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Are you looking for creative inspiration? 

Then don’t think outside of the box, think inside different boxes.

This is a lesson that was taught to me by my mentor and friend, Chris Ertel, author of “Moments of Impact, How to design strategic conversations that accelerate change.”

At the end of the day, when we are asked to think “outside of the box”, what really is that?  The first question I have is, what box am I in and what world is it in? 

The second question I have is, if I have to think outside of the box, where do I even start to look for inspiration, there is so much possibility and no obvious place to start?

While infinite search opportunity is liberating, to practically and quickly get started, it really does help to have some “jumping off” points to get the creative thoughts flowing.

The concept of “thinking in different boxes” is hugely helpful from this perspective as each of these boxes can present a starting point for discovery.

What do you put inside these different boxes I hear you ask?  Well, this is the fun part, you get to choose! 

Below are some activities to fill these boxes with which we are designed to spark our natural thinking capabilities.

These activities can be designed and delivered during specific times you set out for team ideation or these can be done at leisure for your own personal creative practice.

It is best to select a range of activities to activate the mind in multiple ways and generate as many ideas as possible. 

At the early stage of ideation, it is a quantity versus a quality game, so the more ideas you can have the better. 

As Twyla Tharp, revered dance choreographer, says, “Without the little ideas, there are no big ideas!”


Activities for Creative Inspiration:

1)     Questions:
“Curiosity is the driving force behind everything we know,” Professor Celeste Kidd. 

Being curious and asking questions is how the human species has evolved and therefore Natural Born Thinkers believes that the art of creative problem solving is as much the questions you ask as the ideas you generate. 

The more and interesting questions you can think of in relation to the challenge you face, the more places you have to find ideas. 

Start your questions with phrases such as “What if we?, “Imagine a world where…how might we?”, “How can we?”, “What can we?” etc.  The more inventive your questions, the more interesting ideas you are likely to discover!

2)     Observations:

“In the fields of observation chance favours only those minds which are prepared.”

Louis Pasteur

We move at such a fast pace in the working world that it can be hard to imagine the value that could come from stopping, standing still and just taking the time to observe what is going on in the world around us.  But if we can take this moment to pause and truly see what’s in front of us, we have the potential to seek inspiration from anywhere!

A key observation tool for ideation is the use of analogy.  To take the time to observe how someone / something / an organization has responded to a similar type of challenge to the one that you are facing.

For example, if you are trying to innovate your customer experience in a supermarket, look at how an organization like Disney approach their customer experience design.  Consider the philosophies and ideas they use and ask yourself, “What can we learn from this example and what inspiration can we take from it?” 

Don’t be tempted to just explore the most obvious analogies, be prepared to look a lot further afield to really stretch your thinking!

3)     Adventure

“Creativity is not limited to geniuses or prodigies. In the right circumstances and with the right
mindset most people can be very creative regardless of what personality they have.  One way to do this is to cultivate a greater openness towards novelty.”  Dr Gosia Goclowska


Psychologists have also shown that the more open to “novelty seeking” we are the greater our propensity for creativity.  Ideas are made when we connect new information with what we already know and create new and dynamic neural connections to form new thoughts.  The more we experience, the more we learn, the more neural networks we create to play with!

When it comes to adventuring relative to the challenge you are trying to solve you might like to try physical adventures.  For example, this might include visits to other organizations doing interesting things relative to the challenge you are trying to solve. 

Why not get out into nature, go for a walk or even an open water swim if that’s more your thing.  Stanford research showed that walking can increase creative capacity by as much as 60%.

Don’t want to go somewhere new?  Go back down memory lane!  Wake up old memories by visiting places of your childhood or create an adventure for your taste buds by reconnecting with flavours from your heritage.  Memories provide a fertile ground for creative thinking that is unique to you!

4)     Games

“The abilities to make new patterns, find the unusual among the common, and spark curiosity and alert observation are all fostered by being in a state of play.” Dr Stuart Brown

Playing games in the workplace allows us to embrace a state of play which is critical for thinking differently.  The great news is, we played all the time as kids, so this should be a creativity technique that feels natural to do!

When we are 100% “gleeful” and engage in play, we are more likely to engage flow mindset, where we are focused on the challenge at hand!  When we are in flow, we respond more instinctively with thoughts / actions from our subconscious mind allowing us to go beyond traditional responses that are controlled by our conscious mind.

Good techniques for enabling play for problem solving can include the use of metaphor, “a marriage of inconvenience” (connecting two completely unrelated ideas together and imagining the product this unlikely union would create) and making the ideation process a competition i.e., how many ideas in a minute or a prize for the craziest idea and adopting.


5)     Art

“Art is wild and imaginative, seemingly crafted from a place only art can come from.”, Tanner Christensen


Scientists are finding that when we engage in or respond positively to art i.e., pictures, music etc., it can help revitalise the Default Mode Network in the brain, the regions of the brain that work together when we are in a resting state i.e., self-reflection, mind-wandering, remembering and imagination. 

Why not draw a picture, read a book, go to an art gallery or even have a go at writing the words to a song in order to refresh your mind and allow yourself to day dream. 

Revisit the problem you are trying to solve a little while after and see what thoughts might have been stirred.

6)     Meditation

“The creativity that we’re looking for is already there ... we just need to learn how to sit back and allow it to appear.”

The idea of sitting down with your work colleagues and going through a led meditation may feel immediately uncomfortable but scientists have discovered that practicing meditation can enhance creativity.

When we meditate and breathe in a purposeful manner, the mind starts to quieten and the conscious thoughts that have been filling our mind, “relax”.  A Huffington Post article by Headspace says,  “Just imagine looking into a pool of water ... The calmer the water, the clearer the reflection. Again, the mind is no different, when the surface-thinking settles, it becomes much easier to see the contents of the mind.

By stilling the mind, there is more opportunity to engage the subconscious and as a result, allow thoughts into our conscious mind that are in there, but might not have had an opportunity to shine through otherwise.

In addition, author of “Mindfulness for Creativity”, Danny Penman, writes that mindfulness enhances three essential skills for creativity.  The most relevant for this article include divergent thinking and improved attention that makes it easier to register the novelty and usefulness of ideas.

Making intentional space to still the mind might appear to “slow things down” on the surface, but it has the potential to activate thinking that will ultimately accelerate change!