In the late ’90s, my friend Adrian was undercover as a narcotics officer in Detroit. He’d been sent into a residential home, when the deal went south. Adrian needed to get pulled out fast, but the options for signaling his fellow officers were limited. In a pinch, he got creative. He grabbed a nearby chair and hurled it at the window; it went crashing through the front of the house. To save himself, he did something radically unexpected that may have saved his life.
The crashing through a house mentality can also teach us how to be more creative. One of the simplest, most powerful lessons for activating creativity is this: If you want to be more creative, you need to force yourself in a direction that is radically unexpected.
One of the greatest barriers to uncovering novel yet useful ideas can be our own habitual thinking. You might have heard brain scientists say that neurons that fire together wire together. This means that once a particular thought connection is established, it is strengthened each time signals follow the same pathway between neurons in your brain.
This explains why we often have the same thoughts over and over again. When we face a new intellectual problem, it often feels like bushwhacking through a forest. We forge a way forward with no clear path. But over time we develop routine solutions, the neurons wire together, and that same path forward becomes so trodden that we simply follow in our own footsteps. Thus, our thought process flows in predictable loops. Like a car endlessly driving around a cul-de-sac of habitual ideas.
So how do we escape the cul-de-sac? Do something radically unexpected. Drive off the road, through the front of a house, go in a new direction. (Just to be clear, this is an analogy.)
Here are three simple, fun exercises to make creative off-roading easy:
Buy strange magazines
Choose publications rich with images that are completely outside your typical reading habits. Flip through the pages and find an unexpected prompt that challenges you, and perhaps leads you toward a creative solution for a problem in need of fresh thinking.
Dr. Keith Sawyer, a leading scientific expert on creativity, describes this technique in a book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. At my office, we stock our restrooms with unusual magazines. We have used them (newly purchased ones) to introduce fresh thinking when developing creative campaigns with a variety of clients, from e.l.f. cosmetics to GluMobile.
Find new idea partners
Seek creative partners who offer a different perspective. Scientists call this aspect of creative teamwork cognitive diversity. It also helps to choose people who are fun and keep the mood positive. My team often invites improv-trained comics to idea-generating sessions, because they are quick-thinking cultural commentators who are trained in building ideas with a “yes, and” rather than a “yes, but” mind-set.
Imagine the worst possible solution
This tactic makes it easy to get started and almost always leads to laughter, which gets you loose. Research shows that relaxed states of mind and comfort with ambiguity are associated with more creative thinking.
There is an added bonus with this reversal technique. Although your “bad idea” may not be feasible, it might introduce new associations to help you access good ideas outside your routine thinking patterns.
Here’s an example of this explained by Dan Pink, whose book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future summarizes the scientific literature on the topic:
“Sometimes you want to be tight; other times you want to be loose. When you are doing algorithmic tasks or when the stakes are incredibly high, for example when performing surgery, you want to be tight. You want to follow the checklist and never miss a step. However, when you are in the early stages of conceiving a project, iterating or starting something new, or are at a roadblock, you actually want to be to be looser. You want to take a step back and make yourself open to a moment of insight, or an ‘Aha!’ experience.”
We put this into action in creating a campaign for ESPN, exploring fresh ideas to promote Christmas as the official holiday of the NBA. In a group ideation session, we prompted clients and consumers to come up with five celebrities who you wouldn’t expect to be cast as Santa. It was an easy, inclusive way to start sharing ideas, and while we laughed together at each unlikely Santa, it also led to some surprisingly useful creative sparks. After much crafting and refinement, the sparks led to a video series with comedian Jon Glaser as Santa, chatting with NBA stars Ben Simmons, J.R. Smith, John Wall, Nick “Swaggy P” Young and Bradley Beal.
A common feature of these creative exercises is that they leverage constraints to unlock creativity. Introducing an intellectual problem through a new framework — be it a new prompt, or the perspective of a new partner — opens pathways toward new solutions. The more radical the prompt, the more likely you are to shatter habitual thinking, much like crashing through the front of a house.