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How to think outside the box — according to research

What happens to creativity when those who use a particular thinking style tried a different approach? Getty Images

Creativity is an essential ingredient in problem-solving, and the importance of "thinking outside the box" has been stressed in nearly every context imaginable, business or otherwise. But that mantra assumes — wrongly — that we all start off thinking inside the same sort of cognitive box.

Instead, each person has a distinctive cognitive style: some of us, for example, are more intuitive, and others approach the world more rationally. What happens to creativity when those who use a particular thinking style tried a different approach?

Rice Business Professor Erik Dane decided to investigate. Along with colleagues Markus Baer of Washington University in St. Louis, Michael Pratt of Boston College, and Greg Oldham of Tulane University Dane studied typical thinking styles, rational versus and intuitive, and how resisting the most familiar one can affect creativity.

Rational thinkers, the professors noted, learn information deliberately and engage in thoughtful analysis. They depend on a linear, or sequential, way of processing information. Intuitive thinking, meanwhile, is an unconscious way of processing information. It's essentially the opposite of rational thinking: quick and holistic, rather than deliberate and comprehensive.

When a rational thinker faces a problem, her mind goes through multiple stages, tapping relevant mental data bases and coming up with alternative solutions. Her mind evaluates and refines these scenarios to choose the best possible solution to the problem.

An intuitive thinker, on the other hand, goes with his gut. Many researchers believe this type of thinking sparks creativity because it integrates so many different pieces of experience.

To explore what happens when one type of thinker follows a different approach, Dane and his fellow researchers colleagues gave test subjects a scenario. How could they get more students to come into a gift shop? Participants first had to come up with ideas using either an intuitive or a rational problem-solving approach. Then they filled out a short questionnaire. Afterward, the professors evaluated the ideas as creative or not creative, based on originality and usefulness.

When a participant wasn't used to rational thinking and had to problem-solve using a more rational approach, he or she came up with more creative ideas, the researchers found. This, the researchers said, suggests it's worth encouraging intuitive thinkers to change up their problem-solving style to come up with new ideas.

Curiously, it's relatively easy to influence a person's cognitive approach to a problem, the researchers found. At the same time, the research didn't suggest that either approach — rational or intuitive thinking — was inherently better than the other. In fact, they wrote, future research on the topic ought to analyze what happens when subjects are encourage to take a hybrid rational-intuitive approach.

In the meantime, whether you're trying to lure customers to your new coffee shop, or figuring out the best ending to your crime novel, try attacking the problem with the thinking style that's least familiar to you. To truly think outside the box, the first thing to do is peer over the side to see what style of thinking most often boxes you in.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Erik Dane is an associate professor of management at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

The Rice Management Company has broken ground on the renovation of the historic Midtown Sears building, which will become The Ion. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The Ion — a to-be entrepreneurial hub for startups, universities, tech companies, and more — is, in a way, the lemonade created from the lemons dealt to the city by a snub from Amazon.

In 2018, Amazon narrowed its options for a second headquarters to 20 cities, and Houston didn't make the shortlist.

"That disappointment lead to a sense of urgency, commitment, and imagination and out of that has come something better than we ever could have imagined," David Leebron, president of Rice University, says to a crowd gathered for The Ion's groundbreaking on July 19.

However disappointing the snub from Amazon was, it was a wake-up call for so many of the Houston innovation ecosystem players. The Ion, which is being constructed within the bones of the historic Midtown Sears building, is a part of a new era for the city.

"Houston's on a new course to a new destination," says Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Here are some other overheard quotes from the groundbreaking ceremony. The 270,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed in 18 months.


The historic Sears building in Midtown will transform into The Ion, a Rice University-backed hub for innovation. Courtesy of Rice University


The Sears opened in 1939. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

“We have the capacity — if we work together — not only to make this a great innovation hub, but to do something that truly represents the Houston can-do, collaborative spirit.”

— David Leebron, president of Rice University. Leebron stressed the unique accomplishment the Ion has made to bring all the universities of Houston together for this project. "When we tell people the collaboration that has been brought together around this project, they are amazed," he says.

“The nation is seeing what we already know in the city of Houston. That this city has the greatest and most creative minds. We are a model for inclusion among people and cultures from everywhere. We are a city that taps the potential of every resident, dares them to dream big, and we provide the tools to make those dreams come true.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner, who says he remembers shopping in the former Sears building as a kid, but notes how Houston's goals have changed, as has the world.

“When this store opened in 1939, it showcased a couple of innovations even back then: The first escalator in Texas, the first air conditioned department store in Houston, the first windowless department store in the country.”

— Senator Rodney Ellis, who adds the request that The Ion have windows.

“Many people ask us, ‘why not just tear down the old building and start new?’ We actually see this as a very unique opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs to be located within a historic building, while benefiting from an enhanced structure, state-of-the-art technology, and Class A tenant comforts.”

— Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company. She describes the environment of being a beehive of activity.

“[As program partner for The Ion,] our mission is to build the innovation economy of Houston one entrepreneur at a time.”

— Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. Rowe describes Station's role as a connector between startups, venture capital firms, major corporations, and more.