In my last post, I touched on the important role of critical thinking, particularly in the context of maximizing the effectiveness and output of learning and development training. But critical thinking is only part of the equation. Creative thinking, especially when the desired outcome is a revolutionary or entirely new mental model, is an equally important skill.

Susan T. Fiske and Shelley E. Taylor, professors of Psychology at Princeton University and UCLA, respectively, found in their studies that individuals often act as “cognitive misers,” preferring to do as little thinking as possible. These are the workers who, if given the choice, prefer not to make their own choices or consider their options. It’s far easier to go with “tried-and-true” approaches or closely follow a prescribed process. However, this practice does little to add value to a company. Cognitive misers in critical thinking struggle to achieve clarity on their internal business climate and on external business opportunities.

As noted in my last post, critical thinking adds value to clearly understanding a situation and effectively analyzing information. Critical thinking equips individuals to understand the parts of a system. Without critical thinking, individuals resort to habits of viewing a situation, assuming it is exactly as it appears.

However, without the addition of creative thinking, individuals tend to fit used solutions onto new problems. While critical thinking uncovers pertinent data points to weigh dynamic situations, creative thinking generates potential solutions. Our research and experience as leadership development consultants have shown that successful outcomes begin with the proper balance between creativity and critical thinking. Together, they produce a quality of thinking that is fundamental to learning and to the fusion of innovation and execution. These abilities are invaluable to success, for they enable individuals and organizations to escape the trap of becoming cognitive misers.

The tragic truth is that lazy thinking is a learned behavior. We are all born with the desire to learn and think. What parent among us has not been subjected to several hundred “whys” in one day as children carefully observe their environment and question its functioning?

Educators observe that most children enter school full of creativity, but this innate aptitude diminishes as the years pass. British researcher Sir Ken Robinson investigated this trend, testing 1,600 children between the ages of three and five on their ability to explore a variety of solutions when generating ideas, a skill critical to innovation. Of these children, 98 percent scored at the highest level. Ten years later, he repeated the test with the same children. This time, only 10 percent scored at the highest level for their age. Somewhere along their educational journey, most children learn to suppress creativity. Far too often, our school systems contribute to this lesson.

Perhaps the absence of creative thinking from the curriculum of many schools is due in part to the typical mental models people maintain of those who are “creative.” Society often presents the stereotype of wacky folks who are brilliant but not overly practical, and who may not be desirable employees. It is commonly said that creative thinking is a natural ability—that people are either “born creative” or they are not. Many innovators are in fact uniquely talented people who can see things differently than the rest of us and can complete creative feats with no training. But creative thinking in the workplace is a cognitive skill that everyone has to some extent and that everyone can develop. Every individual can learn creative thinking to solve problems and uncover new opportunities.

Organizations who struggle to see the value of creative thinking should be aware that their competition does not. In a 2010 study, The Boston Consulting Group reported that 72 percent of executives, more than any prior year, listed innovation as a top priority.

Without fostering the ability to think creatively, corporations risk being pushed out by the companies that do. As Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, put it, “As soon as you’re ripe, you start to rot.” Given the pace of our world, unless individuals, products, and ideas evolve and adapt, they become obsolete almost as soon as they appear on the scene.

Of course, the existence of creativity alone isn’t enough to generate innovative solutions. Creative thinking must be learned, promoted, and partnered with a healthy dose of critical thinking. We focus on these skills in many of our learning and development training programs, but they must be fostered continuously. People often look at critical and creative thinking as opposing forces—rational and irrational. A more accurate way of viewing critical and creative thinking emphasizes that they are meant to exist together in balance with each other.

Mike Vaughan

Author Mike Vaughan

More posts by Mike Vaughan