5 Questions That Make You More Creative

5 Questions That Make You More Creative




If you want a better solution, ask a better question. I first saw this statement in something by Edward de Bono, probably his book book Lateral Thinking. As I’ve written before, what you see is in part what you expect to see. Those who expect to see ordinary things, see those. And those who look for more unique things, find more interesting ones.


While lecturing on brainstorming, I often ask those in the audience a series of questions. The first one is “what am I wearing?” I have them write their answers in a few quick sentences. Following that, I ask the same question again, but with one word added, “specifically.” So the new questions is, “What specifically am I wearing?” It’s interesting how that one word, changes their answers. The responses to the first question are things like a button down shirt and khakis. The answers to the second question, as you may have guessed, include actual colors, patterns, brand names and other more informative insights than before. And that’s the difference one word makes.


To be more creative, you have to ask better questions. So here are five main questions you should ask yourself during projects.


How can I combine this with something else? Synthesis is the easiest method of generating unusual ideas. Any two things can be combined to make a new concept. And in the beginning of the creative process, this is a great question to expand your possibilities. How can a bridge be combined with a fan? Click here to see.


How can I adapt this concept to fit something else? The idea you have may be a good one, but it may work even better in another field. Who knew adding bike lanes to traffic would actually  speed up traffic? Click here for that. .


What can be substituted for this? There may be something out there that works better to solve your problem. This could be a different material, a different color or a different person to do it. Take time to switch out parts of the solution even though it seems to work well now. If you are trying to create light in an impoverished village with no electricity, maybe a liter bottle of water would do the trick. Click here for the video.


What negative could I turn into a positive? There are always shortcomings of products. But sometimes these shortcomings can be turned into assets if just looked at in the right way. A problem with roadways is that they take up a lot of space while reflecting a lot of heat and sun. What if we were to use them to collect energy? Here is an idea for solar roadways.


How can I simplify this? Usually, we tend to over-design products. As we keep improving the design, we keep adding more stuff. Eventually, they become confusing. The example here is an old one, the iPod. When it came out it was a revolution; it took only three clicks to get any song. If you can remember that far back, think of all the other mp3 players at the time. They had so many buttons it took an engineer to just turn them on. Here’s an idea.  Next time you create a PowerPoint presentation, take out half the words. See what that does. I bet more people pay attention to.


For more questions like these click here for a larger list called SCAMPER Questions on my blog.


How Does Creativity Relate to “Your” Job?

How Creativity Relates Your Job

When I speak with people at events and conferences about creativity, they tend to agree that creativity is a good thing. But for them personally, they don’t really see how it fits into their life. And I totally understand why someone would think this way. Historically, creativity has a confusing message.

But take it from me, creativity relates to your life and your method of doing business—no matter what you do. Wouldn’t you like for your employees to be more productive? Wouldn’t you like for your business to be more profitable. Or wouldn’t you just like to lead a happier, more meaningful life?

The skills related to creativity are flexibility, empathy, idea development, design, storytelling, problem solving, and so on. Creativity includes a huge range of skills related to contemporary life. As automation and outsourcing continue to change the nature of what we consider work, creativity becomes ever more relevant.

The definition I use is the production of something novel and useful. So when you solve a problem in a new and better way, you are being creative. Creativity can be big (paradigm changing) or small (personal). It doesn’t matter. Take for instance, if you decided to leave for work 20 minutes earlier each day in order to beat that traffic jam that occurs every morning as you get on the road. You may actually save time in your workday because you will be on the road for less time. As a result of not being in your car, you’ll be more productive and save gas. Let’s say as a result of leaving early, your daily commute is lessened by 10 minutes. Over the course of a year, you gain 40 hours of time. That’s like having a week vacation. Subsequently, it’s also a creative way for being more productive.

I’m using this example because where I live, leaving 20 minutes early can actually reduce my commute by about 20 minutes. But this is a small thing. What would happen if we were to scale up this type of thinking.

UPS did something similar to this a long time ago when they decided to just turn right. By minimizing left turns, they found that their truck routes were more efficient. Because of this policy, UPS has achieved the following:

  • Saved 10 million gallons of gas
  • Reduced CO2 emissions by 100,000 metric tons, equivalent to 5,300 passenger cars off the road for an entire year. UPS website


I think we often get confuse efficiency with effectiveness. UPS got it right. By thinking about the problem, running the numbers and including some unorthodox models, they were able to become much more effective, not just efficient. You can very efficiently do something wrong. Doing things effectively means doing things right.

Chance Favors the Prepared Mind

Chance favors the prepared mind

Over the summer, I had the privilege of serving as a reviewer for the Ocean Exchange. The Ocean Exchange is a nonprofit organization awarding grants to innovative ideas for improving our environment. They give two main grants, the Gulfstream Navigator Award and Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics Orcelle Award. Each is worth $100,000. It’s a very generous foundation with a great cause.

