Creative thinking isn’t just for fiction authors and designers. It’s also a critical skill for business owners in virtually every industry. Sometimes, a problem needs a unique solution to overcome it.
And in some cases, you need an out-of-the-box idea to stand out from the competition. Having creative thinking skills and a mindset that values creativity can help your business develop and maintain a competitive edge.
But how do you develop your creative thinking abilities, especially if you haven’t flexed those muscles in a while? And how do you maintain those skills once you’ve established them so that creativity is second nature to you?
What is creative thinking?
In business, creative thinking is the ability to explore different possibilities to come up with new ideas that can help you achieve goals and overcome roadblocks. It involves looking at things differently, breaking down barriers, and thinking “outside the box.”
Creative thinking can also solve problems, create art, develop new products or services, and even discover new knowledge. It’s useful in almost any situation — from problem-solving to designing creative solutions for everyday tasks.
Critical thinking vs. creative thinking
Critical thinking involves logical reasoning and analysis to come to a solution, while creative thinking requires out-of-the-box thinking to develop new and innovative ideas.
Critical thinking requires you to analyze and evaluate information to make informed decisions. You must review all options and look for the best solution to a problem. It’s a logical process that requires objectivity, fact-checking, and careful consideration of all available evidence. Critical thinking provides a more informed, reasoned approach to problem-solving.
Creative thinking, on the other hand, is much less logical or analytical in nature. It involves creating a unique solution to a problem and exploring different perspectives. Creative thinking encourages divergent thinking — the ability to generate multiple ideas and solutions to a single problem.
Creative thinking is also important for developing new products and services since it promotes fresh and novel ideas.
For example, a small-business owner who needs to increase sales may use critical thinking to look at past sales data and then create a marketing plan targeting their most profitable customers. They might also use creative thinking to ideate a new product or service to attract new customers and boost sales.
It’s important to note that there doesn’t need to be an either-or dichotomy between creative thinking and critical thinking. The truth is that both are essential to successfully running a business, especially in the early days of a startup. By using both critical and creative thinking, small-business owners are better equipped to make decisions that benefit the company.
Creative thinking examples
Using creative thinking keeps your business fresh and competitive. It empowers you to overcome adversities easier and stay ahead of the curve. But what does this look like in the real world?
Promoting teams to be creative
The tech industry relies on innovation to thrive. So having teams that can flex their creative muscles to invent or improve products and features is a must. Tech giants like Google know this, and that’s why in 2000, it introduced what’s called 20% time.
The concept: Employees can spend up to 20% of their working time on projects that are not directly tied to their core responsibilities.
While these projects should be work-related, they don’t need to promise immediate returns for the company. Ideally, they should have the potential to be developed into major opportunities in the future.
And it works — several Google products stemmed from this method, including Google News, Gmail, and AdSense.
Evolving with the times
Are you old enough to remember when Netflix delivered DVDs to your door? It was an excellent idea in an era when you had to drive to Blockbuster or your local movie rental store to get a flick to watch.
But the company didn’t stop there. They later introduced a membership option to be more affordable, which still exists today.
As the infrastructure underpinning the internet became more robust and made faster internet speeds a reality, the company saw another opportunity to elevate its services by providing even more value and convenience to customers through streaming. And now we have what exists today — a streaming service you can watch from any device, anywhere.
The company’s core focus was always on innovation, and its eyes are still on the prize.
Getting everyone involved
Being a small-business owner forces you to wear many hats, but after a while, it becomes overwhelming to be the brains and the brawn of the company.
By leveraging your team’s talent, you can collaborate to find solutions and ideas to propel your business forward.
Four Seasons did this when the CEO built an organization-wide execution strategy to get all hands on deck to redefine luxury as a service. Its golden rule: “to deal with others — partners, customers, coworkers, everyone — as we would want them to deal with us.”
Everyone from the bellhop to the founder is free to serve customers how they see fit to reach the company’s goal of making each customer/employee engagement personalized, sincere, and thoughtful.
The employees seem to love it — for the past 50 years, Four Seasons has made it to Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list every year.
Thinking waaay outside of the box
Creative thinking in business typically takes two forms. On one hand, there’s iterative creative thinking that builds upon existing ideas and concepts slowly over time. On the other hand, there are the kinds of ideas that have truly never been done before: the ones that start over from scratch in a radically different way. While both are effective, the latter are the ones with the greatest potential to shift paradigms and industries.
For example, just look to some recent restaurant concepts:
- Eating in the dark: Ctaste offers an “Experience Dinner” where you receive a three-course dinner from a surprise menu inside of a dark room. So you won’t know what you’re eating until you take a bite.
- Rude staff: The Wiener’s Circle is a hot-dog joint in Chicago that’s renowned for its rude and offensive staff. But rather than deter diners from its establishment, more flocked to it (and even generated social media buzz). So the restaurant capitalized on this by maintaining a staff of rude workers that intentionally insult patrons.
These examples show that creativity can be bizarre and still drive results. Just make sure to test the waters before diving in.
Creative thinking exercises
Being creative isn’t something you’re born with — it’s something you learn. Here is a list of exercises that you and your team can use to improve your creative thinking abilities.
Implement collaborative brainstorming
Gather your team and discuss an issue or opportunity you’re currently facing. Encourage everyone to share their thoughts and ideas freely, no matter how wild they may seem.
After generating a list of ideas and solutions, narrow them down by evaluating each for feasibility and potential impact.
Try reverse engineering
Select a competitor or industry leader that’s doing well and ask yourself why they’ve made certain decisions or implemented certain strategies. This could give you insight into approaching similar problems from a new perspective.
For example, if your competitor has successfully used social media marketing, figure out which platforms they’re using and what type of content they’re creating — then come up with ideas to achieve similar success, but in your own way.
Use design thinking
Design thinking is a problem-solving technique that focuses on the needs of users — and on creating solutions that meet those needs. It involves brainstorming, prototyping, and testing.
The goal is to develop innovative ideas that meet customer expectations while also creating value for your business. Start by defining the problem, then use creative techniques like brainstorming to generate ideas. After you have a list of potential solutions, create prototypes and test them with customers to find the best one.
This is excellent for technology and ecommerce businesses.
Technology has the potential to maximize your creative thinking. For example, you might use artificial intelligence to identify patterns and trends, leverage virtual reality simulations to help visualize solutions to problems, and even use meditation apps to help get your brain in a creative flow.
Software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms like Adobe Creative Cloud empower you to design and create projects using Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign tools for a low monthly cost. Canva is another design tool that makes it easy for those without design skills to create creative assets using templates.
Test mind mapping
Mind mapping is a visual brainstorming technique that involves creating a diagram to represent ideas and concepts. Start with a central idea or theme and branch out into subtopics and related ideas. This exercise can generate new ideas and identify connections between seemingly unrelated concepts.
Let's say you’re working on a marketing campaign for a new product and need creative ideas for the campaign that will resonate with your target audience.
You start by:
- Writing the central idea, “Marketing Campaign,” in the center of a piece of paper.
- Then, create branches for subtopics like “Target Audience,” “Messaging,” and “Channels.”
- Under each subtopic, add related ideas like “Social Media Advertising,” “Influencer Marketing,” “Product Demos,” and “Email Campaigns.”
As you continue to add ideas and subtopics to your mind map, you’ll see connections between novel concepts.
Exercising your creativity doesn’t have to occur only in a work setting — the need for out-of-the-box thinking can happen anytime, anywhere. Keep your mind open and look for opportunities to solve problems and reach objectives in a way you wouldn’t normally do. Over time, conjuring up unique solutions to everyday problems will become second nature.