I suppose it was inevitable that somebody would start offering advanced degrees in abstract concepts. And sure enough: this week, University of the Arts in Philadelphia Pennsylvania announced it's new creativity PhD program aimed a mid-career professionals who are already successful in their industry. 

As odd as a degree in creativity sounds, they're getting a lot of things right. The program focuses on cross-disciplinary collaboration and getting students outside their comfort zones. Instead of spending hours reading and listening to lectures, project work will be the primary mode of teaching students ways to think differently.

If $49,000 per year tuition and a multi-year time-out from building your retirement fund sounds like your cup of tea, I wish you well. If, however, you subscribe to the idea that creativity need not be limited to those who can afford such a luxury, try this shortcut to creative thinking instead.

Spoiler alert: it's all about asking different questions. 

Disrupt your own brain to get creativity flowing

There's a brainstorming technique I like to use with product and design teams called "Disrupt". Teams often find that, after they've been working together for a while, they start to think more like each other and their standard brainstorming sessions tend to produce ideas that are, well... standard

One way freshen things up is to pull new people in to brainstorm with you. But honestly, it's hard to convince someone from another department to spend their time on something that has little (if anything) to do with their own work. 

Disrupt gets around this by introducing constraints on brainstorming that force you to re-shape your ideas in ways you wouldn't otherwise think of. Instead of taking advantage of someone else's brain, you break up the calcified neuro pathways in your own. 

Here's how it works 

1. Gather your team and review the problem you're trying to solve or goal you're trying to reach (e.g., simplify a complicated process, bring 100,000 first-time visitors to your site, etc.). 

2. Split the team into 2 small groups and give each a space to write down their ideas. 

3. Warm up with 5 minutes of basic brainstorming in your groups. Go nuts. Diverge. Just don't judge. 

4. Have each group walk over to where the other group wrote their ideas, and tell them to get rid of the so-so ones. Erase them from the whiteboard. Throw the sticky notes on the floor. Be ruthless. At the end of culling, expect to have only about half the ideas still in play. 

With me so far? Good. Now the fun begins. 

5. Get back in your groups for a 10-minute round of brainstorming. But this time, introduce a constraint. How? Print out a set of Disrupt cards (you can download them here, free of charge), and select one at random to guide your thinking for this round.

For example, if you pull the "Humor Effect" card, brainstorm solutions that have an element of humor in them. Even if the problem you're solving is no laughing matter, just go with it for these 10 minutes. Remember: this exercise is all about thinking differently than you have before. 

6. Shuffle one person from each group into the other group, and repeat step 5 using a different Disrupt card. Feel free to cull the "meh" ideas as you go. 

7. Do a few more rounds, repeating steps 5 and 6. 

8. After several Disrupt loops, you'll have a metric ton of ideas - most of which, frankly, will be either unfeasible or just not that original. So spend 15 minutes culling ideas. Anyone is free to cut any idea, whether they were part of the group that came up with it or not. 

Most Disrupt sessions end with only a handful of ideas left standing, but that's ok. You don't need a truckload of ideas. You just need one or two really good ones. 

Now, don't get me wrong. I dearly and deeply wish we all had the means and opportunity to earn a PhD in creativity. But until that day comes, most of us will just have to use shortcuts like this instead.