The conference for Ocean Exchange began on Sunday. The final winners will be decided later today. Starting the conference, the emcee Dain Dunston made an immediate impact. He opened with Louis Pasteur’s quote, “chance favors the prepared mind.” He followed with statements like, “prepare to see opportunity” and “observation predicts outcomes.” All these are profound and true.

What we expect to see largely determines what we actually see. Studies have shown that in situations with expectations, our first inclination is to think our expectations are being met. Take for instance, if I were sitting at a café table along the sidewalk waiting for a friend. Sitting at that table, I’m expecting to see the person I’m waiting for at any moment. Therefore, as each person walking toward me comes into view, I see my friend in them until otherwise proven wrong. First, it may be hair color that differentiates them as not being my friend. Or, it could be body shape.

This kind of expectation can also lead to what’s call change-blindness and innatentional blindness. These are forms of selectively seeing what we want to see. So if you want to see opportunity, prepare to see opportunity. If we try to see more opportunities, we will in fact do so.

One way to see more of what’s actually happening around us is to be more empathetic. That might seem odd, being empathetic to see better. But if we don’t understand someone else’s situation, it’s hard to see why they do things. Reality is very interpretive with many possible solutions for the same problem. Learning to see can help us be prepared for unexpected moments of insight.

To Be Creative, Choose a Lifestyle Not a Trick

Choose a lifestyle not a trick

I’ve read a ton of posts with tricks for being a better, smarter, more creative, or generally more successful person. I’m assuming that you have too. But honestly, do these tricks help—not really. They are fun to read and interesting to think about. But very few of us will actually be impacted by them. That’s because tricks don’t change behavior.

A long time ago I read some studies on the best methods for losing weight and getting in better shape. These were studies that dealt with actual results rather than hype. Surprisingly, the best method for being healthier didn’t involve a radical style of exercise, a gimmicky diet, the latest treadmill or some other quick fix. Instead, the research found that if you really want to get into shape, date someone who is already in shape.

It’s true. To change your lifestyle, you really need to change your general way of doing things. By dating someone who is already in shape, you’ll start picking up on their habits and begin incorporating them into your life. The sad part is that they probably will slide into a few of your tendencies. But there is a real lesson here. I have tons or methods for generating ideas and synthesizing concepts. And they do work. Or, you could buy the book “Thinkertoys.” It has hundreds of games and techniques in it. But none of these make you more creative in the long term. To have a more creative career, you have to actually develop a practice of being creative.

Something I’ve found through research and practice is that one of the best ways for gaining a more creative life is to become more curious.  It’s much easier for all those other things related to creativity to fall into place for a curious person than a person who isn’t curious. Curiosity works because it compels you to act, to seek out new things. Creativity people are problem finders. And curious people seek out problems. Curiosity comes from a knowledge gap that needs to be filled. Once you know you don’t know something, you will want to figure out what it is that you don’t know. So taking walks, camping, tinkering with stuff, talking to new people – these all lead to heightened curiosity. Curiosity isn’t a drive where the more you get the fuller you get. Instead, the more stimulus you get via curiosity,  the more curious you become.

But most of all, hang around others who are curious and creative. That is how you will actually increase your odds of being creative yourself.

Four insights from Kevin Carroll’s lecture

Four insights from Kevin Carroll lecture

Last week, I had the privilege of introducing Kevin Carroll to a packed auditorium of students and faculty. Rarely have I seen a speaker maintain the focus of hundreds of students for that long a time. They even stayed through the entire Q & A session. He brought down the house. If your company is looking for an inspirational speaker for creativity and innovation, I strongly recommend Kevin. His story is incredibly engaging, and he is definitely a positive agent of change. His website is here.

A few memorable lines from Kevin are:

  • A closed mouth don’t get fed: speak up for yourself if you want someone to listen.
  • Haters are my motivators: let the pessimism of others inspire you to act.
  • Be a catalyst – an excitatory agent that speeds up or changes a process, help others change their ideas into reality
  • Be a doer, not a talker: a lot of us talk about making a difference. But few of us actually go a head and do it.

Be a Catalyst for Change

Be a Catalyst for Change

Kevin Carroll is an inspirational speaker promoting creativity and social change. He’s got a great message and stage presence. Check out his TED Talk, from a while back. He’ll be speaking at SCAD this week. What really impresses me about him is that he’s promoting action over talk. We need to start doing what we are talking about. Additionally, he’s pushes the concepts of play and curiosity as motivators. His web site is here.

Using Metaphor as a Creative Strategy


Metaphor as a Creative Strategy

Creativity is valued in businesses these days because creative problem solving leads to larger solutions that can drive innovation. Since many of the problems facing companies are ambiguous with many potential solutions—some good, some not so good—creativity is necessary in developing solutions for larger scale issues.

Creative people are broad, conceptual thinkers visualizing the world through metaphor. They tend to see the forest over the trees. The use of metaphor is an effective strategy for seeing the world differently. Visualizing problems through metaphors assist in the process of finding creative solutions.

