Can a paperclip save the world?

Can a paperclip save the world? Probably not.. but wait a minute…

Perhaps it’s because the paperclip is such a simple and yet ingenious, ubiquitous artefact that it’s used as a trigger to start thinking more creatively (well, by me anyway).

The first patent for a bent wire paperclip was awarded in the United States to Samuel B. Fay, in 1867. This clip was originally intended primarily for attaching tickets to fabric. His doesn’t resemble the familiar object we know today. That was invented in the 1870s in Britain by the Gem Manufacturing Company (and is still known technically as the Gem Paperclip) although no patent was filed, leading to many later claims and variation on the classic design.

So here’s the task:

How many non-uses of a paper-clip can you think of? Things you cannot use a paperclip for.

Most people find this quite hard which shows they are not fluid at activating the right side of their brain. This is a lateral thinking task because you have to get off the track of thinking of actual uses of a paper-clip. This tests how random you can be.

The task is actually quite easy since there are actually very few sensible uses of a paper-clip. You can use one to clip paper together (obviously) and you can use one to eject stuck CDs from computers. But not much else. So almost anything else will do, except people find it so, so difficult.

Here are a few examples:

You can’t fly to the moon on a paper-clip. You can’t marry a paper-clip. You can’t use a paper-clip to teach snails quantum physics.

One of the reasons people freeze up and can’t think of anything, especially in groups, is that someone has said something clever, witty or particlularly good so now they have to compete with that. This doesn’t help. When generating ideas you do not and can not compete with anyone, it’ll modify how you think and shut down your creative process. The point is not to outdo one another or try to be funny or clever. The point is to come up with ideas. You ned to be influenced and riff off what others come up with because ideas comes from other ideas.

So what else?

You cannot use a paper-clip to solve world poverty…. hang on, perhaps you can. If we do this…. and this… and suddenly a brave new idea has been found that changes the world. And all because judgemental thinking such as ‘that won’t work, that’s stupid’ has been turned off. Try it yourself.

Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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Lateral thinking problems are evil

One bane of working in the field of creativity is the curse of certain ‘lateral thinking’ problems like the nine dots you have to join up without your pen leaving the paper or the paragraph were you have to count the occurrence of the letter ‘f’. Very few people manage to solve these problems and they seem to serve only as examples to prove how stupid we all are, especially as once the obvious answers are pointed out, we’re kicking ourselves that we couldn’t think ‘out of the box’ enough to spot it.

Although interesting and sometimes fun to do, these exercises have little connection with enhancing your creativity. Try this one that circulated on the internet recently:

“I am only sending this to my smart friends. Can you figure out what these words have in common – Banana, Dresser, Grammar, Potato, Revive, Uneven, Assess. You will kick yourself when you discover the answer. Go back, look at them again and think hard.”

The tedious answer is that in all of the words listed if you take the first letter, place it at the end of the word and then spell the word backwards it will be the same word. Did you get it? Probably not. These tests in no way reflect your intelligence or your creativity. There is no evidence to suggest that becoming good at them in any way increases your creative output. In fact, highly creative individuals, those who actually do produce great creative works or ideas, are no better than average on these tests. Being good at these problems means that you will now be better at that particular problem (obviously as you now know the answer). These ‘problems’ are worthless and the reason is that they aren’t about anything. They have little or no meaning. If you failed on the word test above you were probably looking for meaning in the connection of the words. You were actually being creative but unfortunately the solution required you to ignore meaning and look at the features of the letters.

It was a trick, like so many of these so called tests, designed to catch you out. A cheap trick to place the perputrator on higher intellectual ground than his audience. This sort of thing is an anathema to me. It goes against everything I talk about which is that everyone can be more creative. The main thing stopping us is confidence in our abilities which smug little problems only eat away at.

So pay no attention to these parlour games and continue to work on developing your true creativity that will enrich your life and work.

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Put Grandma in the Playpen

What would be a realistic but unusual answer to this problem?

Grandma is knitting but her three year old granddaughter keeps playing with the wool. Father suggests putting the child in the playpen. Mother comes up with a better idea – what is it?

Some people suggest taking the child out of the room or telling Grandma to stop knitting. Better than that is to give the child a spare ball of wool. All these solutions are acceptable – but a bit boring, a bit obvious. The point of the exercise is not simply to solve the problem, but to solve it in a realistic but unusual way. A better answer is then to put Grandma in the playpen. Doing that would mean Grandma could carry of knitting without interruption and the child can be in the room with everyone but doesn’t feel imprisoned. It works, it’s simple, but something odd is going on.

Grandmas don’t belong in playpens you cry! That’s a convention yes, but not the law. There’s nothing to say we can’t do it. The point of this problem and the solution is that there are many answers to the problems in your life and in your business. Most are obvious – they are the ones your competition have already thought of. You cannot afford to be obvious.

So when you have a problem and you need a solution don’t be concerned with convention. Don’t be concerned with what’s expected. Don’t be concerned with what people will think. Don’t even be concerned with what’s possible. If you put constraints like these on your ideas or if you judge your ideas during th e brainstorming phase you might was well give up and join the legion of mediocrity because these things will prevent you from having the best ideas at best, but will more than likely totally kill the process at worst.

Working out what is actually possible and allowed is done later, in the planning phase, not in the creative ideas phase. Learn to play, to make new associations, swap things around, wonder, be silly, experiment. These are the attributes that will enable you to solve the problem with a unique solution and to think of that elusive winning idea.

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Laterally Thinking

Lateral Thinking, Blue Sky, Out of the Box – we hear these phrases bandied about but what does it all really mean? The term ‘Lateral thinking’ was first coined by Edward De Bono who described it as the process to achieve pattern switching from one way of thinking to another. Ok, but what does that mean and why should we care?

All thinking is an associating process. We think of one tho ught and that leads to another thought and that leads to another and so on. If you could be bothered you could trace your line of thought back throughout the day and you’d see that you live in a continuous associative stream of consciousness.

Playing ‘word association’ is easy – if we had a room of people and I said apple, the next person may say tree, the next could be woodland… etc. It’s very easy because that is how the mind works. If we were to play ‘word disassociation’, we’d find it a lot harder. The only way to do it is to associate to something else to get away from the word. It’s like our mind has rail tracks on which our thoughts travel. We’re essentially heading in a set direction which, like a train, is hard to deviate from without crashing.

This is why so many people do exactly the same things, say exactly the same things and come up with exactly the same solutions when faced with a problem. They don’t have any new ideas because they’re travell ing on the same straight tracks as they always have.

So when we talk about lateral thinking or pattern changing we’re essentially talking about jumping off the tracks onto another railway line that is going in a different direction. This is only possible if the rail network of neurones (brain cells) in your brain is a complex network of intersections instead of a set of parallel tracks.

Einstein’s brain is stored in a jar in Kansas City. It has been studied by many experts for decades. It is by all accounts a very average male brain, the same weight and size as most. But it differs from the average in one important respect. When samples were studied under the microscope it was noticed that the neurones had dramatically more connections to each other than in the average brain.

So how do you form these connections? Like a muscle, the brain needs to be exercised. To make new connections you need to make new associations between disparate things . You need to fantasise, experiment. Force yourself to change habits of action, speech and thought. Do things differently. Do different things. Connect the new experience back to something you’ve done before. Learn to disassociate! Break out of that pattern of thinking by being random. Play!

Here’s a lateral thinking task to end with. What would be a realistic but unusual answer to this problem?

Grandma is knitting but her three year old granddaughter keeps playing with the wool. Father suggests putting the child in the playpen. Mother comes up with a better idea – what is it?

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