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The Business Playground: Idea Spaghetti

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If coming up with many ideas -- ‘idea spaghetti’ -- is such an important driver, the question is: ‘What helps make a lot of spaghetti?’ The answer, it turns out, is not just having a big pasta pot to cook it in (though that helps), but instead the ability to think divergently.
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  • Having lots and lots of ideas increases the chance of having some really great ones.

Remember Thomas Edison, the dude mentioned in the last chapter who invented the first viable electric lighting system? Turns out he also invented a bunch of other stuff too. Oh yes, Tom was no slacker. Known as ‘the wizard of Menlo Park, he was one of the most prolific inventors in history, with a cool 1,093 US patents to his name, not to mention a few in the UK, France and Germany. In addition to electric lighting (1879), he invented the phonograph (1877) and the carbon microphone (also 1879, apparently a good year for Tom), which was used in all telephones for the next hundred years and in radio broadcasting.

Alex Osborn, known as the father of modern brainstorming, said that one key component of creativity is fluency, or how many ideas a person can generate. And Edison had this in spades. ‘Prodigious’ was his middle name (actually, Alva was, but let’s not quibble). The other two components of creativity that Alex identified were flexibility, defined as the number of different types of ideas a person generates, and the originality of the ideas, or how unique they are.

Statistically speaking, which we try not to do too much, original ideas are those generated by less than 5 percent of a sample. If, for instance, we were to ask 100 people for suggestions on what to do with a clothes hanger, the ideas that five or fewer of the people come up with will be classed as original (however bizarre the ideas are). Osborn claimed that fluency is the driver of both flexibility and originality. The more ideas we generate, the more likely it is that the ideas will include ones that are varied and original.

If coming up with so many ideas – what we call ‘idea spaghetti’ – is such an important driver, the question is: ‘What helps make a lot of spaghetti?’ The answer, it turns out, is not just having a big pasta pot to cook it in (though that helps), but instead the ability to think divergently. ‘Meaning?’, we hear you ask. Well, there are two types of thinking: convergent and divergent. Convergent thinking is thinking that helps us converge on a single answer – e.g. ‘the answer is 42’; while divergent thinking has many possible answers.

Looking at things more broadly, as children do, is at the very heart of creative thinking, and asking open-ended questions is a good way to stimulate it. Say hotel guests are complaining they are having to wait too long for the lifts2; if thinking convergently the hotel manager might ask an engineer to fix the problem by installing costly new lifts. But by thinking divergently, the manager might reach a completely different and much cheaper solution to stop the guests complaining – for instance, by giving them something to do while they wait, such as magazines to read and mirrors to distract them. (We thought one of those ‘what the butler saw’ peep shows would also work, but that’s just us.)

In the classic tale The Little Prince,3 author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry tells the story of how, as a little boy, he drew a picture of a boa constrictor after it had swallowed an elephant. The drawing looked a bit like a brown misshapen hat, as a snake would look if it had swallowed anything that big. When he asked grown-ups whether the image frightened them, they answered, ‘Frighten? Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?’ Even his second attempt of showing the elephant inside the boa, this time from the inside of the snake, failed with the grown-ups. ‘Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining it to them,’ says de Saint-Exupéry. Later in the book the Little Prince of the story’s title, who is visiting Earth from asteroid B-612, talks about grown-ups and their ways: ‘Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never ask you, “What does his voice sound like? What game does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?” Instead they demand: “How old is he? How many brothers does he have? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?” Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.’

Following Tinkerbell

Here’s something interesting about these two different thinking styles – convergent and divergent – and how they can be used effectively. Evidence suggests that groups are better at convergent thinking, while individuals are better at divergent thinking.4 When a problem has a single best possible answer, a group will work more effectively getting there than people working on their own do. But when many different ideas are required, a group comes up with more clichéd and traditional ideas compared to individuals. Yes, contrary to the received wisdom, perpetrated we suspect by meeting facilitators and manufacturers of snack foods, group brainstorms are not always worthwhile. In fact, bad brainstorms can be counterproductive, leaving participants feeling frustrated, confused and fat.

One reason for this is that groups generally try to avoid conflict, and yet by their very nature wildly diverse ideas are often in conflict with one another. The group tries to keep things on an even keel so that the idea generation is a pleasant experience rather than a particularly creative one. People smile, they say nice things about one another’s shoes, and come up with ideas that are all pretty much alike. In fact, participants often go through certain social rituals as if they were at a cocktail party. They tell stories, repeat ideas and make lots of positive noises: ‘Hmm. That’s a good one. Pass the chive ‘n’ onion oven-baked crisps, would you?’

Groups also have a tendency to slack off and only do as much, or as little, as the least productive person in the group. This is called ‘downward norm setting’, even if the slacker in question isn’t actually called Norm, and alludes to the fact that the least productive members of the group have more of an influence on overall group performance than the high-flyers. And then there’s the mix of distractions that come with working in a group. Just when you’ve started an interesting train of thought, some bozo interrupts with his or her own and by the time you’ve heard what they had to say your mind is blank again.

This is not a plea to work on your own when trying to solve creative problems. If some of these barriers can be removed, working in a pair or as a small group can be very effective. One way is to include a healthy mix of people from different backgrounds, or a mix of healthy people from different backgrounds. Ideally both. The point being, if they are not all people with similar ideas, interests, beliefs and love of bizarrely patterned socks, the chance for some novel ideas to bubble through is greatly increased. Another way is to give the participants in brainstorming sessions some high benchmarks to aspire to. Telling them how many ideas another group came up with, or telling them that their ideas will be posted for others to see, for instance, will bring out the competitive spirit in them and encourage them to come up with more ideas themselves – ‘Sod those oven-baked crisps! I’ll be damned if those losers on the 12th floor come up with more ideas than us!’

Competition is good for the creative process, but the tendency for people to pooh-pooh one another’s ideas simply because they weren’t the ones who had thought of them – the ‘not created here’ syndrome – should definitely be avoided. The trick is to take the ego out of the process and to follow Tinkerbell (the fairy in Peter Pan5), the brightest light in the room. If the group is rewarded as a whole for the best idea, then the participants will be motivated to build upon one another’s ideas rather than do their best to ensure theirs is the one that wins out.

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, clearly recognises the importance of group dynamics in creative thinking. In 2003, with a $100-million commitment, he founded The Allen Institute for Brain Science – a collaborative effort by a group of some of the world’s top scientists to deepen our understanding of the human brain. In aiming at breakthroughs, as Paul told Business Playground, ‘A lot of it’s about bringing the right people together to become the optimal creative team.’ The Institute’s inaugural project is the Allen Brain Atlas, a geographic depiction of the mouse brain at the cellular level. By combining neuroscience and genomics to create a three-dimensional map of mammalian gene expression, the Atlas will provide invaluable insights into human disorders and diseases from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to epilepsy, schizophrenia, autism and addiction. For the project to succeed, ultra-creative thinkers from different scientific disciplines need to work together. ‘Everybody wants to say something, but you need people who will listen to each other, really listen, and understand where the other person is trying to go,’ Paul says.

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