictures and word associations – Often, people can articulate ideas with visuals better than with words. So you can ask brainstorming participants to take images out of magazines or from websites. Then use these to make a collage or mood board to find a different solution. Or you can pick say 5 random words – zoo, dog, disco, shirt, glasses – and ask teams to answer the problem by telling a story that uses those words.
  • Use opposites – Let’s say your creative challenge is how to attract customers to a new store opening. Rather than come up with ideas straight away, you could tackle the problem from the opposite point of view. Say ‘What if we wanted to keep people away’? This might spark different ideas about what you could do to solve the original problem. 
  • Vary the attributes – Depending on the product or service, you could also look at the adjectives that describe the product and see if the lens on the problem changes if you play around with them. What if it was bigger or smaller? What if it was faster or slower? How about if we made it men-only or women-only?

Quantity counts

These are only a few examples, there are many other brainstorming techniques you can use when running creative thinking sessions. 

The key point at this stage is to aim for many ideas. Quantity counts here, not quality. You filter the ideas for quality later. There should be no judging ideas at this point. (In Six Hats, this is called Green Hat thinking). 

At this stage, there are no bad ideas. In fact, the more ridiculous or outrageous the better. Generating more ideas should spark ideas in others.

When one of your idea generation methods starts to run out of steam, take a break. Then come back and try another method. It can be tiring to come up with many new ideas. Make sure you manage time and energy levels. 

Keep reminding everyone that there’s a winning idea somewhere among all those ideas.

Workshop post its generic contents

Step 2 – Idea screening

The next step is to screen or filter out the ideas.

Look for common themes that come out from the ideas in step 1. 

Start to group ideas that sound similar together. Ask the team who came up with the ideas to do a preliminary vote on which ideas sound most exciting or engaging to them. Identify any ideas which sound risky or challenging. (in the Six Hats approach, this would be Yellow Hat thinking which looks for benefits, and Black Hat thinking which looks for risks). 

Each idea then needs to go through a refinement process where you either discard it, merge it into another idea to create a bigger idea or polish it, to take it forward for testing. 

How you do this depends on your business’s preference for revolutionary or evolutionary innovation.  

If you lean more revolutionary, you’ll prefer to take more ideas forward to customers and be happy to have them relatively unpolished. 

But businesses that prefer a more evolutionary approach will apply stricter criteria such as per this example from our marketing innovation guide.

Here, the idea needs to be built up and refined before it moves forward. It’s usually up to the idea originator or project team to complete this. But they can pull in experts in the business to help. 

Idea generation to idea screening template

Step 3 - Idea testing and refinement

Depending on the nature of the creative thinking idea, and whether it needs resources like budgets, people or time, the idea might then need a business case. This is especially common in formal innovation and creative thinking processes.

See our marketing innovation guide for more on what goes into a formal innovation business case. But for this guide, we’ll cover a few things that might happen at this point.

Prototypes

If the idea is relatively small, and resource has already been set aside to work on “creative thinking”, it may be that the team then develops a prototype to test. This is very common in teams who follow the agile process. Small teams create mock-ups or very basic versions of the idea and test these with customers. 

This broadly falls within the scope of market research. It’s likely to be a qualitative style approach to generate first impressions and get feedback. Quantitative research may come later. But this usually requires more budget and therefore a business case.

Live tests and A/B tests

If the idea relates more to advertising or customer experience, there are opportunities to test out the idea “live”. Digital media channels for example let you select very specific audiences. So, you might choose to put an advertising creative idea in front of a small number of people in a specific location. Websites can let you run what are called A/B tests. Here you show different pages to different groups at the same time and compare and contrast how the pages perform.  

You should think hard about what you do with customer feedback. It may not always be valid or relevant. You have to consider how customers will respond to the idea if it launches. If test audiences don’t like it, it can be hard to let go of ideas. But ultimately, it’s your target audience who decides if your idea is any good. If something isn’t working, fix it or let it go. 

You’re looking for that one winning idea which is going to rock your target audience’s world. But you may have to work through many other ideas to find that one.

Creative thinking to action processes

For those ideas that “make it”, the creative thinking then transforms into creative action and brand activation. Customers need to experience the tangible outcomes of creative thinking. Otherwise, it’s all fluffy nonsense. 

This is where the more practical elements of creativity come in. When your creative thinking relates to communications for example, then your creative idea links into creative skills like writing, graphic design, photography and video content. 

But these also feed into all aspects of your brand activation. For example, what your logo and packaging look like depends on creative thinking. Your advertising and media approach depends on creative thinking. The outcomes of creative thinking support customer experience elements like your website, your social media and your blogs. 

Conclusion - Creative thinking

Creative thinking is a way to differentiate yourself from competitors by coming up with new and valuable ideas.

It is a way to drive the customer experience by coming up with new and better ways to meet customer needs.

And it’s a large part of your brand identity. Creative thinking is how you start to develop all your tangible brand assets.

But it can be a challenge. Great ideas transform businesses. But nobody wants to be transformed.

Often the better the idea, the harder the sell.

Yellow post it with illustration of a lightbulb pinned to a wooden pin board

It’s important to build a culture and processes that lead to ideas and great creative thinking. Think about how you encourage people and teams to work creatively. Think about what you need to do to lead creative thinking and how you set up a creative environment. 

The great advantage you’ll have is that most other businesses don’t do this. They tend to be conservative and resistant to change. The more creative thinking in your business, the more of a competitive advantage you’ll have.

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Three-Brains and creative thinking

The Three-Brains team know a lot about creative skills. We’ve helped many businesses use creative thinking to come up with clever, growth-building ideas. We then help turn those ideas into action, with creative advice and support in areas like writing, graphic design and brand storytelling

Check out our coaching and consulting services to learn how we can help you. Or get in touch, if there’s specific creative thinking skills you need help with.

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