Tapping Into Creativity Through Lateral Thinking

Brainby Jeanne Eichler, MOT, OTR/L, MT, Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy

Here is the scenario…. We find ourselves stuck in a method of thinking or doing things that is more out of habit than of passion…. eventually taking all aspects of creativity out of the process and putting us on auto pilot…. leading to stagnation or burnout if we let it go too far….

Everyone who has ever locked into any idea and repeated it several times can likely relate to the above scenario.  In the world of healthcare, this looks like clinicians following a protocol or a standard routine without looking at the person in front of them—never asking themselves, “how could this person in front of me best accomplish their goals?”  Therapists report feeling disconnected, and patients report feeling like they are just a number to be “dealt with.”  In so many cases, this is becoming reality in our healthcare landscape- less time with patients, more paperwork and policy equals less personalized treatment and a (less than stellar) outcome.  It happens in the classroom, as well, in very much the same way- replace “therapist” with “instructor” and “patient” with “student” to see this picture in the context of education settings.

People are made to be creative.  Creativity has endless possibilities and can be fun if given enough time and resources.

I lead a program called Teen Connection to Social Competency.  My participants are college-/career-bound high school students who have difficulty making friends (most have high functioning autism or ADD) and an equal number of college students (future professionals representing a wide number of fields) who help me run the program.  The program started in 2010 at the request of a teen, and we have worked with over 100 teens and young adults since.

For people who are not familiar with a standard therapy group structure, it typically has a gathering/beginning time with some type of icebreaker, a big activity after some discussion of goals that will be addressed and expectations of group members, and a closing/wrap up that acknowledges what has been gained and gives participants ideas of what is coming next.

When I started working with these teens, I learned very quickly that my participants hated the process.  They were rather blunt in their honesty, asking me if we could “just stop” with the small talk at the beginning or eliminate the part where we went around the circle telling the person on our right something that we liked about them.  Some just flat out told me that they hated social skills groups and that this was just another one. Everything I had learned in school and had used for years in practice seemed to hit a wall.  I had to think fast or risk losing them.

I gathered my volunteers, all college students, and we worked together to take the whole group process back to the drawing board, stripped our plans bare, and engaged in some creative thinking.  We used a tool called “Six Thinking Hats,” a lateral thinking technique created by Edward DeBono in 1985 that emphasizes brainstorming in one area at a time, avoiding the phenomenon common in brainstorming sessions where one person negates the ideas of another.  These areas are identified as “hats” and are categorized as follows:

BLUE HAT: This hat is actually the PERSON leading the thinking session.  The BLUE HAT keeps everyone in the same area and determines the best order for discussing the identified topic.

WHITE HAT: This hat contains facts and figures- things that are definitely known about the topic without any interjection of opinion or feeling.  Statistics, descriptors, and definitions may apply in this discussion.

YELLOW HAT: This hat includes discussion of things that the brainstorming group LIKES about the identified topic.

BLACK/GRAY HAT: This hat includes discussion of things that the brainstorming group DISLIKES about the identified topic.

GREEN HAT: This hat is for growing ideas.  Participants are encouraged to generate ideas that may be impossible or are not logistically complete.  No idea is a bad one.  Typically the Blue Hat returns to this area at least twice.

RED HAT: This hat is for emotions.  “I am worried about _______,” “I feel passionate about __________,”  “I am scared that _________ will happen if ___________,” are all examples of acceptable responses in this area.

Each “hat” symbolizes the different hats we wear during each phase of a discussion.  The “blue hat” controls the progress through each phase, returning to past phases as needed. The photo below gives a sense of what the discussion is like:

JEichler

Photo by J. Eichler. Used with permission.

The difference between brainstorming using critical thinking vs brainstorming through lateral thinking is that critical thinking uses clear reasoning and judgment to analyze a situation and lateral thinking uses a creative, non-linear approach to reach a conclusion not otherwise obtainable by step-by-step logic.

In the case of our Teen Connection program, we decided to start with what a high school student is; the things we know or remember, what we like, what we dislike, ideas (in the context of our group as well as for their overall quality of life); and feelings about what we generated in our discussion.  Nobody was told why their idea would not work or that they were wrong about a like or dislike. Everyone stayed on the same page… and magic happened.  It was in this discussion that we decided to focus on what teens wanted to experience (or learn to navigate) rather than focus on a therapeutic concept or goal.   We thought about milestones that teens experience in high school—dating, going out with friends after a football game, getting along with parents, group projects in class, dances/social events, hanging out, traveling, driving … and our ideas just flew from there.

Together, we decided to make the entire session about the activity that they were going to experience instead of making an obvious therapeutic structure—a strategy I now refer to as “burying the peas in the mashed potatoes.”  The teens loved it and so did we.  We would spend hours figuring out how many therapeutic goals we could bury inside of a simple and common activity, ultimately making something very complex look simple to anyone who might be observing, including our teens.  We took the goals that parents asked us to work on – often presented as complaints about maladaptive behaviors that kept their kids from fitting in – and turned them upside down into fun experiences and challenges that everyone could enjoy.  Volunteers transitioned from being “mentors” to “navigators” – a subtle and important focus on the individual becoming who they really are rather than emulating another person and one more consistent with development at a high school level.  The excitement was electric.  Possibilities were boundless.  Teens were listened to, were always part of the process, and found themselves growing in ways they had not imagined.  College students fearlessly designed innovative strategies for tackling common challenges … all hidden in the context of a simple experience, learning at the same time that it is okay to re-think even tried and true strategies.

For a minute, we forgot who the teachers and learners were.  We were a team, all with ideas and experiences of value to contribute, no matter how out of the box.  We were always thinking and coming up with ideas that we had never seen in action like that before. Oh, and we had to take our client into consideration and get to know them, too.  It became part of the fun and part of the adventure, hopefully shaping the way that the student team works with the people they will serve in clinics, schools, and businesses in the future.

My classroom?  I use this strategy to create assignments that are integrative and very real, requiring hard but self-directed work of interest to the student – again “burying the peas in the mashed potatoes” for college students who realize how much they learn months and sometimes years later.  For example, my junior students spend the entire year taking courses about Occupational Science, the study of what people do.  They are asked as part of their spring semester wellness course to use what they have learned all year to develop a “non diet and exercise” wellness proposal for a non-healthcare community partner.  Students may use the Six Thinking Hats strategy as part of their creative process – asking themselves, “what do we know?” as they list what they have learned that relates to their population. They can interject their opinions by answering one at a time, “what do we like about ____”, “what do we not like about ____”, and how do we feel about ______”.  As they generate ideas, they can list everything from the obvious to the seemingly impossible idea, developed or not.  From there, innovation happens if they trust the process.

My favorite part?  Not one project looks as “expected,” thanks to those hats.

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, spring contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does creative thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?

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