Dee W. Hock, President
Bionomics Annual Conference, 1994
Wise decision making requires creativity, in addition to the courage to be rational. When Solomon was confronted by two women each of whom claimed the same infant as her own, he suggested that the infant be cut in half and divided between them! The real mother objected, saying that she'd rather give up her baby to the other women than have it killed. Solomon then knew who the real mother was and gave her the baby.
Creative thinking, it's widely agreed, is the generation of ideas that (a) are new and (b) satisfy some standards of value. To say that half of 8 is 4 satisfies the standards of correct arithmetic but is not new and is, therefore, not creative. To say that half of 8 is 100, though new, satisfies no standards and is, therefore, also not creative. However, to say that half of 8 is 0 (when cut horizontally!) or 3 (when cut vertically!) is both new and satisfies some external standards and is thus, in some small measure at least, creative.
Decision problems are structured in terms of alternatives, values, and events. It's important that we think creatively enough to have considered all important alternatives, taken account of all important values, and anticipated all important events. If not, our decision will be less likely to result in a good outcome.
Why is it so hard to think creatively? Frequently, on learning the solution to a problem, we ask ourselves, “Why didn’t I think of that?” We actually knew enough to solve the problem, but somehow we never made use of the information we had.
Two forces tend to close our minds to new ideas. One we've already had a look at, the fear of new ideas. The other, and the focus of this section, is inability to come up with new ideas. Even when we're doing our honest best to come up with creative ideas, it can be difficult to do so. If we can learn to sense when we're unable to come up with new ideas and know what to do about the problem, we should become more creative.
There are two indications that we're having difficulty coming up with new ideas, despite genuine effort: coming up with no more ideas or coming up with the same ideas over and over again.
The remedy for inability to come up with new ideas is stimulus variation. Stimulus variation can assist you with the coming up of new ideas. It also help you find a better idea, an idea that is more tailored to your situation and fulfills all your requirements. Thus even naturally creative thinkers can benefit from learning these techniques. Indeed, virtually all of the stimulus variation techniques that we'll consider were originally developed by recognized creative thinkers to enhance their own already exceptional abilities.
However before we can learn the basics involved in these techniques we must take some time to understand Cognitive Theory behind them. If we take a moment to distinguish between automatic and controlled cognitive processes (Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977; Shiffrin, 1988), the discussion of both creativity and balanced judgment in the rest of this chapter will make better sense.
Controlled processes. The most dramatic limitation of the human intellect is the limited capacity of working, or active, memory. Working memory is the "desk top", or "workbench", where we do our thinking. It's where controlled, or effortful, processing takes place. It's where, with some effort, we hang onto a telephone number that we've just looked up. Working memory is to be contrasted with long-term memory, where our own telephone number and others that we use frequently reside effortlessly. For items to be retained in working memory, they have to be attended to frequently, so that they stay active. If we're interrupted on the way from the telephone book to the telephone, we're likely to forget the number we've just looked up and are holding in working memory—though not our own number, which resides securely in long-term memory.
Our capacity for controlled processing is quite limited. The longest string of unrelated numbers the averageperson can hold in working memory is about seven, the so-called "magical number seven", and the longest string of unrelated words the average person can hold in working memory is around five, a "mental handful". One credible line of thought even has it that the number of truly independent thoughts we can entertain at one time is actually closer to three (Broadbent, 1975)!
Automatic processes. A quite remarkable design feature has the effect of greatly expanding the capacity of working memory. This is thinking in terms of patterns or related piece of information, or what cognitive psychologists call "chunks", laid down in long-term memory (Miller, 1956). For example, the following number is much longer than the magical number seven, yet it's quite easy to regenerate on the basis of what's held in working memory:
The reason is obvious: it involves a well-learned pattern.
Patterns laid down in long-term memory provide working memory with a shorthand way for thinking about the complex problems that reality throws at us. We could easily hold the following three chunks in working memory: "letters", "digits", "months", and then, on some later occasion, translate them into 26 letters + 10 digits + 12 months = 48 items!
