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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

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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