Thinking Suppressants

In relation to our ability to generate ideas, be creative and solve problems there are a number of suppressants that exist that can stifle this. Some of these are internal, in other words what goes on in our own mind and some are external, those factors that we are exposed to or applied to us that limit or suppress our ability. The purpose of this short article is to explore some of the more common internal suppressants.

Knowledge

Whilst knowledge is essential it can also become a major factor in limiting our ability to create ‘new’ ideas. We can easily become bound by our own pool of knowledge, restricting us to what we know and often the more ‘expert’ we become the greater the significance of this. Without meaning to single out a particular group or stereotype a profession, engineers can present a somewhat classic manifestation of this particular issue. After all, when faced with difficult technical problems they are paid to apply their knowledge of engineering principals and rules to solve them. However of course, the solutions they present are more often than not limited to their own knowledge and experience and there could easily be a multitude of other improved solutions that exist outside their current knowledge base.

Lack of time

A lack of time to generate ideas and be creative can be real but in my experience more often than not it is a perceived excuse rather than a reality (although it can be made worse by management pressures). Of course we are expected to be productive and to have our sleeves rolled up and often this encourages the need to be seen to be busy, this is often compounded when economic pressures are high and the need for job security is raised.

This is somewhat paradoxical. Whilst we indeed may be busy or are keen to be seen to be busy, taking the time out to think could easily lead to better ways of working, improved solutions to problems, higher quality work and faster ways to work, freeing up time and improving performance!

Hindsight

One of the issues regarding idea generation is that when we strike upon a really good idea it often appears ‘obvious’ and in hindsight we devalue it. This tendency to view good ideas as obvious leads us to convince ourselves that it has probably already been done before and I wonder just how many really good ideas have been generated but have fallen foul of this and therefore never made it to fruition.

Fear of ridicule

Ridicule can be a major problem and can significantly contribute towards the cessation of people putting forward their ideas. If in the past when we have put forward an idea it is ridiculed, we clearly become les and less inclined to put future ideas on the table in the future. This often manifests itself in meetings and group thinking sessions and clearly needs to be stamped out.

We often hear the phrase ‘there is no such thing as a bad idea’ and this notion should be actively encouraged. An idea may on the face of it appear ‘stupid’ but within it could be the seed of something great.

Not my job

Sometimes we simply do not see it as part of our role to generate ideas, be creative or solve problems we see our function as simply getting on and achieving our objectives which more often than not do not include generating ideas. It’s more about getting the job done, delivering objectives in line with managerial expectations, rather than being paid to think.

Don’t know how

The sad fact is that very few people have been taught or ‘trained’ to think in a way that will enable the generation of high volumes of new ideas on demand or in the art of innovation. Going back as far as my school days I struggle to recall being taught ‘how to think’ and being creative was pretty much left to the domain of the creative arts but even then I can’t remember being taught how to generate ideas or think creatively (maybe I wasn’t listening)!

Therefore, perhaps traditional education is in part to blame for our lack of knowledge regarding how to generate ideas, be creative and solve problems.

In addition to this, I have encountered very few clients that have invested in the training and development of thinking skills, although there are early signs that this may be changing as more organisations are waking up to the significant benefits that this has to offer.

Why bother (apathy)

Even when we put ideas forward, it can feel like they disappear into a black hole or worse still we see them being implemented and someone else taking the credit for them (often management). A lack of feedback, recognition and/or reward is a certain way to kill off idea generation.

If we go to the trouble to share an idea and hear nothing thereafter we are certainly less inclined to bother again in the future.

Appropriate feedback (even if the idea is not going to be implemented), recognition and perhaps reward are essential if we are to be encouraged to make a constant effort to generate useful ideas and be creative.

Premature critical thinking

There is a tendency for us to be prematurely critical of both our own ideas and the ideas of others. When we have an idea the risk is that we immediately search for the reasons why it won’t work or can’t be done, thus prematurely killing off what might be the seed of an excellent idea.

In a group thinking scenario someone might table an idea in a meeting and the first reaction is for people to similarly comment on why it won’t work or can’t be done. This can often be construed as negativity and faced with it on a frequent basis can feel like we are swimming against an insurmountable tide. This is another external suppressant.

A proportion of internal suppressants or the manifestation of them can be put down to poor management. Not exclusively perhaps but management certainly have a major part to play in ensuring that they are addressed.

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The value of rephrasing problems

Often when dealing with problems and attempting to identify potential solutions we are either trying to solve the wrong problem (or symptoms of the problem rather than the cause) or are viewing the problem as one dimensional.

The purpose of this brief article is to help us understand the value of rephrasing problems in order to develop a deeper, wider and better quality pool of potential solutions.

By rephrasing problems we are able to shift our view of the problem and change perspective which enables us to find solutions beyond a one dimensional view.

I was recently told a story which illustrates this rather well. It involved the presence of a substantial amount of asbestos in a nuclear power station and its necessary removal to safeguard the health and safety of the engineers working there.

