4 Ways Creative Thinking Drives Professional Success

“We are going to reimagine every unloved product in people’s lives!” That’s the line that yielded the equity the founders of Nest needed to build a company that made thermostats.

Initially venture capitalists turned down their pitch for funding because thermostats are so, well, dull. Why did Kleiner Perkins eventually provide the capital?

Because the Nest founders were clear their business wasn’t about thermostats. It was about looking at familiar objects, seeing them in a new light, and inventing products that will change people’s lives. In other words, it was about imagination and creativity.

Nest recently sold their company to Google for $3.2 billion, proof that imagination and creative thinking produce results.

Imagination and creativity are the catalysts for transforming knowledge into insights, valuable ideas, and successful implementation. In essence, you see the potential instead of the problem. You see the reasons to act rather than the reasons not to act. Ultimately, breakthrough results depend on these cognitive capabilities.

In organizations, innovation comes from people who use imagination and creativity to solve complex problems. Frameworks like creative problem solving and design thinking all share one common thread: they support and promote individual creative skills.

How to Sharpen Your Creative Thinking Skills

Here are four skills that, with practice, are guaranteed to help you reimagine solutions to challenges you are facing and lead you to professional success.

1. See with Fresh Eyes.

Nest reimagined the thermostat by seeing it with fresh eyes. They observed the thermostat differently than other people.

Fresh observations are the result of noticing and recording the details of situations. Look at things from new angles. Record what you are seeing, feeling, tasting, hearing, and touching. Details fuel imaginative and creative solutions.

For example, what if you were charged with improving the waiting room experience at a doctor’s office? The first thought might be to provide more comfortable chairs or more specific estimates of wait times.

But Jerry Seinfeld provides this detailed description of the waiting room experience that might drive a whole different set of ideas:

“I hate the waiting room because it’s called the waiting room. There’s no chance of not waiting. Why would they take you right away when they’ve got this room all set up. You sit there with your little magazine. You pretend you’re reading but you’re really looking at other people, wondering what he’s got. Then they finally call you and you think you’re going to see the doctor, but you’re not. You’re going into the next, small waiting room where you don’t have a magazine. And you’ve got no pants on.”

These rich observations might lead you to ask: How might we eliminate the waiting room altogether? Or, in what ways might we make examination rooms more entertaining?

2. Make No Assumptions.

If you want a new solution, challenge what you think you know. Imagine you’re tasked with developing a new salad dressing. Before reading on, record at least five ideas. (Seriously. This insight is more meaningful if you do the exercise.)

What kind of ideas did you write down? Most people come up with new flavors. That’s fine—if you want evolutionary change based on known characteristics and assumptions. But breakthrough ideas require you to literally break through your current assumptions—like salad dressing is cold, it’s liquid, and it gets poured on lettuce.

If you challenge these assumptions (i.e., salad dressings are not cold), you open the door to new and potentially successful ideas (for example, a pouch of dressing you heat in the microwave).

3. Spew Ideas Like Confetti at the Super Bowl.

How many of us sit in meetings where someone says something equivalent to: “Sales are down. Let’s spend some time brainstorming ideas for improving the situation.” Then every idea is met with comments like, “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work.”

Next time you need new ideas, set aside time to come up with lots of ideas without critiquing them. Then pick five or six you like and try to combine them in new ways. You might be surprised to see what happens.

4. When It’s Time for Critiques, Start with the Positive.

It’s easy to crush an idea. It’s harder to nurture it.

One way to nurture an idea is to look for the positive first. What will work about it? Then look for the potential. If this idea worked, what would it help us accomplish? Finally, think about the challenges to implementing the idea and what it would take to overcome those challenges. This approach will help you retain ideas instead of kill them too quickly.

Success—at work and at home—is always fueled by creativity and imagination. And it’s a myth that these creative thinking skills can’t be learned or enhanced. If you practice these four skills, you will become a respected creative thinker who is valued as a problem solver at work and at home.

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