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Message in a bottle: How to become a more fluent creative thinker (Part 2)

  • Published: Sep 1, 2016 04:00
  • Writer: Detlef Reis | 1 viewed

Two weeks ago, we discussed how your inner critic prevents you from being a fluent creative thinker, leading you to produce only a few, typically ordinary ideas during an ideation exercise. This is because your inner voice of judgement dismisses any uncommon or wild ideas.

Today, you'll learn why your inner critic is wrong, how to gain control over your idea-killing inner voice, and how to train your mind to become a more fluent creative thinker.

To get started, let's do a new creative exercise that builds on the previous one. Two weeks ago, I asked you to come up with as many ideas as possible in two minutes on "how to make good use of an empty plastic water bottle". Now, write down as many ideas as possible for this slightly modified challenge: "How to NOT use an empty plastic water bottle?" Here are the ideas I came up with in 120 seconds:

An empty plastic bottle cannot be used: 1. to drive. 2. to shoot at people. 3. to run. 4. to cook food. 5. to create something new. 6. to make someone laugh. 7. to dress someone up. 8. as food. 9. as a watch. 10. as a phone. 11. as a computer. 12. as a calendar. 13. as a bag. 14. as a house. 15. as a shoe. 16. as a weapon to kill people. 17. as a health device. 18. to help people make money. 19. as a way for entrepreneurs to know what's the next big thing. 20. as a fitness device. 21. as a water pool. 22. as a transport means. 23. as a tool to learn in university. 24. as a tool to learn in school. 25. as a toy.

How to silence the inner critic: At this moment our inner critic may be doing what it likes to do most: telling us what doesn't work, what's nonsense or just plain ridiculous. But is our inner critic right? Let's pick some examples and apply some creativity. An empty water bottle cannot be used:

- as a shoe. Well, in Africa, people turn empty water bottles into flip-flops.

- as a watch. Fill one bottle with sand, connect it to a second one, and turn it into an hourglass.

- as a fitness device: Fill it with water, sand, or stones to turn it into a dumb-bell.

- as a computer: Recycle the plastic and use it as input material for cheap computers.

as a way for entrepreneurs to know what's the next big thing: Pose the empty-bottle challenge at a futurists' convention. Then, turn them loose on the question: "What are impossible business trends that cannot happen in the next years?"

So what have you learned from this exercise? If we make an effort, we can come up with ideas to turn a "cannot use" comment from our inner critic into a "can do" idea. With that in mind, here are eight tips that help you speed up your creative thinking and amplify your creative outputs:

Follow the ground rules: Whenever you generate ideas, remind everyone of the ground rules: 1. No killing of ideas. Defer judgement. 2. Go for quantity, because quantity breeds quality. 3. The wilder the better. 4. Combine and improve on ideas.

Set an achievable idea quota: For example, with a group of eight people, push for at least 250 ideas in one hour of brainstorming.

Silence your inner critic: Whenever you hear your inner voice of judgement, scream "Shut up" and jot down the idea.

Silence others: If another team member judges one of your ideas, remind him to comply with ground rule 1.

Practise, practise, practise: Generate ideas whenever you have an opportunity, be it in a structured session or unofficially as a personal challenge in a boring meeting. Creative thinking is a skill just like learning a language or playing golf -- the more you practise, the better you get.

Play word association: "When I think of ___, I think of ___." For example, say our starting word is Money. When I think of money, I think of bank. When I think of bank, I think of stock market. Then you go on: Wall Street, New York, Big Apple, Fruit, Orange, Juice, Drink, Party, Music, and so on.

Create a word concept map: This is a free association exercise similar to the last one. Write one word in the centre of a piece of paper (say: light bulb).

Then, come up with related words that you write clockwise around -- and connect with a line to -- the first word (creativity, idea, Edison, electricity, lamp, light, illumination, candle).

Then, add more words around each of the related words as they pop up in your mind (illumination: Eureka, subconscious mind, breakthrough, luminous being; or lamp: cord, switch, stand, shade, Pixar; candle: flame, fire, matches, wax, etc).

Get into a rhythm: One way to become more fluent is to follow a rhythm. For example, suggest one idea every 15 seconds. Don't panic if you don't come up empty, but playfully embrace the challenge to speed up your pace.

Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Limited (, the ideation and Innovation Company in Asia. He is also an adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. He can be reached at