By Leland Teschler
A lot of nonsense has been foisted onto people just trying to do their jobs through the years, all in the name of problem solving. Thanks to recent discoveries in cognitive science, we can now add brainstorming to the list of problem-solving techniques that have eventually turned out to be counterproductive.
Though it has been around since the 1950s, brainstorming became popular during the Quality programs of the 1980s. It was supposed to be a way the working classes who were closest to customers could make good decisions. Back then, the Quality movement was big on forming workers into teams. In a brainstorming session, team members were supposed to spontaneously blurt out ideas that a moderator would write down. The premise of brainstorming was that individuals huddled together in a group were more effective at generating ideas than if they pondered the problem alone back at their desks.
I have never been impressed with the outcomes of brainstorming sessions. As an increasingly reluctant participant in these exercises, I am happy to see that sanity has returned to the process of creating novel solutions. Psychologists who have studied idea creation now think unstructured idea-generating sessions like this don’t really uncover many useful concepts.
It turns out that innovative ideas are more likely to show up when someone familiar with the problem follows a template of five thinking modes, none of which are exactly rocket science. One is to simply imagine what would happen if something was subtracted from an existing product or service — subtracting the ear covers from headphones brings the concept of earbuds, for example. Removing a component from its traditional spot and placing it somewhere else is a second technique, as in removing ink from a printer ribbon and placing it in a cartridge. A third exercise is to pick a component and then copy or change it in some way, a la picture-in-picture features on TVs. Doing two things with one component is another possible path to innovation, particularly if the component involved has historically been unrelated to the task at hand. (As for sunscreen that doubles as moisturizer.) Finally, think about what happens when an attribute of one component now depends on attributes of another unrelated one so that changes in one cause changes in the other.
The concept of following templates like this to generate ideas is nothing new. Psychologists working in the early 1900s noticed apes solving problems by applying patterns of behavior. (It should be noted that apes, of course, aren’t subjected to quality circles and aren’t forced to brainstorm.) Moreover, apes seemed to generalize patterns of behaviors that were helpful so they could use them later on to solve other problems.
Writing about this technique, authors Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg say creative people probably use a form of the template method without realizing it. The two researchers think the template idea works because people are better at starting with a specific solution and figuring out its benefits than the other way around.
As Boyd and Goldenberg point out, would-be innovators are often told to think outside the box. The truth is they’d often be better off manipulating the box rather than stepping outside it.
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