Increase your creativity tenfold: 10 ways to spark great ideas in your small business

About the Author: Ashley Thomson
Ashley Thomson

Boosting creativity - right brain

It’s amazing how many of my business coaching clients believe that they “don’t have a creative bone in their body”. They consider themselves as ‘business-minded’ – logical and strategic. Of course, many small business owners possess those qualities, but they are often selling themselves short by not actively exploring their creative side.

We tend to think of creative people as those who dwell in the arts: writers, painters, sculptors, chefs, musicians, architects etc. These are certainly creative pursuits, but in its purest form, creativity is best defined as making a new connection between existing ideas. When you look at it through that lens, you realise that creativity is essential in almost any job. In fact, small business owners are often some of the most creative people around.

It is also interesting to note that while some people seem to be born ‘right-brain dominant’ (the right side of the brain is considered the creative side), increasingly scientists report that creativity is in fact an acquired skill. That’s great news for those of you who find yourselves stuck for a business solution or wishing you could be more entrepreneurial.

Here are ten ways I coach my Tenfold clients to beef up the right side of their brains for improved problem solving and innovative thinking:

1) Start with your environment

A messy environment can be very distracting. To-do lists, post-its scrawled with reminders, dirty coffee mugs… all these vestiges of ‘business’ can make it hard to relax and let those great ideas float up from your subconscious. Clear your desk to give you the physical and mental space you need.

Go for a walk outside
There is a reason that thought-leaders recommend walking meetings. In a study done by Stanford University, researchers found that their subjects had more creative ideas when walking than they did whilst seated. Add to this that the colours green and blue are known to have a similar effect (and are obviously more commonly found in the outdoors) and you’ve got a double-strength reason to leave the office. Other than your morning double-shot espresso.

A little noise is best
Silence has a habit of focusing our minds. That sounds like a good thing, right? Not when you want to be creative. Remember those 3D pictures that were so popular in the 90s; you had to relax your eyes so much they nearly crossed to see the image hiding amongst the pattern. Similarly, your mind needs to be just a little out of focus so that creative vision can emerge.

2) Pick the ‘wrong time’
Creativity peaks when you’re not firing on all cylinders. As with the noise-factor, being a little bit sleepy helps you to lose focus, which helps the creative process. Therefore, schedule your creative tasks during early morning or late afternoon, depending on whether you are a ‘morning lark’ or a ‘night owl’ (choose the time when you are most tired). Make sure that you avoid the temptation to ‘grab a cuppa’ at that time; this will sharpen your mind and defeat the purpose.

3) Order your ‘unusual’
The object here is to break your usual patterns. This could be literally ordering a different flavour of ice-cream or even moving in a new way – if you’re a cyclist, try boxing for example. The main thing is that it makes you a little bit uncomfortable – that ‘good scary’ feeling which comes with having new experiences. This feeling of discomfort will often kick our brains into problem solving mode. The bonus of trying new things, of course, is that you might discover that you like them.


4) Do what you love
In direct contravention to the point above, doing something that you love to do may be what turns your creative tap on. Love drawing, reading, watching a film or playing a musical instrument? Make time for those things in your life. It is not important to be skilled in whatever you love to do. The point is to lose yourself in something. Being totally absorbed by an activity reduces stress and increases your happiness – great conduits for creative thinking!


5) Tell yourself “It’s good enough for jazz”
Fear of failure and imperfection is a brick wall between you and your creative side. I was once watching a jazz guitarist tune up before a set, having very quickly replaced a broken string. As much as he tried, he just couldn’t get his instrument in perfect tune. I will never forget the way he turned to the audience, shrugged and quipped into the mic ‘It’s good enough for jazz’. The band played a great set to roaring applause. I often say that line to myself if I feel my perfectionist streak is preventing me from letting the ‘less than great’ ideas come.

