4 tactics to cultivate creative thinking

Observe precedents, clear your mind, reflect, act

To cope with the volume, speed and complexity of change, organizations and their teams must constantly and continuously generate innovative solutions to old problems. A vital part of innovation is creativity and the generation of new ideas. Creativity is, indeed, the fuel of innovation. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines creativity as “the competence to engage productively in the generation, evaluation and improvement of ideas that can lead to original and effective solutions, advances in knowledge and impactful expressions of the imagination”. [1]

In his classic book Creativity, Inc., president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, Ed Catmull, clarified and emphasized that creativity is not just a skill but a way of thinking, working and solving problems as a team. As a leader, you will need to hone your creative thinking skills and foster the same for your team. This article offers 4 proven tactics based on research by William Dugan and Amy Murphy in their book The art of ideas, published by Columbia Business School. The 4 tactics include examining precedents, cultivating presence of mind, experiencing a flash of insight, and resolve. These tactics apply to all sectors and all times.

1. Review precedents

This tactic involves practicing structured problem solving and asking new questions. Through these sub-steps you can spark curiosity, which helps you see things in their separate parts and how they come together. A precedent is different from a best practice, it is usually a complete process that someone else has customized and perfected for their context. A precedent is a snippet of a process, product, or service that solves a problem for the particular step you are looking to solve. A precedent is an example of how someone solved a problem. For example, Steve Jobs came up with the idea for the Apple Genius Bar while observing a hotel concierge. Henry Ford is said to have been inspired by the slaughterhouse process when he created the car assembly line. The CEO of Zoom first worked for Webex and was inspired by all the problems and challenges present in Webex to create a new online meeting platform called Zoom.

2. Cultivate presence of mind

For this tactic, you need to practice mindfulness by clearing your mind and staying in the present moment. Your mind works like an extremely powerful computer: by clearing the cache of unproductive thoughts, worries and ruminations, your mind is free to explore its own crevices and connect the dots of stored learning and experience in new ways. To cultivate presence of mind, you must train yourself to be “where your feet are”, or right now. Observe around you, stay open to visual cues, and allow your mind and senses to process unhindered.

3. Experience a flash of insight

This is the eureka moment that Archimedes experienced when he entered the full bathtub and displaced the amount of water equal to its volume. Archimedes had suspected that a gold crown was a fake and was trying to prove it. He knew the weight of the crown and the density of gold but had no way of calculating the density of the crown. Once Archimedes immersed the crown in water, he was able to measure the amount of water displaced by the crown, which equaled the volume of the crown. Then he divided the weight of the crown by its volume to calculate the density of the crown and compare it to the density of gold.

Before Reed Hastings founded Netflix and became CEO, he was a loyal Blockbuster customer. He rented movies every week and returned them on time. Once, however, he forgot to return the film Apollo 13 on time, and his late fee was $40. He was sad and embarrassed. He then hit the gym and had a flash of insight, wondering if video stores could charge a monthly membership fee without having to pay late fees. And just like that, the concept of Netflix was born: unlimited movie rentals for one flat rate. To practice this step, you will need to be patient and also open to new experiences or quiet moments that will allow insight to flash through your mind.

4. Implement the action

You have asked new questions, pondered precedents, observed around you, and had a flash of insight. It’s time to act. You put all these elements together and think concretely about how to solve your initial problem. Reed Hastings reflected on how Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was shipping books out of his garage at the time. His idea about Netflix was to ship movies. So he went to Tower Records, bought several DVDs, then went to the post office and sent his own. A few days later, the DVDs arrived intact. He then developed his idea. Later, with the advent of the Internet.

Netflix has moved to online movie streaming. The premise has remained the same: unlimited movie rentals for a fixed price per month. This is the tactical stage where you put your idea into action and materialize it. It’s the magical and empowering journey of transforming an idea from your mind’s eye into a three-dimensional world. This is the step that takes the most time, effort and resources. This step requires several other elements and skills which you can find in my article series, “eLearning Skills 2030”.


Often, leaders like you are responsible for driving innovation in their teams and business units. Innovation is difficult and does not happen overnight. The first step towards innovation is to cultivate a culture of creative thinking. Creative thinking is fundamental and the fuel for innovation. A practical way to practice creating thought and generating new ideas and solutions to business problems is to follow four tactics: reviewing precedent, cultivating presence of mind, experiencing lightning insight and implement action. These tactics are not easy and require focus and commitment. However, they have been proven and research has proven that they work. Implementing these tactics can help you cultivate creative thinking and foster the same for your team.


[1] PISA 2021 Creative Thinking Framework

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