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An Hourglass Approach to Innovative Thinking

Individual sand crystals slipping through the hourglass marking time is an apt mental image for where we are in the year – more than half the year has passed, school years are about to start, and plans for 2016 are taking shape.

In my parallel life, I’m a fiction writer. In my BlessingWhite life, I’m an instructional designer, product manager, and consultant. There are a surprising number of ways one life informs the other. Allow me to share a few ideas from the world of creative writing designed to help you foster innovative thinking in business. We have been told to think “outside the box” so often that it has become a meaningless phrase implying your usual thinking is insufficient. Rather than exhorting you to think outside the box, I ask you to consider thinking along the contours of an hourglass.

Remove constraints

Picture the widest part of an hourglass; the point that, when filled, contains the greatest possible amount of time. When faced with a challenge requiring your creative thinking process, an expanse of time can inspire wider thinking.

In writing a story, there are no wasted pages, but you will throw away many more pages than you keep. An 8-page short story can take 50 pages to write. Viewed from outside, that inefficiency appears useless. But getting to the right idea right away is not generally possible; it takes examination, thoughtfulness, research perhaps, and time to percolate.

To take your creative thinking process to the next level, expand the possibilities even more. Apply a mind-opening question to your challenge, such as what if budget weren’t a factor? If you had one superpower, how would you solve this problem?

After spending time working closely on a problem, it can be extremely beneficial to take a break. It is a long-established practice of writers to walk away from their manuscript before going back to revise. This creates the opportunity for objectivity as well as a fresh perspective. This practice also works to improve innovative thinking in business. Concentrated time followed by stepping away from the challenge can allow the problem-solving to take on a life of its own, creating the opportunity for moments of connection between otherwise unrelated phenomenon. Overhearing a snippet of conversation on the bus ride home, crossing paths with someone with particular experience related to your challenge, or happening across a headline that prompts a new idea can all lead to surprising conclusions previously unavailable. Some leaders have been known to set themselves a challenge overnight so that their subconscious problem-solves as they sleep. Others find the privacy of their car while driving sets the stage for new ideas. Taking a new route or even just trying a new food are simple acts that can create connections that were not previously possible.

Apply constraints

And now picture the narrowest point on the hourglass, the place where the sand sifts to the bottom.

Removing and applying constraints are seemingly contradictory statements, but in fact they are mutually beneficial. Structure can facilitate the creative thinking process. In the Outthinker Process, a structured step-by-step approach is applied to create big ideas, decide which idea to select, and consider how to get others on board to apply the idea. The structured approach reduces the intimidation aspect of innovative thinking in business. Much like the constraint of a Haiku poem (a three-lined poem consisting of 5 syllables followed by 7 syllables, finished with 5 syllables), placing structure on a creative challenge can actually lead to even more possibilities in the creative thinking process. Applying a structure or constraint of some nature doesn’t necessarily make innovative thinking in business easy, but it does create the setting for more original results.

In the documentary, The Five Obstructions, Jørgen Leth is required to remake his favorite film five times following the obstructions or obstacles provided by the Danish creator of his favorite film, Lars Von Trier. One obstruction is to recreate the film as a cartoon. One is to film it in Cuba. One is to place the film in the most miserable place on earth but not to show that place onscreen. These obstacles provided something valuable for Leth to respond to and in turn resulted in unexpected creations he would not have come to without some limitation or requirement to work around. That is the benefit of applying particular parameters; they can create significant freedom to do something fresh and unconventional within the parameters.

The concept behind The Five Obstructions may seem a little extreme and impractical for innovative thinking in business, but the same theory can be applied simply by introducing parameters around time, such as using a timer. Innovative ideas require time. But having too much time during the creative thinking process can be just as crippling. Shrinking the amount of time available can inspire focus and deeper thinking.

By limiting the amount of time spent on a problem, you can increase your focus and depth. If you have a whole day and a blank page in front of you, you’re likely to spend a lot of time agonizing about what to write. If you have only 20 minutes, there isn’t nearly as much time for the internal editor to kick in and if you aim to keep your pen moving, you’d be surprised what you can come up with. Set a timer, or an hourglass. Close your inbox, silence your phone and commit to focusing on only one thing for 20 minutes. Focused, non-multi-tasking time allows you to build upon the good ideas you have. A time limit gives you permission to focus deeply. Even a short amount of time can be significantly more effective than trying to think something up while being pulled in many directions.

Another way to apply a constructive constraint in the creative thinking process is to introduce a seemingly unrelated idea. This can force you to see the problem from an entirely new angle. In Dr. Kaihan Krippendorff’s Outthinker Process, learners are presented with one of 36 Stratagems as a jumping-off place for expanding possibilities. If the challenge before you is to cut your organization’s travel budget by 10%, what happens when you consider the phrase “Coordinate the uncoordinated,” or “Exchange a brick for a jade?” Applying an unusual or unexpected constraint can actually amplify the possibility of finding significantly more innovative solutions in the end.

After applying a constraint or structure, it may become useful to remove it again to regain the breadth of possibilities. Thinking again of our hourglass, turning it upside down allows the process to begin again.

If you are thinking, “that’s great, but I still don’t know how to get started,” consider the following ideas for a pragmatic approach to innovative thinking in business:

  • Block time on your calendar. Identify your peak time for creativity and block your calendar once a week for that time.
  • Create a monthly list: What needs your innovative attention? Keep the list short enough to remember and file ideas for each idea on the list in related folders as you come across them.
  • Set up a meeting. Invite a small group to help you brainstorm. Set clear expectations ahead of time for your team members to allow them to come prepared to brainstorm on a particular topic so they arrive ready to jump in.
  • Let individuals brainstorm on their own first to facilitate optimal contribution from those who require time to think on their own before sharing their ideas with others.
  • Go for a walk and/or change locations. Try out an empty conference room. A new setting can inspire new thoughts.
  • Outsource your initial brainstorming; ask a team member to identify 3-5 ideas to jump start your thinking. Offer the same in return for one of their projects.

About the Authors

Christin Rice
Christin Rice is a Leadership Development Consultant at BlessingWhite where she works with clients across industries to design, create, and implement learning solutions. She is the product manager for The Outthinker Process, an innovative and strategic thinking workshop based on the research of Dr. Kaihan Krippendorff.

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