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:

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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.


Creative Kids

Creative Kids

Ask yourself why so many companies see the need to invest in design thinking workshops and creativity training – it is because these companies might have very many “intelligent” people, but truly creative thinkers are few and far between. But the weird thing is that all of these smart people were creative, curious kids at one point in time. So what happened?

Decades of research on the ability for creative thinking has demonstrated a startling fact – creativity is not learned, it is unlearned. A large part of the reason for this is that formal education actively discriminates against most subjects that involve creative expression. At the top of the education system is mathematics and languages, then the humanities and at the bottom any subject involving true expressive or inventive creativity – art, dance and music for example.

Many educational policy makers now acknowledge that to prepare our children for the future, fostering creativity now needs to be seen as equally important as teaching numeracy and literacy. So we must reform education.

But there is a problem – educational reform takes time, and we are at risk of producing a lost generation of kids who are in school right now. So what do do?

It is my belief that we all must start acting RIGHT NOW by re-thinking the way we parent, mentor and coach kids. And here’s is some advice on how to do that.

Kids Need Stuff & Space to Play

One of the problems in the modern world is that the toy industry swamps kids with pre-built imagination. When most of us were kids, if you wanted to dress-up you went to the dress-up box. But today you can go to the toy store and find princesses and Darth Vader waiting. It is ready made. So we need to do less of that –I am not saying don’t buy your kids any toys, but give them the dress-up box full of old clothes and stuff bought from the charity shop. Give them the paper and the paints at their fingertips. How many of us give kids a digital device when we visit a restaurant today – how about providing paper and coloring pencils instead? Kids also need some space. So try to create a space in your home for kids to build their stuff. And what we also have to understand is that if kids are going to be creative, they need to have that space over time. Believe it or not, the worse thing that we can do is to ask a child to tidy up at the end of each play session.

Kids Need Time

What else is important is to give kids time. But not any kind of time – unstructured time. One of the problems with modern parenting is that we over structure our childrens’ time. School is followed by homework, followed by piano or dance lessons, followed by coached tennis practice. Kids need time to just play, without a plan or a time schedule. So send them outside, send them out to discover things for themselves.  When your kids say “I’m bored” that’s great, as boredom is often the trigger for invention.


I used to work in London and lived next door to some very successful business people. Before meeting these people, he met their nanny in the garden one day, together with two young children aged about five and seven. The author asked the Nanny, “So Who are these two?” and without batting in eyelid, she said “Well she will be a lawyer, and he will be a banker.” We need to stop putting these big expectations on our kids. The way we used to define success in an industrial age economy was by what it said on a business card, and how much money people made. But success is much broader than that, and what many of us already know is that may of the world’s best innovators and entrepreneurs never finished university.

Taking Risks

The other thing is that we should stop worrying that our kids are going to get kidnapped. In most countries in the world kidnapping is very unlikely, but these irrational fears mean that we stifle our kids freedom and desire to explore.  Research clearly shows that children, and especially girls, who grow up with fearful parents, become fearful and anxious adults themselves. We need to give kids more freedom, more autonomy and trust. Earlier this year my son Ries hit a car on his bicycle.  And of course I felt terrible, because the the driver of the car was badly traumatised. But Ries was wearing a helmet, and ended up with little more than a bruised ankle and scraped elbow.  Does that accident mean that we are going to stop him riding his bike – of course not. Because scratches and scrapes and the occasional broken bone is a part of being a child.

Celebrate Creativity & Create a Safe Environment

The other thing we need to do is to celebrate creativity. How many books on creativity, art and music  do you have at home? Because of my interest in art, my twelve-year-old daughter Hannah has become a big fan of the street artist Banksy, and we sometimes talk about the meaning of Banksy’s art.  But I equally enthuse about creativity in other fields of endeavour too, including business.

Kids can be hard on each other, and research shows that one of the biggest killers of creative courage –the courage for children to explore and express themselves are their siblings and their friends. So we need to be aware of that.  We need to explain to big brothers and sisters that they have a role to play in encouraging the creativity of the little ones.

Encourage Divergent Thinking

 So much of formal education is about linear and formulaic thinking. That was what was needed in the old industrial world. But in a modern world it is much more about making sense of complexity, and that requires divergent thought.  So one of the things that we can do with our kids, is to develop this ability for divergent thinking. And a wonderful way to do that is through riddles and brain teasers.

Health & Wellbeing

Now there is something else that is very, very important. It is about sport, and movement and rest. Because creativity is not just a brain function – it is a full body function. We have a substance in our body called dopamine, and amongst its many functions dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter. Dopamine is associated with mental alertness and creative thinking, and when kids exercise intensively they get a boost of dopamine. Sleep is also essential – while awake metabolism generates waste products in the brain which are damaging to cells. In sleep this metabolic rate decreases, allowing restorative processes to take over. School age children between 5 and 12 need between 9 and 11 hours of sleep, while teenagers need between 8 and 10 hours.


 The fact is that today’s children are the entrepreneurs, inventors, leaders and digital winners of tomorrow. But there is a problem – the way that many children are being prepared for an increasingly complex world is woefully inadequate in terms of the ability to think creatively.

So let’s all act to help children to retain and grow their creative potential – and save all of that time and effort trying to re-ignite their creativity when they are “intelligent” grown-ups.

If you liked this blogpost, you might also like my TED Talk about Creative Parenting.