Creative Thinking


Creative thinking is the ability to see what other people see, but in doing so see something different. It is sometimes described as involving two overlapping domains –expressive creativity and inventive creativity, and is essential to thrive in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world.

Expressive creativity illustrates the creator’s emotions and aesthetics, while inventive creativity demonstrates novel approaches to problem solving. Of course, there is no real dichotomy between the two – scientists often draw on aesthetic experience in the realisation of an elegant solution to a problem, and many problems need to be solved in the completion any artistic expression.

Studies of childhood creativity across cultures suggest that 98% of children under the age of six are able to engage in this kind of imaginative play involving originality, flexibility and elaboration, or what psychologists call divergent thinking. But from the age of six, something starts to happen to most children – this ability for true divergent thinking starts to decline.

By the age of twelve only around half of children might still be defined as creative thinkers; by the age of eighteen the proportion has declined to around ten percent. Think about your own experience – how many of your friends were still passionate about pursuing a career in art, music or dance by the end of their teens? How many really enjoyed completing riddles and brainteasers?

Below is a picture full of circles. What I would like you to do right now is to think about how you would fill out all of those circles if you were given just two minutes to do so. What method would you use? After you have decided your approach, please read on. But please do not continue reading before you have finished this mental exercise.

Exercise 1:

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 22.52.35.png

Cognitive Preferences in Dealing with Ambiguity

What you have just completed is an exercise to reveal an individual’s cognitive preference in dealing with an ambiguous task and addresses both expressive and inventive creativity.  The task is ambiguous, as I did not tell you how to fill out the circles.

I have used this test with thousands of managers around the world, normally using a paper handout and a pen, and in more than 80% of cases the individuals involved used a highly linear or convergent approach; they used one continuous line to go through all the circles; they shaded all of the circles the same; they wrote A, B, C…. or 1, 2, 3.  In another 10% or so of cases they used two to four variants of the same theme – a row of smiley faces, followed by a row of numbers, followed by a row of letters.

The Mind of a Child

If you give this exercise to a child, you typically see a very different response. Rather than linear or convergent thinking, you tend to see non-linear or divergent thinking with something different drawn in almost every circle – if you have young children, please try it.

This exercise allows an individual to demonstrate both expressive and inventive creativity – children tend to complete the circles by drawing animals, faces and a variety of other images that they like, and in many cases join circles together – for example by using two circles as the wheels of a bicycle or as a pair of eye glasses. Here is the outcome of the exercise completed by daughter Hannah when she was ten years old:

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In contrast, and as demonstrated through my research, fewer than 10% of managers act in an expressive or inventive way when completing this exercise – the majority apply an approach that is anything but creative.

 But why does such a cognitive bias towards ambiguity matter?

Because research shows that when facing an ambiguous or complex problem in which cause and effect are not always clear, the best outcomes emerge from sensing and probing from different perspectives. Quite simply, managing in a VUCA world requires both expressive and inventive creative thinking.

But why is it that the majority of adults have lost the ability to think creatively? Let’s explore that question with another exercise:

Exercise 2 – 30 seconds.

In a moment you are going to do a drawing exercise, so please take a pen and some paper.

Once you have your pen and paper, get ready to draw a cake which you will cut four times.

You have just four cuts, and your objective is to come up with the maximum number of pieces of cake.

You have 30 seconds to complete the exercise, and you should start immediately after you have finished reading this sentence.  Go!

(Please do not read on until the exercise is complete)


Cutting Cakes

So, how did you do? Again, this is an exercise that I have tested with scores of managers around the world, and my research reveals powerful cognitive preferences.

In about 50% of participants I see a cake as shown at Exhibit 1a below, and in around 40% of the other participants we typically see variants of Exhibits 1b, 1c and 1d. Some 85% of participants draw only one cake. This is particularly disappointing, when the actual outcome of this exercise is potentially hundreds if not thousands of pieces – in just 30 seconds!  But because most managers do not think creatively about the problem, the results are truly sub-optimal.

In my next blogpost I will provide the solution to the cake exercise, and in doing so explain why most adults have lost the ability to think creatively. I will then go on to explain that there is no reason for despair, and provide some practical tips on how we can all reconnect to our creative potential.

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If you liked this blogpost, you might also like my Keynote Talk about Creative Thinking.

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