Inspiring Creativity When You Don't Have Time to Wait for It

 Photo by kreezzalee

Photo by kreezzalee

“Creativity is the process, not the product.”

So says John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel University, quoted recently in a New Yorker article on Eureka moments.

Many of us have our own processes for eliciting the Eureka moment; going for a walk, working in a different space, or sleeping on it, perhaps. If you’re a Big Bang Theory fan, you’ll know that Sheldon has an insight-inducing method of his own: viewing his work as a “fleeting peripheral image” so as to engage a new part of his brain.

Mark Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, spends his time exploring this Eureka phenomenon (and is also featured in the New Yorker article). In his research, he uses a remote-associates test, whereby the research participant is given three words and is asked to think of another word that could be paired with each of the three (put either before or after) to create a new word or compound word.

Want to try? Take the words “pine”, “crab”, and “sauce”. Pause here and think about it for a minute. Note your strategy. Did you start with one word, think of words that could go next to it, and then try those words out with the other two? Or glance between the three? Did you take out a piece of paper? Close your eyes? Stare into space? Ask someone next to you? We all have our strategies. 

Beeman suggests that there are, however, some “best practices” for inducing insights. The subjects who first focused on understanding the question completely but then shifted their focus quickly from word to word (measured through eye tracking) were able to think more abstractly than those who focused intently on one word at a time.

What design thinking does, including many of the tools in The Designing for Growth Field Book, is help induce those moments of insight by pushing our thinking laterally and holistically (see my previous post on sparking innovation through analogy for an example of this). For those of us who can’t spend our days taking showers in the hope brilliance will befall us mid-shampoo, these tools are invaluable. And in a pinch, you can always try Sheldon’s method (no guarantees). 

Do you have your own method or tool for inspiring creativity? Message me @BreeAGroff


  1. The answer to the remote-associates test is “apple”. Clever, huh?
  2. If you’re interested in reading more about the process behind creativity, you might enjoy the clever little book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.