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  • Katie O'Keeffe

Applied Imagination - bite size chunks of content and daily practices

Updated: Mar 16


Applied Imagination - Instalment 1 - introduction

One of the best things that happened to me and Danny Bearzatto over the holidays was a chance meeting with Dr. Ralph Kerle at his gallery in Manly. What started as a wander through his gallery admiring his beautiful photographs, ended as an hour long inspiring conversation about creativity, problem solving, leadership and movement. During this conversation, Ralph recommended the book "Applied Imagination" by Alex Osborn, which I've started reading today. First published in 1953, it's been sobering to be opened up to the quality of thinking related to creative problem solving and to realise that much of what we think of as new today, really isn't at all!

In the foreward, there is a quote "We forget that every good that is worth possessing must be paid for in strokes of daily effort". The author hopes that the reader "will not race through the book, but take daily bites at what it has to teach you, a bit at a time".

Each chapter is, indeed, bite sized and concludes with a series of questions for reflection and activities for practice. In the spirit of daily practice, I'm going to post one of the questions or exercises here each day to stimulate your creative thinking. I'd love to hear your reflections.

Reflection question:

Which of the problems now personally pressing you is most in need of a creative solution?

Applied Imagination instalment 2 - the universality of imagination

Chapter 2 of 'Applied Imagination' is all about the universality of creativity and imagination. In short, regardless of your age, gender or education, your potential for creativity and imagination is relatively equal. The distinguishing factor is effort. Two standout quotes from this chapter:


"Our creative efficacy varies more in ratio to our output of mental energy than in ratio to our inborn talent."

"When it comes to creative efficacy, neither the extent of our knowledge nor the potency of our talent is as vital as our driving power."

Reflection question:

Make a note of every opportunity you've had to use your creative imagination since awakening this morning.

I'd love to hear your reflections... how often do you have an opportunity to be creative? What are the situations you notice present an opportunity to use your imagination?

Applied imagination instalment 3 - types of imagination

While this book is focused on creative imagination, particularly as it applies to problem solving, this chapter explores the different types of imagination. I found this content particularly stimulating, as it connects strongly to the neuroscience of creativity and problem solving and the thought patterns that are nourishing vs those that are destructive to our minds and bodies.

In short, the books makes a distinction between 'controllable' and 'non-controllable' types of imagination. Those that run themselves and sometimes run away with us compared with those we can run, which we can drive. "Our imagination is running away with us, instead of being ridden by us with a strong enough rein".

The non-controllable types of imagination are characterised as a 'misuse' of our imagination and include things like daydreaming, worry, anxious fear (distinguished from real fear), hallucinations, delusions, complexes and the like.

Controllable types of imagination are those that are characterised by intent and effort... Putting ourselves in the shoes of others, seeing things from a different perspective, visualising a place or state, role playing, empathising with the experiences of others, anticipating future events.

I particularly liked the idea that imagination can be used for light and heat. Light is discovery, shedding light on something that is not new, but is new to us. Heat is invention, bringing together things that are not of themselves new and combining them in new ways to create something new.

Importantly, it is possible for us to intervene in moments of uncontrolled imagination, take back the reins and, with effort and intention, create a moment of controlled imagination and creativity.

Reflection question:

Notice the next time you are in a moment of uncontrolled imagination. What are you thinking about? What's your imagination running away with? Now take back the reins... what can you do to change this to a moment of controlled imagination and creative spark? Where does it take you?

Applied imagination instalment 4 - factors that stifle creativity

Another fascinating chapter of this book and another reminder that much of what we think of as new today has been around as ideas for a long time. My reflection is that much of what neuroscience is 'discovering' about the brain, can also be thought of as confirming ideas that have existed previously.

