On Creativity: 3 Ways to Boost Your Marketing Prowess

You’re in marketing so of course you’re creative, right? Right! As with all skills, however, we know that we can always sharpen our game. And with globalization and outsourcing trends, the need to improve our game is more important now than ever before. To offer some practice tips on improving creativity, I’m sharing an excerpt from my IEEE eBook entitled “Critical Thinking for Engineers: Creativity.” The eBook has been quite well received, so hoping you’ll appreciate many of the fun exercises and tips I’ve included here.

Let’s start with the common belief that creativity is something you either have or you don’t. Dr Robert Sternberg, Professor of Human Development at Cornell University provides this encouraging perspective in his book on The Theory of Creativity:

 “People are not born creative or uncreative. Rather, they develop a set of attitudes toward life that characterize those who are willing to go their own way. Examples of such attitudes toward life are willingness to (a) redefine problems in novel ways, (b) take sensible risks, (c) “sell” ideas that others might not initially accept, (d) persevere in the face of obstacles, and (e) examine whether their own preconceptions are interfering with their creative process.”

Now let’s dive into three proven approaches to stimulating your creativity. Coming from the field of psychology, they are: divergent thinking, bisociation, and cognitive flexibility.

Approach 1: Divergent Thinking

Most of us have participated in brainstorming sessions to generate fresh ideas or new solutions to an engineering problem. Such sessions are actually an example of an approach called divergent thinking which aims to generate as many ideas as possible for solutions to a given problem.  Let’s look at one popular approach to divergent thinking that stretches your creativity.

The 30 Circles exercise

IDEO founder and Stanford d.school creator David Kelley and his brother Tom Kelley, IDEO partner and author of the The Art of Innovation, devised a simple method to encourage creativity through divergent thinking. Here’s how it works in the “30 Circles” exercise:

Step 1: Download and print off a 30 Circles sheet of paper and get a pen or pencil.

Step 2: Using as many of the blank circles draw recognizable figures or objects in each of the circles.

Step 3: Step back and examine your results. If you did this as a team exercise, how many people filled in ten or more circles? Most people don’t finish drawing in all the circles and that’s just fine. What patterns do you see in the drawings? For example, is there a theme (e.g. faces, sports balls, symbols)?

The purpose of this exercise is to encourage as many ideas as possible in a relatively structured model. After doing such an exercise, try taking on a specific marketing challenge at work and see if you find yourself thinking more broadly than you normally would. This is divergent thinking at work. You’ll use convergent thinking (e.g. applying criteria to rank the ideas) to narrow the list of candidates to the few most promising ideas.

Approach 2: Bisociation

Bisociation is a term coined by Arthur Koestler in his book The Act of Creation. The idea behind bisociation is to connect two seemingly unrelated things together resulting in a surprising new idea. Here’s an example from the article “In Class Creativity Exercises for Engineering Students” by authors Jonathan Weaver and Karim Muci-Kuchler. We start with two unrelated inputs (left column) and see what new product concept could emerge (right column) as shown in an excerpt from the author’s article:

Things Associated Resulting Product (inventor)
Computers + mail order Dell Computers (Michael Dell)
Action + web Amazon.com (Jeff Bezos)
Wine press + coin punch      Printing press (Gutenberg)
Tablet PC + cell phone iPhone (Steve Jobs)
Rubber + waffle iron Sole for Nike show (Bill Bowerman)

Now let’s do the same exercise but as inputs let’s use “paperclips + home improvement” to see what ideas we can generate. As with the Circles exercise, don’t limit or judge yourself but just keep generating ideas. What did you observe? Did you create some startling new uses for a paperclip that you’d never imagined before? This is divergent thinking at work. 

Approach 3: Cognitive Flexibility

Closely related to divergent thinking is the concept of cognitive flexibility. People who can switch successfully between contexts or tasks have greater cognitive flexibility and therefore likely to learn more quickly, adapt to new situations more rapidly, and solve problems more creatively. Try some of these tips to see how you might stretch your cognitive flexibility. 

1. Learn new skills – Try learning a new language. A recent study cited by Kara Morgan-Short of the University of Illinois states “We know that people who speak more than one language fluently have better memories and are more cognitively creative and mentally flexible than monolinguals.”

2. Change your routine – There’s no better way to practice switching contexts than looking at your daily life. Try using your alternate hand when brushing your teeth. Ride your bike to run a nearby errand instead of driving.

3. Practice your humor – The theory of incongruous juxtaposition theory holds that pairing up two unrelated concepts in a novel way can be quite funny. Look up any Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoon and you’ll see he does this brilliantly. For example, see the one with dinosaurs surreptitiously lighting cigarettes and the caption saying it’s the real reason dinosaurs went extinct. Try goofy juxtapositions in your own humor. 

4. Try improv – This is really all about learning to adjust on the fly in dynamic situations by improvising. Take a class in improv. A very stoic engineer friend of mine said he had no interest in improv until he tried it at the strong recommendation of a colleague. He said it was the most creative exercise he’d ever done and that it had enhanced his career as an engineer because he brought more fresh ideas to the table. Organize a small group of colleagues and try these three improv techniques to shake loose your creativity: 

Act 1: The first player makes up a short statement such as “I love paperclips.” The second builds upon that by saying “yes, and I’d like to make a belt out of paperclips.” And so on, going with the flow each time. 

Act 2: The first player starts off with something pretty random such as “3 things in the trunk of my car are…” Go around the circle with each person saying three things they have somewhere even if it’s totally nonsensical or illogical. The idea is to be spontaneous and creative. 

Act 3: The first person kicks off with a dramatic “I failed” and everyone applauds afterwards. Each person in the circle acts out their own unique dramatic way of saying “I failed.” The idea here is to desensitize the stigma of failure, and in fact to encourage failure as it is a pathway to great creativity. See more fun improv games at Improv Encyclopedia.

5. Exercise – It’s well established that frequent exercise leads to feeling better and thinking more clearly.  But does it really improve cognitive flexibility? The Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings published an article, Aerobic Exercise Enhances Cognitive Flexibility, in which researchers conclude that “over a 10 week period, increasing the frequency of aerobic activity was shown to be associated with enhanced cognitive performance, in particular cognitive flexibility, a measure of executive function. So try some cardio fitness such as interval training for as little as twenty minutes a few times a week and see how your own thinking improves. You may find yourself able to achieve a “flow state” which is being able to free your mind from the daily chatter and simply stay present to how your body feels in the moment as you exercise. That state is very conducive to creativity.

6. Make a collage – Dr Judy Willis, neurologist, writes in Edutopia that “Collage art inspires cognitive flexibility because components are decoupled from their literal roles and used in novel ways.” Pull together a number of magazines, newspapers, junk mail, brochures, and anything that has interesting images in it. Cut out images that resonate with you and paste them on a large board. You can have a theme such as your big lifetime dreams to help inspire you. Collage making stimulates more parts of our brain than just writing a simple bucket list would do. Again, the purpose of this exercise is to practice cognitive flexibility so suspend any self-criticism or skepticism and let yourself go.

I hope you’re inspired by these three different approaches to stimulating your creativity. I encourage you to pick at least one idea from the list above and try it out for the next 30 days to see what happens. Better yet, challenge your marketing team to take on one of these ideas and try it as a team building exercise. Thanks to Michaela (Gubbels) Botha, fellow Aventi Group partner, we’re doing a facilitated team improv exercise next week.  While I have a slight twinge in my stomach at the thought of doing improv with my fellow partners, I trust the process and know it’ll push our creativity. 

Check out the other eBooks I’ve authored in the IEEE series on Critical Thinking for Engineers.