Written by Paul Hoffman and Margaret J. King
Idea generation is the key to any problem-solving task, and essential for non-routine problems requiring creativity. When the usual skills and judgment that come from solving the customary problem are not equal to the task, thinking must venture into imagination and other subject domains to yield extraordinary solutions.
Whenever the solution to a problem falls outside the bounds of straight-line thinking, it is time to attack the problem by other means. This often involves visiting seemingly unrelated topics or concepts, ideas that can appear quite foreign or even hostile to the problem at hand. But time after time, this way of cracking the problem code has been successful. Consider the achievements of invention and discovery: photography, the credit card, microwave technology, Velcro, DNA, the silicon chip, the theory of evolution, the pacemaker, e-commerce, film, and satellites. Although these are all now commonplace players in daily life, their start-points were off the chart, and only later were they accepted as useful. None of these breakthroughs would have been possible without the will to think outside the common-sense box of ideas.
An ability to see connections where none were visible before is the transforming power of creativity. Some of the world’s greatest puzzles have not only been solved, but whole new fields opened up, by this type of mental exploration in a wilderness far afield from the safe haven of tried-and-true answers. But in order to make offshore ideas mainstream reality, weird ideas must be able to be viewed as possible and even better than ideas now at work. Ideas like photography — drawing pictures with light rather than paint &mdash were deemed impossible before they were finally realized. Others, like the telescope and the phonograph, were considered mere toys, without useful application to “real” problems. Long-term persuasion, determination, and promotion were required to make them stick. Unless there is a germ of truth that can be glimpsed within the idea in order to bring it to life, it is doomed to oblivion — as millions are every day.
Wild vs. Practical
Predictably, there are two difficulties with idea generation: ideas are either too conservative or too wild. Neither is useful to the problem-solving enterprise. Conservative ideas are stuck within the framework of the problem itself, doomed to repeat failure. At the other extreme, those responsible for the solution are commonly too fearful of being stretched too far by strange ideas. People are instinctively afraid of being stuck with untenable far-out concepts that don’t have ready acceptance. There is also thinking style. Typically, certain thinking types are better at idea generation, while others excel at making those ideas work. The ideal idea-generation process would do both, dealing with the vast sea of possible solutions by imposing a feasibility net that would capture those most likely to succeed in application.
Generation vs. Implementation
One approach, used at Scott Paper Company in developing Cottonelle bathroom tissue, recognizes this problem and suggests a way of handling it. The “Trojan horse” approach, a surreptitious device to open the gates to new ideas, is based on a two-group operation, each with a complementary mandate. The two groups are the Idea Generating Group (IGG) and the Idea Implementing Group (IIG). They meet separately. The first, Generating, is told about the problem to be solved, instructed to produce a brainstorm of ideas, and informed that the second group, Implementing, will be responsible for actually solving the problem by making one of these solutions workable. So far, a conventional problem-solving scenario.
There is a caveat: these ideas must be, in principle, doable. They cannot require heretofore undeveloped science, like time travel, or a perpetual-motion machine, for instance. But here is the twist: the first group’s task will actually be to “play a joke” on the second by developing truly outrageous ideas. The qualifier for these “outrageous” ideas acts as the mechanism making them workable for the next stage. Ideas generated are presented to the second group, the Implementers, with the report that they come from “a group of highly qualified experts” who have already found them to be feasible.
A Thinking Ruse
This ruse is the hypothetical mind-set that can allow thinking to operate on ideas without the normal human reticence to risk loss on unproven ground. As a Trojan horse device, the force of “possible thinking” liberates groups to set about constructing workableideas as implementable solutions. Members from Group One, the original Generators, can at this point safely be re-entered into the process so that their expertise can also be mined. A recycle between the two groups may later be necessary.
Case Study — Paper Physics
The following is an illustrative example. In the early 1970s, Scott Paper Company was engaged in inventing and developing a new toilet tissue with vastly greater softness than previously possible. The normal development group charged with the task was, however, unable to improve the underlying softness-strength relationship, even when it tried every method known up to that time. A separate venture was therefore formed to solve this task, composed of both IGG and IIG groups. The Generator group, told that it could “play a joke” on the Implementer group, threw the door of invention wide open. A few brainstorming sessions, looking at possible materials, indicated to this group that thin latex sheets had the requisite flexibility or stretch. If added to tissue paper, they would greatly increase softness. Alas, these materials were insoluble, a property absolutely essential for flushability of toilet tissue. Hence the “joke.” Still, this group felt that even though developing a flushable latex seemed extremely difficult, it was not against the laws of nature. Thus the concept was presented to the Implementer group as deemed eminently feasible by experts. Interestingly, the group responsible for making it work included many researchers who had originally worked unsuccessfully on the project.
After the expected groaning and gnashing of teeth, the Implementor group, fortified by some of the members of the Generator group, got to work. The latex was printed thinly in a hexagonal pattern onto the paper web. This method created paper with the required softness, but the tissue remained unflushable. The group persevered. The breakthrough invention occurred when someone realized that a continuous thin opening could be created across each latex hexagonal by designing a suitable hex pattern. Water could then penetrate these openings, rendering the web flushable while maintaining the desirable softness feature. This method was later duplicated chemically by incorporating a water-soluble material into the latex emulsion, the soluble material providing the opening, acting as a conduit to the water. The major problem solved, the remaining, not inconsiderable, problems were quickly resolved, and the resulting Cottonelle bathroom tissue became the softest tissue on the market.
Let’s analyze the above example. There were three separate keys to the success of the project. The first was the recognition by the Generator group that latex is a suitable material to complement tissue paper. This part required considerable inventiveness, as well as expertise, without which the “Trojan horse” approach would not, and cannot, work. It helped, however, that this group did not need to concern itself with implementation. The second included the “Trojan horse” itself, the presentation of the solution as deemed doable by experts. The third was the implementation of the solution. That too required invention and hard work. All three are essential steps to this approach. To recapitulate: merely presenting an unworkable idea as doable and expecting it to create a miraculous solution is an exercise in futility. Imagination is one thing; creativity is another.
There is immeasurable value in imaginative thinking, but that imagination must face the discipline of being put to work as innovation in real time. One successful way to make this happen is to devise a stealth device to make remote ideas seem feasible, subduing their “wild” qualities by defining them up front as achievable. Supporting wider and deeper imagination, the “as-if-it’s-possible” mindset draws a wide circle of possibility around the brain’s ability to imagine. Solutions that are workable as well as creative come directly from this circle of the mind.
About the Authors:
Paul Hoffman is a chemical engineer and technical consultant to the paper industry. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 856/354-1933. Margaret J. King, Ph.D. is director of Cultural Studies & Analysis in Philadelphia, email@example.com or telephone 215/592-8544