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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

 
 

SpaceCom is taking place online this year for free. Here's what you need to sign up for. Photo courtesy of SpaceCom

Today marks the first day in SpaceCom's two-week online conference featuring space entrepreneurs, NASA executives, government experts, and more.

Usually a must-attend event hosted at George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, SpaceCom is free and virtual this year. Register to attend and check out this curated list of 10 can't-miss discussions.

Click here for the full schedule.

Tuesday, October 20 — General Session: Whole of Government

Greg Autry, director at SoCal Commercial Spaceflight Initiative, will moderate a discussion with Kevin O'Connell, director at the Office of Space Commerce Department of Commerce, and Scott Pace, executive secretary at the National Space Council. The panel will discuss how they will work together on policies and actions they need to take to enable the trillion-dollar space economy.

This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 20, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Tuesday, October 20 — Carbon Footprint and Emissions Monitoring

Satellite data can give governments and industry the ability to monitor and reduce the carbon footprint. In this panel, experts will discuss the companies that operate and use satellite data to monitor, manage and profit from satellites that monitor the planet's carbon footprint.

  • Lou Zacharilla, director of Innovation Space & Satellite Professionals International (moderator)
  • Sebastien Biraud, staff scientist and Climate Sciences Department Head at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
  • Steve Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund
  • Yotam Ariel, CEO of Bluefield Technologies
This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 20, from 1 to 1:45 pm. Learn more.

Thursday, October 22 — Keynote: Industry Applications

This general session features how Amazon Web Services helps terrestrial industries take advantage of space enabled services already in place at competitive pricing. Speaker Clint Crosier from Amazon Web Services and moderator Douglas Terrier, chief technology officer at NASA.

This virtual panel takes place online on Thursday, October 22, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Monday, October 26 — Keynote: International Space Station

The new head of NASA's International Space Station program, Joel Montalbano, who is based in Houston's Johnson Space Center, provides a status of and exciting new industry applications for the ISS as well as insight into the future of ISS.

This virtual panel takes place online on Monday, October 26, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Monday, October 26 — NASA Session: Transferring NASA Technology

NASA's treasure trove of technology is available to American industry and entrepreneurs to apply in profitable ways. In this session, NASA technology transfer leaders — Daniel Lockney, Kimberly Minafra, and Krista Jensen — will discuss the many ways the private sector can tap into the accumulated knowledge NASA has to share.

This virtual panel takes place online on Monday, October 26, from 12 to 12:45 pm. Learn more.

Tuesday, October 27 — Space Tourism: The Excitement and Expectations

A panel of industry experts will discuss the space tourism industry, taking a deep dive into what the future holds, constraints for the industry's ability to address the market for many years to come and how some of these projects will be executed from a business, technology and execution perspective.

  • Amir Blachman, chief business officer of Houston-based Axiom Space
  • Jane Poynter, founder and co-CEO of Space Perspective
  • Sudhir Pai, CEO of Autonomous Energy Ventures
  • Richard Garriott, private astronaut (moderator)

This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 27, from 12 to 12:45 pm. Learn more.

Tuesday, October 27 — Spaceports as the Innovation Hub for Regions

Spaceports around the world can, and in many cases are, serving as regional innovation centers for high tech activities and creating positive economic development opportunities. Speakers Cherie Matthew, project manager at Corgan, and Pam Underwood, director at the FAA Office of Spaceports, review what the future looks like for spaceports and what funding will be necessary with moderator George Nield, president of Commercial Space Technologies LLC.

This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 27, from 1 to 1:45 pm. Learn more.

Wednesday, October 28 — NASA Session: Industries of the Future

NASA technology is creating the underpinning for new industries of the future. NASA's work has already changed the world with advances in telecom and microprocessors. More is yet to come. This panel led by Douglas Terrier, NASA chief technologist will explore the industries on the horizon that will stem from NASA innovation.

This virtual panel takes place online on Wednesday, October 28, from 12 to 12:45 pm. Learn more.

Thursday, October 29 — Keynote: Women of Space

NASA's head of human exploration, Kathy Lueders, based in Houston's Johnson Space Center, discusses the crucial role that women have, are, and will continue to provide in getting America back to the Moon, as well as in creating the trillion-dollar commercial space economy with moderator Vanessa Wyche, deputy director at JSC.

This virtual panel takes place online on Thursday, October 29, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Thursday, October 29 — Zoom to the Moon

An international panel discussion with Orion Program Managers about progress toward launching NASA's first human-rated spacecraft to travel around the Moon since 1972.

  • Catherine Koerner, NASA Orion Program Manager NASA at JSC
  • Didier Radola, head of ORION ESM Programme Airbus
  • Nico Dettman, Lunar Exploration Group Leader for Lunar Exploration Development Projects European Space Agency
  • Tony Antonelli, Artemis II mission director Lockheed Martin

This virtual panel takes place online on Thursday, October 29, from 1 to 1:45 pm. Learn more.

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