The Non-Obvious Way to Think Creatively

The Non-Obvious Way to Think Creatively

The Non-Obvious Way to Think Creatively

In his workshops, Rohit Bhargava teaches the Haystack Method. His process helps us make surprising connections and combine ideas in new ways. This is one route to more robust creative thinking, which leads to innovation.


Light-speed Learning.

Data Pollution.

Virtual Empathy. 

These are four of the 15 “non-obvious” trends that Rohit Bhargava curated for 2018. Far from back-of-the napkin observations, they represent a full year of work using a deliberate creative process that supports high-level abstract thinking. 

Trend curation is learnable. Rohit teaches his process, called the Haystack Method, through his books, talks, and workshops. Though his is a unique approach, it can be roughly aligned with the four stages of the creative problem solving (CPS) process, which is one way to quantify the natural problem solving process that humans use to help them think up and develop new solutions.


The Process

Recently during a keynote address I guided participants through the four-stage version of the creative problem solving process in under an hour. Here’s the amount of time we spent in the various stages of the CPS process.

Clarify: 20 minutes
Ideate: 7 minutes
Develop: 3 minutes
Implement: 1 minute

One participant asked me after the talk whether creative problem solving could be extended over a greater period of time. Absolutely! To develop his yearly non-obvious trends, Rohit extends his process over an entire year. In fact, he spends most of the year in the clarify stage.

Through the lens of creative problem solving, here’s how Rohit rolls through his process every year to bring forth fascinating new thinking about trends.

A Key to Creative Problem Solving

Within each stage of CPS, both divergent (ideational) and convergent (analytical) thinking take place. To be effective, these each have their own time and place. First comes divergent thinking—the generation of new ideas. Next comes convergent thinking—analyzing and paring down the ideas to fit the constraints of the project. For each of the four stages of the process, I’ll illustrate how these two types of thinking are separated. 

STAGE 1: Clarify

Sparkitivity Clarify Graphic

The clarification stage of creative problem solving is all about data gathering and finding the problem we need to solve. Rohit spends the most time in this stage. His initial guiding question is some form of: 

“What might be all of the emerging trends this year?”

Divergent thinking:

Rohit spends twelve months gathering data and making observations. He reads over 300 articles each week in magazines, newspapers, or online. He underlines the pertinent paragraphs and summarizes, in black Sharpie, the reasons the article stands out to him. He saves the articles in a folder on his desk until he returns to them in the next stage. 

Convergent thinking: 

In August, once he has spent a year gathering articles, Rohit begins sorting and analyzing. He removes the articles from the folder and spends about a week clustering them into groupings. He is careful to use deep thinking during this process. Rather than clustering by industry, he looks for more abstract similarities like human needs.

STAGE 2: Ideate

Sparkitivity Ideate Graphic

He has now entered the ideation stage of CPS, because he is actively looking for new relationships among ideas

Divergent thinking: 

To help him generate new ideas and combinations of data, Rohit asks leading questions like:

- What interests me most about these ideas?
- What is the broader theme?
- How can I link multiple industries?
- Where is the connection between ideas?

He notes that this stage is where the real breakthroughs and inspiration come. 

Convergent thinking:

Once he has made new connections and re-grouped clusters according to broader concepts, Rohit trims his groupings. It’s a quick analytical phase that helps him get down to a smaller selection of trends. He now has a smaller selection of the best ideas combed from his initial article clustering. 

STAGE 3: Develop

Sparkitivity Develop Graphic

The development stage of creative problem solving is where we refine and make our ideas better. Yet, it still involves ideational and analytical thinking. 

Divergent thinking:

Rohit’s next step is to name the selection of trends. Using his branding experience and a love of poetry, he generates many name possibilities for each trend. They are pithy and intriguing, like Media Binging, Obsessive Productivity, Selfie Confidence, Mainstream Mindfulness. Rohit uses a traditional Post-it note approach, writing a name idea on each note and posting the notes side-by-side so he can see them all together. 

Convergent thinking: 

Rohit then pares his ideas for each trend name down to several options and tests them with others. Based on feedback, he finalizes a name for each trend.

Before he settles on the trend names and moves into the implementation stage, Rohit spends more time developing and testing his ideas to make them more robust. Once he has set an initial version of the trends, he looks for additional evidence to back them up, searching out examples and further research on each topic. 

This stage of his thinking is not necessarily linear. Sometimes he gets trend names right away, and sometimes he stresses over them until the last minute!

STAGE 4: Implement

Once Rohit is confident that he’s done the full range of creative thinking necessary to identify and name the 15 trends of the year, he is ready to implement. In a sprint to write and publish next year’s book by December, Rohit rewrites his book of trends in six weeks

This is possible because he’s already completed most of the divergent thinking needed to get his book out; he has a detailed blueprint that he’s used since 2011 when he first started publishing trends. There will inevitably be additional marketing ideation or new thinking around formatting, but for the most part, Rohit once again applies his convergent thinking to choose the most pertinent examples of each trend that he’ll use in the book. Then, he puts his head down and writes!


In his workshops, Rohit Bhargava teaches the Haystack Method so participants can learn to do their own trend curation. But really, he is teaching them to think more abstractly, which is a high level of creative thinking. His process helps us make surprising connections and combine ideas in new ways. This is one route to more robust creative thinking, which leads to innovation. 

Because he has quantified his process, Rohit has structures that guide him as he sets out to grow his skills year after year. He has tools and techniques that lead him deliberately to newer and better ideas. This is the point of creative problem solving and other creativity tools and techniques. They remove the guesswork from creativity and guide us along the process so our insights aren’t left up to chance and infrequent visits from the muse. 

Outrageous Outsiders.

Passive Loyalty.

Fierce Femininity.

Precious Print.

Year after year, Rohit’s process yields intriguing, well-characterized trends like the four mentioned above. This consistency could not have emerged from eight years of luck!

Kathryn Haydon trains teams to customize the innovation process and use strategic tools to ensure the consistent ability to manage and respond to change. She is a keynote speaker on sustaining innovation for the longterm and how to gain the innovator's edge. She is co-author of Creativity for Everybody

Article and images copyright 2018 Sparkitivity. All Rights Reserved. 

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