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A Strategic Approach To Boost Your Creativity At Work

Apr 14, 2021

People laugh when I tell them I sometimes do my best work at the 7-Eleven. “How can you get anything done standing in line?” The truth is, you can get a lot of thinking done while performing mindless activities. Einstein is said to have developed the theory of relativity while shaving. Emptying your mind gives you the necessary room to reframe problems and situations. And this can be one of the most effective ways to strategically boost your creativity.

A few months ago, I supported a business process modeling initiative for a multinational corporation. The organization wanted to understand how blockchain technologies might reduce costs associated with critical aspects of their business. Specifically, they were interested in learning how stable-coins might reduce their reliance on external banking services.

After reviewing the information, I felt the pressure building. The client needed a turnaround in less than 24 hours, and I had little knowledge of their internal processes. A spreadsheet that detailed process deficiencies and desired outcomes provided a general summary of the situation. To finish the task, I had to rely on my general understanding of their business, the spreadsheet provided, and my business process design experience.

Could I create a compelling solution in such a short time with so little information? Challenge accepted! Thankfully, I’d recently bought a few books written by Edward De Bono on lateral thinking during a trip to Malta. The concepts I learned helped me produce significantly more creative output in a fraction of the time.

Lateral thinking is a systematic approach to boost creative thinking.

The term was coined by Edward DeBono to explain the form of thinking that is not linear, sequential, or logical. The Oxford Dictionary defines lateral thinking as “a way of solving problems by an indirect and creative approach, typically through viewing the problem in a new and unusual light.” According to DeBono, “You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper,” is the simplest explanation of lateral thinking.

Lateral thinking is the opposite of vertical thinking.

Vertical thinking is positional. In this mode of thought, you take a position and build on it to progress your thinking on possible solutions. Logic determines our movement along a sequence of events. Past information provides information to analyze the current position and potential next steps.

Chess is an example of applied vertical thinking.

Each piece has a predetermined pattern of movement. This pattern, along with piece selection, current position, determine possible next steps. By playing the game, the user gains experience. This experience creates a foundation for game strategy.

Lateral thinking can be used as an approach to boost your creativity at work
Vertical Thinking vs Lateral Thinking

You can use lateral thinking to develop new ideas and concepts to solve problems.

Lateral thinking deals with different perceptions, concepts, and points of entry. Rather than seeking to understand what is true, lateral thinking explores “possibilities” or “what might be.” The use of logic to create new ideas or solve challenging problems often leads to a prolonged lack of insights. Lateral thinking, however, emphasizes the use of different perceptions, approaches, and ways of looking at things.

“You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.”-Edward De Bono

Here’s the approach I used to boost my creativity at work.

I needed a game plan to reduce my workload and stress levels before moving forward. Without a game plan, I might easily get lost in the details of the situation. When we get lost in the details, we waste time and energy.

First, I reviewed the spreadsheet to understand the project better.

After a few moments, I started to feel the onset of acute anxiety setting in. If you’ve ever experienced a tight deadline based on abstract details, you probably know what I mean. Negative thoughts began to race into my head, such as:

  • We’re going about this using backward by trying to force a solution onto a problem. We should start with fully understanding the issues before we try coming up with solutions.
  • Each of these scenarios involves operational efficiencies. You can’t grow revenue through operational improvements.

After a few moments, I realized what was happening. At some point in the process, I had inadvertently put my Black Hat on. When we wear the black hat, we enter a mode of judgment and negativity. Black Hat thinking is excellent when used at the right time. Getting started on a project wasn’t the right time for me to use this mode. I needed to get out of black hat, thinking fast! I organized my thoughts around the Six Thinking Hats.

I created a mind-map based on each of the Six Hats. The Six Hats mind map initiated “Movement” along the creative process. I decided the excel spreadsheet would serve as an excellent source of information. This information would form the foundation of the White Hat thinking. I began breaking each of the rows and columns into central themes, concepts and desired outcomes.

Let’s assume the client wanted to achieve the following outcomes:

  • Decrease Bank Transfer Fees
  • Hedge Foreign Exchange Risk
  • Reduce Administrative Cost
  • Increase Capital Efficiencies

Working backward, you could organize into the following concepts:

  • Reduce Bank Fees
  • Improve Cash Management

These concepts form the central theme of “Optimize Money Flow.”

The Six Thinking Hats method can be used as an approach to strategically boost your creativity at work.
White Hat Thinking: Concept Fan

After reframing the spreadsheet information under the White Hat, I went through each of the other modes. By the end of the process, five insight themes emerged under the Yellow Hat with more than fifteen ideas for reducing cost and increasing revenue.

The insight themes included:

  • Stablecoin Opportunities
  • Workshop Opportunities
  • Smart Contract Opportunities
  • Security Token Opportunities
  • Software As A Service (SAAS) Opportunities

Next, I created a business process flow diagram.

