Occasionally a new idea, a new product, or a new way of doing things comes along that seems so obvious it causes to us to slap our heads and ask, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Good question. The problem for most of us is that we have a difficult time seeing things from a different perspective or thinking about things in a new way. Alison Doyle (@AlisonDoyle), a career expert, observes, “Creative thinking is the ability to consider something in a new way. Employers in all industries want employees who can think creatively and bring new perspectives to the workplace. Creative thinking can involve: a new approach to a problem; a resolution to a conflict between employees; a new result from a data set; a previously untried approach to earn revenue; [and/or] a new product — or product feature.” Innovation gurus have come up with a number of methods people can use to help them to think about problems in a different way. Below are some favorite tools I’ve come across over the years.
Leveraging new frameworks
Framework 1. Simplification. Albert Einstein once observes, “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.” Obviously, that is easier said than done. Investor and entrepreneur Sahil Bloom (@SahilBloom) tweeted about four steps the late physicist Richard Feynman suggested could be taken to make things simpler. They are: Step 1. Identify a topic. Step 2. Try to explain it to a 5-year-old. Step 3. Study to fill in knowledge gaps. Step 4. Organize, convey, and review. Notice that two of Feynman’s steps (i.e., steps 2 and 4) involve communication. Communication is essential in every framework.
Framework 2. Seeing things backwards, inside out, and upside down. There a number of ways to look at your problem differently. First, state your problem in reverse. Change a positive statement into a negative one or vice versa. Second, try to define what the problem is not. Third, figure out what every else is not doing. Fourth, ask “what if” questions.
Framework 3. Changing Perspective. One way of forcing yourself to change perspective is to use the Six Thinking Hats approach created by the late Edward de Bono, a Maltese physician, psychologist and philosopher. Each of de Bono’s Thinking Hats uses a different color and represents a different perspective. The Blue Hat is “the Conductors Hat.” It controls and directs the discussion. The Green Hat is “the Creative Hat.” It covers creativity, alternatives, and provocative proposals. The Red Hat is “the Hat for the Heart.” It involves intuition, feelings, and emotions. The Yellow Hat is “the Optimist’s Hat.” It involves thinking that is both logical and positive. The Black Hat is “the Judge’s Hat.” It involves judgment and caution. The White Hat is “the Factual Hat.” It examines facts, figures, and data. By looking at a problem from the perspective of each “Hat,” different solutions and ideas are bound to arise.
Framework 4. Historical Vectors. Bloom suggests companies look for clues about where the future is headed. He writes, “The future is extremely difficult to predict — but there are clues. Look at the trend line of progress and where it’s pointing — directionally, not precisely.” As every new year approaches, numerous pundits offer their ideas about where things are headed. If your company is headed in a different direction, make sure you have solid reasons why heading in a different direction is a good idea.
Framework 5. Prioritization. Executive coaches are always telling their clients to focus on what’s important. To do that, Bloom suggests they use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. He explains, “Place all of your tasks on a 2X2 matrix of urgency and importance.” This will result in four boxes: (1) Important & Urgent; (2) Important & Not Urgent; (3) Urgent & Not Important; and (4) Not Urgent & Not Important. Obviously, any items found in Box 1 should receive attention. Items in Box 2 should receive attention when time permits. Items in Box 3 should be delegated. And items in Box 4 should be ignored or deleted from your to-do list.
Framework 6. Regret Minimization. You may have heard advice like “don’t do anything you wouldn’t want published on the front page of the New York Times.” According to Bloom, the Regret Minimization Framework is similar. He writes, “The goal is to minimize the number of regrets in life. When faced with a difficult decision: (1) Project yourself into the future; (2) Look back on the decision; (3) Ask, ‘Will I regret doing this?’; and (4) Take action.” The only drawback to this framework is that we are incapable of seeing all of the unintended consequences of our actions. Of course, you may also regret not doing something. That sentiment is captured in the popular acronym FOMO (fear of missing out). If you think you will regret not doing something, you can also take action and minimize your regret.
