Steve DeAngelis of the Enterprise Resilience Management Blog had a post on creative thinking on Monday that should resonate with anyone with an engineering or entrepreneurial background where practical "problem solving" was a driver for finding new ideas:
"....A creative thinker, however, is limited if he or she has little or no expertise. Expertise is, in a word, knowledge -- technical, procedural, and intellectual. When creative, knowledgeable thinkers are presented with challenges, innovation is generally the outcome. This is particularly true if the creative thinkers are motivated. Not all motivation is created equal. An inner passion to solve problems generally leads to the most creative solutions.
....To be truly innovative, an idea must be manifested then taken to market where it changes how things are done. The prize approach is one of those vaunted "win-win" situations."
However I do not think it is the only, or even the most productive form of creative thinking available. "Tweaking/tinkering or stochastic innovation by collective incremental advances is a gradualist process best exemplified by say, Thomas Edison or George Washinton Carver in the lab. There is also the route of Nikola Tesla, Leonardo DaVinci or Albert Einstein where breakthroughs arrive after a moment of insight sets a thinker working down an untrodden path.
Insight-based creativity, while more rarely taken to a successful, concrete and productive conclusion ( Steve was correct to highlight motivation or "task persistence" as an aspect of creativity. Productivity is quantifiable) can potentially shift fields by orders of magnitude or even result in revolutionary paradigm shifts. Insight, on a neuronal level is very likely a product of horizontal thinking triggering certain activity in the brain that is recognizable on MRI studies ( at least it seems to correlate). Horizontal thinking is a skill which can be practiced and for which the environmental conditions can be deliberately organized ( Vertical thinking experts, novelty, diverse stimuli, conceptual depth, time for " free play" thought exercises and exchange of ideas).
Neither method of creative thinking should be relied upon alone. Nor should creative thinkers abandon critical analysis any more than your right hand should abandon the left. We simply need to become comfortable using all of the cognitive tools in our arsenal.