Through diagraming my assumptions of their business processes at a high level, I was able to think through how they might implement my ideas. After drafting the flow diagram, I attempted to integrate each solution into the future state. I realized this wasn’t going to be as easy to display as I’d hoped. I was flying blind in many ways.

I didn’t have all the information to diagram each of the processes with confidence. And trying to diagram each of the solutions became increasingly complicated. After a while, I realized I’d worked through the night, and it was now sunrise. A colleague had been helping me think through my ideas using a process called reframing. In this process, I explained my thoughts, and she would poke holes in my logic. If the solutions didn’t make sense to her, it wouldn’t make sense to anyone. After a while, I needed to take a break. I was getting frustrated with my inability to develop insights that slowed the process. I told my colleague that I needed to take a quick break.

Then, I went to 7-Eleven for coffee!

As I walked to grab my coffee, I thought about the information swishing around in my head. How might we demonstrate our ability to help the client realize the benefits of blockchain technologies? What would the process look like if it were easy? Upon entering the 7-Eleven, the aroma of fresh coffee, peppy music sounds, and bright lights welcomed me.

Standing in line to make my purchase, I noticed my favorite old fashioned donut with chocolate frosting sitting on the shelf. It was the last one, so I grabbed it. After completing the purchase, I made my way over to the coffee machine. I placed my cup on the device and pressed the button.  A sensor determined the size and the blend of the coffee I had chosen. Suddenly, a rush of insights popped into my head as I listened to the whir of beans grinding.

The coffee machine placement near the entry was no coincidence. I realized this was consistent in every store. 7-Eleven likely performed a study to determine the optimal location for greeting customers with the sight and smell of a delicious morning brew. I suppose the donuts’ strategic placement along the aisle also triggers customers lined up to purchase coffee. Customers quickly paid, moved to the exit, and placed their cup into the machine. The look of anticipation on their faces while they wait for their coffee encourages others to purchase coffee. 7-Eleven optimized the layout to increase my purchase price from $1.50 to $2.47. In essence, 7-Eleven created a self-organizing system that optimized the sale of complementary goods.

We needed to propose a self-organizing system to optimize the process!

I rushed back home, explained the insight to my colleague, and franticly began diagraming the solution. Within forty-five minutes, the entire solution was diagrammed, written up, and ready for translation into Japanese. Rather than thinking of each specific problem, we needed to think of the whole ecosystem.

The solution would require implementing a self-organizing system consisting of two main components. (1) Smart contracts to record the receipt and movement of materials. (2) A bond backed stablecoin to facilitate the transfer of value for the movement of goods. The stablecoin is pegged to a corporate bond issued by the company.

Whenever the system receives goods, the goods are recorded in the smart contract. Upon receipt, stable coins equivalent to the value of goods received are issued to the supplier. The combination of stablecoins and smart contracts to facilitate the transfer of goods between subsidiaries/departments within the network would reduce administrative work and 3rd party banking fees. A digital exchange would support the transfer of stablecoins into local currency when fiat money was needed to facilitate out- of network transactions.

Here’s how lateral thinking helped me re-imagine the system so quickly.

Had I have continued working without pausing, I might have spent hours diagraming without any noticeable progress. How had I come up with a game plan for transforming critical aspects of the client’s business processes so quickly?

The six thinking hats provide structure.

Analyzing the spreadsheet from the six thinking hats framework allowed me to think through multiple perspectives. I got all the facts, negative thoughts, emotions, opportunities, and ideas down on paper. By focusing on each aspect individually, I avoided the confusion created by trying to process too much simultaneously. With each of the focus areas laid down next to each other, the big picture presented itself for discovery.

“Confusion is the enemy of good thinking.”– Edward De Bono

Diagramming exposed areas that weren’t yet processed.

When I tried to diagram the solution, I realized that there were holes in my thinking. Although I had all the relevant information down on paper, I hadn’t yet thought it through. Insights take time to develop because we often need to reframe the situation. The creative process requires flexibility in our thinking. We have to be aware of the need to switch between vertical and lateral thinking modes. Rather than keep digging the same hole deeper, I needed to start from a different angle.

Why the 7-Eleven trip changed my thoughts.

By going to 7-Eleven, I removed myself from the thinking mode needed for diagraming. Exposure to the new environment provided an opportunity to reflect and assess the situation from a different perspective.

The creative pause is one of the simplest yet underrated productivity hacks available. The deliberate process of interrupting the current flow of thoughts requires discipline and practice. Anyone who wants to be more creative should make an effort to implement the creative pause into their routine. Investing in this simple habit increases the ability to be more creative. Yet so many people refuse to take even a few minutes to let their minds wander. Next time you’re stuck on a difficult task, take a walk with a notepad or a sheet of paper. You might be surprised by how many creative ideas you produce.

More Insights.