The importance of having a direction for our thinking

Whenever we are thinking, either as an individual or as a group it is vital that we have a direction or focus for our thinking effort or it is unlikely to achieve a desired outcome. Our thinking direction can either be on an extremely narrow front or an incredibly broad (or even vague) one.

I refer to this as the focal spectrum.

On one end of the spectrum the focus is extremely tight, very specific and highly influenced. On the other end of the spectrum the focus is very wide, non specific and with little to no influence which opens up our thinking to a large number of potential avenues.

Where our thinking direction is on the focal spectrum really does not matter providing it is appropriate for the task at hand and serves our purpose.

An alternative way to imagine this is as a thinking ‘funnel’. The top of the funnel is broad and offers a wide freedom of thought which can include a number of thinking areas and as we go down the funnel these thinking areas become fewer. The bottom of the funnel is clearly very narrow and therefore considerably more focused, restricting the breadth of thinking freedom to just one specific focus.

An example of a very tight direction for our thinking might be “We need ideas on promoting product ‘x’ into market ‘y’ given the presence of competitor ‘a’ and the following strengths and weaknesses of their offering”. The ideas that will be forthcoming here should be very specific and address the explicit direction laid down.

Whereas an example of where the direction is wide could include “We need ideas on customers”. The thinking here is barely influenced other than the focus being on customers but the ideas that are forthcoming could include just about anything on the subject. Improving service, delivery, retention, product offering, growing, reducing, shifting the mix, new, existing, markets or absolutely anything that is related to customers.

The most important thing is that when we are going to make the effort to generate ideas and be creative that the focus is clear. In a group thinking situation this is all the more important so that the thinking collateral is relevant to the task and the needs of the session. It is the role of the facilitator to ensure that direction or focus is clear and understood before the participants engage their brains.

Switching direction

The beauty of having a focus is that you can switch direction as easily as ‘clicking your fingers’ if that is what is required. During a thinking session one or some of the ideas may make it apparently clear and obvious that it would be beneficial to go down an alternative route or seek options or alternatives on a particular idea that has been generated. You can simply stop the session, set up your new focus and start the session again.

This can be particularly useful if you have an established creative culture and the needs of the business change over time. You can switch the thinking focus of the entire organisation overnight, ensuring that you are maximising the creative output of the organisation in line with its current needs.

Problem roll over – issues that don’t go away

Understandably, in the current economic climate organisations are striving to become leaner. Many have implemented one or more of the various approaches to support this endeavour. Lean Six Sigma for example, has established itself as the firm favourite methodology for reducing costs by improving efficiencies in manufacturing and internal processes and there are now a plentiful and growing number of Six Sigma specialists.

Commendable indeed but are these organisations missing a trick?

There is another area of business that if improved would without doubt deliver results that are even potentially greater. An area that is often talked about but little understood and rarely focussed on or ‘managed’ in a way that will ensure that it delivers maximum benefits. An area where we rarely see any effective processes in place or proven tools used to ensure that it is capitalised upon.

The area I am talking about is how we go about generating high volumes of good ideas on demand, how we create quality solutions to problems (including those that occur when delivering projects, the bigger scale longer term problems or simply the day-to-day problems that we encounter) and how we go about the task of implementing good quality solutions to ensure that we (and/or our customers) realise the benefits as quickly as possible.

We often work with clients who have been attempting to find solutions to serious issues of varying nature and discover that a number of these issues have been around for many years. Often they look outside their own organisation for assistance in finding an ideal solution only to find that the same or similar ideas and approaches and similar technologies are offered up, none of them really getting to the heart of the matter and solving the issue once and for all. What they end up with is what we term as ‘problem roll over’, year after year.

The price of this can be enormous in terms of financial costs, resources and time.

A recent experience was an excellent example of this. One of our clients had a particularly perplexing technical challenge and to solve it had gathered a team of six of their best engineers to find a solution. Six months later with each of the six having given up on average a third of their working time they had invested heavily and were absolutely no further forward in arriving at a solution.

So what was holding them back? It transpired that whilst incredibly bright and at the ‘top of their game’ they lacked any dedicated systematic tools and processes to support their efforts and they were relying on ‘traditional thinking’ and brainstorming approaches that all too often fail to deliver.

We introduced them to some powerful thinking tools and applied a proven process and the same six engineers arrived at three workable solutions just three hours in to a facilitated workshop. Using further proven techniques one of these solutions was selected and then ‘worked up’ to a deliverable solution and successfully implemented. This not only prevented problem roll over but solved the issue for good and at the same time created a multi million pound new market for the client!

How many more man hours would the client had to have invested to arrive at a solution on their own? Potentially an infinite number, it is conceivable that the problem would have never gone away and would have become a subject on their agenda year after year.

Problem roll over is a major issue for many organisations and there are many contributing factors that fuel its existence. Surely though, if idea generation, the search for quality solutions and innovation is key to a companies success and can contribute significantly to the bottom line why is not more emphasis placed on the tools and processes that enable it? In our experience it is a widely neglected area and yet one that is relatively easy to resolve.

If problem roll over is an issue for you organisation, here are some tips which may help you break the cycle:

  1. Ensure that you have defined the problem thoroughly and correctly in the first place (are you trying to solve the right problem?).
  2. Examine you existing processes and approaches for ‘managing’ idea generation, solution development and innovation.
  3. Find ways to improve your current processes and approaches so that they are effective at developing ideas and delivering solutions quickly.
  4. Introduce systematic thinking tools and processes to stimulate thinking, break psychological inertia and encourage lateral thinking.
  5. Put in place excellent facilitation practices when managing group thinking.
  6. Manage the behavioural aspects that inhibit effective individual and group thinking so that it is as productive and enjoyable as possible.

The paradox of knowledge when solving problems

One might be right in thinking that the more knowledge we have the better we are likely to be at finding solutions when faced with problems or seeking new ideas for products and services. Innovation at its best is often associated as being the creation of gifted, bright individuals. However, the accumulation of knowledge is paradoxical when it comes to being creative, generating ideas and finding breakthrough solutions.

To appreciate this we first need to understand a little about traditional thinking and how the brain goes about processing information as we get on with our daily lives.

Imagine a large pile of soil that has been arranged so that it is smooth sided and conical in shape (wide base and pointed at the top). Now imagine slowly pouring a large bucket of water over the point of the mound. Where is the water going? It is likely that the water travels in a downward motion and over time creates gullies down the side of our pile of soil. Let’s assume that we stop pouring and allow everything to dry up and then reconvene our pouring. Where does the water go this time? Almost certainly down the same gullies that were previously created. This is very much like how we process the information that we are continually bombarded with. It is passed along the paths of least resistance, where previous similar information was passed. We refer to these as neural paths and these gradually become more and more embedded. As time goes on we find it increasingly difficult to break out of these neural paths and the ultimate effect being that they limit our ability to think creatively or laterally. We become increasingly dependent upon something stimulating or jolting our thinking if we are attempting to be original or find new approaches etc.

Combine this with our ‘education’ and accumulation of knowledge over time and this compounds the problem even further. The risk is that the more expert we become the harder we find it to break out of our own pool of knowledge. In engineering, for example, we are taught a set of principles that when applied to certain situations allow us to create things and/or solve problems. The greater our range of knowledge, the more likely we are of success in this.

Of course, this is necessary and I am in no way attempting to belittle the acquisition of knowledge but it does follow that the more expert we become the harder we are likely to find it to break out of our pool of knowledge and be truly creative and innovative.

A recent study on problem solving by Karim Lakhani of Harvard Business School supports this. Lakhani concludes that “the further the problem from the solvers expertise, the more likely they are to solve it”.

It is rather like having all of our knowledge in a box (similar to a set of tools) and when faced with a problem or challenge we search the box for a solution that best ‘fits’. But what if there is a better solution beyond our own knowledge or there simply isn’t a suitable tool in the box? This is where we can seriously struggle.  We continue to apply engrained thinking patterns and our existing knowledge to find ideas and solutions when actually what is required is a totally new approach or breakthrough solution.

What is required here is an approach that will enable us to break out of channelled thinking and enable us to be truly creative, thinking in new ways. The good news is that this is a lot easier than most of us would think. There are a vast number of thinking tools and systematic processes that will enable us to generate vast volumes of new ideas on demand, solve the toughest of problems and deliver breakthrough innovation.

William Plomer, the South African and British author was famously quoted as saying:

“It is the function of creative men to perceive relations between thoughts, or things, or forms of expression that may seem utterly different and to be able to combine them into new forms – the power to connect the seemingly unconnected”.

There is a very powerful tool that encourages just this approach but many struggle to apply it, simply because the brain initially finds it difficult to make connections between things that are apparently unconnected and yet with practice we can all become very effective at this.

Idea generation, creativity, the ability to solve tough and complex problems and innovation isn’t, in my opinion, something that should be left to the gifted few. The ability to do these things is most definitely something that can be learnt and over the past fifteen years we have developed and refined a wide range of very effective systematic thinking tools and processes that enable individuals and groups to do just this.

Using existing resources to solve problems

When trying to solve a problem it makes good sense to use existing resources where possible, rather than introducing increased complexity and potential additional costs.

The identification and use of resources around a problem or in a system* is essential if we are to find good, cost effective and environmentally friendly solutions and improvements. The term ‘resources’ is all encompassing in this context and can include even negative or harmful resources.

Resources include anything (including waste) that is available in or around the problem or system, including its environment. This could be energy, free time, unoccupied space, the ability to jointly perform additional functions, a physical element, information and so on.

How to approach the use of resources

The first step is to identify what resources are available and then to prioritise them as follows:

  • ‘No cost’ resources that are already present in the system
  • Easily available resources that are outside the system which are ‘low cost’
  • All other resources that are available at a cost

In order o use resources to solve a problem, we can use the following process to analyse resources and their effectiveness:

  1. Formulate a list of resources
  2. Prioritise them as above ( local and ‘no cost’ at the top, costly and external at the bottom)
  3. Define what kind of resources are needed to solve the problem
  4. Evaluate and estimate each of the resources
  5. Prioritise them in respect of their effectiveness and usefulness to the given problem

Resources can be internal, external, local or remote and by exploring and using appropriate resources we can solve problems and improve the benefits of a system to a great extent and of course it makes good sense to optimise our use of resources for lots of reasons.

Other examples of resources that may be available include:

  • The elements of a system
  • Element properties
  • The reverse side of something
  • Idle time
  • Parallel processing time
  • The space inside an object
  • Etc.

Having prioritised them as described, the next step is to explore how they can be used to solve any problems in the system and how existing resources can fulfil any other useful functions.

Closely examining, understanding and using resources is ideal for helping to make improvements and potentially solve both technical and non technical problems and challenges.

There are too many specific applications for the use of resources to list them all but amongst them are:

  • Product/service design
  • Problem solving
  • Process improvement
  • Productivity improvement
  • The improvement of management systems
  • Down sizing
  • Reducing costs
  • Service improvement

If you would like more information please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

* The term system in this context is used to describe a product (or part of a product), a service, a problem or a process

In search of perfection

According to Genrich Altschuller, the creator of TRIZ ( a Russian acronym which translates into English as ‘the theory of inventive problem solving’) the evolution of a majority of technical systems follow the so called trend of ideality growth. This means that with every innovative improvement, systems tend to become more ‘ideal’. By doing so they introduce better/more functionality and higher performance, increased quality and robustness, whereas materials, energy, costs and other resources needed to manufacture and sustain these systems tend to decrease.

In my mind, this should not just apply to technical systems.

For perfection we are trying to achieve all the functionality (or benefits) we want from a something whilst removing all the costs (or inputs) and harms (or unnecessary or undesirable outputs). This is something that must be relevant and valuable to everyone and every organisation in just about every aspect of what they do. By reaching perfection or the ideal product, service, process etc. we will have realised all the benefits we require with no associated cost and at no harm.

In other words, moving towards the ideal is a matter of preserving or ideally driving up the benefits whilst driving down or ultimately eliminating the cost and harms. Any step in this direction has to be a positive one.

The removal of costs has to be beneficial and in these terms costs might include any of the following:

  • Time
  • Money
  • Materials
  • Energy
  • Human resources

Reducing the harms would be similarly beneficial. Depending on the situation harms might include:

  • Heat
  • Pollution
  • Damage
  • Pain
  • Carbon emissions

Of course, there are many other forms of costs and harms.

The key to moving towards perfection is to firstly identify what is really required from something existing or new and to then identify the associated costs and harms and to seek ways to reduce or ideally eliminate them.

The idea generator – high volumes of ideas, quickly

If you have ever wanted to rapidly generate high volumes of ideas, then there is (probably) no better place to start than with the idea generator, a totally proven tool which is guaranteed to produce a wealth of creative output..

The main principle of this tool is to capitalise upon the relationship between specific ideas and general approaches to rapidly generate high volumes of ideas and it should be applied on the back of some initial creative output.

Here is an example of how it works.

If asked to come up with some ideas to get water out of a normal drinking glass without picking it up, knocking it over or damaging it in any way, amongst others some of the answers may include to use a straw, to displace the water or to soak the water up with a sponge.

Two of the above ideas are very specific and one is somewhat general. The specific ones are to use a straw and to soak the water up with a sponge. Both of these are things that assuming we had the straw and the sponge we could do immediately. Therefore, these are specific ideas that can be immediately and practically applied.

The third idea of displacing the water is at this stage a general approach, displacement. It remains general because the ‘how’ has not been answered. It is the harnessing upon the relationship between specific ideas and general approaches that lies at the heart of this tool.

Specific ideas and general approaches

Specific ideas are ones that are immediately and practically applied but behind them lays a general approach. For example, the general approach behind the use of a straw is suction and we can use this to generate further ideas. How else might we suck the water out of the glass? We could use a pen barrel, a vacuum cleaner, a syringe, etc.

One of the general approaches behind using a sponge is capillary action. How else might we be able to immediately and practically apply this general approach? We could use any form of porous or semi-porous material including a handkerchief, scarf, shirt, dish cloth, etc.

By tapping into this ability to identify the specific ideas in our creative output and find general approaches that lie behind them will enable us to move on and identify many more specific ideas to address our focus.

The third idea of displacing the water is general approach and we identify these from within our creative output we can start to think about how we can practically make them happen. What could we use to displace the water? Sand, pebbles, another glass, coins, in fact any object that will fit inside the glass. So from our one initial idea of displacement we could quickly identify numerous further specific ideas.

Imagine you have generated a list of ideas for the use of a paperclip, for example holding paper together, hair clip, stress toy, pick a lock, jewellery, a weapon, clean your fingernails, weight for a paper plane, a chain, and a clothes peg. Which of these are specific ideas and which are general approaches?

Once you have identified them, how can you make the general approaches happen and what general approaches lay behind the specific ideas you have identified and what further specific ideas does this enable you to identify?

For example, one of the general approaches is jewellery. What specific ideas will make this general approach an immediate and practical reality? What forms of jewellery can you think of? The ideas may include a necklace, a bracelet, ankle chain, earrings, cuff links, hair clip or belly button ring. Seven further ideas to add to our original one.

One of the specific ideas you might have identified from the list may have been a hair clip. One of the general approaches behind this is to use the paper clip to hold things together. What else might we hold together with a paper clip? Paper, pairs of socks, plants, balloons, cables and so on.

The idea generator is simple to grasp and ideal for rapidly generating high volumes of ideas. It is just one of a huge toolbox of thinking tools and processes that are available, all of which will vastly contribute to any innovation initiative.

Creativity and innovation – the same thing?

We frequently hear the words creativity and innovation and rightly so, as both are invaluable in ensuring the future success of just about every organisation yet there are instances when the two are often confused or when people’s definitions are at best woolly. The difference is really quite simple and understanding this will greatly assist in ensuring that the right emphasis is placed on both.

Ideally any new product or service (or an improvement to either) will satisfy some need or want in the market or solve a real problem and therefore deliver tangible benefits, without this it would have little value. Both creativity and innovation contribute towards making this realisation of benefits a reality and whilst they rely on one another in order to deliver this, they are distinctly different.

Realising the benefits of a new product or service requires two things to happen. Firstly the idea for the new product, service or an improvement has to be developed in the first place and secondly, the idea has to be implemented and in simplistic terms this the difference between creativity and innovation.

Creativity is all about the generation of ideas and innovation is all about turning the ideas into reality, making them happen.

In our experience, once a good idea has been struck upon that offers significant benefits and obvious financial gains for the originating individual or company, most organisations are pretty good at ensuring that they are implemented, perhaps with varying degrees of efficiency but they are typically implemented none the less.

Where organisations seem to fail most, is in their ability to create great ideas that offer significant benefits or solve really tough problems and to be able to do this with ease and on demand and yet innovation (which organisations appear to be constantly crying out for) for it’s success relies entirely upon this. Hence, the two go hand in hand. However, is there sufficient emphasis upon idea generation and the systematic thinking tools and processes that make creativity and problem solving a breeze and available on demand.

We are convinced that there is not and we were recently working with a client that highlights this rather well.

The client had found themselves in the rather difficult situation of winning a project to which they had no existing solution. They realised that their existing patented technology could not be applied in this instance. Working in the highly regulated nuclear industry, finding a new solution would be difficult and with the regulatory hoops that they would have to jump through, a totally new approach was not an option. When we were initially approached by the client, they had been working on a solution to the problem for over six months and were no further forward.

We ran a two day workshop with the aim of facilitating a group thinking and problem solving session. Having introduced some proven systematic thinking tools and processes, the group arrived at four solutions within the first three hours of the workshop, a staggering result given their failure to date! Their feedback from the workshop reinforced two main factors. Firstly, the ability to think differently and more creatively in a systematic way was the key to arriving at their solutions and secondly, effective facilitation and group control made a huge difference.

Needless to say, their selected solution was successfully developed and implemented. Not only did this create a happy client but also created a lucrative new, multi million dollar market for their patented technology. Not bad for a few hours work.

We hope most people would agree that to create one new innovative new product, service or improvement you would first need to generate the idea(s). Similarly, the opportunity to gain the best innovative solution would be greatly enhanced by the ability to generate high volumes of useful ideas on demand.

Therefore in summary, creativity and innovation are really two phases of the same thing. Innovation is all about delivering solutions that deliver tangible benefits and creativity is the about generating the ideas from which these solutions can be drawn. It is clear therefore, that the quality of innovation is dependent upon the quality of thinking and creativity that it relies upon. We believe that there is insufficient emphasis placed upon this and a lack of understanding of the systematic thinking tools and processes that are guaranteed to significantly increase our ability to generate ideas and be creative.