James, how do you think laterally? I want you to describe your thought process, and the feeling you have when you think you've cracked it. What does it feel like?Well yeah, how can I not fall for a bait question like "How does you mind work"? But also, it's a question the industry wrestles with like no other. Creativity and cracking things cause all manner of hand-wringing and sweating to occur. How can we justify our ideas when we don’t necessarily know where they come from? Here are a few thoughts on the subject.
1. 1. Thought is ruled by the dogma of linearity. We talk about thought processes and a train of thought, both of which imply one start point, one end point, and definite path between the two. Enlightened people dismiss this as hogwash, of course – one can and must have many thoughts because casting the net wide will catch the odd-looking fish.
2. 2. Here’s the danger – these same enlightened people can get caught in linearity, simply by assuming they’re ‘aware’. Knowing about the dangers of linear thought doesn’t inherently keep you away from it; it just helps you think linearly in more directions. The brain is fundamentally a machine, and if we live in a mechanistic universe (as we might) then we’re no better than this:
A member of the House of Lords once famously asked Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine,
"Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine the wrong figures, will the right answers come out?"
Clue: the answer is no. Modern computer programmers refer to this concept as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. The brain, if left to its own devices, will do what it logically can with whatever its given, processed via experience. You know the old saying: If you have a hammer, every problem looks like a walnut. Or something.
3. 3. So it’s utterly impossible to have thoughts outside the obvious – unless you employ outside intervention. This means one of two things:
a. Restructure your brain to think along lines so different from others that it is misinterpreted as original. This is how creative teams often work, exposing themselves to so much mess and creativity that they cannot help but try to think along subversive lines. However, these are still lines, and the power of the lines is in evidence whenever we see a slew of similarly wacky ads. What’s more, these processes can still lead you down familiar paths – particularly such greats as, “hmm. I wonder what visual pun we could make out of this one?”
b. Trick your mind into going in another direction. This is where you encounter a problem and all your standard modes of thought and experience begin to work, then – BAM! – something comes along to interrupt that pattern. Appropriately enough, in neuro-linguistic programming it’s called a pattern interrupt. People use such interrupts all the time, and everyone’s got their own set. There are many ‘professional’ ones that can be found in, say, De Bono. Six Hats stuff is just a way of ‘forcing’ you into a mode of thought you wouldn’t logically consider. So is a decent creative brief – for that matter, a good creative brief template can be just as powerful at guiding you to the heart of a problem.
4. 4. Let’s extend this idea. Deliberate interruption is everywhere. Brainstorms are at their best when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Why do we not just ask each person to send in their ideas? It’s not for the free biscuits. It’s because brainstorms constitute collaborative interruption. The ideas that win the day are not formed in isolation, they’re caused by “what visual pun could we use?” man colliding with Mrs. “I want to use inflatables” via the “what’s the most offensive thing we could do?” guy. Voila, Birds’ Eye is sponsored by a giant floating willy, and a great idea is born.
5. Above this, the very existence of ad agencies owes itself in part to clients realising that if they only used their own thought processes, their communications would be very predictable indeed. So they realise it.
5. In the final analysis, lateral thinking is all about outsourcing – it’s about arranging to have leaves on the line of the train of thought, ready to derail you into unfamiliar territory where the problem might just unravel. Maybe comms isn’t the answer – blasphemy in a comms agency. But the fact that arriving at a solution can feel as terrifying as it does uplifting, means you’re probably on the right track.
Well, one of them.
There you go, Will! Hope that’s satisfied you – though I’ve no doubt that there are many, many different answers out there. Has anyone else got any tricks for deliberately throwing themselves of the linear-thought path? I’d love to share them.
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