5 Ways to Spark Innovative Thinking

by Lisa Wirthman

These brain exercises can help rewire your thinking for a fresh perspective.

03 Min Read Time


There’s a big difference between invention and innovation. Invention means creating something new for the first time. Innovation, on the other hand, improves on or creates new uses for something that already exists.

Take the iPod. As groundbreaking as it was when it debuted in 2001, it was essentially a new — and better — take on the MP3 player.

The best way to spark innovative thinking is to teach your brain to think in new ways. Here are five thought experiments to help you get started.

We all have preconceived notions. (Remember the housing bubble last decade, when everyone thought home values could only go up and up?) Add our tendency to see what we already want or expect to see, and the result can be a lack of ingenuity, says Holly Green, CEO of The Human Factor, a Denver-based leadership consultancy. All told, preconceptions can cripple our ability to anticipate market shifts, changes in customer needs and competitive threats, she adds.

Read the following sentence:

“Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabridge Uinvervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae.”

You can understand this jumble of disarranged letters because your brain automatically recognizes word patterns. But the same hard wiring that enables us to recognize and fill in patterns can also influence the way we receive and interpret information, according to creativity expert Michael Michalko.

The lines create a new pattern in your brain that causes you to see the dots differently. Similarly, you can disrupt rigid thinking patterns with new types of information that free your mind to see problems in a new light.

In a famous social experiment, a young man stood against a wall at a Metro station in Washington, D.C., during morning rush hour and played the violin. He played six pieces as more than 1,000 people passed by. In 45 minutes, just 27 people gave a total of $32.

What commuters missed — probably by stereotyping him as just another guy in the underground looking for a buck — was that this man was world-renowned musician Joshua Bell, playing a $3 million Stradivarius violin. Three days earlier Bell had performed at a sold-out concert in Boston’s Symphony Hall, where an average seat sold for $100.

When we consciously or unconsciously yield to stereotypes, we can miss the magic right in front of us.

One way to “reorganize” our thinking patterns and encourage innovation is to focus on the universal rather than the specific, says Michalko. When Swiss inventor George de Mestral invented Velcro, for instance, what he really wanted to create was a better zipper. But instead of thinking about a new size, design or type of zipper, he thought more universally about how to create a better fastener, which opened the door to more innovative solutions.

After taking his dog for a hike one day, de Mestral found his inspiration in nature. He noticed how burs from a burdock plant clung to his dog’s fur with lots of tiny hooks. The idea for Velcro was born.

The Remote Associates Test, developed in the 1960s, challenges you to think of a single word or concept in different ways.

You get three words, and your job is to identify a fourth that’s related to all three. Your mind has to consider different concepts to make the remote word associations. The more remote the associations, the more creative lift required on your end.

For example, what word is related to these three words?

paint / doll / cat

The answer is “house” — as in “house paint,” “dollhouse” and “house cat.”