Creative Heuristics and Group Creativity

Read these tutorials, which offer procedures for initiating creative thinking on the basis of factual knowledge we already possess. The quotations in the second tutorial demonstrate how these procedures form part of the creative process of some of the most famous minds in art, science, and philosophy.

Creative Heuristics

The recipe in the last tutorial provides a general outline of what we can do to come up with new ideas. But more specifically, if creativity involves manipulating ideas, what different methods are available to help us come up with ideas to be tested?

Here we present some heuristics that may be helpful.

Feature List

A feature list for an object or process is simply a list of its main features. Having created this list, you can examine the features one-by-one and consider how to change it. For example, most tables have a fixed round or rectangular flat top that rests on three or four supporting legs or poles. However, an exotic designer table might have movable multi-level worktops of irregular shapes, supported by a wired frame.


Analogies may help us imagine new features. When comparing X with Y we can consider whether special features of Y may have analogues in X. Comparing an airplane to a bird leads us to see whether we can apply the evolutionary solutions of bird aviation to building aircrafts. In this same way, shark skins inspired a new kind of swimming suit, designed to reduce drag for competitive swimmers.


Sometimes solving a problem is a matter of searching through a long list of possible solutions. Creating a systematic search method can make this job easier. When Thomas Edison, the American inventor, designed the electric light bulb, a crucial task was finding a suitable filament that conducts electricity well enough to emit light, but not burn up or melt during the process. Edison had to classify the different types of material (e.g. ceramic or metallic) he tested to narrow down the search. When we have a large search space, we should divide the space into sections, to conduct the search in a systematic way, and test devices of representative samples from different regions to eliminate unlikely candidates.

Perspective Shift

When dealing with problems that involve people, consider the problem from the different perspectives of the stakeholders. Suppose you are trying to improve the efficiency of a company. Imagine how to confront the problem from the CEO's point of view, and from that of the sales department. Taking different perspectives in turn may help you appreciate difficulties and opportunities, that you may have failed to recognize otherwise.

Perspective shift involves thinking about different ways of formulating a problem. Sometimes when we confront a challenge we fixate on one particular aspect. When we formulate the problem in a different light, we discover new approaches.

For example, a developer working on a construction site may be faced with the difficulty of having to clear and remove a significant amount of topsoil from the site. Rather than see this as a source of expenses, the developer may try to see the problem from a different perspective. In the process, they may discover that the quality of the soil is suitable for farming purposes, so someone might be willing to pay to remove the soil for them.

Sometimes we need to put aside our preconceptions for the time being and explore alternative ways of looking at a situation. When asked what single event was most helpful toward developing the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein (1879–1955), the famous physicist, replied, "Figuring out how to think about the problem."

Group Creativity

Many books and courses on creativity are about teaching individuals to become more creative. However, we do not work alone in today's workplace – we have to cooperate with other people to solve complex problems. Most large companies organize projects around teams of people with special expertise. Teams of people increasingly conduct research in science and technology. Science papers with multiple authors are cited more often than papers with single authors. This is also a growing trend in humanities research.

Brainstorming is perhaps the most well-known creative group thinking technique. Alex Osborn (1888–1966), the American advertising executive, made this term popular in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. The basic idea is for a group of people to meet together and try to come up with as many new ideas as possible. The most important requirement is to encourage the production of ideas by withholding criticisms and negative feedback.

However, brainstorming does not always work:

    • If the objectives of the exercise are unclear, and the discussion is unstructured, the ideas produced may be too diffuse and impractical.
    • Some people may be reluctant to present their ideas because they are worried about how others may judge them, even if they are not criticized.
    • The group may fixate on the first perceived solution and spend less effort on exploring alternatives.
    • Because discussing ideas one-by-one can be time-consuming, participants may forget their new ideas or give up talking about them.
    • More vocal individuals can dominate the discussion and fail to recognize good ideals from less vocal participants.

Due to these problems, a brainstorming group can produce fewer ideas than an individual working on their own. The effectiveness depends on how it is implemented. A better way might be to encourage individuals to write their ideas down first, or to break up into smaller sub-groups for a preliminary discussion. A moderator can collect the ideas for open and anonymous discussion, to focus on how to make ideas work, rather than why they are mistaken.

"Groupthink" is a well-known pitfall of group creativity. This refers to the danger that a close-knit group, that is set in its ways with a uniform culture, is unlikely to challenge its own ideas. Innovative breakthroughs become difficult. The group may require a special effort to bring in new people or rotate group membership. It might also be helpful for team members to take on opposite roles to debate with each other

Source: Joe Lau and Jonathan Chan,
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Last modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2019, 4:30 PM