Take a moment to visualize what you think a corporation looks like. Is it big, or is it small? Is it run by nice people or mean people? How does your idea of a corporation change when you visualize it as a machine? See how changing that metaphor can change how you begin solving problems. Now change your corporate metaphor to a prison, a carnival, a brain, or an organism. With those in mind, how would you increase productivity for each of those metaphorical visualizations? See how the metaphor changes the way in which you choose to solve problems.

This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, A Curious Path: Creativity in an Age of Abundance.

Are there really any boring problems?

Are there really any boring problems?

Creativity starts with a problem. As one who teaches creativity, I advise starting with an interesting problem. It’s seems logical that interesting solutions come from interesting problems. But when you think about it, are there any boring problems?

Often times, the determining factor of a boring or interesting problem is in the way you look at it. If you think a certain topic is of little interest, problems associated with that topic are likely to seem that way too. But if you put your brain to work, seemingly dull topics can become interesting. Like many things, once you identify hindrances to clear thinking, it becomes easier to view problems more objectively. Here are some barriers to clear thinking that get in our way.

Egocentrism – we have a self-serving bias when viewing topics. So if we don’t like it, we may think it’s boring.

Sociocentrism – this is defined by group centered thinking. If the group doesn’t think it’s interesting, it isn’t.

Unwarranted assumptions and stereotypes – we often take things for granted. The topic of accounting might not interest a lot of people. But there may be a lot of interesting problems within accounting where innovation could take place.

Relativistic thinking – this is when we believe that truth is a matter of opinion. Last year, I had students describe simple tools in depth to prepare for a pitch. One of the students said, “Why are we describing a screwdriver? Everyone knows how to use one.” Then a student next to him chimed in and said she didn’t.

Wishful thinking – sometimes we believe things to be true because we wish them to be. Maybe that accounting problem seems boring because we don’t want to work on accounting problems to begin with.

It’s hard to be impartial on all accounts. But if we give problems a chance, they can all be interesting. Sometimes by just focusing on the topic, it becomes interesting in itself. Take for instance, numbers deemed uninteresting. These are numbers that don’t fall in any type of loaded sequence like primes, squares or Fibonacci. To view these in these as uninteresting is actually a mistake, because the mere fact that they don’t fall in a sequence can make them interesting. See how in this video from Numberphile on uninteresting numbers.

What’s Your Creative Routine?

What's Your Creative Routine?

It’s interesting to see the daily routines of some of the most creative people in history. Here’s an infographic by R.J. Andrews on the habits of some of them. What It tells us, I don’t really know. You can draw your own conclusion. The related article, INFOGRAPHIC: SEE THE DAILY ROUTINES OF THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS CREATIVE PEOPLE, was written by Jennifer Miller.

Should the market define our values?

'Moral principles' highlighted in green

Should the market define our values?


As we continue forth into an economy based more and more on market principles, interesting questions arise. Part of the issue is technology.  Technological innovations have enabled the market to invade every part of our lives like never before. But another part of the issue is that many believe the market to be amoral. True market interactions are between two consulting parties. But is that really true?

In my mind, the creative people moving the market and technology forward should be asking the big, philosophical questions shaping our society as we advance into a more market based morality.

A couple of years back, Michael Sandel wrote, What Markets Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. It’s a fascinating look into what can actually be bought and sold today. As a consequence of market based pressures, many of the morays of old seem to be fading into the past. Thusly, a lot of interesting ethical questions arise. Here are a few.

  • Should we teach our children to break in line? The market believes line-breaking is moral. First class flyers go straight to the front of the line at airports, past all the poor folk. Most amusement parks offer fastpass tickets.
  • Should we profit from the deaths of others? The market believes yes and no on this one. Companies now carry life insurance on low level employees. Essentially, they think blue collar workers won’t live that long. Oh, the beneficiary is the company, not the employee’s families. In a failed attempt, the defense department once proposed a website to for gambling on which world leaders would be killed first. Dubbed the “terrorism futures market,” it would have essentially crowdsourced certain analytics pertaining to world stability. This could have saved money and improved global insight.
  • Should justice be equal for the rich and poor? We all know that has never been the case.

And how invasive should we allow our technology to become? According to Clark Howard, Microsoft’s Bing app agreement allows the following.

  • Record audio from your phone at any time without your prior knowledge
  • Add or modify calendar events and send email to guests without your knowledge
  • Add, remove, or change events
  • Read stuff that’s on your phone in many different ways

So as we look to the future, we should have this conversation. And those creating the innovations of tomorrow should be thinking about how invasive we want market mechanisms and technology. What should we monitor and what is off limits. I’d bet nothing will be off limits in the future.

So when does technology make a person not themselves—after a heart transplant, arm transplant, brain transplant, or head transplant? Do cyborgs have rights, and what about robots? I’ve shown this video of the Big Dog robot to a lot of people. Often times they express empathy for the robot, especially when it is kicked.

The matrix always seemed like a Sci-Fi fantasy. But really, it’s not that far away. Ask the big questions now.