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Creative thinking: tips and techniques for breaking out from the familiar!

Posted by: and , Posted on: - Categories: Good practice, Library workforce

In October, Canada Water library played host to our most recent masterclass, sharing creative thinking techniques to help teams develop ideas and fresh solutions. It was very positively received and, as we were oversubscribed, we’re planning to run another one (see the end of the blog for how to sign up).

Why creative thinking?

Faced with any challenge, we look first to familiar solutions. But what do you do when the immediately obvious way forward is no longer feasible or effective, or your team are running low on ideas, or you just want to take a fresh look at what you do? Whether you are interested in developing a culture of innovation for your service, encouraging colleagues to think ‘what if…?’ or you want to explore how best to deliver wonderful user services, boosting the creative thinking capacity of yourselves and your teams offers new perspectives and an effective way to work.

The workshop

Creativity isn’t an elusive quality, the stuff of genius. Instead, it’s about exploring possibilities, testing them, choosing new ways forward. So this was a practical hands-on workshop where people learnt by doing. During the day, participants worked in groups to tackle one of the real challenges that they brought to the workshop. They looked at challenges from different perspectives and generated loads of potential solutions. Then they developed and tested some of those solutions, and turned the best into tangible ideas. This happened by following a step by step process, introducing theoretical principles and practical tools that participants could then use time and again with their teams to bring fresh thinking and new ideas to all kinds of challenges.

Feedback from the trainers

The session was led by Linda Cockburn and Alex Dalton, who gave us feedback on how they thought the day went:

“We started the day by identifying the challenges faced by the workshop delegates, and what they wanted to achieve. We’ve run hundreds of creative thinking courses over the years, and have observed that, even if you’re dealing with big, thorny challenges, creative thinking opens you up to imagining ‘What if…”. It reminds you to savour the best of your work, and enables you to look at a problem with fresh eyes. This day was no different.

“‘Delivering a better service with fewer resources’ was a repeated refrain across the day. Constraint can be a powerful stimulus for creativity when the most familiar or obvious approaches are no longer viable, and this group interrogated problems within an inch of their lives. They asked powerful questions and used different perspectives to generate and develop innovative solutions. We knew it had gone well when one passionate team persuaded us that setting up a library service at a busy farmers’ market was a no brainer, followed swiftly by another, ready to commission artists to make work from withdrawn books!

“As Creativity guru, Sir Ken Robinson, observed, “finding the medium that excites your imagination, that you love to play with and work with, is an important step to freeing your creative energies”.

“While the quality of ideas generated at the close of the day was frankly impressive, what delighted us was that the librarians we worked with at Surrey Quays were among the best lateral thinkers we’ve worked with, identifying countless ways in which they’ll use the tools and techniques learned to improve meetings, reframe their challenges and energise their teams.”

Feedback from one of the participants

Chloe Williams from West Sussex shared her response after the session:

“The creative thinking workshop gave me a chance to think about all the perennial “problems” which we face in libraries and how we can frame these “problems” more positively to encourage solutions.

“We often think that a problem which we all face can’t be solved because it has always been a problem and no one has been able to solve it yet. However, during the workshop, we reframed problems into questions to encourage us all to think of solutions. “We don’t have any money”, “We don’t have time”, “We can’t get our messages heard” became “how might we generate income” “how might we be able to alter our working patterns to give us more time / how might we be able to prioritise this” “how can we promote ourselves / how might we be able to frame our messages so that they are heard”.

“When we changed these into questions beginning with “how might we…”, it started to change our mind set into something which we can overcome by thinking about things in a different way. These subtle changes encourage a more positive framing of a situation, and has showed me that the small changes that we can make ourselves can really make a difference in finding a creative solution.”

How the techniques have been used back ‘home’ in a library service

Frances Tout, Service Delivery Manager at Libraries Unlimited, shared her experience of using the tools back in Devon:

“Having attended the Creative Thinking workshop, I shared the techniques that I had learnt at our next Service Delivery Team meeting and we decided to hold a Creative Thinking session to look at how we manage operational cover across the service

“We initially framed our question by looking at why it was important and what were the issues that were stopping us solving the problem? Following the workshop advice, we started every answer with “How Might We....”. This use of language enabled a positive start to looking at the challenges and opened up a path for solution finding, rather than dwelling on the negativity of problems.

Post-it note saying: How might we?

“We followed the process through using two other creative thinking techniques, Flip the Rules and Who Else? Using a combination of these two techniques allowed us to think far more freely. By turning the current rules and processes upside down, we could approach ideas from a different starting point and while flipping the rules itself doesn’t provide feasible solutions, it did enable us to look at things afresh and say “but what if we did this...?”

“Using the “Who Else?” technique helped us to think about ways other organisations tackle the issues we were facing and this was an interesting approach that we hadn’t initially considered. It doesn’t necessarily mean that, for example, bank staffing (NHS) or supply staffing (schools), is the way forward for libraries, but it is important to have considered and reflected on all of these different options.

“Once we had created some ideas that we felt were worth developing further, we put some of them through the POINT process. This is a little like a SWOT analysis, looking at the Positives, the Opportunities, the Issues, and then from the issues, the New Thinking to address the challenges. We found this was a really important part of developing the ideas and at least one of our ideas got stuck in this process, with too many issues and not enough opportunities or solutions, so we discarded it quickly as it clearly wasn’t going to work.

“The final part of our process was to come up with some actions from the session. We have a number of new ideas and suggestions that we would like to develop further. The next step is to form a task and finish group involving library supervisors, staff and members of our Staff Forum to discuss and review the suggestions further.

“As a team, we found the Creative Thinking techniques a really useful way of approaching the challenge. It resulted in new solutions that we wouldn’t have found through a meeting or more general discussion. I am sure that we will be using the Creative Thinking process again in the future.”

What happens next?

The Taskforce’s next Creative Thinking workshop will be on Tuesday 23 January 2018 in Manchester Central Library (10.00-16.00). The workshop is primarily aimed at service development co-ordinators / managers.

The nature of the workshop means that spaces are limited to 12-16 people and, because of this, we’re asking for expressions of interest (no more than 200 words on why you want to participate in the workshop, your library service and contact details). Please send this to by 10am Monday 11 December. If you have any questions about this or would like more information on what the workshop involves, please contact us at the above address.

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  1. Comment by Helen posted on

    This sounds really positive and I agree it's easy to get stuck in a rut and limit your approach. It would be interesting to know what the problem was and what the suggestions were that Frances and her team came up with as a result of the re-framing techniques?

    • Replies to Helen>

      Comment by juliachandler1 posted on

      Thanks for commenting Helen.
      Frances shared her comments as feedback on the workshop - while the techniques learned have been put into practice in Devon, discussions are still at much too early a stage to share any specific details outside their immediate team.