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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.

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Building Houston

 
 

Emily Cisek, CEO and co-founder of The Postage, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss tech optimizing after-life planning, B-to-C startup challenges, and a national expansion. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Anyone who's ever lost a loved one knows how stressful the process can be. Not only are you navigating your own grief, but you're bombarded with decisions you have to make. And if that loved one wasn't prepared — as most aren't — then the process is more overwhelming than it needs to be.

On top of that, Emily Cisek realized — through navigating three family deaths back to back — how archaic of a process it was. Rather than wait and see if anything changed, Cisek jumped on the market opportunity.

"I just knew there had to be a better way, and that's why I started The Postage," Cisek, co-founder and CEO of the Houston-based company, says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "My background had historically been in bringing offline businesses online, and I started doing some research on how I could make this space better. At the time, there really wasn't anything out there."

The tech-enabled platform allows users of all ages to plan for their demise in every way — from saving and sharing memories when the time comes to organizing pertinent information for the loved ones left behind. And, as of last month, users can no generate their own last will and testament.

"We launched the online will maker — it wasn't in my roadmap for another six months or so — because every single person that was coming in was looking at something else on our platform, but then going to the will part and asking, 'Hey is this something I can create here?'" Cisek says.

Recognizing that this was a good opportunity to generate new users, Cisek quickly added on the feature for a flat $75 fee. Then, members pay $3.99 a month to be able to edit their will whenever they need to and also receive access to everything else on the platform.

Cisek saw a huge opportunity to grow with the pandemic, which put a spotlight after-life planning. The silver lining of it all was that more people were discussing after-life planning with their family members.

"We're having more open dialogue about life and end-of-life planning that I don't see any other scenario really bringing that to light," she explains. "In some ways, it's been positive because having the conversation with people has been easier than it had been before."

While anyone can access The Postage's platform, Cisek says she's focused on getting the word out nationally. Following some imminent funding and partnerships, national marketing and growth campaigns are on the horizon.

Cisek shares more on her career and he unique challenges she faces as a B-to-C entrepreneur on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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