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Extending creative sessions

Quality Tools > Tools of the Trade > 35: Extending creative sessions


Last time, we talked about Synectics and how that method used ‘excursions’ as methods in brainstorming sessions as techniques to jog people out of their current rut of limited thinking. In the excursion, we use one of many different methods to get new ideas, often seemingly unrelated to the original problem. We then bring these ideas back and often find that they ‘magically’ prove useful in creating new and valuable ideas.

In this article, we will look at a number of different methods that can be used for excursions. Hopefully, these will bring joy and surprise rather than the more ominous ‘alarums and excursions’ of Shakespearean theatre.

Random words

The random word technique is one of the oldest and simplest excursions, and constantly amazes people with its effectiveness, to the point that they think there is some kind of magic or trickery about it. Sadly or otherwise, there is only psychology.

The first step is to select a random word. You can make this fun with a ceremony of asking people for page, paragraph and word numbers in a handy book. Select the nearest word that is evocative and might lead to many new associations (thus, pick ‘explosion’ over ‘expect’).

Next, ask for a number of associations they have with the selected word. Thus ‘explosion’ might lead to ‘loud noise’, ‘bright flash of light’, ‘devastation’ and so on.

The final stage is to bring these associations back to the original problem. For example, if this was ‘What to do about a noisy machine’, the associations may give ideas such as ‘amplify the noise so the bosses upstairs can hear it and buy us a new machine’ or ‘attach a flashing light when the machine is about to start up so people can put on ear defenders’ or ‘highlight the devastation to eardrums, raising it as a health issue’.

Random pictures

Word methods are fine for people who are verbally based, but those of us who are more visually oriented like to use pictures. Any picture can be used in the same way as the random word method, first making associations and then taking these back to the original problem. You can use pictures from newspapers or magazines. As with words, evocative pictures can be very effective.

Another method is to use doodles. These have the advantage that their vague and ambiguous nature can lead to very different associations.



Personal analogy

When we think of another character, whether it is real, like Margaret Thatcher or imaginary, such as Superman, we associate with them a whole range of personality characteristics.  In the Personal Analogy excursion, we take on the mantle of another character to see how they can add ideas that can help us. When you relate something to yourself, it takes on particular significance and can thus act as a particularly effective stimulus.

The technique, then, is to pick a character, real or imaginary, and ask ‘What would this character advise about the problem?’ You can also put the character into the problem (possibly in a silly way, such as stuffing them inside a problematic vacuum cleaner) and see what whey say then. You can add to the fun by having people name a character on a piece of paper, then swapping the paper so others take on the mantle.

For example, for a problem with designing a warm house, Bugs Bunny might say ‘dig a burrow’ which may lead to ideas around building it underground or putting turf on the roof. Tony Blair might say ‘We are a new party’ which leads to ideas about parties of people and the space needed, which could be minimised to that required.

Essential analogy

Finally (although there are many, many more excursions that can be used) let us try the essential analogy. The ‘essential’ here means that the first step is to identify the ‘essence’ of the problem, or some core aspect we can use to find an analogous situation. For example, in the problem of the warm house, we might pick ‘heat retention’.

The next step is to find the analogous situation. This could be a similar situation, such as how animals keeping warm in winter, but distant analogies can provide more stimulating ideas. Thus we might pick ‘police interrogation’ who want to keep the heat on their suspects.

Now we can explore our selected analogous world. Police might keep the suspects awake, confuse their body clock by telling them different times, shout at them, and so on.

Either as the analogous situation is explored or afterwards, we can then relate the situations back to our original problem. Thus ‘keeping them awake’ may lead to ‘keeping heating switched on’, and ‘shouting’ might lead to putting up strict signs to encourage people to close doors and windows.


Next time: Lateral thinking


This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Institute for Quality Assurance

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