We have some rough time at my workplace, due to hostile competitors. Our boss is frequently demanding: ‘Be more creative. Think differently’.
Can you clarify what it is all about?

Let me first explain the terms that are being used by your boss:

The ‘regular’ way of thinking will be discussed now, in order for us, later, to understand the demand for a ‘different’ one.
The regular, which is the more conventional and common, type of thinking and decision making, is the ‘logic’, sometimes called ‘analytic’ thinking process. It is usually described as an ongoing flow type of a process, in which one stage of conclusion is leading to the next one, until the best solution is reached.
A simple example of that case is the process that most of us use once we cannot find our keys: we search the pockets, then the briefcase, then the table and thereafter the last place that we have been, according to our memory, and so on.
A researcher that taught us a lot regarding our thinking processes, Eduard DeBono, labeled this process as ‘Vertical Thinking’: the stream of thoughts moves like an arrow that continues its motion until the target is hit.

Let us now deal with the other term that your boss waves with: the ‘be creative’ challenge.

The proper way to describe the creative thinking process is sometimes by matching it to a dotted or spiral line that resembles a bird flight route or a frog’s elastic jump’s track; sometimes to the water wave shapes; at times to a fire works sparking lights.
DeBono labeled this process: ‘Lateral Thinking’, to reflect the unstructured, not too easy to predict and often irrational pathway of the thinking process. Every creative process has a unique shape, which implies that every creative solution will have its unique and one time original pattern.

We now approach the stage of my answer where it is possible to understand why your boss wants to see more of the creative, lateral thinking. It is definitely NOT because there is a natural biased preference towards creative thinking, no matter how nice and culturally it sounds. On the contrary: most of our daily challenges are better solved with the ordinary, vertical thinking method. To stress this point I’ll testify that most trainings and improvements processes are giving best results when they present learners with logical / vertical methods of analyzing situations and screening for the best decision that is appropriate for a given case. To conclude this point: the call for the creative thinking approach is neither the natural best bet nor the ‘politically correct’ thing to do.

It is the situation, once it is unique or extraordinary complex that calls for the creative approach. If your competitors play not according to the rules or if the common known tactics that have been already employed did not result with the expected turnarounds that your boss hoped for, the call for creative measures is justified. It implies that you all would welcome the ‘unthinkable’ thoughts; the non-logical but intuitive and gut-feeling reasoning for your suggestions; the application of new and yet unused ideas and methods; the fixture of your current problems with other tools then you have tried before.

Since you did not provide some info about your specific problems, I’ll use an old folk tail to explain my point:
There was a guy who traveled in the jungles, and during one night a monkey stole his precious hat. He did have another one, but was not ready to give up and continue his journey, since the stolen hat, as the second one, were very precious indeed. So he went to the king lion with a very friendly posture and complained against the hostile attitude that he, as a guest in the kingdom, has experienced. The monkey maid it clear to the lion’s aids the there is no chance that the lion’s authority would make a difference. A jungle is a jungle, he reminded them. Our poor guy tried therefore to negotiate, with bananas of course, but there was no prospect for a real deal, since the hat was so precious. Then he had no choice but to play the jungle rules, so he threatened, with his gun. But the smart monkey remind cool, warned him that it is illegal and threatened back that it would cause for an immediate arrest.
So far we have seen the common, known, logic, lateral thinking: we try to be nice, we bargain, and then we threat.

Our story takes us now to the creative thinking process that the desperate fellow started to
employ at that stage. He remembered something from his childhood about the various characters that the children used to attach to animals: the lion is strong, the fox is smart, the chicken is afraid… and monkeys are bunch of imitators! They have no ‘ego’ of their own; they would imitate and follow what they see…
In a sudden, but it was all well thought and planned, our fellow started to shout toward the monkey who was sitting safely well above, on the near tree; he sound very angry, and moved his hands with rage. Then, as an act of contempt, he took his other precious hat, the only one that left, put it on his had, and then took it and threw it hard and with a lot of anger to the floor.
Our monkey did what his genes instructed his brain to do: he imitated the angry man, took the hat, and threw it on the floor too.
Was our hero lucky, smart, genius? Well, it is up to you to decide. My story attempts to show how a spark of memory combined with a good application of common know-how (the genes…) lead to a creative solution that was necessary since the old methods were not effective any more.

Dr. Joseph Abraham

Author's Bio:
BA: Education and Psychology, Tel Aviv University, Tel-Aviv, Israel 1975
MA: Psychology, California State University, Fresno, CA, USA 1977
PhD: The Faculty of Inustrial Engineering and Management, The Technion Ins., Haifa, Israel 1993