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what is innovative thinking and how can you develop it?

Innovative thinking is the ability to create something new, moving away from traditional thought patterns. With the help of innovative thinking, one can generate new ideas, act differently, and come up with novel solutions to problems.

Let’s explore ways to develop innovative thinking and apply this skill to be more productive at work.

The definition of innovative thinking

There are different types of thinking. In terms of novelty and originality, there is innovative (creative) and reproductive (standard) thinking. No one uses only standard thinking; we all have the ability to think innovatively.

What is innovative thinking? Innovation includes the ability to think outside the box to achieve goals, or come up with novel solutions to difficult situations using the environment, objects, or circumstances in an unusual way.

Innovative thinking comes down to the ability to take what already exists and use it in a new way.

We do not need to approach everything outside the box all the time. When we come up with something new, our brain uses a lot of energy. It’s like taking a trip on an unfamiliar road, which may have pits and other obstacles, versus using the smooth, familiar path.

So we use standard thinking most of the time and innovative thinking out of necessity. This helps us save brain resources by doing many things automatically.

It’s commonly believed that only the right hemisphere is responsible for creativity, but this is not so. Innovative thinking involves many parts of the brain, not just one.

When we come up with something new, initially we turn to the left hemisphere to use what we already know — words, numbers, lists, and data. Then we connect the right hemisphere to come up with something new based on the information we know.

Where does innovation come from?

Everything we experience throughout our life contributes to our ability to be creative.

All children are creative from three to five years old. They do not yet know the standard ways to use some items, so they have the ability to make unusual connections. After that, one’s level of innovative thinking depends on their personal experiences: whether they played games, trained skills, learned how things work, read books, or watched movies.

It matters whether innovative thinking was encouraged at school or university. If it wasn’t, one ​​might be afraid to try something new in the future. As an employee, one might ask their manager to assign them tasks that don’t require creativity.

Innovative thinking examples

Innovative employees are highly valued, but it’s also important to be able to implement one’s creative ideas. At the same time, non-standard solutions should be focused on specific business goals.

Here are some innovative thinking examples from famous companies.

One well-known example of an innovative solution in the IT field is Facebook’s data center network. Employees fully rebuilt the Facebook network infrastructure. The data center has become a high-speed, scalable network on which separate clusters of various sizes can be built. As a result, the need for some equipment to store data in the cloud services has been reduced.

There is a Japanese business philosophy called Kaizen which seeks continuous improvement of production and business processes. This method has been successfully used at Toyota. Any employee can present an idea to improve the production process, and it will be implemented. The popular Scrum methodology is based on the principles of Kaizen.

Even if a business process is solid, it can always be improved upon. If a tester spends 15 minutes running a test, one might come up with a way to make the test run in 15 seconds. As a result, the employee will be able to spend more time learning something new instead.

How to train innovative thinking

We can develop innovative thinking at any age, regardless of life circumstances. Creativity is a skill that can be learned. Here are some simple exercises for developing innovative thinking:


Try Six Thinking Hats

British psychologist and innovative thinking expert Edward de Bono developed the Six Thinking Hats method. Each hat represents a type of thinking. With this method, we look at a situation from six different perspectives.

Scheme of different Hats illustration

Do usual things in an unusual way

Think about how you can do ordinary things differently. For example, brush your teeth with the other hand, or take a new route to the office. This is how we create new neural connections. Keep in mind that if you do something unusual regularly, it will move from the category of “innovative” to “standard.”


Be curious about subjects unrelated to your work

Exposing yourself to activities or subjects you’re unfamiliar with can give you a fresh perspective. For example, if you are a full-stack software engineer, start playing chess or watch the travel channel. Knowledge from other fields, even if it is not directly related to your field, helps you think differently.


Use the random word method

This method is applicable to certain tasks. For example, you need to make a presentation, but you have no idea what style to make it in. Choose any noun and write ten association words for it. Next, for each association word, come up with three ways you can use this word to solve your problem.


Let's say the first word that comes to your mind is cow. One of the associations with this word is spot. How can you use a spot in a presentation? For example, you could include an animal print in the design. Or maybe you associate this word with a coffee stain and use coffee tones in your design. Some of the ideas are bound to inspire a creative solution to the problem.


Come up with new ways to use common items

Think about any object and how it’s typically used. For example, a paperclip’s main purpose is to attach sheets of paper.

Next, think about ways in which one cannot use this item. This may not be as easy as you think. You will begin to come up with rebuttals. For example, you might think that you can't use a paperclip to write on like a piece of paper. But, if you roll it into a thin metal plate, this option becomes viable.

Movies and books about innovative thinking

  • October Sky, a 1999 film based on the true story of Homer Hickam, a coal miner's son who was inspired by the first Sputnik launch to take up rocketry against his father's wishes.
  • Interstate 60, a 2002 cult classic, tells about Neal Oliver who takes a journey on a highway that doesn't exist on any map, going to places he’s heard of in search of an answer and his dream girl.
  • All books of Edward De Bono
  • Cracking Creativity by Michael Michalko
  • Show Your Work and Steal Like An Artist by Austin Cleon
  • Accidental Genius by Mark Levy

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