A Recipe for Quick Creativity

This post was written by Adam Berry, SEMBA ’17

What can we do when we need to be creative, but it’s not there? We’ve all had it, be it writer’s block, artist’s block, entrepreneurial block, etc., the dreaded block is a creative type’s worst nightmare. What if we had a way to break through this block that was fun, easy, and took less than 10 minutes to complete? It may sound crazy, but I shared a tool with my SEMBA classmates this March that touched on all these requirements. I call it On Demand Creativity.

The alternative uses task, as it is more commonly named, was created by J.P. Guilford in 1954. At its very core, the task looks at an everyday object and aims to discover alternate uses for that object. For example, a paperclip’s primary use is to bind papers together. A paperclip may alternately become a ring, necklace, or earring. Within eight minutes, alone or in a group, one can look for as many of these uses for a paperclip, or other object, as possible. The aim is number of ideas generated. As a byproduct of looking for the highest number of alternatives, creativity starts to flow. Questions are asked: how many paperclips am I allowed? Can I manipulate them? How much time am I allowed to make the new object? Is it just me or can many people work on this? Over time, assumptions are either created or shattered, and in this brief timeframe, our minds open up to new possibilities and our proverbial creative juices get flowing.

I ran this experiment as a final project when graduating from NYU. I evaluated teams and their ability to create innovative ideas based on the feedback that they gave to one another. The tool that I shared with my cohort was just the first step of that experiment and followed the same basic framework — a group of people with eight minutes to create the highest number of novel uses for an everyday object. Ready, go!

When completing this task in the past, teams consisted of either three or four members—this time ours was nearly 20. This could have led to many differing outcomes: we could have blocked production, leading to fewer ideas generated. We could have assumed too many rules that didn’t exist. We could have had low buy-in to the task, not wanting to pay attention. I made one important change to the experiment — I told my classmates to yell out their ideas, and I would write them all down myself, instead of assigning a scribe. In my opinion, this — in conjunction with our highly creative group, the relationships we have forged with each other, and our ability to question the status quo — led to amazing results.

So, whether you’re trying to drum up some creativity to disrupt an industry, write a paper, create a new recipe, a song, or discover that new inspiring business idea, give the alternative uses task a try. It may help you see life through a new lens…a lens made of paper clips.

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