Chunks provide our intellect with seven-league boots. It enables us, for example, to summarize a three-hour movie in a single sentence: “Schindler began by using Jewish prisoners as cheap labor to save money but, in the end, spent all the money he had to save what had become ‘his’ Jews.”
Yet chunking isn’t without its costs. Since chunking is based on associative patterns in long-term memory, thinking in chunks inclines us to think in familiar directions and disinclines us to think creatively. Because perspectives are based on automatic processes, they are difficult for an individual to change. Associative paths tend to take us back over the same old ideas, “like a broken record”.
Another mechanism, in addition to associations, tends to keep our thoughts going around in circles and returning to familiar ideas instead of moving on to creative ones. This is priming (Posner, 1978; Ghiselin, 1952; Szekely, 1945; Maier, 1931; Silviera, 1971). Priming is an effect that's intermediate in duration between the long-term memory of associations (lasting indefinitely) and the short-term memory of attention (lasting only seconds). Once ideas have been activated in working memory, they tend to remain in a ready, or primed, state for a few days, so that our thoughts come back to them more readily. It’s almost as if our mind has a ‘just below conscious’ holding devise, so that we can easily access important to relevant information.
This is the basis for the old trick that goes: If "folk" is spelled "f-o-l-k", and the president's name "Polk" is spelled "P-o-l-k", how do you spell the name for the white of an egg?
These two mechanisms, associations among ideas and priming of individual ideas, working together as they do, can create an intellectual box that it's difficult to see our way out of. Often, when we've lost something, we first look in all the places that it can reasonably be and then, unable to think of others, revisit the places we've just tried!
As an example, consider the following problem:
A father and his son were driving a sports car down a mountain road on a lovely autumn day, when suddenly the car spun off the road and crashed. The father was killed immediately, but the son was still alive, though seriously injured. He was flown by helicopter to the best hospital in town, where the hospital's top surgeon, summoned by cellular phone from a hunting trip, was already waiting. On seeing the injured man, the neurosurgeon said, "I can't operate on this boy! He's my son!"
How can this be?
This sentence is here to give you a chance to stop reading and work on the problem if you wish to. If you're ready for the answer, here it is: The surgeon is the boy's mother! Working against the problem solver is the stereotypical associative connection between being a surgeon and being male. Also working against the problem solver is the fact that maleness was primed by the words "father", “son”, “his”, "he", ”hunting trip”, and "man". Associations and priming have created a box of maleness from which it's difficult to escape. (The fact that even women’s rights activists have difficulty with this problem suggests that the difficulty is not motivational but cognitive.)
Priming and associations are generally helpful. They wouldn't have been likely to have evolved otherwise. They free attention to deal with novel problems. As Pascal said, “Habit is the hands and feet of the mind.” One of the things that distinguishes good problem solvers from poor problem solvers, however, is the ability to realize quickly when familiar approaches are not getting them anywhere. Expert problem solvers are more ready to abandon the old path, and start searching for new ones (Shanteau, 1988). Good problem solvers and decision makers are not bound by a single pattern but are able to move from pattern to pattern.
How do we get off "automatic pilot", break out of associative boxes, and enlarge our view of reality? In the association lie both the problem and the solution. Depending on how we use them, associations can keep us from new ideas or lead us to them. So long as the stimulus situation stays the same, associations will tend to keep us in the box. However, if we change the stimulus situation, this same mechanism can get us out of the box (Stein, 1974, 1975; Keller & Ho, 1988; Pitz, 1983). The basic principle of ‘Stimulus Variation’ is: To change ideas, change stimuli. If we keep stimuli changing, we’ll keep our thoughts moving. This simple principle is the basis for a variety of techniques for suggesting new perspectives and stimulating creative thought
The techniques of stimulus variation have been referred to, collectively, as a technology of foolishness (March, 1972). Ordinarily, we think about problems in reasonable ways, using the patterns and perspectives that have served us well in the past, being "sensible" and "intelligent" and "adult". And, ordinarily, this leads quickly to solutions. However, occasionally we come up against a problem that fails to yield to reason. Even for decisions where the best thing to do is what we'd immediately consider reasonable, it can still be worthwhile to look beyond the “reasonable” possibilities to make sure we haven’t overlooked a better way.
