Working Backwards to Unleash Your Creativity

Working Backwards to Unleash Your Creativity
To brainstorm ideas, try working backwards by taking a conceptual solution and finding a problem it can solve (Photograph by Ivan Jekic)
Photograph by Ivan Jekic

Most people think innovation starts with a well-defined problem, and then you brainstorm a solution. Try the opposite: Work backwards by taking an abstract, conceptual solution and finding a problem it can solve. By constraining and channeling our brains, we can make them work both harder and smarter to find creative solutions—on demand.

Start by taking a product, concept, situation, service, or process and break it into components or attributes. Using one of the five techniques below, manipulate the components or attributes to create new concepts.

Subtraction: Remove a component, preferably an essential one. Royal Phillips Electronics created the Slimline DVD player by removing the LCD panel and controls and placing them on the screen of the attached TV, allowing the unit to be shrunk dramatically.

Division: Divide a component or the product itself physically or functionally, then rearrange it. Google Circles was devised as a way to divide your friends into relevant groups, such as college friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers.

Task Unification: Assign a component an additional job, perhaps stealing the job of something around it. Samsonite made a college backpack with straps that also massage. The straps press into the wearer’s shoulders at strategically located shiatsu points to provide a soothing massage sensation. The heavier the books, the deeper the sensation and the more stress relief for the wearer.

Multiplication: Make a copy of a component, then change it in a significant way from the original. Procter & Gamble came up with the NOTICEable Air Fresher by doubling its spray capacity. The air freshner has two different scented sprays that pulse in a sequence, so your nose does not get used to one fragrance.

Attribute Dependency: Create a correlation (or break an existing one) between two attributes of the system and/or its environment. Apple has patented “smart shoes” that have embedded sensors to track your activity and tell you when you need a new pair. As the shoes wear down, an app will send a signal to buy new ones.

Creativity is not a gift that you either have or don’t have from birth. It is a skill that can be learned and mastered by anyone. In that way, creativity is not that different from other skills: The more you practice, the better you’ll be.

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