Based in Sydney, Australia, Foundry is a blog by Rebecca Thao. Her posts explore modern architecture through photos and quotes by influential architects, engineers, and artists.

Leaving Behind The "Normal"

Here is a little creative exercise for you to try. For the following four words provide five associations for each word. Don't spend a lot of time thinking, just write down what comes to mind. I'll start with one example word. You might end up with something like this:

FISH:
1. Egg
2. Scales
3. Water
4. Fins
5. Face

OK, your turn now. Write down the first five words you associate with each item for all four items. Then go back and repeat the entire process 3 times, using five different associations each time. It's not a race, but the idea is to move quickly and just go with your first associations.

BALL:
1.                       1.                  1.
2.                       2.                  2.
3.                       3.                  3.
4.                       4.                  4. 
5.                       5.                  5.

OCEAN:
1.                       1.                  1.
2.                       2.                  2.
3.                       3.                  3.
4.                       4.                  4. 
5.                       5.                  5.

ENGINE:
1.                       1.                  1.
2.                       2.                  2.
3.                       3.                  3.
4.                       4.                  4. 
5.                       5.                  5.


MILITARY
1.                       1.                  1.
2.                       2.                  2.
3.                       3.                  3.
4.                       4.                  4. 
5.                       5.                  5.


What did you notice about your answers? Beyond the fact that it became more difficult to get associations in the third pass, you probably will notice that your associations took on a more creative and "out of the box" approach towards the end. This may not be a surprise, but it's an important distinction to make when attempting creativity or innovation. Breaking out of our norms takes time and effort. We've got to work through our dominant associations with words or ideas to get to the original stuff. (I will put one exception here and that is in some situations when the goal is to connect intentionally with someones dominant association such as in marketing).

There is another interesting lesson to add to this discussion on creativity. You'll notice you had a quota in this exercise which pushed you into that 14th and 15th association. If I had simply said, "write as many as possible", you may have stopped at six or twelve. You wrote as many as you where asked to do. More specifically, you where as creative as you where asked to be. Quotas can be an effective way of pushing ideas further and driving more creative solutions and thoughts. I've written before about the need for structure in creativity, and this is one of those times. We so often shy away from structure when it comes to "brainstorming", but structure is actually critical to success.

I'll toss one more intriguing lesson your way from this simple little exercise. Focus was a key here. I could have asked you to pick your own words to associate with, but I instead gave you the words to work of off. I intentionally focused your creative work in a direction. Just for kicks, try it. Just write down three words, any word at all right now. Did you freeze a bit? Most people often do. In the presence of no parameters we have a tendency to clam up. Another example of this same principal would be this exercise:

As fast as you can, name five things that are white:

Difficult? Try this now:

As fast as you can, name five things in the refrigerator that are white:


What did you notice? If you are like most of us, it was much easier to name five items that are white when you had some focus to the refrigerator as opposed to the first questions that had very little focus. Focus and structure are important in the success of innovative or creative work.

So here is the skinny on this post. Creativity or innovation is often an attempt to break from the "normal". To do this we need to overcome our dominant associations. We can do this by using tools like time, structure, and focus. These are three keys to success in the creative process.

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