The problem was how to remove the asbestos safely and without releasing any harmful particles into the atmosphere. The location of the asbestos and other environmental and physical factors made this a challenge for which a team of experts were assembled to find a solution.

Weeks went by, and then months as they continued to struggle, until a visitor was invited to take part in one of the sessions aimed at finding a solution.

It wasn’t too long before the visitor interrupted the meeting by asking “are you sure that you’re solving the right problem?” Quizzical eyes peered back and one individual asked what he meant by that.

“Surely, the problem is not about removing the asbestos but how to protect people from its harmful effect” he replied.

This rephrasing of the problem very quickly led to a solution. The asbestos was clad in protective sheeting and remains in that location to this day with the harm eliminated.

Here are another couple of examples of rephrasing a problem:

Problem 1:          I need a hammer to drive this nail in (solution = find a hammer)

Rephrased:         I need to drive this nail in (solutions = find anything that will drive the nail in)

Rephrased:         I need to join these two pieces of wood together (solutions = all the above and more!)

Problem 2:          We need a new tunnel to get cars across the river (solution = dig a tunnel)

Rephrased:         We need to get cars across the river (solutions = any method to get cars  across a river)

Rephrased:         We need to move the river (whoa!)

The rephrasing of the problem in the above examples, would potentially lead to very different solutions.

Do get in touch if you would like to know more.

The advantages of complimentary group thinking

Brainstorming is a curious term. When ideas are required or a topic needs exploring more often than not it is brainstorming that is called for. Gather a group of interested parties together in a room and let a jolly good brainstorming session commence.

I have witnessed many brainstorming sessions and have had frequent opportunities to discuss other people’s views on the subject. What is apparent is the term brainstorming often describes these sessions all too well. Use your brains and create a storm.

Through observation and dialogue, it is clear there is often the manifestation of undesirable characteristics that occur with traditional brainstorming. Characteristics that certainly work against group thinking being as productive as it might otherwise be.

Much of this can be attributed to the adversarial nature of thinking. There is without doubt a tendency to think ‘against’ one another.

For example, one person tables an idea and the immediate reaction is for someone else to challenge it. ‘That won’t work’, ‘we can’t do that here’, ‘but if we did that, then…’ all of which are likely to lead to debate, argument and defensiveness (amongst other things) which all make a significant contribution to a lack of productive thinking.

What has been proven time and time again is that productive group thinking is massively enhanced when everyone is thinking ‘the same way at the same time’.

It follows then that the role of the facilitator or leader in a meeting should include that of managing the groups thinking. The type of thinking will be dependent upon what is required and what makes sense at a particular moment in time.

If ideas are required, then everyone should be entirely focussed on this. If you are looking to identify the potential strength or weakness of an idea, then they should be focussed on one of these.

By systematically exploring a subject in a logical and sequential manner where everyone is focussed in this way, the need for debate, argument or defensiveness is eliminated enabling all participants to be 100% focussed on the task at hand without distraction. This in turn leads to a significant increase in thinking productivity.

Most people will have heard of Edward deBono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’ which is loosely based upon the above principles. The premise being that you can put hats on and take them off with the greatest of ease and similarly switch thinking on demand (each hat representing a different type of thinking).

If you would like to find out more about maximising group thinking and related subjects, do get in touch.

Low cost, efficient and environmentally friendly solutions

When looking to solve problems (whatever their nature) it clearly makes sense to develop low cost, efficient and environmentally friendly solutions. The identification of readily available resources can greatly assist with this.

When we make a conscious effort to identify locally available resources surrounding a problem it is often surprising to discover the number and variety of resources that exist.

For example, if we were to identify locally available resources surrounding a standard piece of single core wire, beyond the obvious resources of the copper and insulating sleeve, we could also identify the unused space within the sleeve, the current running through the copper and the air surrounding the wire but why stop there? Other resources could include oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide etc. that make up the air. The properties of the wire are also resources such as flexibility, width, circumference, temperature, texture etc. All of which, depending upon the nature of the problem, may be able to make a contribution towards a solution.

A good example of the efficient use of resources is that of the evolvement of corrosion testing.

Traditionally, corrosion testing laboratories used platinum lined vessels in which a sample of the subject to be tested would be placed along with a volume of acid (platinum being highly resistant to the corrosive effect of acid).The sample would be weighed prior to being placed in the acid for a specified period of time after which it was weighed again and the rate of corrosion calculated.

The problem with this though, is that platinum is extremely expensive and most laboratories only had one vessel with which to conduct the tests. This in turn meant that testing could only be carried out sequentially, being both costly and slow.

By identifying the immediately available and obvious resources a solution can quickly be found.

The subject to be tested can itself become the vessel. Simply bore a hole, weigh the subject, fill it with acid for a specified period of time, re-weigh the subject and make the required calculation.

This solution was not only cost effective but also meant that testing could now take place simultaneously, radically speeding up the process.

Through the systematic identification and prioritisation of resources it is possible to find low cost, efficient and environmentally friendly solutions without the need to introduce increased complexity as illustrated above.

To find out more about the use of resources and other systematic approaches to problem solving, idea generation and innovation, do get in touch.