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Get more creative by skipping the path of least resistance

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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.

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