The difficulty in coming up with creative solutions is that the answer may be in a place we aren’t accustomed to looking and wouldn’t think it worthwhile to look. It is, in essence, outside of our box or frame. So, for example, before the germ theory of disease and the adoption of aseptic procedures, it was difficult for medical researchers to conceive of the possibility that the cause for childbed fever might the enemies of disease, themselves—the physicians, who carried germs to the mothers on unwashed hands (Leeper, 1951).
In fact, it is often the creative thinkers that drive advances in technology. In Star Trek: The Original Series, Captain Kirk talks to his ship from a hand held communicator that looks much like today’s cell phones. What was considered a product of a creative mind in the 1960’s, is run of the mill in today’s technological marketplace.
While it these ‘Stimulus variation’ processes may seem foolish to us, it is in this willingness to allow ourselves to engage in what is contrary our social definition of rational that ultimately leads us to reason. So while many of the techniques discussed here and in other chapters may seem silly, they give us permission to step outside of our box and see things in a different light.
In the end, of course, reason must be employed to evaluate where stimulus variation has gotten us, but that’s a topic for the last section of this chapter, on Balanced Judgment.
Stimulus-variation techniques simply activate a portion of long-term memory that wouldn’t likely be activated by rational processes searching “intelligently”. As a consequence, they generally don’t produce creative ideas; they usually produce foolish ones. What's required to get from the foolish ideas to creative ones is force fit (Gordon, 1961).
Force fit is simply an attempt to turn a foolish idea into a workable solution. Force fit treats foolish ideas as stepping stones to creative ideas, first, looking at the problem from the fresh perspective provided by the foolish idea and then searching for a connection between this idea and the problem criteria.
How is this accomplished? I was recently talking to an associate of mine. He was telling me how he had an upcoming decision to make regarding where he and his extended family were going to take their parents for their 50th wedding anniversary. Rather than throwing a party, it was common for the family to all take a week long vacation together.
One of the common alternatives was to take them on a cruise, but my associate’s sister was prone to getting sea sick. All the other alternatives had associated issues. To stay at an all inclusive resort cost too much money, and the grandparents didn’t like the sun. To rent a house someplace would put my associate in the position to have to dicker about where they would eat and how much each of them would pay for each meal.
So I took a break, and went for coffee. Standing in line for a cup of coffee, the answer was obvious. It was standing right before me as the barista made my espresso. Why not hire a personal chef, and have your all inclusive resort come to you?
Now hiring a personal chef on a college professor’s salary for a week is somewhat cost prohibitive, and thus foolish. However, through force fit we were able to turn this foolish idea into a workable solution to his problem.
How might you ask? Only a couple of blocks away from the coffee
Creative ideas virtually always come in the guise of fools. For this reason, it's essential, during creative thinking, to respond to new ideas in a constructive way (even if these ideas have come from a person with whom we're in disagreement!) Our first inclination should be to try to see what’s good in ideas and make them better.
Negative criticism is inappropriate at this point. Negative criticism merely stops thought; it tends to mire us down in defensive avoidance and offers no solution. Negative criticism is appropriate later, when we’re evaluating alternatives. However, while we're still structuring the problem, it’s essential to keep our thinking open and constructive, trying to force fit foolish ideas into problem solutions. Thus we need to suspend our judgment of these ideas, or else our creativity is seriously impaired.
The best statement of the relationship between suspending judgment and force fitting requires distinguishing among three phases in the overall process.
