Creative & Critical Thinking


When facing significant deadline pressures, it can be difficult to justify investing more time in creative and critical thinking strategies. However, as you know, writing a council document is about more than getting the words on the page — it’s also about coming up with new solutions to problems and critically assessing those initial ideas.

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The New Zealand Transport Agency’s (NZTA) practice note ‘Innovation and Creativity in Business Case Development,’[1] identifies five steps of creativity: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation and elaboration. The first two are divergent (seeking as many ideas as possible), the second two are convergent (making choices in order to finalise an idea) and elaboration is about explaining the idea so that it can become a reality.

Advice on the creative process

  • Divergent thinking — Thinking as widely and imaginatively about the process as possible, to generate a wide range of possible options.
  • Convergent thinking — Using critical thinking skills to evaluate ideas and focus on the best option.
  • Analogic thinking — Developing and clearly explaining a new idea in terms of concepts that are already known and understood.

Creative thinking (divergent thinking)

Here’s why creative thinking is important: “Decision makers are placing increasing scrutiny on the need for investment proposals to consider real alternatives to traditional transport interventions. Lightly skimming over the idea generation needed to create alternatives and options is likely to result in real delays and expensive rework later.”[2]

This quote should provide all of us with confidence that it is worthwhile investing in the divergence phase of developing a business case, report or asset management plan.

Here’s some more detail about the first two (divergent/ideas generation) phases of the creative process[3] as proposed by psychologist Mihaly Cxikszentmihlyi.

Five steps to the creative process
1. Preparation — Becoming immersed in problematic issues that are interesting and arouse curiosity.

2. Incubation — Ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness.

In ‘What Made You Think of That?’[4] Gary Bertwhistle says: “True creative thinking will have you developing loads of ideas that are not necessarily useable, but in amongst them all, there will be treasure.”

This is the time to ask questions and make suggestions even if those questions and suggestions could turn out to be laughably wrong. Don’t hold back your ideas, hide your mistakes, or edit yourself in order to save face. As Patrick Lencioni says in ‘Getting Naked — A Business Fable,[5] “keep in mind, for every seemingly dumb suggestion that turns out to be insightful, there are plenty that are in fact dumb. But without taking the risk of putting an idea out there, the good ideas will never see the light of day.”

Another way to generate new ideas is to initiate two or three creative conversations with individuals in different departments from your own. Ask for and listen to the other person’s ideas related to a specific question with an open mind (for further consideration in the convergence phase).

Do you give yourself and other staff permission to spend time mulling on and trying out new ideas? Making time for this ideas generation process is the first obstacle to overcome if it’s not part of your organisation’s existing culture. Consider how you can encourage yourself (and any staff) to make room for the whole gamut of idea generation methods. Introverts are more likely to arrive at their best ideas in quiet environments and in solitude, and extroverts may be more likely to generate their best ideas in workshops and brainstorming sessions.

“Given the importance that thinking plays in the success or failure of your business, it is vital to analyse how much time you and your team put aside to really think.”[6]

Critical thinking (convergent thinking)

Critical thinking is about selecting the best ideas from the options developed during the creative thinking phase.

3. Insight — The ‘Aha!’ moment when the puzzle starts to fall together.

4. Evaluation — Deciding if the insight is valuable and worth pursuing.

The “Aha moments” are a natural progression from asking yourself (and others) a question and mulling on the range of responses. They’re not something you can schedule in because they rely on your subconscious, but just be glad when they occur!

Here is some advice from NZTA[7] on evaluating which is the best idea to progress.

  • Facts — Where possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
  • Debate — Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by people with different points of view. (It’s not always our first instinct to seek out people who are likely to disagree with us … but it’s useful to do this, provided everyone is considering the same evidence as the basis for the discussion.)
  • About Authority — Arguments from authority carry little weight — ‘authorities’ have made mistakes in the past, and will do so again in the future. (I know this is a challenging one in a local government context, where it can be difficult to clearly state an opposing point of view to senior managers, but it’s worth remembering that you are likely to have spent more time than anyone else thinking about the issue.)
  • Attachment — Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. Ask yourself why you like the idea and compare it fairly with the alternatives. (One way to objectively test your preferred option in a business case is to try coming up with reasons to reject it.)
  • Integrity — Avoid choosing problems and benefits for their ability to support a predetermined solution or approach. (This is an easy mistake to make if you start writing a business case with a preferred solution in mind.)

Communicating your ideas

In order for ideas to become reality, you will need to communicate your ideas in a convincing way. This type of thinking is the final stage of the creative process.

5. Elaboration — Translating the insight into its final work.

This is the final stage of the creative process. NZTA’s creativity practice note says elaboration is about clearly explaining a new idea in terms of concepts that are already known and understood. An article on the Creativate website explains “… within an organisation, this is the stage where the creative idea must become an innovative presentation that is ‘bought into’ by other members, to help make it a reality.”[8]

Three Steps to Successful Council Documents’ provides guidance on telling an engaging story about a problem and a recommended solution, and a three step process which makes documents easier and quicker to write and edit. You can access this free guide here.

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Your contribution was illustrated by the way you grappled with the dog control policy and bylaw. You remained committed to high quality community engagement through being professional, actively listening and seeking the best solution for our city. You have promoted and demonstrated personal leadership and positive attitudes.

Richard Johnson, Acting Chief Executive, Nelson City Council (October 2012)

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