THE BLOG

Challenge the Way You Think

04/03/2014 11:19 GMT | Updated 04/05/2014 10:59 BST

The company wanted to run a development programme - but money was tight. They needed to keep the accommodation costs as low as possible. Whilst we understood this, we didn't want to create a 'cheap-skate' feel to the event. How then to proceed? We needed good accommodation but at budget hotel prices. We solved the problem by renting a country house and getting the delegates to cook for themselves. The country house was delightful. By self-catering we had created a team exercise that was infinitely more enjoyable than many commonly used tasks. Best of all was the fact it cost less than staying at a budget hotel.

Reconciling seemingly irreconcilable differences is what innovation is all about. It's finding that 'third way'. Hidden in the frustration of two mutually exclusive positions such as cheap and luxury accommodation is almost always the opportunity for innovation. For example, eating breakfast cereal without milk gave us the cereal bar. Paying for a meal without having any cash led to the credit card.

There are a number of steps that can help in being more creative. It's not a black art, nor is it rocket science. Once you've mastered some of the techniques it becomes incredibly liberating and the world seems to have far more possibilities.

Ford was right....or wrong

Have you ever heard anybody say?

• "I'm not very creative." or

• "I'm not good with technology." or

• "I'm rubbish at public speaking."

"Whether you think you can, or you think you can't - you're right" said Henry Ford. Of the millions of innovation tools out there on the web, all are a waste of time unless you have the right attitude. Time and time again people constrain themselves in the language they use. Let's change the whole thing by adding the word "yet" to the end of each sentence. For example, "I'm not very creative - yet". The difference is one of approach. Without 'yet' it's a 'fait accompli'. With 'yet' being creative becomes a possibility. To continue without deciding to become creative, or that you already are, would be like reading the instructions for a gadget you don't own, mildly interesting but basically useless.

In exactly the same way, the solution to any problem or challenge that seems irreconcilable starts off with the decision that there is or can be a solution. Unless you decide this, you may try to come up with ideas, but the reality is you have already decided 'it can't be done'. In the same way, if you have already decided what the 'right' answer is before exploring alternatives then all you are doing is wasting time. Better just to do what you think.

However, if you genuinely want to explore new options it will involve you challenging what you think you know. For example, if you already have a solution in mind, ask yourself "how could I solve this if I couldn't do what I have already proposed?"

Top tip:

It sounds simple, and it is. Start by deciding the problem or issue can be solved. Start by deciding there are probably more than one or two solutions. Decide you are going to find a solution.

The insidious creep of assumptions

When it comes to creativity and innovation, it is the assumptions we make that constrain our thinking. In a breakthrough piece of thinking, a senior executive I had the pleasure of working with challenged why his firm used the term medium market to describe a particular market segment. In so doing he forced people to ask questions as to what this market segment was all about, whom it included and the rationale of why these businesses had been grouped together. The outcome was the realisation that rather than a low value section of the market, it did in fact offer the best opportunities for growth.

The difficulty is when we think assumptions are 'facts'. Debating a perspective is easy, arguing against an opinion is difficult and contending fact is a non-starter. The trouble is too often an opinion becomes a fact and a perspective becomes an entrenched opinion. The fact that there is still a flat earth society is testament to the power of constrained thinking.

Top tip

Just because you have a very clear solution doesn't mean it's the only one. If you can't see any other way of doing something, it means you need to go back and challenge all the elements, including those that seem to be at the very heart of the solution.

Spot the language

The way we speak impacts on our ability to be creative. Listen to the words you use when you speak. Words such as 'obviously', 'clearly', 'always' tend to be used when it is by no means certain that it is 'obvious', 'clear' or 'always the case'. The use of such words is to give an opinion the status of a fact. If something is a fact arguing against it is considerably harder than when it is merely someone's opinion. Such words are intimidating and constrain creative thinking. When faced with someone adding such words into a sentence, it's useful to ask for the evidence in support of their claims. Exploring the evidence leads to clarity over what is an assumption and what is fact.

