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Unleashing creative thinking in tourism

Unleashing creative thinking is like building a windmill to ride the change

Creativity as the secret sauce

Creative thinking is often the antidote to critical thinking. The former opens up our minds, the latter focused down. Creative thinking is optimistic, it can open our hearts and minds and help us see differently. Neuroscience also shows that creativity can release a chemical cocktail in our brains which makes us feel good, happy and open to new ideas. Unfortunately, creativity is often misunderstood. For example, you are either creative or not. You either study STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or arts and "soft science". Pursuing creativity is often seen as a road to low income precarious jobs and vulnerability in the gig economy. Careers in hard science are often seen as the road to security. It's a binary that has played out in strategic planning where certainty and security of a scientific approach have traditionally been favoured over more creative approaches to problem solving.

We believe that creativity and unleashing creative thinking can be an important secret source to re-imagine tourism.

The challenge of a conservative low innovation tourism sector

Tourism is well known for being a conservative and low innovation industry. The OECD and the European Commission both report that tourism businesses are generally risk-averse and low-innovation compared to other sectors. In a study of over 3000 tourism SMEs, the European Commission found that tourism businesses have low levels of adoption of advanced digital technologies, even thought the there is a widespread use of very simple technologies like social media. Let’s face it, not much has changed in the way tourism is organised (i.e. its operating system) or its practices. 

But change is everywhere. The platform economy innovations (e.g. Airbnb and Uber are significant examples), for example, have been important sources of digital innovation, and the tourism sector has been forced to adapt and respond. Often policymakers have been placed in a reactive position as industry leaders exert political pressure on elected representatives. Policy makers, interested in the next election, often respond to established industry interests, and are left with a difficult choice between protecting traditional business models or limiting the growth and potential disruption of business model innovations. I engaged in many such conversations and saw these pressures play out in my work on collaborative economy in Europe.

While there are many astute tourism leaders who understand change is inevitable and adaptation and innovation must be part of a forward looking culture, there are also many who prefer to lead by looking in the rear vision mirror. That is, maintaining the established status quo becomes more important than finding creative ways to address disruption and innovation in tourism.

Embracing innovation by opening up creativity

Innovation can sometimes be frames as a big issue, an insurmountable challenge in the face of local, deeply embedded cultures. The difficulty of innovation is exacerbated by the sheer number of small and medium-sized businesses with limited resources to think about, much less introduce, innovation. Creativity is an important dimension of innovation, giving rise to new thinking, new perspectives and new actions. But how do we unlock innovation and creativity in tourism, in a sector that has not changed its operating system, its practices, or often its leadership, in some cases, for a long time?

The creative mindset

Adopting a creative mindset can help. Why? Because creative people are good at seeing connections, good at connecting ideas, and good at seeing the system of interactions that are taking place. Creativity and innovative problem solving go hand in hand. 

We spend far too much time thinking about how to implement the change tools and frameworks or what the problems are. Not enough time is spent limbering up our minds and loosening the ropes of those tried and tested swimming lanes that we have been doing laps in for years.

Many of us spend time reading and building expertise — it’s concrete knowledge that we focus on. We spend much less time exercising our creative brain, which is associated with flexibility and resilience. Creative thinking is an essential skill for working together across boundaries, solving interdisciplinary challenges, for understanding others, and for building actions to address complex issues.

But many think creativity is something you have, or you don’t have. Wrong. Research has actually shown that children are very creative but that our education systems teach us to be uncreative, linear thinkers! Neuroscientists have shown that we can re-learn creativity by practising creative thinking techniques. Other research has demonstrated that both creative thinking and cognitive diversity are essential ingredients in high performing teams. Yet most people don’t spend too much time thinking about the way they think, or the appreciating the way others in their team think. But if we spent more time reflecting on the way we think then this can really change team dynamics and problem-solving capabilities. So if we exercise our creative brain, and appreciate the diverse cognitive abilities and thinking styles in our team, then imagine the benefits!

Why is creative thinking important?

Creative thinking is important for a number of reasons:

  1. Creative thinkers can see new or innovative connections between unrelated issues or elements.

  2. Creative thinkers have the ability to bring new and novel insights.

  3. Creative thinkers are often systems thinkers who can think across scales, over time and connect the dots.

  4. Creativity thinkers have a flexible mindset and capacity to adapt and re-image old ideas to new situations.

  5. Creative thinkers can often recognise patterns across diverse kinds of data, observations to build robust insights.

Unleashing creative thinking is like building a windmill to ride the change. It’s going to becoming increasingly important in the future of work, and yet our education systems are built on rational scientific thinking and provide little support or guidance on how to nurture and care for our creative brain. Put simply, creative thinking is a necessity now, but more so in the future. It’s not a luxury.

