How to brainstorm effectively

by PECOS-95 min read19th May 201227 comments

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Mr. Malfoy is new to the business of having ideas, and so when he has one, he becomes proud of himself for having it. He has not yet had enough ideas to unflinchingly discard those that are beautiful in some aspects and impractical in others; he has not yet acquired confidence in his own ability to think of better ideas as he requires them. What we are seeing here is not Mr. Malfoy's best idea, I fear, but rather his only idea.

- Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

I want to emphasize yet again that the tools [described in Serious Creativity] are deliberate and can be used systematically. It is not a matter of inspiration or feeling in the mood of being "high." You can use the tools just as deliberately as you can add up a column of numbers.

- Edward De Bono, Serious Creativity


I will summarize some of the techniques for how to generate ideas presented in Serious Creativity. The book also has other material, e.g. interesting deep theories about why these techniques work, arguments for the importance of creativity, and more techniques beyond what's described in this post, but in the interest of keeping this post concise and useful, I will only describe one kind of technique and urge you to just try it. You should read the book if you want more detail or techniques.

These techniques can be used both when you have a problem you need to solve and when you have a general area that you suspect could be improved or innovated, but don't have any specific ideas of what's wrong (or even if you don't feel like there's anything wrong at all).

The technique I will describe in this post is that of "provocation" followed by "movement." A provocation is a seemingly random or nonsensical sentence or phrase. Movement is the process of going forward with a provocation and actually generating an idea. There are precise, formal techniques for generating provocations and movement, which I will describe after giving an example of how this "provocation-movement" process works.

 

Example

Provocation: Planes land upside down.
Movement: We can imagine this actually happening, and observe that the pilot would have a better view of the landing area. This naturally leads us to consider other ways to improve the pilot's view of the landing area. Perhaps we could move the cockpit to the bottom, or add video cameras. So using this technique, we've identified an area for improvement and two possible ways to make that improvement.

 

Setting Up Provocations

Provocation is a way to avoid getting stuck in the same "mental pathways" (see priming) so that you can find new ones. Provocations should not make sense and are not necessarily intended to convey meaning; they are just intended to "make things happen in our minds." The book precedes provocations with "po," a word used to indicate that the sentence is intended to be nonsensical and illogical. Po stands for "provoking operation." The book describes several techniques for generating provocations.

  1. Escape method: Think of something that we take for granted, and negate it. E.g., "Po, restaurants do not have food" or "Po, shoes do not have soles."
  2. Reversal: Take a standard arrangement or relationship that we take for granted, and reverse it. E.g. "I have orange juice for breakfast" becomes "Po, the orange juice has me for breakfast". Note that the reversal would not be "Po, I do not have orange juice for breakfast." That would be the escape method.
  3. Exaggeration: Suggest that some dimension or measurement falls far outside its normal range (either greater or lesser). E.g. "Po, every household has 100 phones" or "Po, the phone has 1 dialing button." If you're making the dimension smaller, do not bring it to 0 or you're just using the escape method again. E.g. "Po, the phone has 0 dialing buttons" is not an exaggeration, it's an escape.
  4. Distortion: Take normal arrangements (e.g. relationships or time sequences) and switch them around. E.g. "Po, you close the letter after you post it," "Po, criminals pay for the police force," or "Po, food prepares customers for chefs."
  5. Wishful thinking: "Wouldn't it be nice if..." put forward a fantasy that is known to be impossible. E.g. "Po, the pencil should write by itself."

A provocation doesn't need to follow from one of these techniques. A provocation can be any incorrect or absurd statement. These techniques are just easy step-by-step ways to generate provocations without requiring any elusive "spark of inspiration." Once a provocation is generated, it should be followed by one or more of the movement techniques described in the next section.

If you are trying to solve a specific problem or innovate in a particular domain, then choose provocations related to the domain. That is, if you're trying to figure out how to improve wikipedia, don't use a provocation like "Po, the orange juice has me for breakfast," choose one like "Po, citations are not needed" (escape) or "Po, articles contain encyclopedias." (reversal).

 

Movement

Movement allows you to take some idea, concept, or provocation and move forward with it to generate more useful ideas and concepts. These techniques don't apply solely to provocations: you can use them for ideas and concepts too. The book describes 5 formal techniques for movement:

  1. Extract a principle: Focus on some principle of the provocation, and then work with that principle to discover other ideas related to it. E.g. with the provocation "Po, bring back the town crier", we may extract the principle that the town crier can go to where people are, and then we try to generate ideas related to that principle.
  2. Focus on the difference: Compare the provocation to existing ways of doing things. How are they different? Then you can consider other ways to use this difference. This is very similar to "extract a principle."
  3. Moment to moment: imagine what would happen if the provocation were put into effect. We are not interested in the final effect, but the moment-to-moment happenings. E.g. for "Po, orange juice has me for breakfast", you may imagine yourself falling into a giant glass of orange juice.
  4. Positive aspects: Look directly for benefits. What are the positive aspects of the provocation? Once you've identified some positive aspects you can consider if you can achieve some of them in other ways (again, this is similar to extract a principle, it's just another way of thinking about it).
  5. Circumstances: In what circumstances would the provocation have immediate value? E.g. for the provocation "Po, drinking glasses should have rounded bottoms," you could notice that this would be useful if you didn't want people to be able to put down their glasses. This could be good for bars, where you want people to drink more and faster.

