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Creative Problem Solving, as we use it, is a definite, step-by-step process for attacking difficult business problems, and I'm going to walk you through that process in a moment. But Creative Problem Solving can also be seen as a mental technique, a style of attacking problems that leads, inevitably, to the process. We call this style or technique "set breaking," and using it over and over, until it becomes second nature, is one of the great secrets of success in every good motivator, and every good manager, I've ever known.
Although we use set breaking in a unique manner suited to the productivity problems we encounter, the idea behind it is not original with us. The idea of breaking a "set," or of approaching a problem from an unfamiliar, unconventional angle was first discussed extensively by the educator Edward de Bono. He developed his views on creativity in a popular book called Lateral Thinking, and we have borrowed several of his concepts because we have found them to make perfect sense in the problem areas we confront.
In de Bono's book, "lateral thinking" was a rich, creative type of mental process which led to quite different—and usually much better—solutions than the "vertical thinking" with which most of us are familiar. To summarize de Bono's findings about the difference between the two kinds of thinking:
• Vertical thinking is selective, unidirectional, and analytical. When you think vertically, you move from one point to another in a logical, predictable fashion, choosing the "right" solutions to intermediate problems at every step along the way, and rejecting those intermediate solutions that don't fit the pathway you have set out in your mind. You don't skip steps, you don't leave the beaten path, you follow the rules.
• Lateral thinking, on the other hand, is generative, multi-directional, and provocative. When you think laterally, you jump around in a completely "illogical," unpredictable way. You allow yourself to be "wrong" if being wrong leads to a more interesting or more open set of possibilities. You don't assume you know where you are going, you don't have a map in your mind, and you don't impose a solution so much as you accept the solutions that the situation ultimately suggests to you.
It should be clear from this description that vertical thinking is the type of thinking that you generally practice: it's that time-honored way of getting at a problem that relies on such "logical" chestnuts as Aristotle's famous maxim "A cannot be not-A" and the technician's basic working proposition that Number 5 has got to come after Number 4, Number 6 after Number 5, and so on. Lateral thinking is the thinking of loonytunes and rule-breakers and folks who don't want to fit in. You know the kind of people I mean. Dopes like Christopher Columbus and Louis Pasteur.
What did Columbus and Pasteur have in common? They both went against the grain. They rejected the given wisdom of their time, which said that in order to solve a problem which had stumped thousands of other people, you had to follow the same path that had stopped them, only work at it a little harder. Given a certain mind-set because of the conditions of their times, they decided that progress toward a solution meant they had to discard, or "break" that set. And only after breaking the set did they get to where they wanted to go.
In Columbus's day, if you wanted to get from Europe to the spice-rich islands of the Orient, you headed east and started walking. Or you went around the Cape of Good Hope. Those were the only options. Many geographers and sailors knew the world was round, all right, but—good vertical thinkers that they were—they weren't about to act on the knowledge by sailing west. There were sea serpents out there, and incredibly violent storms, and just too damn much water to cross. You'd have to be crazy to sail west into the Great Ocean. Everybody knew that. It was the universally accepted, logical mind-set of the fifteenth century. Which nobody but a loonytune would want to break.
It was the same story with Pasteur. In the mid-nineteenth century, every educated person in Europe "knew" that milk spoiled in the summer because of spontaneous generation of minute organisms. There was nothing you could do about it. It was just the way the world was set up, and you were just wasting your time if you thought you could stop the growth of something that arose spontaneously, out of nothing. "What if the organisms didn't arise spontaneously?" Pasteur asked. "What if they arose out of other organisms? And what if you killed those other organisms? Wouldn't that keep the milk from spoiling?" Set breaking, again. Asking a question that nobody had thought of asking before, because it was off the beaten path, illogical—stupid. But Pasteur asked the question anyway, and as a result Europe got clean milk for the first time in history.
A few business examples. Remember the hula hoop? One of the toy industry's greatest marketing coups of all time. The hula hoop was constructed out of waste plastic tubing—excess material that a manufacturing company was going to throw out until some bright lateral thinker got the nutty idea of bending it into big circles.
How about Eli Whitney's mass production technique? It revolutionized American industry practically overnight, and it came from the crazy idea of making rifles out of interchangeable parts. Before Whitney's time, if you wanted anything constructed, you hired a single craftsman to do it all: to turn every piece, to fit it all together, to deliver a unique specimen that, incidentally, only he could properly repair. That was just the way it was done, until old Eli questioned the fundamental assumptions of the system—and came up with mass production.
And then there's the Post-it Note Pads that have been making 3M such a fortune in the past few years. Those are the pads that you can stick onto a sheet of paper, take off, and re-stick somewhere else. They were invented by a 3M employee named Art Fry who, like Whitney and Pasteur, asked a question everybody else "knew" was foolish.
Fry was a design engineer who—in accordance with 3M's liberal and far-sighted policy of letting employees do private projects on company time—had been trying to come up with a glue that would allow a sticker to be used more than once: the company legend says that he wanted something that would make a good page marker for his hymnal without tearing the pages when it was removed. None of the "good" glues worked,
because by definition a "good" glue was one that kept two surfaces bonded tightly together and couldn't be pulled apart. So Fry asked a "stupid" question: What about using a bad glue? That is, what about using an adhesive that didn't do what it was supposed to do—that didn't meet company standards for quality? The rejected, "useless" glue turned out to be exactly what he needed to create the Post-it pad.
The moral of these stories is something that turns the conventional wisdom about "improvement" on its head. Sometimes the guy who makes a million bucks isn't the person who invents the proverbial "better mousetrap." Sometimes it's the person who figures out how to make stupid mice, or who uses the old, ineffective mousetrap as a clipboard, or doorstep, or wind-chime.
That's what set breaking is about. It's about digging the hole in a different place. But how do you apply it to motivation? How can you, as a manager interested in motivating your people toward better productivity and better quality, ensure that each one of them uses Creative Problem Solving as a tool toward those desirable ends?
The answer is that, in the team meetings I discussed in the last chapter, you create an atmosphere where set breaking is not only allowed, but encouraged. You motivate your people to be creative by giving them positive reinforcement in the team setting. Set breaking, lateral thinking, and creativity are not inherited characteristics that you either have or don't have. Just as you can learn to be more cooperative or more assertive, you can learn to be more creative, by practicing set breaking in a formalized context where creative Behavior leads to positive Consequences.
When we go into a company and teach managers how to run Creative Problem Solving sessions, we give them and their teams the necessary practice by running them through what we call Brainstorming exercises. Another term coined by de Bono, "brainstorming" is the first part of that lateral thinking process that I've said leads to such creative results in the companies we consult. It's the perfect way to get your eagles and mules together to come up with solutions that are better than those anybody could have come up with on his own.
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