Top tip

Listen to the way you speak and the words you use. Are they helping or preventing new solutions?

Creativity is a skill

Like most skills, the more you practice the better you get. It tends to start with generating ideas.

Fools rush in

The difficulty at this stage is that the first or second idea that comes along becomes the solution adopted. The rest of the time is then spent working out how to make the solution work. Rarely is the first solution the best. Often the most useful ideas combine elements of other ideas together. Therefore, it's good to have lots of ideas to start with. This means spending enough time generating a range of ideas. I suggest that when ideas start to dry up you try another tool to generate some more. The process of generating ideas should go on as long as possible, and probably longer than you think!

Any tool that helps you challenge the way you think can be useful. For example, sometimes it's useful to focus on just one tiny aspect of the problem, such as the ink used on the package rather than attempting to come up with a whole product.

Another useful tool is to work out the unwritten rules that have arisen through custom and practice associated with an activity and challenge one or more of these. For example, when you go to a restaurant there is a set order in which things happen, such as ordering your starter with your main course. Why does it need to be this way? What if customers either ordered the whole meal or instead had no choice over what they ate? 'Bloom in the park' is a restaurant in Malmö in Southern Sweden that has no menu. On the face of it this seems very limiting, but the experience is actually very liberating. Given they have survived for many years it seems others agree. The point is, what we think of as rules are rarely such.

Top tip

Practice! Use a variety of tools to generate new possibilities. When you find yourself running out of ideas, try another technique. More ideas mean more possibilities.

Put your thinking cap on

Of the many tools that exist Edward de Bono's six thinking hats is a good place to start. The value of his approach is in encouraging you to think through an issue from a number of dimensions. It forces a structure that prevents you rushing to conclusions and solutions too quickly.

There's a mass of literature on this topic available including de Bono's original text on the subject. I don't intend to replicate what many others have covered, instead I want to focus on what each of the elements brings that makes it so useful. In essence, the idea is think through an issue from a number of perspectives, one at a time ensuring you have exhausted the options or thoughts related to that perspective before moving on.

Get to the facts - the white hat

What's the evidence? This is a really great question that legitimises asking 'how do you know?' Sometimes we can feel intimidated by those with whom we are working such that challenging the basis of their knowledge seems almost rude. This can mean for the sake of politeness a decision is made that has no basis in fact. It's one of the reasons facilitators are used - we are allowed to ask 'stupid', 'naïve' questions in our quest for understanding.

Understanding the facts has a number of levels. For example, an employee survey might tell you people are dissatisfied with a decision. The next level of analysis may show the sample size for a particular score was 6 people. Analysis of the scores may show a range from +1 to +5. These are facts. They are neither good, nor bad, just facts.

I'm sorry this won't work - the black hat

The black hat, which examines the negative aspects, may conclude that the sample size was too small to be meaningful and the data range too big to provide any meaningful insight. This is what the black hat is all about, taking a critical perspective on a decision or issue and identifying those factors likely to contribute to failure or that call into question the value of the decision. The best thing about taking a critical approach in your analysis is that if you can think of problems with what you're proposing then so can others. So if you can come up with solutions to those issues or problems and answer the concerns of others, the chances are you have a robust, credible idea. To know about a problem with your idea and not to have done something about how you would address it if challenged seems foolish.

It maybe that having considered all the negatives, your idea is simply not worth it. What a critical approach does is to ensure we don't see all our ideas with rose tinted glasses. It also legitimizes challenge. I've been in meetings where negative comments are seen as demonstrating 'you're not part of the team', or 'you don't support the team' or 'you're always negative'. There is a place for critical analysis and we should embrace such thinking when appropriate.

C'Mon, we can do this - the yellow hat

In contrast, the yellow hat takes the positive view. This is a good thing to do with people who seem determined to be negative. It forces them to find the good in an idea. Being positive about an issue or solution can mean going beyond thinking simply about the solution. It's helpful also to think about benefits to all those involved as invariably the success of an idea depends on getting a number of people on board in an organisation. Knowing the benefits of doing something helps you keep going. Think about running a marathon, knowing you are raising money for a good cause will help you keep going through the tougher parts of the race providing the motivation to work through the pain. Similarly, knowing how your idea will benefit customers and keep your colleagues in employment can be helpful in the face of adversity.

