Three Basic Principles Behind All Methods
Creative Thinking: Attention, Escape,
By: Paul Plsek
There are many tools for creative thinking in the literature...
While there is overlap among these compilations, there are at least 150
unique tools in just these four books. And these are only a few of the books on the topic of creative thinking!
Unfortunately, this variety leaves the impression that no one really
knows how to stimulate creativity. However, rather than being an indication of chaos
in the field, the variety of methods is really an indication of just how
easy it is to develop your own creative thinking tools.
Despite the diversity of tools to support creative thinking, all such tools are based on three simple principles: attention, escape, and movement. Plsek (1997)
The tools of creative thinking are simply various combinations of practical
ways to implement this heuristic—to focus attention, escape the current
reality, and continue mental movement. The relative weights given to attention,
escape, and movement, and the mechanics of directing these three mental
actions, vary among the methods. But this variation makes sense because
each situation we encounter is different, each group is different, and each
person is different. Once we understand these three basic principles, we
can adapt techniques to suit various needs, situations, and personalities.
Creativity requires that we first focus our attention on something; typically something that we have not focused much attention on before. The primary innovation of the Apple Macintosh computer in the early 1980s was that its
designers focused not on raw computing power, but on the user interface. By focusing attention on things that are normally taken for granted (in this case, the command line interface predominant in the early 1980s), creative thinking techniques prepare our minds for breakthroughs (here, the graphical user interface).
All methods for creative thinking require that we do something to focus attention. For example, one author proposes that we construct a mental, slow motion movie
of a situation looking for aspects that we have previously overlooked. Similarly,
Nadler and Hibino (1994) suggest that we spend time writing alternative statements of an issue and placing them in what
they call a purpose hierarchy, rather than simply diving into the issue.
Having focused our attention on the way things are currently done, the second principle behind all creative thinking methods calls us to mentally
escape our current patterns of thinking. For example, stating what is known as a Leaping Provocation is a direct method for inviting mental escape from current patterns of thinking. To a group working to decrease the time that customers
wait to receive a service, we might say, "They have passed a law
making it illegal for customers to wait more than 30 seconds; what are we
going to do now?" The statement invites us to escape our current paradigm
about customer flow and, for a moment, imagine a very different world.
The principle of escape explains why a simple walk in the woods can bring
about creative thoughts. When we walk in the woods, we escape the confines
of the current ways, both mentally and physically. Similarly, staring at
yourself in the mirror while you shave or put on make-up provides a momentary
mental escape that may allow a novel mental connection about a work problem
to emerge. I am not suggesting the use of these relatively passive techniques
in the active pursuit of directed creativity. I think we can do better.
But, to the extent that simple distraction works in creative thinking, it
works because it is a means of mental escape.
Simply paying attention to something and escaping current thinking on it is not always sufficient to generate creative ideas. Unfortunately, the
natural mental processes of judgment tend to reject new thoughts as not
productive or too ridiculous to dwell on. Movement—the third underlying
principle behind the diverse tools of creative thinking—calls us to keep
exploring and connecting our thoughts.
Movement is a key principle behind the classic creative thinking technique
of brainstorming. The ground rules of brainstorming are to generate as many
ideas as you can, with no criticism, building on the ideas of others. In
other words, keep moving. Similarly, asking a group to come up with a sketch
that illustrates their vision of the company’s future is also a movement
technique. You can’t simply state the vision and be done with it, your mind
must dwell on it long enough to complete the sketch. During that time, the
mind—which is never idle—generates new connections and ideas that
might expand the basic concept.
The Value of Understanding the Three Principles
The benefit of this simple, three-part structure is that it opens the way to the development of an infinite number of methods for directed creativity.
You can now develop your own techniques. Importantly, you can develop techniques
that are specifically suited to the issues you are dealing with, to your
own personality and preferences, or to the subtle dynamics of a particular
group. As long as your new technique contains elements that focus attention,
provides escape from the mental patterns normally associated with the topic,
and encourages a high level of flexible mental movement, you can be reasonably
assured that it stands as good a chance of working as any other technique
you may have read about. If your technique doesn’t bring you success initially,
you can modify the means or mixture of attention, escape, and movement and
try again. There is no magic in the methods written down in books; at least
no magic that you cannot duplicate on your own.
de Bono, E (1992) Serious Creativity.
New York: HarperCollins Publishing. (Back)
Higgins, JM (1994) 101 Creative Problem
Solving Techniques. Winter Park, FL: New Management Publishing Company.
Michalko, M (1991) Thinkertoys: A Handbook
of Business Creativity for the 90s. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
Nadler, G and Hibino, S (1994) Breakthrough
Thinking, 2nd Edition. Roklin, CA: Prima. (Back)
Plsek, PE (1997) Creativity, Innovation,
and Quality. Milwaukee, WI: ASQC Quality Press. (Back)
von Oech, R (1983) A Whack on the Side
of the Head. New York: Warner Books. (Back)
Paul Plsek explains the three basic principles.