Today's chapter is about factors that cramp creativity. Two big ideas from this content that resonated strongly with what I've learned from modern neuroscience:

1. Two types of thinking - 𝒋𝒖𝒅𝒊𝒄𝒊𝒂𝒍 𝒕𝒉𝒊𝒏𝒌𝒊𝒏𝒈 which analyses, compares and chooses and 𝒄𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒕𝒊𝒗𝒆 𝒕𝒉𝒊𝒏𝒌𝒊𝒏𝒈 which visualises, foresees and generates ideas. Osborn further proposes that as we do more judicial thinking, we diminishes our capacity for creative thinking. As we age, we are increasingly rewarded for judicial thinking, which further reduces our creative thinking. In order to be truly effective at creative thinking, we must deliberately delay our urge to judge and evaluate. Contemporary neuroscience has discovered two antagonistic neural networks that support these ideas. One network (the TPN) is responsible for logic, focused attention and mathematical reasoning. The other network (the DMN) is important in emotion, self-awareness, ethical decision-making and creativity. They are called 'antagonistic' because as activity in one network increases, the activity in the other decreases, meaning that we can not be both genuinely creative and analytic at the same time. Science has also discovered that the more we exercise one network, the less effective we become at activating the other network. This more recent scientific discovery would seem to endorse this key premise of two types of thinking that must be deliberately separated, and deliberately practiced with effort.

2. Praise, encouragement and criticism - Osborn suggests that encouragement and positivity nourish our ability to think creatively, whereas criticism and negativity (from others and from ourselves) inhibit our imagination. Again, these ideas are supported by modern scientific findings. When we are in a relaxed and positive state of mind, our brains work more effectively and we are able to generate more ideas. When we are stressed and anxious we diminish our capacity to see the big picture, think strategically and come up with new ideas. We literally can't see the wood for the trees. Criticism from others and negative self talk both stimulate stress hormones and the fight/flight response, putting us into a stressed state which is not conducive to creative thinking. On the other hand, nurturing positive emotions like enthusiasm, humour and gratitude puts us into an optimal state for creativity and problem-solving.

Reflection question:

How often do you exercise judicial thinking over creative thinking? What steps can you take to pause your judgement and allow your creative juices to flow?

Applied imagination instalment 5 - the effect of environment on creativity

Another bite sized chapter on imagination and creativity that examines the role of environment on creativity. Remembering that this book was written in the 50s, it's interesting to read it in the context of today and reflect on just how much our environment may even further stifle creativity, yet how much we need it now more than ever.

Osborn specifically explores the role of industrialisation, reductionism, urbanisation and education in the stifling of imagination and creativity.

Bringing this content into the context of 2022, we talk often about needing new and different ways of leading in the increasingly VUCA conditions we face today.

On education, I've watched my two little boys go through four years of early childhood education, where their days are filled with imaginative and creative play, where they come home stimulated, energised and bubbling with joy. As they've moved towards primary school, I've become aware of a sense of mourning the loss of these creative days and dreading the stifling of imagination that comes with the goal of getting the answer right. Thankfully, so far our primary school seems to be striking a wonderful balance between traditional education and keeping the creative juices flowing.

Reflection question:

How much does your environment stifle or stimulate creative thinking? What can you do change or influence your environment to encourage more imagination.

Applied imagination instalment 6 - developing creativity

So, we are back again with another creativity focused post, this time thinking about the ways in which creativity can be developed. For anyone new to this series of posts, I've been inspired by a book, first written in 1953, called 'applied imagination'. The book asks the reader to digest the content in bite sized chunks and practice daily. To share this experience, I'm summarising a chapter at a time and providing a reflection question or practice.

As I read this book, I'm continually amazed at how much of what we are learning today as 'new ideas', in fact have been around for a long time. And how existing ideas are being validated by modern neuroscience. The development of creativity is no exception.

A few key insights out of this chapter:

1. Creativity can be developed, and is more effectively developed through deliberate practice and exercises

2. Experiences and knowledge are fundamental building blocks of creativity. We take what we know and what we've experienced and can put aspects of these together in new ways to often unrelated challenges to come up with new ideas and solutions

3. Active experiences are greater fuel for creativity than passive experiences - engaging in writing, creating art, composing music will provide richer creative energy than simply reading, observing or listening.

