The NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement has released an introductory guide to encourage more creative thinking in clinical and managerial staff at all levels of healthcare.

The guide is a collaborative work to develop and pilot creative thinking tools and training materials in a healthcare setting. Three teams from Luton and Dunstable Hospital foundation trust (paediatrics, imaging and patient safety) worked with the institute with the aim of helping teams and individuals build new thinking into their personal development and thereby achieve significant organisational improvement.

Experts guided the teams through an approach to thinking differently. Later, some staff and primary care trust colleagues took part in an action learning set that used a prototype of the guide to develop creative thinking.

The process is about making creative connections, which involves challenging the usual way of thinking through problems and approaching things in a fresh way. The guide outlines key concepts and explains the tools that can enable such connections to be made.

Creative toolbox

Specific tools in the guide - such as reframing by wordplay, mental benchmarking, and Edward DeBono's six thinking hats - can help people take a systematic, tailored approach to thinking differently. These tools and techniques have proven their value, ease of use and applicability in a variety of industries, including frontline teams in various NHS organisations.

As a result of these pilot programmes, our experience has been included in the guide as a case study, allowing others to share our learning.

The techniques outlined in the guide have supported our culture of continuous improvement. Our practice of setting "stretch goals" - those that approach seemingly unattainable or unconventional targets - can engender and accelerate creativity by prompting people to think creatively about different ways of achieving goals.

Everyday approach

The creative thinking tools outlined in the guide can be used every day in ordinary situations, for example as part of a single agenda item in a meeting. For instance, we developed our emergency and short stay care model using tools to prompt creative connections. After using the "word play" tool to reframe the initial problem statement, an activity was designed to help staff think differently about emergency care. One staff member was particularly amazed at how different her thinking had become by reframing and combining two particular elements.

There are three distinct phases in the guide:

  • Stop before you start. This involves reframing the problem or issue to make thinking differently more likely.

  • Generating lots of ideas. The aim is to do just as the title says by using tools to maximise the number and quality of ideas generated.

  • Selecting and testing ideas to make a difference. This shows the user how all the ideas from phase two can be harvested, enhanced and tested before implementation.

The tools in the guide are described in straightforward terms, allowing the reader to pick ones that would work well in different situations.

Changing focus

Thinking Differently enables managerial and clinical staff to focus on patient care, brings more energy and satisfaction to work, and results in better care. The guide is easy to navigate, attractive to use, and a useful resource to get you started.

For more information about Thinking Differently, as well as examples of how others have used it, please visit

Thinking Differently is free to all NHS staff. To order copies, visit, call 0870 066 2071 or email Quoting NHSITHINKDIFF001