So can we learn creative thinking?

The good news is that neuroscientists have shown that with regular creating thinking exercise, we can tone up our creative brain. Andreas Fink undertook pioneering research comparing brain activity in creative thinkers to conventional thinkers revealing that the two cohorts had brains wired in very different ways. Researchers since then have been curious about the effects of different kinds of exercises, such as divergent thinking and exposure to others’ ideas. It’s a fascinating body of research, but what is increasingly clear is that creativity can be learned and practising it every day can make us better thinkers in just two weeks!

Practising creative thinking

An important key to developing creative thinking is divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent and convergent thinking has also been labelled the heartbeat of creativity. Breaking up the thinking process into an open (divergent) and structuring (convergent) process helps build awareness of how we ideate and make sense of things. Divergent thinking allows us to open up all the possibilities, wild ideas and random connections and it suspends judgement on what are good and bad ideas. Divergent thinking is about letting all the ideas come pouring forth, mixing endless combinations, and not allowing those inner sensibilities (those lane ropes that keep us in our lane) to restrict thinking.

Sometimes a great idea is a bad idea in disguise!

The following exercises draw on divergent and convergent thinking processes. These are exercises for creative thinking that can be incorporated easily into your daily standups, meetings and routines:

Torrence test of creativity. Ellis Paul Torrence built a series of creativity tests known as Torrence Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) in the 1960s to measure creativity. In one of the exercises, participants were given a mark on a piece of paper and were required to draw a picture using the mark. The resulting drawings were assessed using four criteria:

  1. Fluency. The total number of interpretable, meaningful, and relevant ideas generated in response to the stimulus.

  2. Flexibility. The number of different categories of relevant responses.

  3. Originality. The statistical rarity of the responses.

  4. Elaboration. The amount of detail in the responses, and the narrative that is depicted.

There are a series of marks that Torrence used. When I apply this in my seminars, it’s usually as the icebreaker or one of the first exercises. I give participants no more than 5 minutes to draw, then we share the drawings with participants explaining what they have drawn. I then reveal the criteria above and we discuss how the drawing might be assessed. We keep it lighthearted, pointing out that we are all different and have different capabilities. The important thing is that as a team cognitive diversity and creativity is the key to high performing teams.

Divergent and convergent thinking. This is a physical exercise to demonstrate the dynamics of divergent and convergent thinking. It’s great to use in sedentary environments when participants need to move and unblock their thinking (because we also know that there is a correlation between active thinking and physical exercise).

Ask the participants to stand up. Reach for the sky, grabbing those metaphorical ideas floating above and all around them. Now bend over, grabbing them as you go and converge those ideas into themes and clusters as you pull them all into your belly. Do this a couple of ideas and you can actually feel the physical effects in your brain!

Association games. Creative thinkers build associations. They connect dots. They see connections. So exercising your associative skills is a way of building agility in your thinking. Associations can be through text, words or objects. They can even be stories. For example, can you develop a story that connects all four images to your work/destination/organisation?

These are not just fun exercises and ice-breakers. They are used to train our brain to generate connections between words and objects. It’s in this process of connecting words, objects, thoughts that are seemingly unconnected, we start to ideate new and innovation actions and solutions.

The takeaways

In delivering creative thinking workshops that are aimed at building great teamwork, there are some important takeaways that need to be reinforced:

  1. Building creativity does not simply emerge. it needs a commitment from management, from leaders, and team members. Trust me, creativity will also make your workplace just that little bit more human and fun!

  2. In order to raise levels of creativity within the team, it’s important to practise creative exercises every day. Individually and collectively. Research suggests that creativity (measured in terms of neural activation of the alpha waves that are responsible for creativity) can be activated in just two weeks! But it needs commitment. Small tasks such as the following can work wonders.

  3. It’s important to make space for creative thinking in your daily routine, in meetings, and in your approaches to working. For example, practise an association game at your stand up every morning. At your meetings, commit the first five minutes to draw as an association. Task one of your team members to prepare a random photo (visual association) or a word game.

  4. Remember the key features of creativity are fluency, flexibility, originality, elaboration. Encourage these four criteria when discussing ideas and creative problem-solving.

  5. Decide whether you want to build walls or windmills!


About The Tourism CoLab

At the Tourism CoLab, we believe that tourism and travel can be transformational, purposeful and regenerative. However, in order to deliver these benefits, we need to change our tourism operating system, adjust our mindset, and pivot our ways of working. We use an intentional design mindset to activate tourism for good, and we call this new way of working 'Regenerative Tourism by Design' and we're pioneering it at The Tourism CoLab. If you would like to know more about what we do, how we work, and how we might be able to help you, contact us.



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