In normal thinking, we have established patterns of thinking. Because of these patterns, we tend to get limited and stereo-typed answers to our problems, which in most cases may not be creative. In order to learn creative thinking, we need to look at new options and new patterns in everything we see. This is the basic principle of lateral thinking or out-of-box thinking. The following exercises help in stimulating creative thinking. These exercises are adapted from Edward de Bono's book 'Lateral Thinking'. These exercises can be done in a group setting (like in a classroom) or individually with some modification.
Generation of alternatives
In this exercise, there is a deliberate effort to find alternatives for a given problem. Normally this exercise, as a means to promote creative thinking, is best done using geometrical figures. The group is given few sheets of paper each. A figure is described or written on the board and the students are asked to generate different alternatives by writing on the papers given to them.
The whole idea of this exercise is to generate alternatives. Even if we get a good one early in the approach, the generation of alternatives is to be continued. Bono suggests fixing a set number of alternatives in order to force ideas.
Individually, one can take the problem and start writing various alternative solutions on a paper without out evaluating the solutions. Once a good number of alternatives are generated, the evaluation can be done and the best or most suitable one can be selected.
Brainstorming is a group exercise in a formal setting. A group of around 10 people are selected to generate ideas. In case the group is bigger, it can be divided into separate small groups.
A chairman is selected in order to moderate the discussions. One of the team members is appointed as notes taker. A fixed time of 20-30 mts is set for each minute.
The chairman starts with describing the problem at hand asking for ideas. Each team member gives the ideas. The ideas are written down without any evaluation. One idea may generate another idea and during the given period, good number of ideas would be generated. Some interaction in the form of questions and comments can be encouraged, however criticism, arguments about ideas is not allowed by the chairman.
The main features of brainstorming are: (a) cross simulation of ideas (b) Suspended evaluation and judgment (c) A formal setting.
After the meeting complete, all the ideas collected are evaluated by the same group or another group.
Comparing analogies is another way of generating many creative ideas. In this exercise, an analogy is selected and then the present problem is compared to the analogy to get creative solutions.
For example the problem is finding the way in a fog. The analogy could be trying to locate some thing in the house or solving a crossword puzzle.
The analogy selected need not exactly fit the situation. Some times analogy that does not fit may provide more ideas. The analogy is just a tool to provoke more ideas. Once the analogy is selected, a detailed comparison and discussion is made in order to get creative ideas.
This exercise can be done even individually with the same effectiveness.
It should be noted that analogies are used just as a tool to derive more ideas and to change the regular patterns of thinking, which is required for creative thinking. We are not proving anything with analogies.
Design and the Why technique
This is a good formal practice for the practice of lateral and creative thinking. A design project can be taken to improve the design of something or to innovate completely new.
For example, some typical design projects can be to design a alcohol detecting alarm in a car or to design a common chair.
The purpose is to provide as many alternative designs. No criticism is allowed during this exercise even if there are any mistakes or flaws in the design.
In order to get more alternatives, and to change the regular pattern of ideas, the 'why' technique is used in combination with design process. In why technique, a simple question of why is asked at every stage challenging the assumptions behind the design. For example:
- Why a chair should have four legs?
- Why a back support is needed in the chair?
- Why a chair needs legs?
In design exercise, the focus is on getting different ways of doing different things.
In reversal method, the problem is taken and the situation is reversed. This makes a new structure of the problem or a new pattern of the situation. For example, some one sitting on a chair can be modified as chair sitting on some one or some one standing on the chair. Some times a reversal can become a ridiculous suggestion but still provides a stimulating opportunity to get new ideas.
Once the problem is reversed, it is discussed in order to generate various creative ideas.
Normally we have many assumptions in our thinking, which escape scrutiny and we accept regular patterns of thinking as such. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and infact it is good to have assumptions so that we don't have to reinvent everything. However when it comes to creative thinking, we need to break regular patterns and get wide range of alternatives. So one of the techniques used is 'challenging assumptions'
The following story is commonly quoted story in this context.
A man worked in a tall building. Every day morning, he would take the lift on the ground floor, press the lift button to the tenth floor and walk up to 15th floor. Evening he takes lift in 15th floor and presses the ground button in the lifts and comes down. Why is he doing like that?
In this problem, the common assumption is the man is normal but his behaviour is abnormal.
For this problem the possible explanations are:
- He wanted an exercise
- He wanted to meet some one on the way up
- He wanted to show to the people that he works in the tenth floor which has more prestigious companies
- 15th floor has building kitchen and he does not want others to know that he is working in the kitchen
- He is a dwarf and he can reach only upto 10th floor button in the lift.
The whole purpose of this exercise is to question the assumptions and generate new patterns of thinking.
The above are some of the exercises from the book Lateral Thinking by ward de Bono. The author says that it is important to regularly do these exercises in order to develop and establish creative thinking as a habit.