What Is Creative Thinking?

What Is Creative Thinking?

Psychology June 16, 2015 / By Dr. KH Kim
What Is Creative Thinking?

Innovation requires inbox, outbox, and newbox (ION) thinking skills in the creative process. (Last updated on October 16, 2016)

My children and I went out to our garden with scissors. We were in a hurry because we were hungry. We cut sweet potato vines, chives, mung beans, purple eggplants, and shiny red bell peppers larger than my fist. While my son peeled garlic in the kitchen, I went back outside to cut tentacles of thyme, lacy plumes of dill, and robust lengths of basil that filled the kitchen with heady, green fragrance. We didn’t know exactly what we were making yet, but we were going to use everything we brought in. There would be soup and side dishes. There would be rice, of course. And we would make pickles, which none of us had ever done before. We got the instructions off the Internet. It was a lot like making kimchi, but with vinegar instead of fish sauce.

While we were learning about canning, my son was inspired by what we read. He went back outside and collected more fruit — some figs, pears, and apples that were not ripe yet — he cleaned them all and boiled them in a pot to make jam, something I had never thought to do. We were making something unique and useful, using many different ingredients. More ingredients do not necessary make a better dish, but quantity does enhance quality when it comes to thinking creatively: Generating more ideas leads to better ideas.

Many people believe that creative thinking is just coming up with new ideas. They think that divergent thinking, what I call outbox thinking is the same as creative thinking.  But this is incorrect. Because creativity is making something unique and useful, it needs usefulness in addition to uniqueness of outbox thinking. In fact, creative thinking requires inbox, outbox, and newbox (ION) thinking skills to achieve innovation.

Inbox thinking is a narrow and deep process for gaining knowledge and comprehending ideas. Innovators use inbox thinking first to develop expertise, the foundation of creative thinking, as the bottom of the pyramid (Figure 1) for thinking skills indicates. Later, Inbox thinking is also used for critical thinking. It is persistent, systematic process to analyze and evaluate ideas. The narrow-angle inbox thinking lens narrows down and focuses on specifics, which is used to acquire and apply expertise for at least 10 years. Developing expertise requires the skills of memorization, comprehension, and application, which are lower-order inbox thinking skills.

Outbox thinking is a flexible and broad process for imagining numerous and diverse possibilities from a different angle.  It is a spontaneous, chaotic process used to seek nonconforming ideas. Outbox thinking skills include fluid, flexible (different categories of), and original thinking, which are higher-order thinking skills. This wide-angle outbox thinking lens is broad and allows innovators to imagine an entire universe of possibilities. It proposes as many ideas as it can to develop unique ideas. Yet the successful use of outbox thinking skills depends on the prior acquisition of a sufficient body of expertise in order to generate and consider viable alternatives.

 The unique ideas from outbox thinking must be streamlined with realistic evaluation using critical thinking , zooming in again, to choose and/or improve the best idea(s) among the generated unique ideas. Critical thinking (check box) includes the skills of analysis and evaluation, which are higher-order inbox thinking skills. They help make the unique ideas useful. Yet the successful use of critical thinking skills depends on the outbox thinking stage, so it has lots of ideas to choose from.

Newbox thinking combines inbox and outbox thinking, which includes the skills of synthesis, transformation, and promotion that aim at innovation. They are highest-order thinking skills. After the best ideas are selected and the unique ideas become useful using critical thinking, the main essences of the unique and useful ideas, from inbox and outbox thinking, need to be synthesized and transformed into a creation through elaborating, refining, and symplifying. Finally, the creation needs to be promoted so that it can be recognized as an innovation by others and the society.

Inbox thinking, therefore, provides the foundation of creative thinking and also ensures usefulness of ideas. Outbox thinking ensures uniqueness of ideas. Newbox thinking synthesizes ideas from both inbox and outbox thinking processes; transforms them into a unique and useful creation; and promote it as an innovation. Innovators use all ION thinking in their creative process to achieve innovation. For example, when Thomas Edison invented the first commercially viable electric light bulb: Using inbox thinking, he learned through extensive readings, applications, and experiences, and accumulated as much expertise as he could in his subject of Curiosity, Preference, or Interest (CPI) . Using outbox thinking, he thought about many different materials and methods from diverse fields, including material science and chemistry, to find long-lasting lights. Using critical thinking (of inbox thinking), he tested each idea to see whether it worked and how effective it was . Finally, using newbox thinking, he synthesized ideas from both of the inbox and outbox thinking processes –– connecting different fields (material science and chemistry) together –– to develop materials that would not burn out in vacuum and last long; and he transformed the synthesized ideas into a creation by elaborating, refining, and simplifying them, which he promoted as an innovation.

The good news is that each of ION thinking skills can be developed, exercised, and grown. The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation presents the three — research-based — steps to innovation (CATs: first, cultivate creative Climates; second, nurture creative Attitudes; and third, apply ION Thinking skills), along with a set of exercises for ION thinking skills to achieve innovation.

(This article is an excerpt of the Chapter 9 of the book, The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation, which is a synthesis of research findings –– not a personal opinion –– and all of the original sources are found in the book.)

Follow Dr. KH Kim @Kreativity_Kim on Twitter.



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