To solve problems, groups need good ideas. Since complex problems usually require many good ideas, we generate them any way we can — brainstorming, conversations over lunch, or even dreaming. The ideas we generate include the good, the bad, and the ugly, and it isn't always obvious which is which. We have to comb through them all, evaluating, assessing, doing thought experiments, and making judgments. When we think we've found something worthwhile, we might do some actual experiments to help with the judging.
Generate, judge, experiment. Generate, judge, experiment. It isn't a simple cycle, of course, because sometimes we generate new ideas in the course of judging, or while running experiments. Nevertheless, it's useful to consider three roles for group members: generators, judges, and experimenters. Some people hop easily from role to role, and some adopt two roles — or all three — simultaneously.
Although ideas have a life cycle, we don't always respect that life cycle, and that's where trouble can begin. Over the next three issues, I offer some insights that help us to accommodate our generating, judging, and experimenting efforts to the life cycle of ideas. Let's begin with generating.
- Newborn ideas are fragile
- Newborn ideas — ideas just hatched and new to the group — are easily crushed. They usually have weaknesses that haven't yet been addressed. They're incomplete and vulnerable.
- Their vulnerability arises from at least three sources. First, if the problem space is complex, the generator of the idea might have grasped only a part of the problem. Second, generators tend to focus on singular aspects of the problem, even if they have grasped the entire problem. Third, to aid generation, generators often intentionally produce wacky or mostly-wacky ideas, because they can trigger creative thinking.
- To prevent premature rejection of newborn ideas, suspend judging until generation has completed an iteration. This suspension is an important part of formal brainstorming.
- Addressing weaknesses requires resources
- Newborn ideas are Newborn ideas are incomplete,
in part, because of the
their constituenciesincomplete, in part, because of the narrowness of their constituencies. Because it's new, a newborn idea hasn't yet acquired advocates beyond the small circle of its generators. This is rarely enough to protect a newborn idea from rejection, as its list of weaknesses accumulates.
- When we apply our judging and evaluation processes to newborn ideas, they sometimes die because their constituencies are so narrow that they suffer from insufficient exposure to cognitive diversity. For example, their generators might not have considered a weakness identified by a judge, or even if they have, they might not have developed a resolution.
- To prevent premature rejection of newborn ideas during judging, consider designating teams of advocates to address the weaknesses judges identify. The advocates might need more members than the judging team, because addressing weaknesses can be more difficult than identifying them.
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Knowing Where You're Going
- Groups that can't even agree on what to do can often find themselves debating about how
to do it. Here are some simple things to remember to help you focus on defining the goal.
- The Solving Lamp Is Lit
- We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving
before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
- Assumptions and the Johari Window: I
- The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of
the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's
- Project Improvisation and Risk Management
- When reality trips up our project plans, we improvise or we replan. When we do, we create new risks
and render our old risk plans obsolete. Here are some suggestions for managing risks when we improvise.
- Tackling Hard Problems: I
- Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project.
Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.