6) Back yourself into a corner

The word ‘creativity’ tends to be joined at the hip with the phrase “think outside the box”. Ironically, we humans can often be at our most creative when presented with the tightest of constraints. When trying to solve a problem in a new way, give it a new angle by mentally removing something that is ‘essential’ to the obvious solution. Sound impossible? Legend has it that famed author Ernest Hemmingway’s friend challenged him to write a short story using just 6 words. Impossible, right? What could be more essential to writing than words? Hemmingway came back with “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”. Mind blown. Many writers take this challenge, often to cure writers block. Try backing yourself into a corner and see what creative ways you can find to bust your way out.

7) Go back to pre-school
Pablo Picasso once said that “Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up”. It’s true: as pre-schoolers, we thought nothing of creating whole worlds or new languages. A 3 to 5-year-old can turn an empty box into a castle or a racing car and a stick magically becomes a wand, sword or light sabre. What happens when we grow up? We forget how to play.

Have you ever noticed that adults, under the guise of ‘playing with the kids’, can sometimes get so caught up building a block tower that they don’t even notice when the child moves onto another activity? When we play like children, we’re suddenly back in touch with our imagination. Try connecting with your inner pre-schooler by stealing your kids’ Lego, cracking open a bucket of playdough or challenging someone to a sandcastle competition. You may be surprised at what you can create.

8) Try on a few different thinking hats

Edward de Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’ approach allows you to try on a few different perspectives when considering a single problem. The ‘hats’ act like a filter; you are only allowed to consider the issue at hand through that particular lens. To help you visualise they are colour coded:

  • White hat = only the facts
  • Yellow hat = optimism (the positives, value and benefits)
  • Black hat = judgement (what might go ‘wrong’)
  • Red hat = intuition (emotions like fears, likes, dislikes, loves and hates)
  • Green hat = creativity (possibilities, alternatives and new ideas)
  • Blue hat = process (big picture: what is the goal? Keeps other ‘hats’ in check)

This process is often used to good effect in group scenarios, but there is no reason why you can’t use this yourself when brainstorming your ideas. Just make sure you ground your thinking by starting and finishing with the ‘Blue hat’ to keep ideas connected with the end-game.

9) Think out loud
Using a trusted friend as a sounding board or collaborating with others can both be great ways to test out and develop your ideas and solutions. Collaboration is a particularly powerful way to gain a new perspective. A diverse group of skilled individuals with good chemistry and a healthy respect for each other could probably solve all the worlds’ challenges, given the chance. If you want to be truly innovative in your business, you can’t always do it alone.

10) Do nothing (or at least do something unrelated)
Sometimes in our efforts to ‘be creative’, we find ourselves trying too hard. This is a sure-fire way to lose confidence in your creative abilities and… up goes that brick wall again. To come back from the brink, try doing nothing at all. Un-plug from all distractions and sit or lie down somewhere comfortable. How often do we allow ourselves the time just to ‘be’? Freeing yourself from expectations might open the way for creativity to wander up and tap you on the shoulder again.

If you are the busy type who just can’t handle doing ‘nothing’ try doing ‘something else’ instead. Go for a drive, a run, do some filing – just something physical, but mindless. This will allow your thoughts to wander and ‘bump into’ things without you judging the quality of your ideas.

Bonus tip: Just do it
Sometimes the only way through a creative block is to just get on with it. Try to just focus on coming up with as many ideas you as can. Challenge yourself by picking a ridiculous number, like 50… or 100. Try telling yourself to think up the worst ideas you can. When you are done, look at the best aspects of these terrible ideas. Somewhere in there may be the glinting spark of creative genius.

Baby, you were born this way
We are all born with the ability to connect existing ideas and make something new. Through the above exercises and techniques, you are not developing creativity for the first time, you are re-discovering it. Perhaps not every approach listed will work for you personally but experiment until you find the thing that works. Its meant to be fun, so enjoy yourself. Go forth and innovate!

Image credit:
By Allan Ajifo [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons