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Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas

Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas - James L. Adams There is a lot of interesting content in this book, but I'm not sure it actually made me more creative. The writing is _slightly_ meandering and academic in style, a bit like a research survey paper, but the content within is genuinely valuable. Just the idea of thinking about *how* you come up with a solution (visual thinking, mathematical thinking, deduction, induction, etc), rather than what the solution turns out to be, is a pretty powerful exercise. The list of blocks that get in the way of creative thinking are also useful, and the discussion of the psychology around them is fascinating, but I walked away without a keen awareness of how to get past all of these blocks, other than brainstorming and making lists. That said, perhaps the most powerful aspect of the book is to treat creativity as a skill, and one that can be honed, and perhaps the mere awareness of that fact will be enough to get better over time.

Some good quotes from the book:

We have a one-watt mind in a megawatt world. We cannot process all of the data available to us in raw form. The mind, therefore, depends heavily on structures, models, and stereotypes.

The natural response to a problem seems to be to try to get rid of it by finding an answer--often taking the first answer that occurs and pursuing it because of one’s reluctance to spend the time and mental effort needed to conjure up a richer storehouse of alternatives from which to choose.

Perceptual blocks are obstacles that prevent the problem-solver from clearly perceiving either the problem itself or the information needed to solve the problem.

Once a label (professor, housewife, black, chair, butterfly, automobile, laxative) has been applied, people are less likely to notice the actual qualities or attributes of what is being labeled.

(From New Think by Edward de Bono):
Logic is the tool that is used to dig holes deeper and bigger, to make them altogether better holes. But if the hole is in the wrong place, then no amount of improvement is going to put it in the right place. No matter how obvious this may seem to every digger, it is still easier to go on digging in the same place than to start all over again in a new place. Vertical thinking is digging the same hole deeper; lateral thinking is trying again elsewhere.

Fear to make a mistake, to fail, or to take a risk is perhaps the most general and common emotional block. Most of us have grown up rewarded when we produce the “right” answer and punished if we make a mistake. When we fail we are made to realize that we have let others down (usually someone we love). Similarly we are taught to live safely (a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, a penny saved is a penny earned) and avoid risk whenever possible. Obviously, when you produce and try to sell a creative idea you are taking a risk: of making a mistake, failing, making an ass of yourself, losing money, hurting yourself, or whatever.

In a sense, problem-solving is bringing order to chaos. A desire for order is therefore necessary. However, the ability to tolerate chaos is a must.

If you analyze or judge too early in the problem-solving process, you will reject many ideas. This is detrimental for two reasons. First of all, newly formed ideas are fragile and imperfect--they need time to mature and acquire the detail needed to make them believable. Secondly, as we will discuss later, ideas often lead to other ideas.

You should allow the mind to struggle with problems over time. Incubation is important in problem-solving. It is poor planning not to allow adequate time for incubation in the solution of an important problem. It is also important to be able to relax in the midst of problem-solving. Your overall compulsiveness is less fanatical when you are relaxed, and the mind is more likely to deal with seemingly “silly” combinations of thoughts. If you are never relaxed, your mind is usually on guard against non-serious activities, with resulting difficulties in the type of thinking necessary for fluent and flexible conceptualization.

Arthur Koestler was an important writer who among other topics, treated conceptualization. In an essay, “The Three Domains of Creativity”, he identified these “domains” as artistic originality (which he called the “ah!” reaction), scientific discovery (the “aha!” reaction), and comic inspiration (the “haha!” reaction). He defined creative acts as the combination of previously unrelated structures in such a way that you get more out of the emergent whole than you have put in. He explained comic inspiration, for example, as stemming from “the interaction of two mutually exclusive associative contexts.” As in creative artistic and scientific acts, two ideas have to be brought together that are not ordinarily combined. This is one of the essentials of creative thinking. In the particular case of humor, according to Koestler, the interaction causes us “to perceive the situation in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference.” [...] The critical point of interest here is that a similar reaction (laughter) may greet an original idea. A concept may be so contrary to the logical progress of the problem solution, precedent, or common intuition, that it may cause laughter. In fact any answer to a problem releases tension. Your unbelievably insightful solution to a problem may therefore be greeted with giggles and hoots, not only from others but even from yourself.

The Introduction to Process Notebook, also by Interaction Associates, summarized the situation as follows:
Just as we use physical tools for physical tasks, we employ conceptual tools for conceptual tasks. To familiarize yourself with a tool, you may experiment with it, test it in different situations, and evaluate its usefulness. The same method can be applied to conceptual tools. Our ability as thinkers is dependent on our range and skill with our own tools.

We learn as we grow older that it is good to be smart. Smartness is often associated with the amount of knowledge we possess. A question is an admission that we do not know or understand something. We therefore leave ourselves open to suspicion that we are not omniscient. Thus, we see the almost incredible ability of students to sit totally confused in a class in a university that costs thousands of dollars a year to attend and not ask questions. Thus, we find people at cocktail parties listening politely to conversations they do not understand, and people in highly technical fields accepting jargon they do not understand.

A camel is a horse designed by committee.

In authoritative systems individuals attempt to perform well according to their job descriptions. But how many job descriptions contain the phrase “take risks”?

It is not too difficult in any large organization to find people whose job is to prevent mistakes.

Bob Sutton, an organizational behavior professor at Stanford, is fond of saying that non-innovative companies reward success, punish failure, and accept inaction. Innovative companies reward both success and failure (assuming it follows a valiant attempt) and punish inaction.