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Three Tools to Spark Creative Thinking

Abstract Figure Forming From Multi-Coloured Squares Sitting in Thinking Pose

How to catalyze innovation in systems management

Process innovation is about finding breakthrough ways to do things in an organization. As competitors get smarter and faster, as disruptive technologies negate value streams, businesses need continuous innovation to pivot opportunities and stay in the game.

Jim Nelson portrait
Jim Nelson

The word “innovation” comes from Latin roots meaning “in a new way” or “to renew or change into new” and can be viewed as the application of solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs. There are many techniques and tools that can be applied to spark innovation including brainstorming, mind mapping, examining a problem from various perspectives (aka Nine Windows), affinity diagrams, and TRIZ (the theory of inventive problem solving). We’ll practice all of them in the Process Innovation course, but I’ll outline the most popular here.

1. Brainstorming. This is the most widely used tool to stimulate creative thinking. Some things to consider when planning and conducting a brainstorming session are: 

  • when scheduling the brainstorming meeting, be sure to include a brief explanation of the problem and its history to help participants mentally prepare for the session (include the “why”). The more specific and focused a session, the better the results will be. Consider inviting people with different backgrounds and degrees of expertise. 
  • distribute a copy of the rules ahead of time. Some rules include:
    • All ideas are encouraged, the more the better.
    • No criticism of ideas is allowed.
    • Participants should try to build on or combine the ideas of others.
    • No “killer phrases” such as “yes, but,” “it’ll never work,” and “we’ve tried that before.”
  • brainstorming sessions should last about 30–40 minutes. Adjourn after that time, even if no ideas have been generated, and plan another session.


2. Mind Mapping. A mind map (or idea map) is a visual representation of words, ideas, tasks, and other items linked to and arranged around a key word or idea. It is used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas and aid in studying and organizing information, solving problems, making decisions, and writing. Mind maps can show, and help you discover, connections between different topics and the way your mind works. Here is a guideline:

  • Start in the middle with a central idea.
  • Discuss and brainstorm main topics that are related to the central theme and add them around the central idea.
  • Add details such as color, photos, and notes.
  • Draw connections with lines or arrows. Use thick lines to represent main branches and thinner lines to illustrate the weight of topics in relation to the main concept.

By presenting ideas in a radial, graphical, nonlinear manner, mind maps encourage a brainstorming approach to planning and organizational tasks. Though the branches of a mind map represent hierarchical tree structures, their radial arrangement disrupts the prioritizing of concepts typically associated with hierarchies presented with more linear visual cues, like lists.

"Nine Windows can be a valuable tool for human systems issues such as team building, personal development, and leadership."

3. Nine Windows. Nine Windows (or Past, Present, Future) is a tool that can prompt you to explore a problem in the past and possible future at both the supersystem and subsystem levels. Expanding your thinking about the problem into new and different contexts that are systemic and time-oriented can help you break out of the psychological inertia that keeps you doing something “because it’s always been done this way.” Follow this outline to create a Nine Windows diagram.

  • Draw a matrix of nine squares, three rows by three columns. Mark the rows “supersystem,” “system,” and “subsystem.” Mark the columns “past,” “present,” and “future.”
  • Write the problem in the center square.
  • Explore the problem at hand at each of the three levels:
    • supersystem level, or the external environment and components that the problem or system may interact with
    • system level, where the problem or system was created
    • subsystem level, components of the problem or system
  • Complete the matrix:
    • In the system row, list what started the problem in the past/system cell and list the goal in the future/system cell.
    • In the supersystem row, list everything one could do to prevent the current problem in the past/supersystem cell and list everything that can be done to fix the problem in the future/supersystem cell.
    • In the subsystem row, list everything one could have done in the past to prevent the problem in the past/subsystem cell and everything one could do in the future in the future/subsystem cell.

Nine Windows can be a valuable tool for human systems issues such as team building, personal development, and leadership.

I encourage you to join the Process Innovation course to more deeply explore these and other techniques that spark innovation and improve your business processes.

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This article was written by Jim Nelson, MBA, CMQ/OE, who teaches Process Innovation and Implementing Process Change for the University of Minnesota Business Process Improvement Certificate.

Jim is a business leader with 20 years of experience specializing in strategy, management, engineering, and quality. He has led project teams in a variety of areas including design, manufacturing, Six Sigma, Lean, and Performance Excellence, and he holds two US patents.