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Section 2
Creative Thinking Principles

Many writers have published checklists of factors that influence creative thinking. However, it is the principles behind the factors that are the most helpful. Creative thinking principles are the accepted rules that govern our thinking and behavior. Once we understand the principles, we can use this knowledge to enhance our creative thinking skills.

The creative thinking principles are like signs pointing to conditions along the journey and our progress toward the destination; but they are not the conditions or the destination. What follows is a grouping of signs, or creative thinking principles, that influence creativity. We have grouped these into two categories: "enhancers" and "inhibitors" of creative thinking. As we understand these principles and begin to use them positively, we are on the way to enhancing our skills in creative thinking.


Individuals, whether seen as creative or not, follow four principles when producing creative ideas. First, they develop the principle of initiative and versatility. Second, they prepare their minds to be receptive to ideas regardless of the source. Third, they generate ideas that may resolve the problem at hand. Fourth, they test or validate the new ideas to see if the ideas are any good.

a.  Initiative and versatility include bringing to life a new idea(s) out of existing information. It is also being able to lead others toward effective solutions despite changing situations. It is what you personally add to the process and how you go about it. Initiative and versatility, however, do not necessarily mean change, but a deeper understanding of why we are doing that which we do.

b.  Preparation increases our appreciation of a new idea(s). Preparation includes commitment to the task of collecting data by reading, listening, discussing, and reflecting on all data, whether or not the data fits the problem at hand, recognizing that if it does not fit this problem, it will probably fit another problem. Three techniques to prepare us for new ideas are setting the stage, determination, and saturation.

(1)  Setting the stage.

  • Recognize and begin overcoming inhibitors.
  • Challenge assumptions.
  • Define and redefine the problem statement.
  • Recognize "idea killer" words and phrases.
  • Model creative behavior.
  • Minimize risk.
  • Look for more than one good answer.

(2)  Determination. The price of an idea is intensive, concentrated, conscious thinking. You must have a commitment to understand some truth, resolve a problem, achieve an objective, or accurately understand what you are thinking. Your commitment is to discover new ideas and approaches for the way we've always done it. Your task is to bring chaos into order. Creative ideas often come from sheer stubbornness.

(3)  Saturation. Research, research, research. Fill your mind with data. This step in creative thinking has no magic in it. It is hard, grueling, brain-beating work. Thorough, painstaking research is the foundation of creative thinking. Experience is part of research. Discuss ideas with the people who have been there and done that; they should know the most relevant information.

Thomas Edison's approach to a problem is a good example of saturation. He said, "I am more of a sponge than an inventor." When he wanted to discover something, he first read how others had attempted to solve the problem in the past. Then he gathered data from the others' experiments and studied that. This was only his starting point for his own attack on the problem.

c.  Generation is the actual production of a new idea(s). This may not appear to be as much work as preparation, but it can require great effort in terms of patience. Generation involves letting your mind explore new directions, putting your subconscious mind to work, listening for the flash of illumination, the "ah ha" that suggests a possible solution, and visualizing solutions.

(1)  Divergent thinking, a key concept during generation, is to let your mind explore beyond your normal self-imposed limits. Engage your curiosity and explore the many new avenues that appear before you. Follow your data and see what you discover.

(2)  Incubation is the process of harnessing the power of your subconscious mind. The subconscious mind is the storehouse of all that we have learned and experienced in our lifetime. In some mysterious way your subconscious mind works to create new concepts or patterns from existing ideas. It's always working behind the scenes. It provides answers when your attention is on something else. The secret to using the subconscious mind is to refocus your attention. This is the time to relax, loaf, let go, walk away from your problem, and let your subconscious take over.

(3)  Illumination is the actual flash of creative insight that comes from your subconscious mind during a period of incubation. There are specific ways in which you can stimulate and increase the flashes of illumination. Maintain an attitude of quiet expectancy. Keep your mental door open. Believe the idea you need will come to you. Do not reject ideas too soon or discriminate against them too rapidly. Remove all barriers of critical judgment. Allow for the free flow of ideas. Once ideas begin to come, write them down--at once! Many good ideas have escaped forever because people trusted their memories. As a Chinese proverb says, "The strongest memory is weaker than the palest ink."

(4)  Visualization is useful in generating ideas from shapes, forms, or patterns. There are two steps to visualizing when generating ideas. The first is to actually see the image or picture of your idea. The second is to make your image do something; control it. Your visualizing begins with something you have seen. Then you can manipulate that image into creative ideas. With practice, you can become familiar with controlling the mental pictures you have.

d.  Validation is when you test or validate the new idea(s) to see if it is any good. Every idea needs validation. This requires thinking that is more convergent in nature. Convergent thinking encourages knowledge, decision, and valuation. Test the idea. Conduct experiments.

