How to Find What You’re Not Looking for

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Synopsis

Be prepared for the chance or accidental discovery when brainstorming for ideas.

Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else. As simplistic as this statement may seem, it is the first principle of creative accident. We may ask ourselves why we have failed to do what we intended, and this is the reasonable, expected thing to do. But the creative accident provokes a different question: What have we done? Answering that question in a novel, unexpected way is the essential creative act. It is not luck but creative insight of the highest order.

Even when people set out to act purposefully and rationally to do something, they wind up doing things they did not intend. John Wesley Hyatt, an Albany printer and mechanic, worked long and hard trying to find a substitute for billiard-ball ivory, then coming into short supply. He invented, instead, celluloid— the first commercially successful plastic.

B.F. Skinner advised people that when you are working on something and find something interesting, drop everything else and study it. In fact, he emphasized this as a first principle of scientific methodology. This is what William Shockley and a multi-discipline Bell labs team did. They were formed to invent the MOS transistor and ended up instead with the junction transistor and the new science of semiconductor physics. These developments eventually led to the MOS transistor and then to the integrated circuit and to new breakthroughs in electronics and computers. William Shockley described it as a process of “creative failure methodology.”

Richard Feynman, a Nobel Laureate physicist, had an interesting practical test that he applied when reaching a judgment about a new idea: for example, did it explain something unrelated to the original problem. E.g., “What can you explain that you didn’t set out to explain?”and, “What did you discover that you didn’t set out to discover?” In 1938, 27 year old Roy Plunkett set out to invent a new refrigerant. Instead, he created a glob of white waxy material that conducted heat and did not stick to surfaces. Fascinated by this “unexpected” material, he abandoned his original line of research and experimented with this interesting material, which eventually became known by its household name, “Teflon.”

In principle, the unexpected event that gives rise to a creative invention is not all that different from the unexpected automobile breakdown that forces us to spend a night in a new and interesting town, the book sent to us in error that excites our imagination, or the closed restaurant that forces us to explore a different cuisine. But when looking for ideas or creative solutions, many of us ignore the unexpected and, consequently, loose the opportunity to turn chance into a creative opportunity.

Years back, 3M invented a new adhesive for industry. No industry was interested and management ordered an engineer to burn the samples. The engineer, instead, thought the adhesive had “interesting” aspects and took some samples home. He observed his teenage daughters setting their hair with it and using the adhesive in various other ways around the home. He went to management and convinced them that what they had was a consumer product, not an industrial one. 3M manufactured and marketed it as Scotch Tape.

You have to give yourself the freedom to see what you are not looking for. In 1839, Charles Goodyear was looking for a way to make rubber easier to work and accidentally spilled a mixture that hardened but was still useable. By allowing himself to go in an unanticipated direction, he invented a practical vulcanization process. By focusing on the “interesting” aspects of the idea, he discovered it’s potential.
PMI.

To explore a subject with our intellect, we need to “will” ourselves to direct our attention in a different way. A tool to help you achieve this is the PMI. The PMI is an attention-directing tool that was first introduced by Edward de Bono, an international authority on thinking. It is designed to deliberately direct your attention to all the positive, negative and interesting aspects about your subject. Carrying out a PMI is simple. What is not simple is to deliberately concentrate your attention in one direction after another when your emotions and prejudices have already decided how you should feel about your subject.

You need to “will” yourself to look in different directions. Once you have the “will” to do a PMI, than the natural challenge to your intelligence is to find as many positive, negative, and interesting points as you can. Instead of using intelligence to support your emotions and prejudices, you are now using it to explore the subject matter.
The guidelines for doing  a PMI are:

1. Make three columns on a sheet of paper. Title the columns “Plus,” “Minus,” and “Interesting.”
2. Under the “Plus” column, list all the positive aspects about the subject that you can.
3. Under the “Minus” column, list all the negative aspects that you can.
4. Under the “Interesting” column, list all those things that are worth noting but do not fit under either “Plus” or “Minus.” The “Interesting” items helps us to react to the interest in an idea and not just to judgment feelings and emotions about the idea. “I do not like the idea but there are interesting aspects to it….”

With the PMI, you use your intelligence to explore the subject matter. At the end of the exploration, emotions and feelings can be used to make a decision about the matter. The difference is that the emotions are now applied after the exploration instead of being applied before and so preventing exploration. With a PMI, one of three things can happen:
•             You may decide that it is a viable idea.
•             You may  reject the idea as unsound.
•             You may move from the idea to another idea. By exploring the “positive” and “interesting” aspects of an idea, you may be able to recycle it into something else.
When you put down the P, M, and I points, you react to what you put down and your feelings change. Once a point has been thought and put down under any of the headings, that point cannot be “unthought,” and it will influence the final decision.

A while back, a group of designers brainstormed for a new umbrella design. One of the participants suggested a combination umbrella with holster. The holster would be worn on a person’s belt. A trigger mechanism in the umbrella handle would release the spring-loaded umbrella when unholstered.

The group thought this was a terrible idea because everyone would looked armed and dangerous.  They decided to do a PMI on the idea, and one of the interesting aspects they focused on was the idea of using the umbrella for protection. This triggered the idea of incorporating a stun gun in the umbrella. If attacked, one touches the attacker with the tip of the umbrella, pulls a trigger and renders the attacker helpless with a nonlethal shock.

By focusing on the “interesting” aspects of the umbrella idea, they provided themselves with material to look at what they might not have looked for. Just as a carefully designed experiment is an attempt to hurry along the path of logical investigation, so focusing on “interesting” aspects of subjects is an attempt to encourage the chance appearance of phenomena which would not have been sought out.
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Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. Learn more here.

 

Tags: accidental discoveries, brainstorming, chance, creative thinking, creativity

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