· In coming up with a foolish “stepping stone”, no evaluation should be employed. This is stimulus variation in the problem-structuring phase of decision making. In other words, let yourself get as creative as possible.
· In moving from the stepping stone to a potential solution, positive evaluation only should be employed. This is force fit in the problem-structuring phase of decision making. In other words, ask yourself what do you like about the creative idea? Then come up with a workable idea based upon what you like about the creative one.
· In evaluating potential solutions in order to determine whether any is satisfactory, both positive and negative evaluation should be employed. This is the evaluative phase of decision making.
The time has come to see how to put stimulus variation to work, and look at some specific techniques. First, however, some general points should be made.
· There's no point in using creative thinking techniques as long as we're coming up with ideas. We should wait until we're coming up with no more ideas or are coming up with the same ideas over and over again.
· Force fit must be applied to get from the “foolish” stepping stones produced by these techniques to ideas that might be truly creative.
· The techniques will work most efficiently on decision problems if applied first to values and then to alternatives and events, and if applied to big-picture considerations, rather than details.
· It isn’t necessary to use all of the techniques that will be discussed. Start with those that appeal to you most, and try the others later when and if time becomes available.
Here, I discuss five widely applicable techniques for stimulus variation: observation, creative conversation, breaks, checklists, and mood. These can be applied to values, alternatives or events. In later chapters, we’ll consider additional stimulus-variation techniques more specifically adapted to thinking about the specific aspects of the decision making process. Even in cases where the more specific techniques are applicable, however, these general techniques are always applicable.
We begin with an important internal stimulus, mood. People who are in a good mood tend to come up with more ideas and with ideas that have more “reach”, in that they go beyond narrowly defined bounds (Isen, 1997; Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987; Isen, Means, Patrick, & Nowicki, 1982). This may be because we're more often in a positive mood, so positive moods become associated with more ideas than negative moods. So try to put yourself in a good mood when you're working on your decision problem, or put off working on your decision problem until you're in a good mood. Being in a good mood should be congruent with feeling hope and not feeling time pressure. This is the playful attitude that creative people frequently refer to.
The most fundamental implementation of stimulus variation is thoughtful, or mindful (Langer, 1989), observation of the world about us, especially parts of the world relevant to our decision problem. Nietzsche said, “Don’t think. Look!”
Thus, the artist looks at patterns in nature and at works by other artists to get ideas. The writer observes people and reads and, furthermore, attempts to write about subjects he or she has had personal experience with. The scientist pays close attention to data and is very often forced to new ideas by the data, themselves. A technique for getting management trainees to think creatively about management is to have them tour industries looking for problems. Getting the facts straight is a good way to get ideas for solving a problem, and, if you’re stuck on a problem, a good thing to do is to go over the facts once again.
One study (Getzels & Csikszentmihalyi, 1976) presented art students with objects they might include in a still life and then observed their behavior. The principal finding was that those who explored these objects the most thoroughly and took the longest to decide on a composition and treatment produced the best paintings and had the most successful careers as artists. The best artists were more likely to walk around the table on which the objects had been placed, to pick them up and handle them—even to bite on them!
Dale Chihuly, the
Another study (Szekely, 1950) showed that manipulation of an object results in a deeper understanding of the physics of the object, with the result that the object can be used more creatively in solving new problems. We often get to the point where we can repeatedly solve a mechanical puzzle without “knowing” how we do it and then have to watch ourselves to "learn" the solution.
In conversation, new internal stimuli are created when we speak, and new external stimuli are experienced when others speak. It is often in this interaction between two people discussing a topic that new ideas result.
While conversing can creatively influence ideas, writing can as well. Writing can be as effective as talking in changing internal stimuli (or stimuli within one’s self). Both involve efforts to put our thoughts in a form that can be communicated convincingly to others and thus can generate internal stimuli that we wouldn't generate when thinking “for ourselves”. When we go to write our thoughts down, we usually find omissions and errors that lead us to re-write--and re-write!
