To come up with truly creative products and unique ideas, great business leaders need to be independent thinkers. Our brains are wired to recycle ideas we’ve already heard from others, but you can learn to think independently, or to come up with novel ideas, with a few easy psychological tips and tools.
Let's start with an exercise: Take a blank piece of paper and draw an animal from an alien planet.
If you're like most people, then what you’ve drawn looks wacky, but vaguely familiar. It's probably somewhat symmetric, and it likely has some combination of arms, legs, ears, eyes, or noses. In other words, it looks like a distorted version of animals on Earth.
"Everything you think is influenced by years of experience and cultural upbringing," says Art Markman, a cognitive psychologist at University of Texas at Austin and author of Smart Thinking (Perigee Trade, 2012). "Your natural tendency is to pull a known solution from your memory."
Independent thinking requires you to break that mold. Try these three strategies to prompt your brain to think more independently:
1. Place a lot of constraints on the problem.
Paradoxically, open-ended problems are the enemy of independent thinking. "If you don't have constraints, the first things you'll come up with are the most accessible memories," Markman says. "They'll be really similar to what others have done before."
Instead, give yourself limitations. Rule out elements of the solution that seem expected or natural. For example, can you make a bank that has no tellers? Can you write a book that has no beginning? The constraints should force you to consider an unfamiliar scenario, and you should try many of them as you work toward a viable solution.
2. Combine ideas that seem ill-matched.
When you're trying to solve a problem, your memory will retrieve solutions or concepts that seem like logical matches, often because others have used that match already. To think differently, consider ideas that don't seem compatible at all.
For example, what if you made a dating website that worked like Wikipedia? Or what if you found a way to open a can using only airplane parts? "Try to jam things together that feel like misfits at first, and see how far that takes you," Markman says. Many of your ideas will fail, but any that succeed are likely to be unique.
3. Take the bird's eye view.
When you're trying to solve a problem, zoom out to see variables that others might overlook. "Thinking about the bigger picture takes you out of the familiar way of thinking about the problem," Markman says. Ask yourself, what is the purpose of solving this problem? What would happen if I succeed? And how can I find a solution that makes that outcome work?
For example, Thomas Edison saw that houses would need to be wired for electricity if people were going to buy lightbulbs. To send power over long distances, you need a high voltage bulb. Edison was the only inventor who realized this, so he was the one who made history.
Related: How to Inspire a Culture of Innovation