Framework 7. Diversification. Creativity experts are constantly warning about the dangers of groupthink. To avoid this problem, experts recommend assembling people from diverse backgrounds and fields of endeavor. In his very interesting book The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures, Frans Johansson talks about the value of creating a space in which people from diverse fields of expertise can get together to exchange ideas. The Medici’s were a wealthy and powerful Italian family who played an important role in the Renaissance. The family’s wealth permitted it to support artists, philosophers, theologians, and scientists, whose combined intellect helped burst the historical pall known as the Dark Ages. Creating a corporate Medici Effect through diversification will help stimulate creative thoughts and innovations.
Framework 8. Disruptive Innovation. Nearly a decade ago, Helge Tennø, a Digital Director at Dinamo AS in Oslo, Norway, penned an interesting blog in which he connected Kevin Kelly’s thinking about technology with the late Clayton Christensen’s thinking about disruptive innovation. He wrote, “By downplaying technology’s role in shaping businesses and industries, companies make themselves vulnerable to emerging threats.” Tennø notes that we need to think broadly about the term “technology.” It refers to things “as big as the alphabet, science, communication and as small as shoes, chairs or Bluetooth.” Most importantly, disruptive technologies have two overarching effects. They change “peoples’ habits and behaviors” and they disrupt “business ideas and business models.” Tennø believes that disruption occurs “when a firm uses technology in a new way and manages to offer customers relevant value outside the current comfort zone and abilities of the established players.” He created an Opportunities Matrix and suggests companies should look for opportunities that involve: new business models; new customer journeys; new jobs to be done; new markets; new relationships; new meeting places, arenas, and touchpoints; and new value propositions.
Framework 9. Competitive Intensity. Another framework identified by Bloom comes from Harvard Business Professor Michael Porter. Bloom writes, “Porter’s Five Forces [create] a framework for analyzing the competitive intensity of a given market. The five forces to consider [are]: (1) Competitive Rivalry; (2) Supplier Power; (3) Customer Power; (4) Threat of Substitution; and (5) Threat of New Entry.”
Framework 10. Constraints. Given no constraints, many of us probably believe we could be more creative. The truth, however, may be just the opposite. The more constraints we face the more creative we must become. This counterintuitive concept is often called the theory of constraints. Fiona Murray (@Fiona_MIT), a professor at MIT, and Elsbeth Johnson (@elsbeth_johnson), founder of SystemShift, write, “While unshackled creativity might intuitively seem to be the best route to novelty, actually some of the most innovative outcomes are produced when innovation is constrained.” The late, great composer Igor Stravinsky once stated, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” That’s just a fancy way of stating what the late Ernest (Lord) Rutherford, father of nuclear physics, said more bluntly: “We have no money; therefore, we must think.” Of course, money is only one of the constraints people and organizations can face. Journalist Jake Wilder explains, “We tend to see constraints as something that holds us back. We tend to view them as a limit to our creative options. Yet we take this view to our detriment. Constraints can provide the key to greater innovation and better solutions. They can push us away from the status quo and into new ways of thinking.”
By using new frameworks or new perspectives, individuals and groups can be more creative. When someone comes to you with a crazy idea, Bloom suggests you ask two questions: Are they a domain expert? Do I know them to be reasonable? He concludes, “If yes on both (1) and (2), you should take the idea seriously, as it may be an asymmetric bet on the future.” Who knows? You may be the person who comes up with the next head-slapping idea.
 Alison Doyle, “What Is Creative Thinking?” The Balance Careers, 14 April 2022.
 Sahil Bloom, “20 useful frameworks,” Twitter, 6 November 2021.
 Helge Tennø, “Disruption and imagination,” Helge Tennø blog, 7 August 2013.
 Fiona Murray and Elsbeth Johnson, “Innovation Starts with Defining the Right Constraints,” Harvard Business Review, 5 April 2021.
 Jake Wilder, “To Improve Innovation, Embrace Your Constraints,” Medium, 27 June 2020.