7 Ways to Stoke Innovative Thinking

7 Ways to Stoke Innovative Thinking
Innovation on a grand scale lies at the heart of DuPont’s mission and identity. To keep your brain limber, try these simple methods.

Innovation on a grand scale lies at the heart of DuPont’s mission and identity. It takes years—and the intellectual dedication of many people—to realize. But no breakthrough would be possible without the contribution of thousands of innovative thoughts along the way. To keep your brain limber and the fresh ideas flowing, try these simple methods.

Express Your Ideas Visually

We are taught from an early age to “take notes” to record our thoughts. The almost universal presumption is that notes are words. But the creators of the Grids and Guides and Magma Sketchbook series encourage visual expression, eschew the traditional subject-verb-object sentence construction, and prompt fresh thinking. Stop spelling and start doodling, and you’ll be surprised where your mind goes.

Banish the Simple "Yes" or "No" Response

In a creative conversation, nothing stops the thought train faster than unqualified agreement or disagreement. Replace “no” with “I look at it differently,” and then explain why. If you say “yes,” follow up with a suggestion that deepens the discussion and builds on the idea you’re responding to. This principle of creative communication derives from the tenet of improvisational comedy called “Yes, and…” The term was coined by members of The Second City theater group, in Chicago, and it is explained in detail in the book Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration.

Go Ahead, Be a Scatterbrain

A study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that subjects who practiced divergent thinking—as opposed to convergent thinking—while meditating felt happier and more open-minded, and consequently more prone to form new ideas. Divergent thinking entails coming up with multiple uses for a single object, for example, using a brick as a nutcracker, paperweight, and doorstop. Convergent thinking, on the other hand, calls for finding a common link for multiple items—for instance, pairing the word “long” with hair, stretch, and time. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and think of 10 uses for a butter knife. You are now primed to innovate.

Use Positive Terms

In the corporate and political worlds, there are no problems, only challenges. Problems are static and entrenched. Challenges are active. They can be addressed with planning and follow-through. Likewise, in rapidly evolving disciplines like urban planning and renewal, using positive language encourages action and innovation. For instance, a former industrial site isn’t abandoned, it’s fallow, waiting to spring back to life in a new form. No lot is vacant, it’s open, instead. That row of formerly occupied homes and storefronts aren’t abandoned, they’re available.

But Don’t Sugar-Coat or Mislead

Always strive to use positive language, and be aware of its negative relatives, euphemism and jargon.​

There’s a big difference between a positive term and a euphemism. People who use euphemisms are perceived as disingenuous, or worse, untrustworthy. The real-estate agent who wants to show you a cozy apartment in a vibrant part of town is really talking about a cramped place in a noisy and possibly dangerous neighborhood. Jargon, a close relative of euphemism, is more benign but also the enemy of transparency, which is a prerequisite of progress and innovation.

Consider the Parts, Not the Whole

The tortured phrase functional fixedness describes a certain type of rigid thinking, and rigid thinking is the mortal enemy of innovation. Tony McCaffrey, a cognitive psychologist now teaching math at a college prep school for people with learning disabilities, developed the generic parts technique as a way to keep the mind nimble. For example, you could look at a candle as an object that becomes a light source when you ignite the wick. But if you break it down to its elements—wax and string—the possibilities multiply.

Stop Brainstorming

And start brainswarming. This is another gem from McCaffrey. He contends that brainstorming—getting a bunch of people together to share thoughts and come up with fresh ideas—just doesn’t work. Why? Because it requires talking, so only one idea can be expressed at a time and extroverts dominate the discourse. Brainswarming removes these obstacles. A goal or challenge is inscribed at the top of a white- or chalkboard, and a few broad ideas, or elements, that may lead to a solution are written along the bottom. Participants write ideas on sticky notes and place them near the top or the bottom, depending on whether they are (literally) top-down or bottom-up thinkers. In time the more effective ideas and the relationship among them become apparent, and so does the solution.