You can use these movement techniques not just on provocations, but also ideas or concepts. For example, you may start with a provocation, use the "moment to moment" technique which gives you an idea, and then you could use the "positive aspects" technique with that idea to generate more ideas. Also, of course, you do not need to strictly use just these techniques. If a provocation directly leads you to think of something interesting without explicitly choosing to use one of these techniques, that's fine, you should explore the idea more. Use these when you need them.

 

More Examples

Here's another example from the book. This one uses the "moment to moment" movement technique:

Po, cars have square wheels

We imagine a car with square wheels. We imagine this car starting to roll. The square wheel rises up on its corner. This would lead to a very bumpy ride. But the suspension could anticipate this rise and could adjust by getting shorter. This leads to the concept of an adjusting suspension. This in turn leads to the idea of a vehicle for going over rough ground. A jockey wheel would signal back the state of the ground to the suspension which would then adjust so that the wheel was raised to follow the "profile" of the ground...This was an idea I first suggested about twenty years ago. Today several companies such as Lotus (part of GM) are working on "intelligent suspension" which behaves in a similar way.

And here's another one from the book. The provocation uses the "escape" method and the movement seems to use the "circumstances" method:

Po, waiters are not polite.

This leads to an idea for waiters to be actors and actresses. The menu indicates the "character" of the waiter. You can order whichever waiter you wanted: belligerent, humorous, obsequious, and so on. You might order a belligerent waiter and enjoy having a fight with him. The waiters and waitresses would act out the assigned role.

 

 

Warnings

  • As a general principle, try to avoid saying "oh, but this is just like this other existing product" whenever you generate an idea. Usually it's not just like the existing idea, you're just interpreting it in that way because we naturally follow paths toward the familiar. So if you have a half-formed idea that could take several directions, fight the urge to immediately take it down an existing path and then discard it because it already exists. Leave it in the half-formed stage instead. I'm reminded of the concept of semantic stopsigns. Saying an idea is "the same as" something else gives the illusion of having fully explored the idea, when in reality you just jumped immediately to one possible development (possibly the least useful development, since it's one you know already exists).
  • Similarly, do not take too many steps when moving from a provocation. This will just lead you to an existing idea. There's nothing to be gained by playing 6 degrees of separation with provocations and existing ideas. Just take a few small steps. If nothing comes to you, try other movement techniques or try a different provocation. 
  • You're not expected to come up with a good idea for every provocation. Most of the time you'll come up with some mediocre or half-formed idea, or even no idea at all. This is fine.
  • You should write down anything you come up with that seems interesting (even if it's a bad idea in its current form, if it has something interesting about it, write it down) and then come back to it later and think about it more (either using these techniques or just your normal thinking processes for improving and adapting ideas).

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27 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:49 AM
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This calls for a link to simulated annealing, an optimization heuristic. Here, initial sampling is "provocation" and the jumps later in the process of cooling are "movement".

It shouldn't be so surprising to me, seeing simulated annealing in so many places. It's a good approximation for optimising NP problems, it should develop organically in places dealing with NP problems.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

How do you set your prior for initial sampling? This seems like the fundamental problem to me (with regards to creativity). Suppose I want to brainstorm about a scientific problem. I don't want to start with "cars have square wheels" because that has nothing to do with my problem. But, if I start with a statement of the problem, I have already "primed" myself in a certain direction, even if I just negate the problem statement. I guess the analogy breaks down a little. For SA, I would use a uniform prior, and I'm guaranteed eventually to explore every part of the space. Idea space is too big for that. On the other hand, the trade-off is similar: more random starting points that are random, or fewer random starting points using a better prior.

Isn't that the purpose of the 5 provocation techniques? You pick a few statements which are taken for granted related to the area of the problem, and then reverse/negate/distort them in some way. This isn't a uniform distribution over idea space, since the taken-for-granted statements are related to the problem area.

This raises interesting off-topic question: does 'intelligence' itself confer significant advantage over such methods (which can certainly be implemented without anything resembling agent's real world utility)?

We are transitioning to being bottlenecked (in our technological progress, at least) by optimization software implementing such methods, rather than being bottlenecked by our intelligence (that is in part how the exponential growth is sustained despite constant human intelligence); if the AI can't do a whole lot better than our brainstorming, it probably won't have upper hand over dedicated optimization software.

incredible comment. that was very insightful, thanks

This is a great post full of low investment methods with potentially high payoffs.

Yet, I find the structure of this post to be personally hilarious! My favorite technique/provocation is not listed: randomly matching successful systems(or their principles) into new pairs. While effective, this notion is commonly rejected- that a new combination of old ideas/principles is not new, unworthy of respect, and furthermore can be considered criminal behavior(a violation of intellectual ownership). I find the absence here understandable and even defensible- but the irony of starting the post with a quote from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is too much.

