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The Three Basic Principles Behind All Tools for Creative Thinking: Attention, Escape, and Movement

There are many tools for creative thinking in the literature...

While there is overlap among these compilations, there are at least 250 unique tools in these seven books. And these are only a few of the references available on the topic of creative thinking!

Unfortunately, this variety leaves the impression that no one really knows how to stimulate creativity. Rather than being an indication of chaos in the field, the variety of methods is really an indication of just how easy it is to develop your own creative thinking tools.

Despite the diversity of tools to support creative thinking, all such tools are based on three simple principles: attention, escape, and movement. Plsek (1997)

The tools of creative thinking are simply various combinations of practical ways to implement this heuristic -- to focus attention, escape the current reality, and continue mental movement. The relative weights given to attention, escape, and movement, and the mechanics of directing these three mental actions, vary among the methods. But this variation makes sense because each situation we encounter is different, each group is different, and each person is different. Once we understand these three basic principles, we can adapt techniques to suit various needs, situations, and personalities.



Creativity requires that we first focus our attention on something; typically something that we have not focused much attention on before. The primary innovation of the Apple Macintosh computer in the early 1980s was that its designers focused not on raw computing power, but on the user interface. By focusing attention on things that are normally taken for granted (in this case, the command line interface predominant in the early 1980s), creative thinking techniques prepare our minds for breakthroughs (here, the graphical user interface).

All methods for creative thinking require that we do something to focus attention. For example, Wonder and Donovan (1984) propose that we construct a mental, slow motion movie of a situation looking for aspects that we have previously overlooked. Similarly, Nadler and Hibino (1994) suggest that we spend time writing alternative statements of an issue and placing them in what they call a purpose hierarchy, rather than simply diving into the issue.



Having focused our attention on the way things are currently done, the second principle behind all creative thinking methods calls us to mentally escape our current patterns of thinking. For example, Edward de Bono suggests that we use the "po" tool to signal our intention to make a statement of mental escape. To a group working to decrease the time that customers wait to receive a service, we might say, "Po, they have passed a law making it illegal for customers to wait more than 30 seconds; what are we going to do now?" The statement invites us to escape our current paradigm about customer flow and, for a moment, imagine a very different world.

The principle of escape explains why a simple walk in the woods can bring about creative thoughts. When we walk in the woods, we escape the confines of the current ways, both mentally and physically. Similarly, staring at yourself in the mirror while you shave or put on make-up provides a momentary mental escape that may allow a novel mental connection about a work problem to emerge. I am not suggesting the use of these relatively passive techniques in the active pursuit of directed creativity. I think we can do better. But, to the extent that simple distraction works in creative thinking, it works because it is a means of mental escape.



Simply paying attention to something and escaping current thinking on it is not always sufficient to generate creative ideas. Unfortunately, the natural mental processes of judgment tend to reject new thoughts as not productive or too ridiculous to dwell on. Movement -- the third underlying principle behind the diverse tools of creative thinking -- calls us to keep exploring and connecting our thoughts.

Movement is a key principle behind the classic creative thinking technique of brainstorming. The ground rules of brainstorming are to generate as many ideas as you can, with no criticism, building on the ideas of others. In other words, keep moving. Similarly, asking a group to come up with a sketch that illustrates their vision of the company's future is also a movement technique. You can't simply state the vision and be done with it, your mind must dwell on it long enough to complete the sketch. During that time, the mind -- which is never idle -- generates new connections and ideas that might expand the basic concept.


Click here to read a quick example of the application of
these three principles to a process design issue in a health care clinic.

Click here to read an extended example of the application of the three principles
to the design of an organization-wide creative thinking exercise in an accounting firm.

The Value of Understanding the Three Principles

The benefit of this simple, three-part structure is that it opens the way to the development of an infinite number of methods for directed creativity. You can now develop your own techniques. Importantly, you can develop techniques that are specifically suited to the issues you are dealing with, to your own personality and preferences, or to the subtle dynamics of a particular group. As long as your new technique contains elements that focus attention, provides escape from the mental patterns normally associated with the topic, and encourages a high level of flexible mental movement, you can be reasonably assured that it stands as good a chance of working as any other technique you may have read about. If your technique doesn't bring you success initially, you can modify the means or mixture of attention, escape, and movement and try again. There is no magic in the methods written down in books; at least no magic that you cannot duplicate on your own.


The table below captures the three basic principles and provides a quick checklist of things to consider in constructing your own tools for directed creativity.



To what?

    • elements in the current reality
    • features, attributes, and categories
    • assumptions, patterns, and paradigms
    • metaphors and analogies
    • what works and doesn't work
    • anything you don't normally pay attention to


From what?

    • current mental patterns
    • time and place
    • early judgment
    • barriers and rules
    • your past experiences


In what sense?

    • in time or place
    • to another point of view
    • free association
    • building on ideas

If you did not look at the examples before, here is another chance to deepen your learning by accessing them...

Click here to read a quick example of the application of
these three principles to a process design issue in a health care clinic.

Click here to read an extended example of the application of the three principles
to the design of an organization-wide creative thinking exercise in an accounting firm.


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de Bono, E (1992) Serious Creativity. New York: HarperCollins Publishing. (Back)

Higgins, JM (1994) 101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques. Winter Park, FL: New Management Publishing Company. (Back)

Koberg, D and Bagnall, J (1981) The All New Universal Traveler: A Soft-Systems Guide To Creativity, Problem-Solving, And The Process Of Reaching Goals. Los Altos, CA: William Kaufmann, Inc. (Back)

McGartland, G (1994) Thunderbolt Thinking: Transform Your Insights and Options Into Powerful Results. Austin, TX: Bernard-Davis. (Back)

Michalko, M (1991) Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Business Creativity for the 90s. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press. (Back)

Nadler, G and Hibino, S (1994) Breakthrough Thinking, 2nd Edition. Roklin, CA: Prima. (Back)

Plsek, PE (1997) Creativity, Innovation, and Quality. Milwaukee, WI: ASQC Quality Press. (Back)

VanGundy, AB (1992) Idea Power. New York: American Management Association. (Back)

von Oech, R (1983) A Whack on the Side of the Head. New York: Warner Books. (Back)

Wonder, J and Donovan, P (1984) Whole Brain Thinking. New York: Ballantine. (Back)


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© 1997 Paul E. Plsek & Associates, Inc.
All rights reserved.


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