In addition to our producing new internal stimuli when we engage in creative conversation, other people may provide new external stimuli. For instance, a boat owner had been trying for over an hour to repair his diesel auxiliary, while his guest waited in the cockpit, unable to help because of the small size of the engine compartment. Finally, the guest said, "What exactly is the problem? Maybe I can make a suggestion." The owner described the problem; the guest made a suggestion; and, within minutes, the owner had solved the problem! The guest felt pretty smug, but as it turned out, his solution was not the correct one. He hadn’t even understood the situation correctly. The importance of his idea was in providing the owner with a different way of looking at the problem, which led quickly to a genuine solution.
As this example suggests, a person need not be knowledgeable or creative to say something that'll stimulate creative ideas in others, especially in creative others. An old Chinese proverb has it that, “A wise man learns more from a fool than a fool learns from a wise man.” Because people coming from different experiences are inclined to chunk the world in different ways, people with different experiences and perspectives have the potential for thinking more adequately about the problem together than any one could alone.
The fact that talking with others provides stimulus variation in two distinct ways, producing new internal stimuli and providing exposure to new external stimuli, should make it an especially effective way to come up with creative ideas. Talking with others is more efficient, of course, when the conversation is about the problem and is especially efficient, as we'll see later, when it's about big picture concerns and goals or sub-goals.
For creative conversation to work, it's, as always, important to apply force fit. In part, this means thinking constructively about what we hear ourselves saying in an attempt to turn it into something even better. In part, it means thinking constructively in a similar way about what the other person is saying. (If we do manage to turn what the other person says into something of value, we shouldn’t forget that allowing him or her at least to share in the credit for the idea can encourage a sense of control over the process and, with it, a greater openness to future ideas. This is especially important when working with others on a joint decision or trying to settle a conflict.)
Different people not only bring different perspectives that can stimulate creative thought in conversation, they also, of course, may bring different information and expertise that can help complete the fact picture. Both contributions can be of value. At the highest levels of science, technology, business, and government, the best thinking is most often done by problem-solving teams. This is one of the true values of diversity. Instead of being thought of as the red light of trouble, differences are usually better thought of as the green light of opportunity, the opportunity to get from minds in conflict to minds in concert or, better, to the smoothly functioning "super mind" of an effective problem-solving team. The Wright brothers understood this well and placed a high value on the vigorous arguments they frequently had with one another.
There are three specific variations on talking with others that are broadly applicable: the Devil's Advocate, the giant fighter's stratagem, and networking.
The Devil’s advocate. A Devil's advocate is a person whose express role is to provide arguments against the prevailing direction of the group. This practice was first formalized by the Roman Catholic Church as part of its canonization process. When the Roman Catholic Church is deciding whether a person should be recognized as a saint, it appoints a person, the Devil's Advocate, to present the case against canonization. The practice of assigning a person or group of persons specifically to argue against the prevailing opinion has been found by a number of organizations to be a valuable one and has been recommended as a corrective for groupthink (Janis, 1972). (Groupthink is the tendency for members of a cohesive group to regard their perspectives as representative of the best thought on the matter and to resist discrepant views.)
The value of a Devil’s Advocate is dramatically illustrated in Arthur Schlesinger’s account (1965, pp. 803-4) of the meeting of President Kennedy’s Executive Committee on the first day of the Cuban missile crisis. Initially, most of the members thought that the best alternative would be an air strike to destroy the missile sites. Then Attorney General Robert Kennedy urged them to seek additional alternatives. As it happened, the alternative that was finally chosen, a naval blockade, was one of those generated in response to his suggestion.
The value of having a Devil's Advocate seems to have been demonstrated by the Catholic Church in a negative way, as well. Pope John Paul II abandoned the practice, and the number of persons admitted to sainthood skyrocketed during his overseeing of the Catholic Church.
