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Critical thinking: Creativity & Innovation

guidance on critical thinking for researchers

Stimulating Creative Thinking

Attribute listing is a technique from the early 1930's which takes an existing product or system and breaks it down into individual parts or components. Each of these components are then changed, modified, improved, or enhanced by identifying possible variations on their form. Once recombined, the components produce an entirely new form of product or system. 

For example the attributes of paying for a bus fare include; asking for the correct fare, paying the driver, receiving and keeping hold of the ticket. Now think about the different ways you could do these things. For example;

Asking for the correct fare: by asking loudly, using a sign, pointing, texting it to them etc.

Paying the driver: by promising to be nice, with change, with a debit card, with a prepaid card, with an IOU etc.

Receiving and keeping hold of the ticket: by stamping it on the back of your hand, printing it on cardboard, sending it to your phone etc.

The next steps would be to look for modifications or combinations that are promising and can be put to use. 

Alex Osborn popularised brainstorming nearly a century ago. While this technique was originally intended for use in groups, it actually works bettwe as an individual creativity exercise. Brainstorming is problem-focused, where efforts are made to solve a specific problem by spontaneously generating al ist of ideas. Osborn has four rules for brainstorming;

  1. Leave criticism behind
  2. Entertain all ideas, including the wild ones
  3. Write down as much as you can
  4. Combine and improve 


This method could more accurately be described as asking questions from a list. The following generalised checklist is a good example;

  1. Can it be put to other uses? Are there other ways to use it? Can it be put other uses if modified?
  2. Can it be adapted? What other idea does this suggest? What could your copy? What else is like this?
  3. Can it be modified? Can you change the meaning, colour, form, or shape? What new twist might be possible?
  4. Can it be magnified? Is there anything you can add to it? Could you increase the size, give it more time, make it stronger, add more ingredients, duplicate it, or multiply it?
  5. Can it be minified? What can you take away? Can it be made smaller, more streamlined, lighter, split up, or concentrated?
  6. Can it be substituted? Who or what else could be used? Are there other ingredients, processes, material, places, approaches that could be used?
  7. Can it be rearranged? Could it be used in another configuration or pattern? Are the components interchangeable? Is it possible to change the pace, the schedule, or sequence?
  8. Can it be reversed? What about opposites? Can it be turned upside down, backwards, or transposed? Could roles be reversed? Or reactions?
  9. Can it be combined? Can it be used to combine units, purposes, or ideas? Does it blend, or work in an assortment, or ensemble? 

These questions work well in concert with other creativity techniques such as brainstorming and mind mapping.

Sometimes our familiarity with an object (or project, problem, process, or idea) means that we tend to view it as we would like it to be, rather than how it actually appears. By changing perspective, or observing in a 'fresh light' we can find new and previously overlooked characteristics, applications, and modifications. Anything that changes the way you perceive something can radically alter how you judge it.

Changing perspective through time by simply taking a break and returning to your project later is a useful technique. So can stepping back, and considering your project from a wider context. You may find that you were previously be too close to notice the faults visible from afar. Similarly, close observation can be helpful. Concentrating on the finer details can reveal hidden benefits. 

Try approaching your object, problem, process or idea from the perspective of another person. A user, customer, viewer, etc. Or better yet, share your problem with another person and ask for their point of view. This is where constructive criticism can offer up some beneficial observations.

For this creativity exercise two words, objects, images, or concepts that are not usually found together are paired. Selection of at least one or both (or more!) of the items should be random to encourage free association. Let say that I wanted to think up new uses or improvements for my smartphone. I throw in a random element, a plant for example, and see what ideas can result from free-association between the two.

An example of a forced relationship between a smartphone and a plant. What ideas would you come up with?A plant identification App

A smartphone that is compostable

A smartphone made of wood

A smartphone made of living material

An app to tell me when to water my plants

A solar-powered smartphone

A smartphone that grows


Mind mapping is a visual organisation technique for grouping ideas and concepts together that has been popularised by the author Tony Buzan. You can make mind maps using paper and pen, word processors, or specialised programmes and apps. Buzan recommends the following seven steps for making a mind map;

  1. Start in the centre of a blank page turned sideways. 
  2. Use an image or photograph to depict your central idea.
  3. Use colours throughout. 
  4. Connect your concepts together.
  5. Make these connections with curved rather than straight lines.
  6. Use only one keyword per line.
  7. Feel free to use more images, illustrations or photographs throughout.

Named after the Packaging Corporation of America Scientific Approach, PakSA is a nine step problem-solving technique. As a process, PakSA works well for planning written assessments, literature reviews, and analytical essays, but it has a lot of other uses. The steps are as follows;

  1. Define the problem. State what's wrong, and what your ideal end-result would look like.
  2. Get the facts. Research current knowledge on the subject and talk to experts. Check your findings and record them.
  3. Organise your findings. Structure and sort your new information in such a way that it is easy for you to understand.
  4. Critically analyse. Match your facts against each other and look for similarities, differences, combinations, patterns, cause and effect etc.
  5. Take a break. Let your conscious mind digest this information by working on something else for a while.
  6. Produce some ideas. Refocus on your problem and list as many solutions and alternatives as you can. Save criticism for later.
  7. Refine those ideas. Now is the time to draw our attention to the details and check your possible solutions for flaws, challenges, and possible modifications.
  8. Into production. Time to put what you've come up with into practice!
  9. Rinse and repeat. 


Rubber Duck Problem Solving, originally termed Rubber Duck Debugging is a humorous technique for solving problems by explaining them to a silent and uninitiated observer. Andrew Errington describes the process;

  1. Beg, borrow, steal, buy, fabricate or otherwise obtain a rubber duck (bathtub variety)
  2. Place rubber duck on desk and inform it you are just going to go over some code with it, if that's all right.
  3. Explain to the duck what your code is supposed to do, and then go into detail and explain your code line by line
  4. At some point you will tell the duck what you are doing next and then realise that that is not in fact what you are actually doing. The duck will sit there serenely, happy in the knowledge that it has helped you on your way.

It works because when you go through the motions required to explain a concept, especially in simple steps, you force yourself to understand it more completely.

Developed by Edward de Bono, lateral thinking is a type of problem solving that promotes indirect and creative solutions to problems by... De Bono characterises traditional problem solving methods as being vertical, in that they work towards a solution to a problem in a logical progression, step by step.Vertical thinking will take the most reasonable view of a situation and proceed logically to work it out from there. By contrast, lateral thinking explores multiple possibilities, rather than immediately settling on the most promising. De Bono lists the four principles of lateral thinking as;

  • Recognition of dominant or polarising ideas,
  • The search for different ways of looking at things,
  • Relaxation of the rigid control of vertical thinking, and
  • The use of chance

Using the principles of lateral thinking you can break free your current thinking patterns from their usual pathways, and open your mind to new possibilities in the search for ideas. It is also useful for maximising the value is received from the idea generation and making them fit real world constraints, resources, and support.