The Root of Active Learning: Boosting Creative Thinking and Innovative Capacity

Evan Woodhead

What is your innovative learning capacity? Do you churn out new ideas? Do you solve problems? break out of ruts? expand your learning horizons? Or, are you frustrated? Perhaps you simply don’t know how to solve problems. The paradox is that problem solving is an inherently logical process that requires a departure from logic to work optimally. Boosting your capacity for creative thinking and learning involves understanding and addressing the barriers to thinking in this mode, and learning and practicing techniques for generating creative ideas.

Four Anchor Barriers

I have identified four of the biggest barriers to creative thinking:

  1. Assumptions. Often you’re unaware that you are making assumptions. When you’re involved in a complex situation, you tend to see yourself as the center of the universe. This leads to assumptions, such as how processes will work, what events will trigger what activities, and who will do what tasks. Assumptions prevent you from seeing better solutions.
  2. Strengths. These anchor you since you rely on them. Yet they too may get in the way of your creative thinking. If you default to methods you are comfortable with and fail to consider alternatives, you may restrict yourself to second-rate solutions. The cost and inconvenience of building new strengths may be justified.
  3. Fears. These anchor your creative thinking in powerful and devious ways. You gravitate to solutions that allow you to ignore your fears. If possible, you don’t acknowledge an option that triggers your fears. Confronted with the possibility, fear asserts itself and convinces you that there are many valid reasons for rejecting the frightening option—and none of them have anything to do with your fear. This anchor is often the easiest to unlock once you identify it. Often, you know what you would do if you were not afraid. Free of fear, you can evaluate the idea on its merits and reach a reasonable decision.
  4. Habits. These are difficult to detect over time. While newcomers may see habits readily, they may lack the power and influence to challenge them. Habits are often detectible by their defense mechanisms. If the reason for a given process is because you’ve always done it that way, you have a habit. Recognizing and challenging the habit is healthy.

Three Creative Options

Once you ease these barriers, focus on identifying innovative options and producing creative solutions:

  • Altered perspectives involve looking at the problem from a different point of view. Your anchors can be a rich source of clues to the most productive perspectives to alter. What if you broke that habit or reversed that assumption?
  • Laziness is another possibility. Peter Drucker reminds us that we should always consider doing nothing. The "bias for action" is popular, but there’s a time for inaction. I’ve seen investment proposals that would involve great effort and complex transactions with inherent risks to return less than the prevailing interest rate would pay. Laziness is not only doing nothing at all. The highest form of laziness is efficiency. From this perspective, you explore whether all steps in your processes are necessary. Do some deliver no value? Is there a better way?
  • Chaos is not always the root of the problem—it can also seed the solution. When the problem is not precisely defined, a more radical method is needed. Using group techniques, such as Open Space and World Cafê, you might convene knowledgeable people and engage the self-organizing nature of a group, not knowing what the outcome will be.

Active learning demands that you harness creativity to help meet goals.

First Published in Performance Excellence, May 2009 @