Publications & Products
Volume 1, Issue 33

To Be More Inventive, Think Like a Child

New research suggests there are methods of thinking that anyone can adopt to come up with more creative ideas.

Anthony McCaffrey, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, had research on the topic published in the latest issue of Psychological Science. He was recently interviewed by Inc. magazine on what managers and other leaders can learn from his work.

"We're basically geared toward noticing the common things because that's most helpful in our daily experience," McCaffrey says. "But if you want to be more innovative, then your habits are your enemy and you have to fight against doing the common or habitual and know how to get to the obscure things."

To get in the habit of seeing the obscure and unusual, people should return to the fresh perspective they had when they were children, McCaffrey says. He suggests adopting the following techniques to emulate this kind of thinking:

  • The generic-parts technique. People looking for fresh ideas should try to strip away their preconceived notions of an object or an idea by describing it without reference to its usual function. For example, an electric plug contains two small, flat pieces of metal. Thought of simply in this way, it could be used as a screwdriver. "The trick is to un-conceal the features relevant to your purposes," McCaffrey writes.
  • The thesaurus technique. "When you describe your goal, you're going to have a verb in there like ‘I need to fasten things together' or ‘I need to remove this from that,'" McCaffrey says. "Use a thesaurus on the verb. I've asked people to ‘list all the ways you can fasten things together.' ... If you look in a thesaurus for the synonyms of ‘fasten,' the more specific ones give you things like ‘buckle, clip, weld, glue, tie, Velcro' and on and on. Where people can come up with eight to 10, the thesaurus is going to have 60, and obviously it's helping you think way beyond your narrow range."
  • Broaden your interests. "Have a wide variety of interest in your reading, what you pay attention to, what's coming out in several fields of your choice," McCaffrey says. "Follow your interests and you naturally can make connections between them that others can't as easily see."

This article is from the Feb. 27, 2012 issue.

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