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Techniques for Fresh Thinking

8th November 2016

Our brains are masters at ‘filling in the blanks’. We see something, compare it to our store of past memories, reach a conclusion and then act on it.

This pattern-recognising ability is very useful. It saves time, lets us make quick decisions, and helps us interpret our world.

However, this hinders our creativity – because our thinking falls into the same patterns. To be more creative we need to break the model and approach challenges from a fresh perspective.

Here are 5 ways to get started:

1. Someone else’s shoes

First think of a person/character who could add a different perspective to your challenge. The more different the person is from you the better.

Quickly write down all their characteristics, include everything and anything that comes into your head, try to get a real feel for the person whose shoes you are stepping into. Then ask yourself, ‘If Homer Simpson were faced with this challenge what would he do?’ List everything that comes into your mind.

2. Ask ‘what if…’   

Turn the ‘rules’ of the challenge you are solving on its head by asking what if?

A major block to creativity for many of us is the mind’s fierce grasp on reality. This very factor that keeps us sane also keeps us from thinking beyond what we know to be true. What-iffing is a tool for releasing the mind, for delivering us from being blocked by reality.

What-iffing involves describing an imagined action and then examining the probable associated facts, consequences, or events. Instead of quickly saying, “That’s ridiculous,” or “That would never work,” and leaving our criticism vague, we trace as exactly as our reasonable minds can generate the specific implications or consequences of the newly imagined fact.

For example: What if motor cars were all owned by the government and everybody had a key and could use any car that was handy? Consequences: Car park sizes could be reduced. There would probably be more car pooling with strangers. If cars were maintained by the government, too, some would be in better shape than now, but others would be in worse shape – no pride in personal ownership. On sunny days cars would be plentiful, but on rainy days, you might get stuck at the shopping centre. Cars that broke down would be abandoned. You couldn’t lock things in your car. You’d never know if the car you drove to a location would be there when you got out.

Another example might be to ask, “What if we do nothing about the problem?”

Thinking about what does not exist is about the only way we have of eventually making it exist. In other words, the first step to implementing a new reality is to imagine it.

Try It Yourself:

What if… choose one of the questions below and then trace the reasonable and logical consequences that would follow. Try to think of both good and bad (and perhaps indifferent) consequences.

  1. What if anyone could set up as a doctor?
  2. What if each home could run the television only one hour a day?
  3. What if our pets could talk?
  4. What if we never had to sleep?
  5. What if everybody looked almost exactly alike?

3. Related worlds

Think about where else in the world your challenge is being faced and consider what solutions you can steal. Think about companies facing similar challenges.

A great example of this thinking is ColaLife who asked, ‘Why can you get a Coca-Cola everywhere, yet aid organisations struggle to get medical supplies to rural areas?’ ColaLife identified that Coca-Cola have amazingly effective distribution networks that they could learn from and use. ColaLife are now piloting how they can best borrow from Coca-Cola’s expertise to distribute life-saving medicines.

Heart surgeons from Great Ormond Street, a London children’s hospital, identified Formula 1 pit stop teams for inspiration in how to speed up their processes. So, first think broadly about what your challenge is, identify where else in the world a similar challenge is being addressed successfully and apply that solution to your challenge.

4. Random words

Get some dictionaries and ask people to put a pin in a page to pick a word at random. Now force connections with the random word and your challenge.

For example, if your challenge is to develop a new fundraising event and your word was wasp your thought process might go like this:

Wasps, summertime, ice creams, honey, sweet food and picnics make me think of being a child, being scared of wasps and getting stung, and they hover about, and are stripy and buzz. So, buzzer makes me think of quiz games, buzzing for the right answer, could have a summertime quiz, maybe outside, a family picnic with prizes, fancy dress, people wear stripes, or a treasure hunt where you win a trip to America, stars and stripes… Just keep going and see what you get.

It’s really important that you pick the first word and don’t choose a word that you like. The more random the word appears to be to the challenge, the more patterns you will be breaking – which is the whole point.


The SCAMPER technique uses a set of directed questions which you answer about your problem in order to come up with new ideas. The stimulus comes from forcing yourself to answer questions which you would not normally pose. The questions direct you to thinking about a problem in ways which typically come up with new ideas.

S – Substitute/simplify: Think about substituting part of your product/process for something else. Typical questions include: What can I substitute to make an improvement? What if I swap this for that and see what happens?
C – Combine: Think about combining two or more parts of your problem to achieve a different product/process or to enhance synergy. Typical questions are: What materials, features, processes, people, products or components can I combine? Where can I build synergy?
A – Adapt: Think about which parts of the product/process could be adapted to remove the problem or think how you could change the nature of the product/process. Some typical questions that can be asked are: What part of the product could I change? And in exchange for what? What if I were to change the characteristics of a component?

M – Modify/distort: Think about distorting the product or process in an unusual way. Typical questions can include: What happens if I warp or exaggerate a feature or component? What will happen if I modify the process in some way?
P – Put to other purposes: Think of how you might be able to put your current solution/ product/process to other purposes, or think of what you could reuse from somewhere else in order to solve your own problem. Typical questions are: What other market could I use this product in? Who or what else might be able to use it?
E – Eliminate: Think of what might happen if you eliminated various parts of the product/process/problem and consider what you might do in that situation. You can ask the following questions: What would happen if I removed a component or part of it? How else would I achieve the solution without the normal way of doing it?
R – Rearrange: Think of what you would do if part of your problem/product/process worked in reverse or was done in a different order. You can use this to see your problem from different angles and come up with new ideas. A typical question would be: What if I did it the other way round?