Creative Thinking: A Must-Have Skill for Project Teams

Creative Thinking Photo

Technology is changing the way we work, how we manufacture products and how we communicate to others. We can now connect with colleagues on the other side of the world through a video conferencing app or by using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to help us solve problems and be more efficient. 

Technological disruption in the workforce has accelerated even more as COVID-19 forces organizations to move to a virtual environment and serve customers who are doing the same. As a result, companies are implementing digital transformation projects with greater urgency.

More than ever, these operating conditions and demands require project teams to include creative thinkers who can design, build and implement innovative solutions. The latest “Future of Jobs 2020” report by the World Economic Forum released in October showed that by 2025 the most in-demand skills to have in the workforce will be creativity, analytical thinking and innovation. 

“The world is changing all the time, and as we adapt we need creativity,” said Dr. Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, cognitive neuroscientist and a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. 

“If you look at the increase in technology and our innovations, it's like we are running on a treadmill, which is running faster and faster. We need creativity, as adapting to change requires you to do something that is not the same as before.”

How to overcome mental blocks in creativity

But original thinking, by definition, is not something that can be demanded. If creativity is not nurtured people can fall back into old styles of thinking, she explained. Called the Einstellung effect, it means the brain has a habit of going back to the same thing it did in the past, which ultimately leads to less innovative thought processes.

“In most organizations, things look very similar most of the time,” Di Bernardi Luft said. “We tend to go for what is familiar and not realize that things are changing and the strategy that you did, maybe a year ago, is no longer the best kind of action that you can take. By having a creative workforce, we are able to actually spot these gaps and adapt to them.”

She said this often happens to organizations as they grow because they tend to stick with structures that have worked effectively in the past. 

A good example in history, Di Bernardi Luft noted, is of Henry Ford, the creator of the Model T, who developed the mass production of cars through the assembly line. Initially what Ford created was really creative and successful, but as the production grew over the years, the design of the car had to remain the same to make the most of the assembly line, keeping the cars cheaper. As competitors put out novel car designs, people started shifting away from the old Model T and the company began to suffer.

There are exercises that teams can do to stop getting stuck in their way of thinking and to nurture creativity. One of these methods is brainstorming. 

“That creates a number of different solutions to projects and increases the likelihood of actually finding an idea that works,” she said. “Quantity breeds quality; you have as many ideas as possible that will generate this one idea that we will merge in and make this project a success.”

But she warned this method does not come without pitfalls, as studies have shown mixed findings. She explained people, when they are waiting in turn to speak, might forget the ideas as they turn their mental energy toward remembering what others have said in the group. The team evaluating the ideas also needs to be diverse. 

A better way Di Bernardi Luft pointed out is for everyone in a team to generate ideas on their own and then present them to a diverse team that can look at all the options.

The more experts from different backgrounds, the better, as when similar people work together it results in something called “group think,” she explained. This is where a group of people reaches a decision without critical reasoning. It can lead to bad decisions because ideas about potential problems can be ignored. 

She also warned that the final evaluation of a project idea should not sit in the hands of one person high up in the company, which in a hierarchical organization is often the case.

“It's important to have a person who disagrees; that tends to make people think a bit further, rather than agree and get invested in the first idea the group has,” she said.

“If you just settle for the first idea, it's very likely that is the most common, ordinary thing you can think. If it's a problem that requires you to think out of the box and be creative, that usually is a bad plan,” explained Di Bernardi Luft. 

“It's a little bit like when you're refurbishing your house; you're not going to go with the first coat of paint. You need to explore this and see what is the most adequate. But often in companies that happens; people just get invested in the first idea, and they go with it.” 

Finding ideas from random objects 

Another way in which creative thinking can be developed in a project is to introduce a random object to the group. Di Bernardi Luft explained team members could be asked to think of an object that starts with the first letter of their own name, then be told to find a way to fit into the project. This can stop them from returning to old thought patterns. 

“If I ask you to tell me a story by combining the words magic, rabbit and trick, your story is probably not going to be very creative,” she said. “But if I ask you to tell me a story [using the words] cow, zip and wool, your story is going to be way more creative. 

“It's about combining different things. It's about restructuring the way you see the problems. It's often the case in companies that they're so set in ways of doing things that creativity is very limited.” 

Being creative and solving problems can also take place, even if we might not be aware we are doing it. There is a region in the brain called the “default mode network,” which is a part of your mind that increases activity when a person is resting and not necessarily focused on doing anything related to a task. 

“If you give the message to your brain that this project is really important and you work enough on it, when you stop working it will go and search those memories to try to find a solution for you,” she said. 

“That's why, so often, people get inside moments in the shower or in a walk, because the brain is searching those ideas for you. Suddenly, when it finds something that crosses a threshold of a good idea, you become aware of them.”

For projects to succeed in an ever-changing environment it is important for teams to have a constant flow of new ideas. On average, a company’s life span is less than 20 years. By employing a creative and diverse workforce they have a better chance at survival.

Digital Exclusive article developed for Project Management Institute, Inc. by Joanne Frearson. Frearson is a U.K.-based business reporter.


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