Some of the most successful businesspeople are those who think outside of the box. “The ability to see fresh new ideas is critical to business. You have to be able to embrace new technologies and new ways of marketing if you want to stay current, relevant and in business,” says Ann Morgan James, author of How to Raise a Millionaire.
But creative thinking must be followed up with action. “Creativity is the key to making any dream come true. Innovation in business is obviously driven by imagination…But do keep in mind that all of the creative thinking in the world won’t make a business successful,” Hope Gibbs, founder of The Inkandescent Group, a marketing/publishing company dedicated to promoting and educating entrepreneurs. “A strategic plan, with goals and a timeline, is the key to turning the best ideas into reality.”
Can you teach yourself to think creatively? Yes, say experts.
“I would argue that everyone is a creative thinker—they just don’t realize it. Whether you are figuring out your day, managing your child’s schedule, or putting together a marketing strategy to push your business plan forward, you are thinking creativity. The key to doing it well is to be strategic about it by making a Mind Map,” says Gibbs, author of PR Rules: The Playbook. “The first thing to do is to stop limiting yourself,” says James. “Being a lifelong learner is the first step. Commit to learning something new every day.” Adds Steven Aldrich, CEO of Outright.com (online bookkeeping software for small businesses), “Creative thinking requires three ingredients: 1) exposure to lots of diverse content as fuel for ideas 2) a problem or opportunity to tackle and 3) time to think. Start with broadening what you’re exposed to: widen your reading list, go to hands-on cultural events at museums, talk to customers about their lives (not just about your product or service), and spend less time on “passive” activities like watching television. Those activities will create grist for new idea generation and those ideas need to be aimed at a specific problem to solve.”
15 Steps to Entrepreneurial Thinking:
1. “To develop your mind to think creatively, you must clear your mind. Across disciplines, thinkers Dr. Oz, Oprah Winfrey, Russell Simmons and David Lynch all advocate Transcendental Meditation for deep rest, clarity, and creativity. If you don’t get beneath the busy surface noise of your life and work, creativity cannot flourish,” Steve Langerud, director of professional opportunities at DePauw University.
2. “Be a Dead Time Learner — Dead time are these times when you are doing something that required you to physically do something but your mind is otherwise free. Things like vacuuming, driving the car, or mowing the lawn. Instead of listening to the radio or the iPod, listen to something you can learn from,” suggests James. “Maybe it is an audio recording of Napoleon Hill’s book, Think and Grow Rich. Maybe it is Brian Tracy, Jack Canfield, or any other business writer you enjoy. Listen to learn something new. Listen to be inspired.”
3. “Get a sheet of paper and starting in the right corner, write down your goal — or better yet, draw it, or grab a magazine and cut out the images that illustrate your idea,” says Gibbs. “Now work backward. Outline the steps in words and/or pictures that will help you accomplish the goal you dream of. Put this “mind map” on the wall, and add to it daily. Study it, and start putting your imagination to work.”
4. “Think in terms of large quantities of ideas. Multiply now; edit later. How many different alternatives or solutions can you come up with–no matter how unconventional (or how “obvious”)? Write them all down. You can multiply the possibilities by using visual aids: charts, diagrams, pictures,…even collages,” says Judy Feld, an executive coach and teacher at the School of Management at the University of Texas at Dallas, and author of SmartMatch Alliances.
5. “Create a mastermind group,” offers James. “Find a group of people you admire in business. Meet once a week or once every two weeks. It can be via skype, on the phone or in person. Talk about your businesses, goals and directions. They will help come up with ideas and things you can do with your business.”
6. “Spend time with people outside your profession. Attend a professional meeting where you are the only person not in that field. It requires you to open your mind. Ask for advice from people who know nothing about what you do. Present the issue and ask what they think. They will ask questions that make you think more clearly and creatively,” says Langerud.
7. “One of the best things you can do is unplug when you have down-time. Lots of successful business people say that they create their best ideas while they’re in the shower. And why is that? Because in the shower, there are no distractions. Put that smart phone down, turn off the TV. Just sit with your thoughts and get used to the idea of letting your mind wander,” says Sara Sutton Fell, founder of FlexJobs, a job site for part-time or full-time flexible jobs.
8. “Encourage your brain to make connections among seemingly unrelated or dissimilar subjects or ideas or objects. When one concept occurs to you, consider its opposite as an alternative,” says Feld.
9. “Observe nature. Many of the systems, processes and products we’re trying to create already exist in nature. Nature has hierarchies, boundaries and mechanisms for correcting itself,” says Shannon Mouton, Principal, Topaz Consulting, boutique marketing firm for small nonprofits and businesses based in Washington, D.C.
10. “Each day for a week, do one of the following: a) read a magazine that you’ve never read before, b) try a new restaurant and eat something you’ve never eaten before, c) go to work using a different route, d) go to an art show or museum and imagine yourself creating one of the art objects you like, e) look at a procedure that you follow at work that irritates you and make it better for yourself, f) think about ways that your own work products could be better and get the OK from your boss to make changes,” says Robert C. Preziosi, professor and chair of management, Huizenga School of Business, Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
11. “Develop your mind to think entrepreneurially by reading, observing, asking, listening and contemplating. Read about how other successful entrepreneurs got started. Watch the behavioral patterns of successful entrepreneurs, even if you can only access them via television or YouTube. Talk directly to entrepreneurs and ask meaningful questions. Listen to their answers and take notes. As you come up with/come across good ideas, ask yourself if each would make a good business. Keep a journal of your discoveries,” offers Marlene Caroselli, author of The Critical Thinking Tool Kit.
12. “There’s no such thing as a bad idea, just poorly executed ideas. Remember, the Pet Rock and Beanie Babies products had people running to the store to buy them. Find a way to execute any of your ideas properly and you will always win (even if your product fails this time around),” says Ashli Norton, co-founder, SimpleLeap Software, a provider of educational, business and consumer applications.
13. “Avoid looking around too much at what your competitors are doing. It will dilute your own ideas too much. To do things creatively, you really need to have your own thoughts,” says Norton. “Even if your product or ideas end up the same as a competitor maybe you will do just one thing different enough to make the customers want you. Your competitive edge is creativity in such a competitive market.”
14. “Realize that you are a brand and think about what would a commercial for me look like. Write up some pretend advertising copy for the greatness of you,” advises Karen Southall Watts, entrepreneurship/management trainer and coach.
15. “Opportunities exist everywhere for businesses. Staying open and creative allows for new product ideas, new ways to market and sell, and new partnerships for the creation of even more products and services. Customers will ultimately benefit from the creative entrepreneur,” explains Carrie Sharpshair, small business planning expert and host of “Simply Strategic Success Talk.”