How to be more creative than your competitors

By Edward Glassman, PhD

How do we humans carry out this wondrous activity called creative thinking? One intriguing notion suggests that chance brings together diverse elements in your mind into one thought, and this connection triggers creative solutions. We call this process ‘making remote associations’, suggesting the need for a prepared, active mind full of diverse elements.

As Pasteur pointed out: ‘Chance favors the prepared mind’. One way to become more creative includes preparing your mind with new elements for creative thinking by attending trade fairs, training, meetings, reading, travel, talking to peers, customers, vendors, etc about your field of interest.

Thus, on-the-job creative thinking consists of combining old information and old ideas into new and useful ideas. This thought runs contrary to the myth that creative thinking creates new ideas out of nothing. In other words, solving problems creatively involves a down-to-earth activity, not a mountain top phenomenon.

Recognizing creative thinking as an ordinary act that combines and transforms old information into new ideas allows us to accept creative thinking as a natural process. You don’t need special inherited gifts to use advanced procedures to solve problems creatively.

Incubation and other stages in the creative process

Stages of the creative process include the following:

  • Preparation Stage. Fact finding; laying the groundwork and learning the background; learning the creative process.
  • Concentration Stage. Total absorption in the problem; trancing out.
  • Incubation Stage. Taking time out; resting; seeking distractions; working on other things; vacationing; jogging; taking walks.
  • Illumination Stage. ‘Aha’ insight forms and ideas pop out.
  • Implementation Stage. Solving practical problems of implementation; getting other people involved. In other words, the hard work.

The preparation stage, during which you fill your mind with new elements to make remote associations later, can last many years: in school, on-the-job training, reading, taking courses and workshops, traveling, life experiences, etc. After all, you cannot be a creative chemist, engineer, or computer whiz unless you know chemistry, engineering, or computers. You learn your craft or profession first.

During the concentration stage, you focus on a particular problem and absorb yourself in it, making a place in your mind for a new idea to enter.

Frustration at not finding a solution leads to the incubation stage, during which you concentrate on other things while your mind takes a break and quietly makes remote associations.

Then, if you are fortunate, the illumination stage occurs, the paradigm shifts, the ‘Aha’ insight forms, and a new idea emerges.

Then the implementation stage occurs, a stage that can last a short time or a lifetime, as the entire process cycles repeatedly to modify, implement, and develop the idea.

Thus, new ideas do not appear spontaneously out of the blue. They require preparation, concentration, incubation, and the appropriate triggers to spark remote associations. When new ideas appear, they need special and deliberate nurturing or they disappear.

These notions trigger a number of issues at work:

  • How much incubation time do you build into your schedule? Would your organization pay you to spend a day or two walking in the woods or sitting on a beach?
  • If someone sits with his or her feet on the desk looking out the window for several hours, or even days, would people in your organization find this behavior acceptable?

A habit that spoils creative thinking: You do not allot enough time to the incubation stage of the creative process.

  • Is ‘doing things’ more highly valued than ‘thinking’? Is it okay for people to spend time thinking, that is, seeming to do nothing?
  • How much time do you allot to the preparation stage to get additional diverse elements into your mind?
  • How do you obtain diverse elements for your mind? By travel, meetings, training, reading, conventions, trade fairs? By talking to customers, suppliers, competitors, people in other companies, in foreign lands, in other professions? Does your organization encourage and pay for this?

Another habit that spoils creative thinking: You do not act to increase the diverse elements in your mind.

About the author

This article by Edward Glassman is an extract from his book, Team Creativity At Work I & II: Creative Problem Solving At Its Best. Ed Glassman  is a Professor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has written several books on creativity at work.

More helpful angles on creativity

[An article by the team at Creately also provides some great insights into the creative thinking process, with some excellent diagrams, charts and links you can use to assist in the creative process. Well worth checking out: “The Ultimate List of Visual Creative Thinking Techniques for Your Next Great Idea.”]
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