This guest post is by Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, executive editor of the journal Cognitive Science and a member of the editorial board of Cognitive Psychology. Follow him on Twitter at @abmarkman.

The modern business environment values creativity. The success of many firms is rooted in their ability to innovate. That said, creative behavior flies in the face of our daily reality. Most of our lives consist of habits in which we try to do what we did last time in the same situation. In meetings, we sit in the same seat in a conference room. At restaurants, we order the same dish. On our drive home from work, we take the same route.

It is generally a good idea to use your memories to guide your future behavior. What has worked in the past is a good guide to what will be successful in the future.

So, being creative requires overcoming the reliance on memory to try something really new. Psychologist Tom Ward calls the use of memory in problem solving the Path of Least Resistance. In his research, he finds that when he asks people to be creative, they are still strongly influenced by what they know. For example, college students who try to draw alien creatures that are unlike things on Earth still tend to draw things that are symmetrical and have sense organs like eyes, noses, and mouths.

What can you do to overcome the Path of Least Resistance?

  • Place constraints on the problem. When trying to be creative, we often think it is best to have as few constraints as possible. But that may allow us to focus on the first things we are able to retrieve from memory. Take the most common solutions to your problem and start by saying that the key elements of those solutions can’t be used.
  • Inject some randomness. One way to escape the path of least resistance is to try to create a solution that incorporates an element that is selected at random. These unexpected elements keep you from using the solutions you already know about. For example, if you had to develop a new kind of toothbrush, select a part to include in the solution that is not normally associated with toothbrushes (like a spring). You may not succeed, but if you do, chances are the solution will be novel.
  • Add distance. Lots of research on construal level theory in psychology suggests that the further you are from something, the more abstractly you think about it. The more abstractly you think about a problem you are trying to solve, the fewer specific memories of previous solutions you will try to incorporate into your new idea. You can add distance by imagining that you have to create a solution to your problem that will be used in another country.
  • Do it for someone else. Another way to make you think about a problem more abstractly is to imagine trying to solve it for someone else rather than for yourself. One effective technique is to think about how the people in another company might try to solve the problem.
  • Experience new cultures. People get stuck using their memories when trying to be creative because they have difficulty thinking about the problem in a new way. People who have lived in another country for a while, though, learn to adapt to the routines of that culture. This experience helps people become better at seeing that any problem can be approached in multiple ways. If you haven’t had the chance to live abroad yourself, try to include people who have lived in other countries as part of your team.

Image credit, fpm, via iStockPhoto.com

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11 Responses to “Get more creative by skipping the path of least resistance”

  1. Great post – but be wary of being too sweeping with the 'adversity is the mother of invention' argument: you do need what I call 'incubation space' – to explore and play with new ideas, new ways of doing which is implicit in the points about introducing randomness, do it for someone else, give distance, and experience new cultures tips.

    Adversity without incubation space can be an overwhelming force for inertia, apathy and atrophy.

  2. Sean Cook says:

    Great post. I believe in consistency of routine for everyday work, but you've captured some really simple and powerful ideas about how to give yourself space and time to be creative outside of your routine and normal ways of doing. In response to andygreencreativity above, I would actually say that you've defined a method for creating that "incubation space" he advocates. Your bullets seem to be various points of entry into that space. Thanks for a thought-provoking read.

  3. Sean Cook says:

    I agree. As a coach, I spend a lot of time with clients exploring this area. We all get in our own way sometimes because of seeing blocks more than opportunities, or ignoring practical considerations because we only see opportunities. Building an awareness of our past experiences and understanding our reactions to them are at the core of our ability to move forward.

  4. Robin Renzenbrink says:

    As a creative team manager, I feel this content is spot on! Point being: break routine thinking to gain innovative solutions. There are many tools effective in boosting creative contributions from a brainstorm session – a favorite of mine is to "seek the opposite." For instance, supporting the desired outcome of a good night's sleep, warm up by brainstorming what a "good bed" is and list all attributes (soft/firm, warm, large enough). Now, flip the list and brainstorm a "bad bed" (bed of nails, made of pudding, on an ice berg, etc.) Flipping that list again (back to the "good bed") can lead to innovative enhancements to the design of the "good bed". Surprising how this works.

  5. Frederique Hazael-Ma says:

    Great post… Krishnamurti explain this very well in most of his books

  6. [...] Stop resisting creativity in your business – it’s the only way you will begin to grow! [...]

  7. Very interesting insights! I found the first point about placing constraints especially insightful. Most people do tend to make the mistake of thinking, less constraints = more creativity. But the more the constraints, the more out-of-the-box you'll have to think to solve the problem.

    – Sindoora (http://www.beyondhorizons.in)

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  10. Having the right tools makes a real difference most of the time. Thanks.