In my work teaching methods of innovation thinking, I will often start my lecture by asking my audience What techniques are you already using? The most common answer is usually the same: cram as many details of the problem as you can, and hope to get an answer before the competition.
Even though this is just about the worst strategy one can employ, popular and profitable businesses have sprung up to assist people in this misguided quest to avoid novel solutions. I won’t mention them here to avoid charges of heresy, but chopping details up into smaller and finer bits is not the way to go.
Answers that no one has seen before look weird. They look even weirder when they first pop into your mind. If you’re looking for breakthrough innovations, you won’t find them on the broad avenue of normal. Moments of invention are one of the highest forms of human achievement. Epiphanies for Dummies won’t work, even if you could buy a copy. You’ll have to slug it out in the trenches, the forests, and the skies to win the prize.
The popular belief is that breakthrough inventions occur by assembling known aspects of the problem in new ways. So when a group becomes aware of a need for a solution, the race is on to become more learned, about more details, in less time. But these knee-jerk reactions to the quest for knowledge are often counterproductive.
Because tiny details of the problem are not the ideas that will later tumble, roll, and pop out as a great new thing. It’s like gorging on plastic fruit thinking that if you eat enough it will suddenly become nutritious. There’s even a name for it: analysis paralysis. When you get stuck reducing the problem into smaller bits, you’re not moving forward.
Graham Wallas defined the creative process in his book The Art Of Thought (1926) as four phases: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification. Cramming details and chopping them up is the Preparation stage. Illumination is the epiphany, and it comes after Incubation, which can take several forms.
The quality of your insight will depend on what you’ve fed into the slow cooker of your subconscious, how well it cooks the ideas up, and if the results can run the gamut of your filters and escape out your mouth.
Most people’s relationship with epiphanies show deep-rooted insecurities. Insights are random, unpredictable and can’t be trusted. Will I have one in time? How do I recognize the good ones? Who’s got the authority?
What’s everyone going with? Will they love me if I blurt out a great idea? Or mock me if I have a lousy one? Gotta stay safe! Epiphanies are mysterious when they happen and elusive when they don’t. The time crunch, battling with rivals, and risking social capital all adds up to a pile of stress, and we know how well stress and inventiveness get along. It’s like trying to honeymoon in front of your scowling grandparent. Hey, don’t douse my fire while it’s still just a spark!
Here are some popular strategies for incubating your problem stew for good results.
1) Meditation It’s excellent. Thinking without words is the best innovation skill you can acquire. Words are inaccurate, squash subtleties and slow you down. Losing the words will allow you to think faster and with greater depth. It’s easy, just think like you normally would but without words. Start slow at first with a few minutes a day, then work up to hours at a stretch. The results are totally worth it! And don’t worry about following prescriptions from spiritual fads or ancient traditions. Sure, Secrets of the Universe are nice, sitting in a painful position, moaning and becoming one with ultimate bliss are good, but that’s a lot of extra baggage and infrastructure you don’t need. Just stop thinking in words and replace them with greater perception.
2) Next Problem This is a powerful technique used by super smarty pants types like Poincare` and Helmholtz. You prepare one problem, say in physics or chemistry, then move onto a different problem in a different field. The first problem incubates while you’re preparing the second. This worked well a hundred years ago, when science was bursting with new discoveries. Use this when you’re at the top of your game.
3) Keep Living A lot of people are hesitant to learn thinking without words, so they just keep on living. They surf, kickbox, vacuum, do laundry, chew gum and finger twirl their hair. This is the easiest and most common strategy, it’s the least sophisticated and produces base line results.
4) The Eaware Way Look for profound ideas wherever they may be, and mix them in to what you have studied. Hey did you hear about that new advancement in super capacitors? Or how about some techniques from math, morality or logic? Learning big ideas from somewhere else, that are profound and barely contained by words, are the missing ingredient you need. To instigate your insight, learn fundamental ideas from other times, places, and technologies. For example, Is and Does are a profound set of ideas. Also Noun and Verb, Perception and Manifestation, and Reduce and Integrate. Ideas like these that you have learned in the past few days will pull out your epiphany, like bubbles popping out of the darkness.