Validation has to do with "proving, confirming, and substantiating" ideas. There is sound wisdom in having validation come at the end of the creative process. To interject judgment and critical analysis during preparation and generation would stop the flow of ideas. Idea stoppers say "It can't be done," "It won't work," "It is impossible." Idea stoppers stop ideas in their tracks.

As you check and evaluate, you'll find the stockpile of ideas a gold mine of possibilities. The idea you laughed at, on analysis, may contain a hint for a completely new approach to an important problem. An idea that seems farfetched on the first hearing may open the way to the development of a new plan.

You'll find raw ideas that you can shape and polish into useful tasks or wild ideas that you can tame and harness to specific tasks. You will discard some ideas, but others, however, will be priceless.


Everyone develops a subjective way at looking at opportunities, issues, problems, accomplishments, and so forth. We call these biases. We all have biases that inhibit our creative thinking abilities. We've even allowed these to influence how we respond to situations, ideas, information, and decisions. The following biases are the most common inhibitors to creative thinking.

a.  Perceptual bias says that what we see or understand may be different from actual reality. Our perceptual bias can prevent us from accurately seeing or understanding the problem or the information that will help solve it. For example, look at the following picture of an arch. Is the arch taller than it is wide, the same, or wider than it is tall?

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The arch is as wide as it is tall. However, knowing that it is the same width and height does not change our visual perception. Visually it continues to appear taller than it is wide. Another example is the Muller-Lyer figure. Which of the following lines is longer?

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When you measure the lines above you discover they are the same length. However, our visual perception sees the top line as longer than the bottom line. We call these perceptual biases.

b.  Mental bias, like perceptual bias, influences our view of reality. For example, which would you rather have hit you, a pound of lead or a pound of feathers. I suspect that on reading this question your own bias automatically took control. What went through your mind? What picture did you see? We see feathers as fluffy and light while lead is dense and heavy. Both, however, weigh the same, one pound. What we see is a perceived difference in weight between feathers and lead. This perception includes the idea of force. We perceive that the force we use to lift an object equals the amount of damage the object can cause on impact. A pound of lead is smaller and harder to grasp than a pound of feathers. Therefore, we conclude that because it requires greater force to lift a pound of lead, it will cause more damage on impact.

We perceive that an object requiring greater effort to lift is heavier than the scales indicate. The reverse is also true. We perceive that an object that is easy to lift is lighter than the scales indicate. For example, place a small bowl filled with 8 ounces of water and a cup filled with 8 ounces of water on a table. Have someone pick up the cup with one hand, and the bowl with the other hand, and tell you which is heavier. Invariably the subject will report that the cup is lighter than the bowl. The only difference is that the cup has a handle while the bowl does not.

Our mental bias is to continue investing in any project in which we have already invested a large sum of resources. We want to believe that by continuing the investment we will complete the project. Suppose that you have invested $40 in tickets so you and your spouse may attend the Infantry Ball at the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City, MO. On the evening of the Infantry Ball there is a terrible snowstorm that makes the 45-minute drive from Fort Leavenworth to Kansas City hazardous. However, the leaders have not called the ball off. How likely are you to make the drive? If you had not yet purchased your tickets to the ball but plan to buy them at the door, how likely are you to make the drive? Consider a third alternative where your first sergeant has purchased your tickets and you are to pick them up at the door when you and your spouse arrive. Will you make the drive through the storm to attend the Infantry Ball?

Perceptual and mental biases may prevent us from accurately understanding the problem or the data that will help solve it. On the other hand, an understanding of our biases can help us to understand why we need to accept or reject a given bias. For example, we may have a bias of establishing numerous boundaries around an issue. There are times when we need few boundaries and at other times more boundaries. However, unless we understand our biases we may accept a bias when it may be best to reject it. Some biases to consider include:

  • A tendency to establish too many boundaries about an issue.
  • Stereotyping or seeing what we expect to see.
  • A failure to use all our senses.
  • Getting stuck on the obvious.
  • Protecting our investments.

c.  Cultural biases include taboos, traditions, and proverbs that we use to explain why we can or cannot do something. It also includes our predisposition to pursue data supporting our viewpoint while downplaying contradictory evidence. Our cultural bias is part of who we are and helps us to make sense of our world. However, unexamined cultural biases may provide inappropriate or wrong answers. It is important that we become aware of how our culture influences our thinking.

  • "It is common sense."
  • "We've always done it that way."
  • Reason, logic, numbers, utility, and practicality are good; feeling, intuition, qualitative judgments, and pleasure are bad.
  • Tradition is preferable to change.

Recognizing our biases and how they inhibit creativity takes us a long way down the road toward increasing the effectiveness of our creative thinking. Some techniques you can use to examine your biases include:

  • Identify what biases you may bring to the problem at hand.
  • Ask others to identify what they see as your biases that affect the problem at hand.
  • Ask questions to clarify your biases.
  • Identify what affect your biases have on your problem.
  • Make and implement a plan to use your biases appropriately.

David L. Heiserman, Editor

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Revised: June 14, 2016