The Art of Creative Thinking: How to be Innovative and Develop Great Ideas

An Interview with Dr. John Adair, author of The Art of Creative Thinking
By Vern Burkhardt
See or make connections between ideas that seem far apart, look to nature for models and principles to solve problems, make the familiar strange and the strange familiar, cultivate curiosity, ask lots of questions, observe, be a good listener, and read to generate questions. Reading without reflecting is comparable to eating without digesting. These are but some of the many useful bits of advice that Dr. John Adair offers in The Art of Creative Thinking.

Dr. Adair was kind enough to answer some questions that occurred to me as I read his book.

1. Question: You have written books about time management, teambuilding, strategic leadership, growing leaders, decision making and problem solving, effective leadership and management and many others. What motivated you to write a book about the art of creative thinking?

John AdairDr. Adair:
Two reasons. First, on a personal level I am always looking for ways to enhance my own creativity, so this book is a record of my own journey. Secondly, I believe that creative thinking (having ideas) and innovation (bringing them to market) are vital today for any form of human enterprise.

2. Question: To be a great leader do you have to excel as a creative thinker?

Dr. Adair:
You certainly have to be a clear thinker with a good strategic mind. A great leader, in the qualitative rather than historical sense of 'great', is creative, simply because excellent leadership and creativity are two sides of the same coin. It’s about inspiring and drawing the greatness out of people, releasing creative talents, building teams and - ultimately - making a better world. What could be more creative than that?

3. Question:
I can’t think of anything that could be more creative than making a better world. What would you recommend to young managers who aspire to gain a reputation in their organization as being capable of generating innovative and creative ideas?

Dr. Adair:
Yes, to have a good idea and to make it happen successfully is a sure way to make your name. It depends, of course, on the ethos of the organization. It won't do you much benefit if you work in that organization I won't name whose chief executive said the other day: "Change? That is the last thing we want; things are bad enough already."

4. Question: In your book you advise your readers to practice serendipity, which your readers may be surprised to learn is a term that originates back to the mid 1700’s. How does one practice serendipity?

Dr. Adair:
Serendipity is the happy knack of making discoveries (or having new ideas) when you are least looking for them. Know it can happen and don't be surprised when it does.

5. Question: Do you need to have a “prepared mind” in order to be creative?

Dr. Adair:
It certainly helps. All sorts of ingredients go into the making of a prepared mind. It isn't just a matter of being free to be attentive, vital as that attribute is.

6. Question: Could you please tell me about your concept of the “Depth Mind” and how it relates to creativity?

Dr. Adair:
The "Depth Mind", as I called it, is central to creativity. What it means is that much of our analyzing, synthesizing and valuing goes on at an unconscious level, and in some cases the resulting 'product' is a new idea that rises suddenly or gradually into the surface mind. This process is exceptionally well attested in the biodata on creative people, from the talented to gifted.

Most people are familiar with the Left Brain and Right Brain distinction. More recently brain research has, I believe, confirmed my "Depth Mind" hypothesis by identifying it in the Rear Brain - it is the Front Brain that does all our conscious thinking.

7. Question: You wrote that one way to develop your curiosity is to ask more questions when talking with others and when thinking. You called it “talking in your mind to yourself”. Does that mean we need to become more child-like in asking questions, and never cease to ask more questions?

Dr. Adair:
Yes, you have hit the nail on the head. Or rather the bolt. For you should think of questions as a set of spanners - hammers are useless- that release the bolts of the Pandora's Box of creative ideas that are potentially present in every meeting you will ever have. The trick is to open the boxes of other people's Depth Minds! It's hard work being a creative thinker - let others do it for you and then build on their ideas.

8. Question: You advise that one of the best ways to train ourselves in observation is drawing or sketching. Do you recommend that in order to increase our creative thinking abilities we should go to art college or at least take some lessons on how to draw?

Dr. Adair:
Drawing teaches you to see things as they really are. It also frees you from the tyranny of fearing other people's comments on your efforts. It also uses parts of the brain you don't normally utilize. You may not become an artist like your teacher, but you can pick up a lot of crumbs under the table about what it means to be a creative person.

9. Question: You point out that creative thinkers are good listeners and also there is a great deal of benefit from reading and reflecting on what we read. Do you think there is a risk of people becoming less creative with increased exposure to mass media and reliance on quick sources of information such as internet search engines?

Dr. Adair:
There are no signs of people becoming less creative - it's amazing how many people are creative today in an enormous variety of ways. Mass media and the internet are sources of information and ideas, so I have nothing against them except as time management hazards. You do need time to think, and over-indulgence in the media or running down Google's endless ladders may not be cost-effective from the creative thinking perspective.

10. Question: You said that preconceived ideas, which we all have, are really dangerous when they are below our level of awareness. Does this mean that the most creative thinking will most often be done in collaboration with others, because it is easier to recognize unconscious assumptions in others?

Dr. Adair:
As a Chinese proverb says, No man is wise by himself. The same holds true for creative thinking. It is a social activity, although paradoxically you may spend much time on your own - as writers, composers and artists do. You should, with a little practice, soon begin to discern an unconscious assumption that some one else is making. And if anyone points out to you what you are taking for granted unawares, then they are doing you a very good turn and you should thank them. Creative thinking always involves this sort of team work.

A parting word of encouragement, the worst unconscious assumption you can make is that you are not a creative thinker. You may, of course, be right, but you will never know until you put into practice the principles I have outlined in The Art of Creative Thinking. The trouble is that we don't know ourselves very well in some respects and we tend to be poor judges of our own creative potential. So experiment, have fun, and give yourself a few surprises.

This is a book that should be read by those who wish to develop their ability to generate more creative ideas at work or in their personal life, and therefore be more successful. In case we should become discouraged John Adair reminds us that a lot of our efforts will not be very creative in themselves, but will support future creative thinking as we engage in analyzing, synthesizing, imagining and valuing.

Dr. Adair recommends that the aspiring creative thinker keep a commonplace notebook — a necessary tool for creative thinking.
  • Writing information makes it become a part of you

  • Make entries as they occur to you, do not try to be systematic

  • Record what stimulates, interests or is memorable (let your instincts or intuition decide what is worth writing down)

  • Include inspirational quotations, stories and examples

  • Don’t worry whether the idea is right or wrong and

  • Don’t look at your entries very often so when you do they will spark creativity.

The Art of Creative Thinking can be purchased from, and Dr. Adair’s website is located at

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