Reflection question

What experiences in your life continue to provide the greatest stimulation to your creativity and imagination? Why?


Applied imagination instalment 7 - the creative problem solving process

From here on, the book Applied Imagination gets into really meaty territory focused on how we go about creatively solving problems. This chapter was a wonderful first foray into this topic with a surprising amount of food for thought in so few pages!

A couple of real highlights:

  1. The process outlined is one which 'design thinking' has made so popular in recent years - fact finding, then idea finding, then solution finding

  2. Fact finding requires first defining the problem, then gathering and analysing data related to that problem

  3. Idea finding requires first generating as many ideas as possible and then further developing the best ideas into richer possibilities

  4. Finally solution finding requires rigorous testing and evaluation of the best possible ideas before finally deciding upon, and implementing, a solution.

Importantly, the book stresses that every step requires "deliberate effort and creative imagination".

A significant focus for this chapter is on the importance of defining the problem well. As Einstein said "The formulation of a problem is far more often essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill". I particularly appreciated the difference between a problem which is 'thrust upon us' vs a problem which results from wonder and curiosity.

For the problems that are presented to us, it is important to clearly define what we need to solve for and to break it down into its smaller component parts. This is a technique that has since been validated by neuroscience, because it works with the way the brain unconsciously solves problems, particularly during sleep. Breaking a problem down into its component parts, enables our brains to draw upon all the components of knowledge we have stored in our memories and unconsciously test out many different computations of matching parts of knowledge with parts of the problems. The brain then evaluates (unconsciously) each of the different computations and pushes through to our conscious brain the solutions that it predicts will be the most successful or valuable.

For the problems that arise from curiosity and wonder, I was reminded of the "Model of Inquiry" developed by Barbara Stripling in 2003, which itself is based upon the scientific method. What I particularly like about this model is that it starts with 'wonder'… being curious, asking questions, wondering what would happen if…

The chapter is packed full of stories and examples from the real world of creative innovations that have results from discipline and effort following the creative problem solving process.

Reflection question:

Think up at least six creative problems to which your team or organisation might profitably seek a solution


Applied imagination instalment 8 - preparation and analysis go hand in hand


Building on the previous chapter, which focused on defining the problem, this chapter focuses on gathering and analysing data for the problem we have defined and seek to solve.

This is the first chapter I have read that I thought, gee this could really cause some debate and disagreement amongst problem solving experts today. Remembering, to put this book in the context of the 1950s at the transition between the second and third industrial revolutions and squarely in the thought land of liberal democratic modernism. Fast forward to today, and overlay the rise of postmodernism and an education system increasingly founded on a disbelief in empirical fact and emphasis on lived experience and personal truths as the only form of truth. The book takes a strong stance in favour of 'fact finding' and even provides an example of the Glueck Research that discovered the underlying facts that explain and predict 'juvenile delinquency'. It was this example in particular that made me image what lively debate might be had about the underlying philosophy of facts vs personal truth and lived experience.

Putting aside any personal leanings either way, there are a number of highly valuable insights and takeaways from this chapter:

  1. Striking the right balance between finding enough facts to provide context and evidence to the problem without stifling the imagination and ability to creatively think up solutions

  2. The importance of relevant facts and knowledge to support the creative problem solving process. The need to "dig deeper than merely sensing. We should delve into the how and why". This includes related facts and knowledge and researching previous failures

  3. The importance of asking great questions to guide our analysis of the data. For this the framework of the laws of association provide an excellent guide - Law of contiguity with questions like "What happens before or after" "What would cause this effect". The law of composition with questions like "What is this like" and "What are the component parts". The law of contrast with questions like "What is the point of difference" and "What is this unlike"

Reflection question:

Thinking about one of the creative problems you have previously identified, make a list of all the questions related to this problem that could help to guide your collection, and analysis, of data.


