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Tools and techniques for creativity in research

This page gives a selection of creative thinking techniques. Another page explains why creative thinking is important in research and another gives a further selection of creative thinking techniques. Yet another explains a specific technique known as mind maps.

Negative brainstorming

Negative brainstorming is a technique that can be of considerable use for the sorts of problems and issues that students have to address in research, and it is suitable for individual as well as group use. It is often more useful than the better-known brainstorming.

Negative brainstorming consists of listing as many ways as one can think of about how not to achieve a purpose, and then, when the list is complete, considering whether reversing any of them might be productive.

The idea of negative brainstorming may seem rather trite, and most of the reversed ideas invariably turn out to be meaningless. Nevertheless, negative brainstorming really does have a proven worth, in that it can produce ideas that would never have been thought of via more direct methods – and only one needs to be worthwhile.

Viewing a problem from imaginative perspectives

Viewing the problem from imaginative perspectives is a technique that frees the mind from constraints which may have handicapped its creativity and which may in practice not be as binding as convention and normal expectations have led one to expect. The technique consists of giving the imagination free rein on the problem or issue in ways that may seem preposterous, to see if they generate any ideas that could be turned into something worthwhile.

For example, one might ask oneself how one would feel about the problem or issue if one was, say, in outer space, or 200 years into the future, or living the sort of lifestyle that one has always dreamed of. This technique seems particularly valuable for generating originality in research and development.

Concentrating on anomalies

Research students can be so committed to the main theme of their research that they do not recognise the significance of something that may have happened or that they may have developed along the way.

General information

Many researchers tend to concentrate on what they believe to be the main theme or central issue of their research, and when they come across some aspect that does not fit, they ignore it. The technique of concentrating on anomalies involves focusing on these anomalies and making a feature of them to see if they offer anything worth exploring or investigating.

Remember that it is in no way essential for the thesis or dissertation to produce answers or solutions to the research questions or research problems which were in the original proposal. What matters is that the thesis or dissertation is an original piece of self-contained quality work that produces answers or solutions to one or more research questions or research problems appropriate for the level of the award. It does not matter that you may not have thought of these questions or problems at the outset. The sketch of the archer illustrates this well.

Focusing on by-products

Sections from The Research Student's Guide to Success in the chapter on creative thinking

The importance of creative thinking in research

Recognizing how intellectual creativity works

Techniques to facilitate creative thinking

Talking things over

Keeping an open mind


Negative brainstorming

Viewing a problem from imaginative perspectives

Concentrating on anomalies

Focusing on by-products

Interrogating imaginary experts

Viewing the problem from the perspective of another discipline

Using 'the solution looking for the problem': serendipity

Using mind maps

Creativity and free time

Testing out the techniques

Creativity and routine work

Creativity and planning

Some students may have to make a particularly conscious effort to focus on by-products because so much of their formal education has been modular. Modularity is a comparatively recent move, which has resulted in the common complaint among academics that students seem less able than they once were to make connections across boundaries.

Interrogating imaginary experts

The technique of interrogating imaginary experts consists of imagining that one is able to interview and interrogate a real or imaginary expert in one's field. The interview doesn’t have to take place. One just prepares some suitable questions. These often turn out to be surprisingly perceptive; and simply identifying them may open up some unexpectedly original and valuable ways forward for the research.

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.