5 ways to improve your creative thinking | Top Universities

5 ways to improve your creative thinking

By Rafis Abazov

Updated June 1, 2023 Updated June 1, 2023

Summer is the time for internships and summer jobs for many students, and it is also a great time to work on your creative thinking and innovation skills so you’ll be in good shape to get that dream job after graduation. 

Everyone says that modern companies – including those which are most popular to work for – highly value innovative thinking and creativity. The problem is, how can you be creative without failing, looking stupid or repeating what others have already suggested a hundred times?

For last few years I have been talking to various startups and have heard many interesting recipes for innovation. Here are six ways to improve your own creative thinking and innovation skills…

1. Create your own “Three Ifs”

Many good innovators take an existing object and ask clever questions to twist the very concept of it and make it new. Steve Jobs didn’t start with the idea of a smartphone. He just took an existing cell phone and asked a very simple question: how can we improve it to make it better – or the best?

Let’s be clear about this – there are no universal recipes for innovation, and each person should develop her or his own approach depending on specialty, interest, type of thinking, or even the type of team s/he is participating in.

That said, I usually suggest my students build creative thinking around three “ifs”:

(1) What would happen if I change it (the object/ system/ social relationship, etc)? 
(2) What would I change or improve about this object if I wanted to use it in 10 years?
(3) What would I do if I had a one-million-dollar investment to improve it?

These questions can become powerful tools that can help you to think differently. It is important to exercise these skills by repeatedly using the “three ifs” formula (or designing your own set of questions) about all sorts of things. And many new ideas will pop up.

For example, for several semesters I kept asking my students, let us take a bicycle, think about it and ask the “three if” questions, so we can come up with a new idea. Initially the students strongly resisted and were very skeptical. However, after several rounds of discussions and brainstorming they began to come up with many new creative ideas. We narrowed down those innovations into small course projects and my students’ teams won several cash awards to implement their creative ideas.

2. Practice dreaming

The greatest paradox is that creative thinking is not necessarily the product of IQ or enlightenment via the proverbial apple falling on your head. It is a matter of regularly training your imagination, practicing your powers of observation and dreaming, big or small. It sounds so simple, and yet in this era of information overload and highly charged urban life, this important element is often missing from our everyday lives.

All too often we stay focused on the main task at hand, devoting our mental powers to routine actions (including Twitter and SMS – well, I am sometimes guilty of this too), so that at the end of the day the most creative idea we can come up with is just to finally take a break in front of the TV or computer screen. Sound familiar? 

Whatever you’re doing – whether it’s work or leisure – practice spending time applying the “three ifs” formula to anything you see or imagine. This will help you get into the habit of making space in your mind for dreaming – essential for creative thinking and innovation.

3. Make time for cohesive creative thinking

Every textbook on creativity affirms to the importance of setting aside clearly defined time for creative thinking and innovation. For example, Google asks its teams to allocate at least 20% of their time to creative thinking or new projects.  But often, even if we show up ready to innovate, still something doesn’t work and fresh ideas fail to pop up like popcorn. There are two reasons for this stalemate. The first is that we don’t practice dreaming, and the second is we don’t practice focusing on cohesive ideas.

Therefore, the next rule of creative thinking is very simple: allocate time – it might be an hour per day or per week – in which to exercise creative thinking about something specific. A colleague told me that when he was a student many years ago he started musing about mobile phones – what they would be in 10 and 20 years’ time. Already at college his essays on this topic won much praise, and after college he got a cool job designing apps for phones to make them much smarter and attractive for “millennials”.

4. Learn to pitch your ideas (in an elevator)

There is simple truth in the fact that Steve Jobs of Apple was great at exploring and explaining innovations based on existing products – laptops, cell phones, music players. He didn’t invent those products, but he made them better and he was great at explaining why his version was superior to other competing goods.

On many occasions I hear from my students, “But I had that idea first” or “I proposed something like that just recently and nobody listened to me.” In this situation I always highlight the bottom line – probably you did have a wonderful idea, but you didn’t express yourself clearly and excitingly enough to grab people’s attention, or help others to grasp the nature of your innovation or project.

There is an old saying, “If you cannot express your idea in three sentences – you don’t have an idea!” One of the most important innovation skills is the ability to present a very short and clear description of a new idea (two to three sentences – like shouting through the closing door of an elevator) and to make a short presentation (two to three minutes – what is called an “elevator pitch”). Like any other skill, the ability to articulate in this way can only come through much practice.

5. Bounce ideas off others

Even a great innovator needs people around her or him to discuss – or “bounce” – new creative ideas and innovations. What do the major innovative ideas of our time have in common, from Microsoft (well, when it was young) to Google? All of them were created by teams of people who stayed together to conceive the idea, plan their innovative projects, take them to investors and the public, and most importantly jointly brainstorm those innovations within the team – bouncing ideas, questions and improvements until the product was perfected to become the next multi-billion dollar “eureka.”

Therefore, a final important asset to add to your innovation skillset, is the ability to be a valuable team player, capable of bouncing ideas to the next level. For some young people this is very natural, while for others it does not come so easily to be a team player. But it is never too late to train yourself in this mode of interacting.

This article was originally published in August 2015 . It was last updated in June 2023

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