Applied imagination instalment 9 - association of ideas


Chapter 7 introduced us to the problem solving process which has three components:

  1. Fact finding - problem definition and preparation

  2. Idea finding - idea production and idea development

  3. Solution finding - evaluation and adoption

This chapter begins the exploration of idea finding, starting with the association of ideas. The power of association can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosophers, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. (As an aside, a number of conversations I've had recently are inspiring me to go back and read some of these works, so that is next on my list).

The association of ideas connects memory to imagination and "works harder for those whose minds are better stocked". This reminds of a core idea from neuroscience - the more we know, the more creative we can be. I've talked previously about how the brain solves problems by breaking them down into their component parts and then matching building blocks of knowledge stored in our long term memories to these problem parts. By extension, this process means that the more knowledge and information and experiences we have stored in our long term memories, the more building blocks we have to match to problem parts in increasing quantity and quality. Like a kaleidoscope, you turn the drum and the parts move around and create new images. If you add a new crystal, you get exponentially more images and patterns. So, if you want to be more creative and have better ideas, be more curious, ask more questions and seek out knowledge and information to answer those questions.

Analogy and metaphor are used as examples of associations that can help us make sense of a situation and think up new ideas. Some of the best communicators I've worked with are Ian McCall and Lisa Gamboni, who are supremely gifted in the use of metaphor!

The 'association of ideas' provides a framework for asking specific questions that are designed to help us generate more and better ideas, to put our knowledge to work as a catalyst for our imaginations. The previous chapter introduced us the three laws of association laid down by the ancient Greeks:

  • Contiguity - nearness like when a baby's shoe reminds you of an infant

  • Similarity - sameness like when your kids wrestling remind you of bear cubs or puppies

  • Contrast - difference like when something really small makes you think of something really big

Deliberately considering these three laws of association can yield many wonderful ideas that flow from one to the next to the next. While this is not a scientific formula for idea generation, it is a good place to start. It plants a seed that may blossom at the most unexpected moments.

Reflection question:

Thinking about one of the creative problems you have previously identified, think up an original metaphor or analogy that describes what this problem is like. Next identify something that is not like.


Applied imagination instalment 10 - principles and procedure of DELIBERATE idea finding


I love that this book continues to talk about discipline and effort, deliberately applied in the pursuit of creativity and imagination. Rather than leave idea finding to inspiration, luck or chance, we can increase our production of ideas through the application of two principles:

  1. Deferment of judgement - while logical and judicial thinking is very important in the problem-solving process, the challenge is to defer judgement until the right time. Indeed, deferring judgement results in 80% more good ideas in individuals and 70% more good ideas for groups.

  2. Quantity breeds quality - Adding to the above stats, the book quotes that 78% of the best ideas come in the second half of total output. It's not that any one idea on its own is great, it's the way ideas and thought build, add, combine and grow to become better and better ideas. What may seem like a crazy suggestion in one moment, triggers another thought and another and may eventually lead to the breakthrough idea that is the best one.

The really interesting assertion made in this chapter is that while both imaginative and judicial thinking are important, we need to consciously and deliberately separate the two and do only one at a time. Back in instalment 4, I validated this assertion based on recent discoveries in neuroscience in two antagonistic neural networks. One network (the TPN) is primarily responsible for logical, rational and mathematical thinking. The other (the DMN) is most active when we are thinking about emotions, ethics and creativity.

One of the implications of the antagonistic nature of these networks, is that we can't do both types of thinking at the same time. Like a see-saw, as one goes up the other goes down. To be effective and ethical in our leadership and decision-making, we need to create the optimal conditions to consciously think in one domain, and then deliberately switch to the other. While we can't physically think in both at the same time, we can build our ability to switch between networks more quickly - move the see-saw more quickly. Building our thinking muscles in each domain also moderates the extent to which one side goes down as the other one goes up - the see-saw stays more balanced. Deferring judgement and encouraging quantity over quality enables our free-wheeling creative thinking network to work with speed and efficiency.

Reflection question:

Thinking about one of the creative problems you have previously identified, apply "free-wheeling" thinking and write down the first 10 ideas that occur to you, no matter how wild. Now think of another 10 ideas. Now think of another 10 ideas.

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