A simple exercise I often ask people to do when they think they have a great idea is to list 30 benefits. On the face of it this seems a ridiculous number, but forcing people to come up with 30 really helps people work out what all the benefits could be. In so doing it either drives in higher levels of motivation or helps people realise it needs more work.

You can begin to see where this is going. If you spend enough time thinking about the benefits and the negatives, you will end up making a better decision than simply working out how to make a particular idea or solution work.

6th sense - the red hat

There's more we can do. I was doing some research once into the basis of decisions made by senior members of a company about whether to buy or build hotels in a given location. The results surprised me. Many respondents concluded that if, having done all the analysis and everything suggested it was a good decision it still 'felt like the wrong thing to do', they would not proceed. It took me a while to figure out why they would still be guided by their gut reaction. It seemed that their gut feel was the accumulated years of wisdom that gave them a sense of what worked and what didn't. They couldn't put their finger on any specific factor, but it just felt wrong. Over the years, I've found myself deciding not to do something, such as send an email I've written, because something tells me it's not quite right. Invariably, it feels like I made the right decision. And this is what the red hat is all about. It's that gut feel you have, the sense of intuition, an instinct about how others may react. It's valuable input. On its own, it probably needs exploring and analysing, but taken into consideration with the other hats it's useful input.

What if... - the green hat

The green hat is my favourite - it's all about possibility. It's about creating ideas and solutions without tearing them down instantly with negative criticism or comments such as "we've tried that before" as if the future was somehow a replication of the past. Taking a creative approach means suspending criticism. It means imagining it was possible to do certain things. For example, we were working on a project to develop new drinks products. During the creative phase we developed an idea for a drink that helped build a sense of community. This led to the concept of sponsoring a community based activity linking people together through social media accessible through information on the product that in turn met the social objectives of the business as well as driving up volume of consumption.

The outcome sought was increased volume of sales. The starting point had been developing a new product. The solution was sponsoring the development of a community based activity. The end result met the brief. Volumes went up. The point is the solution was only possible because of a creative process that welcomed new ideas however 'off the wall' they seemed in the first instance. Subsequent discussions took the best bits from one idea and combined it with another to create an even better idea.

Guide the thinking, don't lead the thoughts - the blue hat

Finally we have the blue hat. This is a focus on ensuring the right hat is used, in the right way, for the optimum duration before deploying another tool. This role in a meeting is hugely rewarding. It requires you to really listen to what's been said, to take notes, to synthesize the thinking and summarise it back to help keep people focused. It means stepping in to challenge when appropriate. It's about guiding the thinking without leading the thoughts. The intensity required to shape a discussion effectively means it is incredibly difficult to be part of the overall discussion. This is probably a good thing as the moment you become part of the debate it is very difficult to shape the debate without being seen as skewing it one way or the other.

Top tip

Take the time to explore each facet of an idea properly. That way, your final option is likely to be robust, well thought through and beneficial with clearly understood risks.

Spend enough time

The point about all these approaches is ensuring enough time is spent considering each or dimension and avoiding rushing to a decision that may be very difficult to change in the future and may lead to too many unwanted and unintended consequences.

It's about action!

Whatever approach you take, the key difference between creativity and innovation is that creativity creates the ideas, whereas innovation sees them through to execution. Unless your efforts to be creative lead to action it will have been a waste of time. Creativity fits within a context, it's there to do something - to solve a problem. The key question at the end of all discussion has to be "so what?"

Get it right, practice lots, and the process of creativity is an incredibly rewarding, engaging and fulfilling experience. When done with others, the outcome is invariably substantially better than anything an individual can achieve. It's also a really good way of helping a team feel like a team.

Dominic Irvine © March 2014 All rights asserted