There are a number of typical attitudes that we may encounter which can limit our ability to think creatively and so block our ability to generate new ideas. In his Book “A Whack on the Side of the Head” (WarnerBooks) Roger von Oech examines these attitudes:
Sometimes we believe that there has to be a right answer to a problem, and by implication this means that there is only one possible answer. Whilst that may be true for specific things like arithmetic and spelling, it’s not true in general.
Some problems are so complex that we can find no definitive answer at all, only a choice of responses, these are the “world hunger” type of questions. Some problems have the potential to be resolved in more than one way, none of which is necessarily any more or less right than any other. The choice is then down to other factors which cause us to select an approach that we think is best.
So when you think that there has to be a right answer, von Oech’s advice is don’t stop when you have found the first one. Look for the second, and when you have found that look for the third and the fourth, keep going until you choose to stop.
As we look at some of the techniques to help us generate new ideas you will see that different perspectives generate different answers, each of which is as valid as any of the others.
Many of us have a preference to think more logically than others. We think in definite, black and white terms: If this and that are true then this must be the consequence. In western schools at least, we tend to be taught to think that way. So we when we face a problem we get out the box of logic tools and set to work building a solution. However, that is not the only kind of thinking that is possible and not everything in life is logical, so logic is not the only way to look at things.
There are ways of thinking and gaining insights that do not follow the rules of logical thinking but they are, none the less helpful. For instance, describing a situation or a solution in terms of a metaphor can generate great insight and enable one to begin to grasp the germ of an idea. You may need to use logic afterwards to refine and develop the idea. Metaphors are useful at getting the creative juices flowing because they restate the subject in an unusual way, but in terms with which we are familiar. Thus they enable insight. Reflection upon the images and relationships they describe can stimulate new ideas.
Take a Moment
- Think on these two metaphors. What insights do you gain from them?
An example adapted from G.K.Chesterton: Progress means leaving things behind us, but the real idea of growth means leaving things inside us.
And from the Bible: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
Von Oech does not say that we must discard all rules. He challenges us to not to let our thinking be bound by unnecessary or obsolete rules and conventions which are impediments and which have no legal or moral dimension. These are often arbitrary and embedded in our culture. You will recall that our culture is “How we do things around here”.
Such rules are a form of pattern which limit our thinking and constrain us to doing what we’ve always done, and always getting what we’ve always got. They “pigeon hole” our thinking and lead us down well-trodden paths, which block our ability to generate effective ideas.
Jesus’ problem with Pharisee was not that they rejected God’s laws but that they defined in minute detail, which God never provided, exactly how to keep them. God was interested in the heart they were interested in imposing regulated compliance and that limited the ordinary person’s relationship with God.
Take a Moment
- Identify a issue or opportunity that needs to be addressed.
- Reflect upon the rules and conventions that limit and constrain the solutions you can identify
- What are they?
- Turn them on their head
- What are the outcomes?
The process of arriving at creative solutions often involves the intermediate step of impractical ideas which seem plainly silly or humorous. Laughter, humour and play are powerful stimulants for creativity.
Who are the most creative people that you know, using their imagination all the time?
Their creativity is intimately tied to their imagination which is stimulated by their play and fun. Engage in humour, engage in fun as you seek creative solutions.
Once you have the generated the creative ideas then will come the time for practical analysis and logical application as you develop and realise the solution. Being practical and being creative require different kinds of thinking. Imposing the filter of practicality will quench the attitude of creativity needed to discover the new ideas which you seek. Hold practical thinking at bay until you have some ideas to work with, then practicality becomes essential.
Roger von Oech has asked hundreds of thousands of people “During what kind of activities and situations do you get your ideas?”
Many answered along the lines of “When I’m facing a problem” at least as many answered along the lines of “When I’m not being serious but playing around”.
He concludes that “necessity may be the mother of invention but play is certainly its father”. Quite simply playfulness is a strong stimulant to creative thinking. One of the key drivers to the success of brainstorming is the ”whacky idea”. It may go nowhere itself but it will so often trigger successful ideas in other people.
Typically we all have specialisms and preferences concerning what interests us and what we do. These specialisms are valuable but have the ability to limit our thinking and with that limit our creativity. One thing that is helpful for us as individuals in this regard is to broaden our perspectives and take an interest in a broader range of different things, to go to new places, do new things and read outside our normal areas.
When problem solving, increase the diversity by including people from outside your area. A colleague of mine once worked for an electric power company. It was winter and they had a problem with heavy snow falls building up on the power lines which could break them. The solution was triggered by someone who had been a nurse in the Korean War. She recalled how the casualty evacuation helicopters used to blow the snow on the ground into mini blizzards. This led to the idea of flying helicopters over the power lines to blow the snow off.
A diverse and broad perspective increases one’s ability to come up with creative ideas because things learned in one area may work in another, or may be just provide a metaphor which triggers a new idea.
Ambiguity is the enemy of accuracy and precision. It leads to misunderstandings and mistakes. Therefore we learn to minimise and avoid ambiguity. This is one of the factors that causes us to think in narrow constrained ways; thinking only down one set of tracks.
However, situations and problems are often ambiguous and we need to get that different perspective in order to solve the problem.
Take a Moment
- Take five letters from the following so that the remaining letters spell an English word without altering their order.
How did you approach this? Did you try to find five characters to remove and leave a word or did you remove the letters which spelt the words “five letters”? If you did the second thing then you got AMERICAN. If you did the first then who knows what you got.
The instructions were reasonable but ambiguous. Ambiguity often leads to there being more than one answer.
Making things too specific can stifle creativity so try rephrasing problems in an ambiguous manner and see where that leads.
Many people are embarrassed by what they consider to be the foolish or frivolous, especially when it happens during work time. However, because one’s mind is more creative when it’s at play, silly ideas, which may go absolutely nowhere generate the sense of fun that helps others be creative. Even the silliest idea may have a spark of genius within; a spark that that triggers other ideas in the rest of the team. Some may be what are called intermediate impossibilities – more about those latter. Don’t supress foolishness and fun during the creative process, it is the oxygen that allows the creativity in others to ignite.
The West is a success driven culture. Even those of us who think we are not like that have been taught we’ve got to get it right. That’s also a downside of our exam based education systems. Whilst there are many things where correctness is vital – a nuclear power station for instance – there are many where it’s not.
One of those places is the creative generation of new ideas. In English this process is called “ideation”. The steps that come after ideation will address the viability of the ideas and determine which should be taken forward as the solution. However, if that assessment is done when the ideas are being generated the creative spark will be put out and we end up with the same old same old ideas.
So, when ideas are being generated don’t worry about whether they are right or wrong. At that stage there isn’t a right or a wrong idea, so being wrong is not a possible error. One of the reasons is that even if your idea is not a successful solution it may stimulate the idea that becomes the solution. For this reason deliberately silly or crazy ideas should not be rejected during the process of ideation.