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How to focus and get more creative in two easy steps


There are some people who always seem to be starting new projects.

These projects are not always very sound and not even particularly creative. The point is that such people seem motivated to be proactive, whereas most people seem to be reactive.


Maintenance is the general management idiom. Things are to be kept running very much as they are now running. In any case, activities should be following the strategy and plans. There is the notion that the 'course' has been set, and it is now a matter of following the course.

This is all good sense. How can you get somewhere if you do not know where you are going? Obviously there are tight plans and looser plans. In the Six Action Shoes framework the navy shoe stands for strict routine. At every moment you do exactly what you are supposed to do. The brown shoe is more entrepreneurial. You have a given objective and must work within guidelines of budget and legality, but the rest is up to you.

Because of the notion of following a set course there is as much emphasis on deviations as there would be with maritime navigation. From this arises the concern with 'problem-solving'. A problem is a deviation from what should be. A problem is something that prevents you from doing what you are supposed to do.

In the teaching of creativity it quickly becomes obvious that most people want to use creativity to 'solve problems'. This is excellent and a very important use of creativity. As with a headache or a stone in your shoe, you know that a problem is there. You do not have to look for it. What is even more important is that the 'benefits' that will arise from solving the problems are obvious from the start.

That is the real attraction of problem-solving. If you can cut the cost of distribution, then you know the benefits you will have. This is much more satisfying than proactive thinking. In proactive thinking you set out to do something, but cannot foresee the benefits until you have the idea. 'We want a new way of closing a tube of toothpaste.' You may think of lots of ideas, but you are not guaranteed benefits from any of them. You might just have wasted your time.


In almost all cases improvement can be phrased as a problem: 'we need to speed up this process'. But in attitude an improvement belongs to proactive rather than reactive thinking. If you very clearly define the direction of improvement (reducing time, cost, steps, pollution, etc.) then you do seem to be tackling a problem: 'this is too slow'.

There does have to be the 'belief', however, that an improvement is possible. It is not as if something has gone wrong. You are not reacting to this problem. You are dealing with a wish of your own or a perception ('this is too slow'). If you do not solve a problem, you may be held up or otherwise in difficulty. If you do not set out to make an improvement, nothing much happens.

The need to make an improvement can easily become a problem. If a competitor has reduced the price of making cardboard cartons, you are in trouble if you cannot improve your own processes so as to match the reduced price.

It is also possible, though much rarer, to have in mind open-ended improvement: 'we want to improve this process in some way'. Obviously, quality efforts and suggestion schemes permit individuals to conceive of different ways in which a process can be improved. Quite often fashion provides the direction for improvement (for example, downsizing, cost-cutting, re-engineering, etc.).


An opportunity may be reactive to changes in legislation or regulation. An opportunity may be reactive to new technology. An opportunity may be reactive to changes in the market place. In any particular case, it is always difficult to determine whether an opportunity is reactive or proactive.

A proactive opportunity means looking around to see how an opportunity can be created. When AeroVironment (largely owned by a friend of mine) developed a way of charging lead acid batteries in ten minutes, a lot of opportunities were potentially created: both for AeroVironment, but also for others. For example, Ford has announced a joint venture to charge up electric cars.


In the end it does not matter whether an opportunity is reactive or proactive. It still has to be assessed and developed as an opportunity. What does matter is how much thinking effort goes into proactive opportunities. If there is no proactive thinking at all then assets are being under-used.


In my seminars and workshops I point out that there are two very broad types of focus. The first is Purpose Focus. The second is Area Focus.

There is no difficulty at all with Purpose Focus. What do we want to do? What is the purpose of our thinking? What do we want to achieve? Purpose Focus is almost exactly the same as normal management thinking. What is the problem? What is the objective? We want to know where we are going in order to find the way there.

To my surprise there has always been a big problem with Area Focus. This is surprising because nothing could be more simple than Area Focus. With Area Focus we simply state 'where' we want ideas. I want ideas ' in this area'. You simply define the area. The area can be broad: I want ideas in the area of tourism. The area can be very tight: I want ideas in the area of breakfast times in a two-star hotel.

Of course, there is a purpose even in Area Focus. The purpose is simply to get any ideas 'in that area'. But there is no attempt to achieve a defined objective. The ideas can be of varying types and can offer very different benefits. When I ask seminar participants to put down both Purpose Focuses and Area Focuses, more than half of the Area Focuses are really Purpose Focuses. Why is there such difficulty in doing something so very simple?

The answer lies in the difference between reactive and proactive thinking. With Purpose Focus a problem or objective is presented. We then 'react' to this. We may seek to recognise the situation. We may analyse it down into recognisable elements. We define needs. All this is reacting to the desired end-point. Then we look through our repertoire of standard responses. Morale is low. So we determine we need 'incentives'. What are the standard incentives? These could be money, time off, recognition, titles, etc.

So standard thinking seeks to recognise standard needs and to apply standard remedies. There is nothing wrong with this. The system is highly effective. That is what a doctor does in diagnosing and treating a patient. Medicine could not function otherwise. The bulk of our thinking needs to be like this.

The standard thinking has to be 'reactive'. We have to react to a problem or need. This standard thinking does not work with proactive thinking. There is nothing to react to with an Area Focus. That may be why so many people have difficulty with Area Focuses. An Area Focus provides only a starting point. We cannot work backwards from the end-point, because there is no end-point.

Our traditional thinking methods are based on analysis and judgment (including recognition). So they work well with Purpose Focuses, but not at all with Area Focuses. Some of the lateral thinking techniques make it possible to think in an Area Focus. For example, the 'Random Entry' technique can be used with any Area Focus and can open up new ideas. The 'Challenge' technique can also work on what is there and seek to develop new ideas.


It is not my purpose here to suggest that there is anything the matter with reactive thinking. That would be absurd. Nor do I wish to suggest that there is a sharp philosophical distinction between reactive and proactive thinking. There is a huge amount of overlap. The danger is that some people will argue that there is no real distinction and then proceed to spend all their thinking time on thinking that is clearly reactive. Opportunities will be missed. Creativity will be under-used.

There is a spectrum. At one end are those matters which are purely reactive. At the other end are matters which are purely proactive. In between there are matters which have elements of both reactive and proactive. What is needed is an investment of creative effort in proactive thinking. The simplest way to do this would be to include some Area Focuses on the Creative Hit List. It is practice in proactive thinking that is important. We get plenty enough practice in reactive thinking.


Can you start a journey without knowing where you want to go? The answer is 'yes'. You can set out to explore an area. You may impose a framework such as grid or simple compass directions. You may set sub-targets. But in the end your objective is not a particular destination but exploration of an area. In the matter of thinking the purpose of the exploration is to find new ideas, new possibilities and new opportunities.

How will you know that you have got somewhere useful? This is where the 'value sensitivity' encouraged under the yellow hat comes in. There is the habit of sensing and detecting potential value at an early stage. Without this, proactive thinking is going to be much less effective.

Edward de Bono