How often do you face a problem with no solution on the horizon or struggle to come up with fresh ideas? How often have these experiences left you feeling frustrated, helpless, or thinking you just aren’t creative enough?
Tina Seelig, Stanford professor of innovation and entrepreneurship and author of inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity, suggests that creativity is a skill that can be learned and is simply waiting to be unleashed.
In a recent lecture from Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Nonprofit Management Institute, Seelig provides three methods to increase imagination.
1) Reframe the questions.
“Every question can be looked at through a different set of lenses,” Seelig explains.
For instance, the answer to the sum of five and five is ten. There is one and only one answer. But if the question was reframed by asking “What two numbers add up to ten?”, there would be an infinite number of answers if negative numbers and fractions were taken into account.
“If we ask people questions that don’t have one right answer, we allow them to come up with an infinite number of possible solutions,” said Seelig. “It’s important to look at this not just in simple math, but in everything we do.”
As another example, say it was someone’s birthday and the idea is to celebrate it. One conventional solution would be to throw a party. But many more possible solutions could be had if instead the question was not how to throw a party, but how to make the birthday special.
“Albert Einstein was quoted as saying that ‘If I had a daunting problem to solve, and I had one hour to solve it, and my life depended upon it, I would spend the first 55 minutes framing the problem’, because once you frame the problem correctly the answer becomes obvious.”
What is the best method to practice framing and reframing problems? “With jokes,” said Seelig. “Most jokes are funny because the frame is switched in the middle of the joke.”
“Here’s an example. Two women are out playing golf. It’s a beautiful day and they’re at the golf course that borders a cemetery. As they’re just about to tee off, a funeral procession goes by. One of the women stops, puts down her head, and says a little prayer. Her friend says ‘My gosh, you are the most thoughtful person I’ve ever met.’ And she says, ‘Well yeah it’s the least I could do, we were married for 25 years.’ ”
2) Connect and combine ideas.
“Most new ideas do not come out of the blue. They come from putting things together that haven’t been put together before, but they’re things that already exist,” said Seelig.
To practice this, Seelig suggests taking two objects from home and putting them together. There is also the Japanese practice of chindogu which refers to coming up with “unuseless” inventions that are neither useful nor useless. An example would be an outfit worn by babies that functions as a mop so that as they crawl, the floor is cleaned.
“Maybe it’s not completely practical, but it opens up some possibilities.”
3) Challenge assumptions.
Challenging assumptions refers to going beyond the first right answer.
“Most people, when they solve problems, go with the first solution that comes to mind and then they run with it. But the first solutions you come with are almost always incremental. They’re almost always pretty obvious and you have to get pass the first wave of ideas to start getting to the third, fourth, and fifth waves of ideas to start coming up with things that are truly innovative,” said Seelig.
“How do I do this? I love to give assignments that I haven’t given before, have no right answer, and are provocative.”
Seelig gave an assignment to students from Osaka University in Japan. Their challenge was to create as much value as possible – value measured in any way that they wanted – using the contents of a single trash can. Seelig gave the students this challenge because it was right after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the students were surrounded by things that had been greatly damaged. The challenge got them to create value out of things that people tossed away.
The students spent a lot of time thinking what value meant to them. They talked about friendship, community, health, happiness, and financial security.
Seelig also asked her colleagues around the world to invite their students to participate in the challenge simultaneously.
One team from Ecuador had a trash can full of yard waste and created a mural of a bird. Another had a garbage can with some orange rinds, Styrofoam cups, and dirt. They placed the dirt in the Styrofoam cups and planted orange seeds.
In Israel, a girl had a collection of old socks with holes. She cut them up and made a sweater.
Back in Japan, a team went to a dry cleaner and got a lot of bags and hangers. They decided to address an empty space issue on their campus, which was dubbed the “dead zone” because nobody wanted to sit on the grass that was always damp. They created mats that could be taken out of backpacks and unrolled to sit on. A small community started to form in the space. The team took it a step further by putting games on the mats – chess, checkers, and Twister. As more people gathered, coffee and sandwiches were sold there. The campus space that was always empty now became a vibrant area.
“In order to increase your imagination, you can learn to reframe problems, connect and combine ideas, and challenge assumptions. But the fact is that this is not enough. If you don’t start with a base of knowledge, you have nothing to work with. Your knowledge is the toolbox for your imagination,” said Seelig.
But how do you get knowledge? Should you be going to classes? Should you be reading books? Seelig says the best way of getting knowledge is, get ready for it, by paying attention.
“Most of us do not pay attention. Most of us go through the world with blinders on not really seeing things.”
Seelig would send her students to places they’ve been to many times and get them to look at a multitude of things they’ve never noticed before. “Is the door open or closed? What’s the temperature inside? How high are the ceilings? What’s the floor made out of? What does it smell like? What type of music is playing? Where are the most expensive items? How long does it take for someone to greet you?”
“They walk out realizing they had never paid attention before.”
“Paying attention does two things. It makes you aware of opportunities for problems that need to be solved. It also makes you aware of solutions that are right in front of you.”
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