The Devil's advocate principle also underlies our adversarial system of justice, in which specific persons are assigned to represent the plaintiff or prosecution and specific other persons are assigned to represent the defendant. The Devil’s advocate principle seems to work best when the Devil’s advocate merely questions the assumptions on which the dominant alternative is based and refrains from actually becoming an advocate for a competing alternative (Schwenk, 1990; Schwenk & Cosier, 1980).
The giant fighter’s stratagem. A children’s story tells of a boy who found himself having to defeat two giants. He accomplished this seemingly impossible task by arranging for the giants to fight, and defeat, each other. The elegant feature of the giant fighter’s stratagem is that it uses intelligence to redirect the superior force of others to one’s own advantage. In applying this stratagem to decision making, we use the knowledge and thought of experts to help us structure our decision problem.
Let’s say that we're trying to decide on a car. Car A appears, on balance, to be the best; however, Car B also has some very attractive features. We go to the person who's selling Car B, give our reasons for preferring Car A, and ask him or her to talk us out of our preference. If the person selling Car B manages to do so and to convince us that Car B is preferable to Car A, we then go to the person who is selling Car A and repeat the process. It’s amazing how often this stratagem can, in the end, get the person selling the inferior product to admit that, at least for our purposes, the competitor's product is superior. This admission, alone, can give us a great deal of confidence in our decision.
The point of this form of creative conversation is to let two opposing experts do a large chunk of the cognitive processing for you. So yet another example of this can happen when you are evaluating a decision regarding what direction you wish to take your life. If you are choosing to go to college, or change colleges, you can talk to admissions of various schools and ask them why their college is better for you than another. If you are attempting to choose a profession, you can ask those in that profession why their profession is better than another you are considering. Give yourself permission to exploit their expertise, and you may find yourself with the creative information you are looking for.
Networking. When you seek information relevant to your problem from anyone, there's one question you should always consider asking: Who else would you suggest I talk with?
Exploring a network of contacts can greatly expand the range of stimulus variation in creative conversation. The person you are talking to may not be the last you should talk to.
According to one view, taking a break achieves stimulus variation by simply allowing time for internal and external stimuli to vary on their own (Maier, 1931; Szekely, 1945). Getting an idea during interruption in work on a problem is called "incubation". A "miniature" example of incubation that we've all experienced is trying to recall a word, giving up for a while, and then having the word suddenly come to mind (Polya, 1957).
The stimulus changes can occur both in real life and in dreams. The stimulus changes that occur in dreams are efficient in that they tend to be related to whatever problem we’ve been working on that day. This is an effect of priming.
The stimulus changes that occur in waking life, however, won’t necessarily bear any efficient relationship to the problem we’re working on. There are two things we can do about this. One is to use the break to work on related problems. So, for example, if you are stuck on one math problem, you would work on other related problems and come back later to the one giving you problems.
The other way to deal with this is to become so deeply immersed in the problem before taking the break that a broad range of everyday experience will be seen as problem relevant.
Taking a break sounds attractive because it seems to require no effort. This is misleading, since effort is usually required to get deeply enough into the problem for the break to work (Silviera, 1971). As Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
Using checklists is one of the easiest of the techniques for getting ideas. You can expose yourself to a large number of stimuli in a short period of time simply by looking through a list of items related to your problem. This is what we do when, in trying to recall a name, we consider each letter of the alphabet in turn and ask ourselves whether it could be the first letter of the name we're trying to remember. It's what the poet does in using a rhyming dictionary to bring to mind words with a particular rhyme pattern. It's what a chess player does when one of his pieces is attached and he runs through the list: Move the attacked piece, capture the attacking piece, interpose a piece between the attacking piece and the attacked piece, attack a piece more valuable than the attacked piece. Pilots, of course, routinely use checklists before takeoff.
The trick is to discover checklists that are relevant to your problem. We’ve already presented a Decision Checklist. Later, we’ll present specific checklists for thinking about values, alternatives, and uncertainty.