Everyone knows that success begins with a good idea and that a good idea also solves the seemingly intractable problem. But how do these good ideas emerge? It seems that they just materialise out of nowhere – usually when we are considering an unrelated topic. This is the sub-conscious at work – that murky, quirky, mystical world where dreams reside; a world impervious to intellectual control; a world which manufactures eureka moments – in its own good time!
Clearly the subliminal mental process is operating, albeit obscurely, uncontrollably, and without conscious volition. When it has dreamed up something worthwhile communicating, it throws its conclusion into our conscious mind.
Also, how does this function know when an idea is good? When the thought forms in our conscious mind, we seem to know quickly, intuitively that it’s good, before any analysis confirms it. We perceive metabolic changes, become tense and excited. These are the signals that somehow we have found an answer. They say to our conventional analytical and logically process, ‘Stop trying to calculate your own answer – redirect your attention to this.’.
Do you recognise the pattern?
If only we could turn the process on at will and give it the tasks that we want it to concentrate on, rather than those that this murky mental area seems to choose for itself.
Let’s use a little introspection for a moment. Can you perceive your conventional, logically incremental mental process evaluating what you are reading and pushing you towards the conclusion that there is no good or reliable methodology for generating ideas?
Given society’s dependence on good ideas it is interesting to note that most people are never taught any systematic process for helping to break through the ideas block. The thrust of our education system is toward incrementalism and logical processes. As a result, when an idea emerges from the ‘intellectual void’ of our subconscious, we immediately apply reverse incrementalism to try to connect it to what we know. We must map a path of steps from where we are to where the idea takes us. Only if we can do this in a satisfactory way is the idea considered valid.
For generations people have sought ways of systematising the process of creative thinking in the hope of generating more and better ideas but very few methodologies have entered the mainstream. Of those that have, probably brainstorming is the most familiar. It is a semi-coercive technique based on the presumption that ideas do not flow because people are inhibited. Inhibitions are meant to be dispelled by ‘group think’ and the result is a scattergun of ideas which represents the full field of possibilities. It is hoped that something previously overlooked will be revealed or that a consensual idea will emerge from the set of forced inspirations. Occasionally the process generates a good idea.
But it remains a sequential conscious interactive process of mutual and mostly logical thought stimulation based, loosely, on the Hegelian dialectic of thesis acting against antithesis to generate a synthesis which, in turn, becomes the new thesis and so on. Hegel asserted that this was the process through which history had unfolded and, as the procession of history may be reduced to a pageant of ideas, we have come to believe that the dialectic is what can drive their formulation.
However the history of ideas shows that ideas cannot be forced out of the sub conscious on demand, even through the mutual stimulation of ‘group think’. Most ideas that have changed the otherwise predictable path of history arose from solitary contemplation by people whose brains tended to operate unconventionally.
Unfortunately we are unable to refer all the problems we encounter to an unconventional thinker who will, on demand, like the oracle, provide us with the required insight. Acknowledgement that people exist who can be classified as unconventional thinkers suggests that we have some conception of what is conventional thinking.
We know that our brain is a self organising information system that operates by matching the pattern of new perceptions with those we have experienced previously. We seek patterns, links and connections in order to determine appropriate action. We regard with suspicion things that do not readily match with our information system. Evolutionary psychology is at work here. The novel may be dangerous, so the vigilant response is to treat it as suspect until we can establish the risk that confronts us. Hence we still regard the novel with caution. If the risk is significant, we run away from it. Only fools and dysfunctional individuals run towards it.
But progress depends on novelty and novelty requires creativity. Not artistic creativity, rather the capacity to generate leaps of logic; to uncover something that we could not reach through the well trodden path of analysis or the system of logical incrementalism that proceeds from the current into the future.
Though our brains are not designed to be creative, we depend on creativity. And we know from the historical record of great ideas that we are capable of truly impressive inspiration. So how do we access this ability, when our conventional thinking process leads us away from such flights of fancy?
Clearly we must break out of our conventional thought process. To do this requires provocation. Entering the thought process from an unconventional point is useful but not sufficient. We consistently seek to find our way back into the established and conventional procedure by seeking known patterns and logical links. Do this at too early a stage and the sustained intellectual effort required for creative thinking is never achieved.
Having manoeuvred our brain away from its conventional process, the prompting must be maintained in order to prevent the pattern matching methodology reasserting its dominance. It will do so rapidly without continual extrinsic stimulation and provocation.
How can this be accomplished?
A process that accomplishes this has been developed by Laura Dziaszyk and Michaele Wynn-Jones who are two leaders in the fields of creative thinking and organisational systems.
Their methodology circumvents the usual route into a problem both by randomising the starting point and by using visual imagery rather than the pre-coded meaning of words.
The subject is invited to associate randomly selected images with the field in which an insight is being sought. When an idea block or the inevitable attempt to revert to conventional processes arises, further randomisation takes the subject off on another route. The procedure is repeated until the cumulative responses to each iteration facilitate the emergence of deeper insights that provide a new perspective or interpretation.
Often the novel path that emerges does not feel as speculative or discontinuous as it would had it arisen in a eureka moment but, because the procedure has accessed the subjects subliminal mental process in a more open way, the conclusion seems natural if not obvious. The metabolic signals of an emergent insight might be less pronounced but the perceived risk and attendant anxiety associated with not understanding how one got from ‘a’ to ‘c’ without going through ‘b’ is much reduced.
Although we have tended to concentrate on the generation of novel solutions the system has a further significant benefit. The same process facilitates the clear and impersonal recognition of the real nature of problems that people may be reluctant to admit or accept.
The principle underlying this is that the true nature of the problems confronting an individual or an organisation are known, but often suppressed, in favour of a more optimistic conclusion. Not only are we able to delude ourselves but the group dynamic often provides social reinforcement of the collective position. This tends to add to the pressure to suppress personal doubts.
Resolving problems is often, at least in part, facilitated by exposing and acknowledging the real nature and structure of the contingent issues. By circumventing the mental processes which actively subordinate realistic perceptions the real issues are able to resurface strongly.
The system is not complicated and works for both individuals and groups, but it is better seen than described, experienced rather than presented, as it depends for its effectiveness on the symbolic power of images and is not easily amenable to being reduced to mere words.
What is it? – The Corporate Signpost Toolkit!