“Creativity is the ability to introduce order into the randomness of nature,” said the American philosopher Eric Hoffer. Normally, we don’t pay much attention to the random events in our lives, but creative geniuses know that the randomness of nature is a rich source of stimulation that can provoke creativity.

What is randomness? What does it have to do with creativity?
Random events happen by chance, without any conscious decision by us. We also say that unusual or unexpected events are random. Statistically, random events are those that have equal chances for each outcome. When you select something at random, you try to do it without knowing what choice you are making, for instance by closing your eyes and pointing at a restaurant menu to decide what to eat.

Randomness boosts creativity by providing odd, unusual and unexpected stimuli. Even though these stimuli may seem unrelated to your creative challenge, they can still help free you from the straitjacket of conventional, familiar solutions. When you get such a stimulus, be certain to pay attention to it and try your best to use it to inspire ideas for your challenge. Have faith, and random inputs will give you the key to resolving your challenge.

How can randomness stimulate creativity?
In order to make randomness your creative ally, use the same cognitive strategies that creative leaders use when turning randomness into ideas:

  1. Start by focusing on your challenge. For example, say that you’re a would-be entrepreneur with a deep passion for coffee, and you want to start a high-end coffee shop. You define your challenge as, “How to create meaningful new concepts for a coffee shop?”
  2. Next, look for a source of randomness to inspire creativity.
  3. Once you’ve found your randomness source, use it to produce stimuli. Remember, these stimuli may seem unrelated to your focus challenge, but that’s OK.
  4. Finally, use your list of stimuli to spark ideas for your challenge. These ideas are likely to be odd and unexpected, which is what you want. These odd ideas are often the seeds of great solutions.

You might ask how to find good sources of randomness. Here are a few that I have found to be productive; in my next column I will give you several more.

1. Random word
Select a word at random, then list words related to that word. Use the list of words to generate ideas for your challenge.In our example, we use a magazine, having already decided to use the tenth noun on page 5. The word happens to be “shop”. Bad luck! This word relates too directly to the coffee shop challenge, and we need an unrelated word. In such a case, where the random word is unsuitable, or doesn’t produce enough associations, just use the next noun, which in this case is ‘museum’. We list words related to museum, like art, exhibition, collection, or teaching. Then we use those to generate ideas for our coffee shop challenge:

  • Open a coffee shop in a museum.
  • Display paintings by young artists in our coffee shop.
  • Host exhibitions of coffee-related topics in our coffee shop.
  • Create a new artistic coffee mug every month for customers to collect.
  • Teach our customers to brew the perfect cup of coffee.

2. Random picture
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” it’s said, and a picture can be a powerful stimulator of creative thoughts. For example, go to the photo-sharing site Flickr, look at the top photos of the day, and use those to stimulate ideas. Right now, the top two photos are of a woman in front of a wall of portraits with the faces blurred out, and of Cambodian children feeding and playing with doves in front of the royal palace in Phnom Penh. The two pictures might trigger the following ideas for our coffee shop:

  • Add a photo wall with pictures of the people who grow, harvest, roast, grind, package and brew our coffee, to give them faces.
  • Sell only fair trade coffee in our shop.
  • Partner with communities in other countries, and donate 10% of revenues to them.
  • Provide board games for our customers to play.
  • Cater to pet lovers, and in addition to the usual offerings, sell pet treats so both the animals and the owners will enjoy the coffee shop.

3. Random movie
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then perhaps a movie is worth a million. Go to YouTube and watch the video of the day, or go to the cinema. In either case, note unusual movie scenes to use to stimulate your thinking.
For example, say we went to see “Monsters University” from Pixar:

  • One scene that struck us was when the monster Mike said, “I am not scary, but I am unfearful.” This might lead us to the idea of adding a “haunted house” to the back of the coffee shop. 
  • A major theme in the movie is a team competition called “The Scare Games”, which leads directly to an idea for an annual team competition, “The Coffee Games,” at the coffee shop. 
  • Monsters University is run by a highly rational, knowledgeable and authoritative dean; our coffee shop could recruit an authoritative expert ‑ the “Coffee Dean” — to organize and run coffee workshops.

In the next column, I will give you several more ways to harness the creative power of randomness. If you learn to do this, you will never be short of ideas, because as the American author Paul Auster said, “The world is governed by chance. Randomness stalks us every day of our lives.”


This article is also published in parallel in the Bangkok Post on August 29 2013.
© Dr. Detlef Reis 2013.