Creativity often eludes us because we’re accustomed to certain norms. “We’re highly socialized and have fixed assumptions about what the world looks like,” says Barry Staw, an organizational behaviorist at University of California, Berkeley. “You have to try to envision another world.”
To do that, Staw suggests a series of exercises, all designed to help you consider a wider range of options as you brainstorm.
As you do each of these exercises, resist judging your ideas for as long as possible. “A creative person is willing to suspend their caveats for a longer period of time,” Staw says. The selection process can come down the road — creativity requires freedom.
To flex your creative muscles, try these three easy exercises:
1. Re-imagine a familiar situation. To think more creatively, consider alternatives to obvious choices. If you assume that a restaurant will buy and prepare the ingredients for your meal, then make a list of other options. Perhaps the customers bring their own ingredients for the chef to prepare, or the restaurant provides ingredients that customers cook at their tables. “Think of opposites or radical differences,” Staw says.
That exercise can lead to exciting new business ideas. For example, companies like Bag Borrow or Steal and Rent the Runway, which both allow customers to rent high fashion goods, started as alternatives to the assumption that we have to own our wardrobes.
2. Practice breaking the rules. ”To learn how to act creatively, you have to violate norms,” Staw says. Practice breaking the rules with harmless violations that might be embarrassing or uncomfortable, like asking to read a poem over the loudspeaker at the grocery store, or offering to help the usher hand out programs at a play.
It’s okay if you get shot down — the point is to get comfortable trying options that most people would rule out immediately. Staw calls these “lessons in chutzpah” because they help you gather the nerve to take creative risks. Just thinking of rules to bend promotes creativity because you force your brain out of its comfort zone.
You can also look for ways that others are breaking norms. For example, Staw’s son discovered that teenage girls like mismatched socks, so he created LittleMissMatched, a colorful teen clothing line.
3. Make a list of things that bother you. As you go about your day, Staw suggests creating a “bug list,” or a list of annoyances. You might list slow internet or noisy air conditioner units. “Usually, if something has bothered you, that means there’s a hole in the service,” Staw says.
By thinking of possible solutions, you may stumble on a product opportunity. For example, one frustrated inventor created a stemware tether to stop wine glasses from chipping in the dishwasher.
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