How to get new ideas

I recently became involved at work with helping facilitate a brainstorming session. It did not help much that this comic strip was just published (thanks to

The Official Dilbert Website featuring Scott Adams Dilbert strips, animations and more

So I had to delve into the latest research about it. It turns out I had the books that Scott Adams probably read or heard of to come up with this comic. There is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talkingby Susan Cain. I had recently watched her TED talk so I had her book checked out of the library. She makes a point that you are better off coming up with ideas off on your own, and the research she cites does agree.

I also have been reading Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer which is so packed with useful research, that I will devote a few future blogs to it. Jonah does address the fact that traditional brainstorming was refuted in studies done in 1958, soon after the practice was introduced. He cites later studies that seem to significantly improve the output of brainstorming sessions. There are two ways to increase output.

1. Ban the “no criticism” rule

While many thought that avoidance of criticism would encourage full participation. The discouraging of discussion cause participants to be less engaged with each other. At Pixar, their high creative output is due to the open and frank discussion of ideas.

2. Introduce disruptive thinking

Brainstorming is more open and ideas of a larger scope are produced when the participants are exposed to a moment of dissent, even when the dissent is wrong. In the study, participants were shown some colors and were asked to name them. In one group a plant, early on would say pink when red was shown. The other had participants name the colors accurately. In a subsequent creative exercise those that were exposed to the dissenting view were much more creative. Just the exposure to the one alternative view caused the participants to view things a little more flexibly.

I think that there are lots of techniques to introduce that dissent or disruptive thinking. This brings me to Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques (2nd Edition) by Michael Michalko. This book has dozens of different ways to get us looking at our problems in a new light.They have evocative names such as “False Faces”, “Cherry Split” and “Lotus Blossom”. Some are out there (get people thinking differently by removing shoes and allow others to try them on; I shudder at the thought), but most look worth trying out. One that I like is carefully listing the problem, stating any assumptions, and reversing each of the assumptions, and see what insights come to mind.

The book unabashedly to teach you to

     Generate ideas at will
     Find new ways to make money
     Create new business opportunities
     Become indispensible to your organization
     and much more.

Do you have any favorite creativity techniques?

Tips to Develop Focus and Discipline, from The Practicing Mind

I have been reminded about the importance of state of mind when engaged in any number of activities, including learning new skills, and developing habits from The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life – Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process.

This smallish book by Thomas M. Sterner is an antidote to the current culture of rushing around, multitasking and instant gratification. Sterner draws on his early and recent experiences of learning piano, other instruments, and golfing as well as his personal studies of world philosophies and his personal experiences now as a concert piano technician and restorer. His tips are well explained and are encouraging as he shares the following:

Focus on the Process, not the Product – First of all it is important to focus on the task at hand and not fret about your progress against your ultimate goals. He compares it to swimming where you take a number of strokes before sticking your head up to see if you are on course, instead of looking for your distance landmark after every stroke.

Remember the Lesson of the Flower – The question “When is a flower perfect” could be answered many ways, but if we consider it closely we would have to conclude at each stage, it is perfect. We need to have the same acceptance of ourselves at each stage of our growth.

Create a Trigger – As is backed up by science in a number of recent books, Sterner points out that it can be helpful to choose a small action or event, that will serve as the kickoff to our execution of our practiced behavior. It could be as with professional athletes that will adjust their jersey prior to an attempt, or it can be in the workplace where we see ourselves start losing our temper at a coworker.

Remember the Four S’s, simplify, small, short, and slow – Here it is important to break up our actions that we are trying to improve into small bits that we can work on carefully. One term used to describe effective ways to improve is Deliberate Practice. Sterner makes some very interesting observations about being deliberately slow. He tells of a packed day that he was running back and forth between concert halls, and he decided that he was just losing the life balance game, and feeling frazzled. He decided that despite all that he was going to need to do that day, he would intentionally go about it deliberately and slowly. It felt great as he did it, but he was afraid that he was running late as a result. When he got back to his truck and looked at the clock there (he had removed his watch) he found that he was way ahead of schedule.

Equanimity and Do, Observe and Correct. – Sterner encourages us to develop a even tempered detachment to our behavior and actions. This will allow us to remain calm and in the present. We can correct ourselves without beating ourselves up.

Sterner gives further suggestions as to how to learn from our children’s approach to life. I found this to be a very powerful book, and one that I intend to apply to my own life. I will try some of the suggestions to reduce some of my mental multitasking at work. When I ran an errand yesterday, I turned off the radio and just concentrated on my driving. Frankly I did not notice much difference, but maybe that other drivers did. I strongly recommend this book, as I am going to apply in my own life.

How do you learn new skills? Please share.


Some Tips From a Thoughtful Book on Thinking

I picked up The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction
because of the promise of the title. It is chock full of down to earth tips and advice to encourage us to take the time to use our brains more for contemplation and introspection.

There are chapters on the following topics:

  • Why You Don’t Think and Why You Should
  • Finding the Time to Think
  • Attention: Awareness and Much More
  • Reflection: The Art of Going Over Your Life
  • Introspection: Self-Knowledge for Success
  • Exercising Self-Control
  • Embracing the Positive
  • Being Proactive
  • Making Wise Decisions
  • Nuturing Outstanding Thinking: Insight, Discovery, and Creativity
  • Managing Adversity
  • Choosing to Be Thoughtful
  • Conclusion: We Are What We Think

The author, P. M. Forni has created here a very thoughtful book about thinking. Even the tips at the end of the chapter are not “next actions” but are more often or not, items to think about.

Sometimes I felt that I was listening to Ophelia’s Father, Polonius as he gives his fatherly advice to his son, including the counsel to  “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”. Maybe it is because book relies more heavily on common wisdom, with some anecdotes but less on the neurological science common in the recent stream of self help books.

There are some valuable nuggets such as this paragraph that stood out:

I am not arguing that reality exists only as a mind construct. We are, however, all under the spell of an illusion of sorts. The illusion is that we are one with life, when instead life’s experience is always a mind-mediated one. As the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus observed with utter clarity two thousand years ago, it is not things in themselves that disturb us, but rather what we think of them.

You will note that he quotes one of the Stoics. He does rely on classic thinkers to illustrate some of his points and also a few more modern writers.

I found it interesting that he take Nike to task for promulgating the culture of throwing caution to the wind with “Just Do It”, since I have always understood it to mean, “get off the couch and take action”, not “mindlessly take action”.

Some sections are a little confusing. He debunks the myth of NASA developing a space pen while the Russians were smart enough to just use a pencil, where the truth is that both programs bought from the Fisher Space Pen Company, He then goes ahead and uses the apocryphal story to make his point about creativity.

Forni references the classics, both the society of stoics and the temple at Delphi as well as modern experts such as Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.

I found this book to be a real jewel when closely read and pondered. This is no easy collection of checklists, but is rather a gathering of small essays and that discuss the benefits of thinking in all areas of life, and provide suggestions on how to raise our thinking to a new level and to realize the associated benefits.

In what areas of life do you think you could improve your thinking?