In my methodology course for graduate students at Hunter College I was accustomed to include a unit on creativity: how do we get ideas? Of the various books I consulted on the subject, I found the popular works of Edward de Bono the most useful. As I recall, his basic principle was this: “think outside the box.” That seems a good enough rule of thumb.
Two other nuggets have stuck with me. The first stems from the French scientist Louis Pasteur: “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” By this precept he meant that sudden flashes of insight don’t just happen they are the products of preparation. Yet how much preparation? Too much can serve simply to reify the conventional wisdom,
Moreover, that principle stands in opposition to another. That is our common experience that “poachers,” that is outsiders with no expert knowledge are often able to ask basic question that have eluded the specialists, mired in ossified thinking. Here is an example from an introductory course I taught in the history of art. I had been lecturing on the Romanesque period. Afterwards a student came up and asked: Why is Romanesque architecture, with its fundamental innovations in vaulting techniques, so much more advanced than the gauche works of sculpture of the same era?”
I had no immediate response to her, but afterwards I came up with the notion that Romanesque sculpture IS advanced, just in a different way. Still, it doesn’t look advanced. Maybe the true answer revealed by the student’s “naive” question is that we need to discard our evolutionary notions of cultural history--notions that privilege the advanced over the traditional.
At all events, the question of creativity has been posed anew in a book by the wunderkind Jonah Lehrer: Imagine: How Creativity Works. Attesting perhaps that the notion of creativity remains elusive, this book has not, on the whole, received a very good press, witness this review by Christopher Chabris: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/books/review/imagine-by-jonah-lehrer.html