Can you give an example?

Brainstorming semi-debunked

Short version: It frequently helps for people to bounce ideas off each other, but forbidding disagreement isn't useful. (The article doesn't discuss possible ill-effects of too much hierarchy.)

At least for musicals, the best results seem to come from groups which include both people who've worked with each other before and newbies.

Huge gains can be gotten from random contacts-- it's good to be in a building where people from different specialties come in frequent contact with each other.

The book this post is based on (Serious Creativity) is also pretty critical of traditional brainstorming and "withholding judgment." I chose the word "brainstorming" in the title because it's catchier and more connotative than something like "idea generation." Here's an excerpt:

The traditional process of brainstorming sometimes gives the impression that deliberate creativity consists of shooting out a stream of crazy ideas in the hope that one of them might hit a useful target...a scatter-gun approach to creativity makes no more sense than having a thousand monkeys banging away on typewriters in the hope that one of them might produce a Shakespeare play.

He also discusses later in the book the differences between group and individual brainstorming, with the suggestions that, if you want to do a group brainstorming session, it should be split into repeated individual-thinking (separate from each other) followed by discussion, followed by more individual thinking, etc. One problem he identifies with group brainstorming is that you have to slow down a lot to explain things to other people.

Yes. This is lovely and the technique works quite well.
I am also delighted by the grammatical construct of "Po," and may well adopt it in speech.

Incidentally, a rather popular tourist site near where I live features a restaurant where the wait staff is known for being rude. It's considered a feature.

In SF, the infamously "rude" waiter Edsel Ford Fong was considered an attraction at the restaurant Sam Wo.

I am curious about what transformation in tourists' thoughts occurs to consider rude waitstaff a feature of said location. Can you elaborate?

My guess:

A restaurant famous for having rude staff? I don't believe it. I have to see it. If it's really true, that will make a good story for my friends.

I can't speak to what cognitive transformation occurs, if any, but the restaurant is Durgin Park. I'm not sure what kind of elaboration you're looking for.

It's kind of fun, if one is in the right mood for it.

I find something similar (though less extreme) is not uncommon in diners.

Conan O'Brien sent Jack McBrayer and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog to The Wieners Circle (which in the words of Wikipedia is, apart from its food, known for "the mutual verbal abuse between the employees and the customers during the late-weekend hours").

This American Life also did a story on The Wieners Circle.

Questionable Content features a coffee shop whose main selling point is rudeness to customers as well. It's mostly portrayed as sassy banter the customers enjoy and occasionally partake in. Wikipedia's article on Durgin Park gives the same impression. In the webcomic, customers also tend to be hipsters who enjoy the originality; I don't know about real life.

Durgin Park's customers are more middle-class tourists, and it's not quite as extreme as the fictional coffee shop in QC, but the spirit is similar. As long as we're talking fictional examples, I'm reminded of Seinfeld's Soup Nazi as well, which I also gather was inspired by a RL vendor.

Thanks PECOS-9, this is one of my favorite posts.

One thing I already do for a provocation is, I use half baked ideas that pop into my mind and are obviously bad, but have some element that is unique. I say "here's a bad idea for brainstorming purposes" then see if I can make good movement from it.

I've always like DeBono's ideas, esp. how he tries to look a bit deeper at clichés like "thinking outside the box", and his criticism with some of the other middlebrow creativity techniques. He's later books (in particular, "Think!") are a bit too much self-promoting to me, and linking his methods to all kinds of real-world successes where it is not at all clear what the role of of said method really was.

It'd be great to have some real experiments (with control groups etc.) to see how well these methods really work.

I won't wait for those though, and use the parts that have been helpful to me in the past; I especially like his reminders that to find a solution one should always focus on what it should do, and not how. E.g., the problem is not really "I need a towel", the problem is "I need something to dry myself".

The amazon link appears to be broken.

Oops -- fixed.

I am terrible at commingled up with ideas for goals I want(meaning I cant think of any goals) How might I use these techniques for that

If I'm understanding correctly, this method is for randomly finding "creative ideas" but contains no way to direct those ideas towards solving any specific problem?

I usually consider creativity useful only when I can target it towards something I consider a worthwhile problem. Trying to realize a random creative idea would distract me from focusing my efforts on problems I've already found to be most important to work on.

Still, this does sound like it has potential- the more people using this, the chances that somebody would think of something related to a problem I am personally trying to solve would become higher.

You can direct the method toward a specific problem by choosing provocations related to the problem area.

I've added a paragraph to the Provocation section just now to clarify this:

If you are trying to solve a specific problem or innovate in a particular domain, then choose provocations related to the domain. That is, if you're trying to figure out how to improve wikipedia, don't use a provocation like "Po, the orange juice has me for breakfast," choose one like "Po, citations are not needed" (escape) or "Po, articles contain encyclopedias." (reversal).

Thanks, that's a critical point that makes the technique far more useful.

Nice, I'm going to experiment with this. It is like a thought experiment that intentionally creates the opportunity for an "accidental discovery", which are usually the most useful.