Increase the Novelty of your Options

How would you create a vehicle out of cardboard, pencils, soft drink cup lids, mailing labels, paper clips, rubber bands, toothpicks and scissors that could hold and transport ten Ping-Pong balls when blown across the floor by a leaf blower? By the way, you’re on a team of seven and you have five minutes.

When my three daughters were in elementary school, they participated in an extracurricular program called, “Destination Imagination.” Kids participating in Destination Imagination form teams and compete at creative problem solving competitions. Winning teams at the local level could move to their state competition and winning teams at the state competition are invited to the Global Finals competition held at the University of Tennessee each May. Since the program provided an engaging way for kids to explore three important subjects: creative problem solving, leadership, and teamwork, my wife and I became avid supporters and volunteers.

Teams participating in Destination Imagination solve two types of challenges. The teams spend months designing a solution to one of the published challenges and then present their solution at the tournament. While at the tournament, teams are given a second challenge, the “instant challenge,” which they have never seen before and must solve on the spot. After a few years with the program, I was asked to be an appraiser at the state tournament. The tournament officials assigned me to score high school teams solving an “instant challenge.” I watched twelve high school teams tackle a very tricky instant challenge at the state tournament that year with varying degrees of success.

At tournaments, teams check in at their appointed time for their instant challenge and then they are escorted to an instant challenge room. Teams pledge not to discuss what happens in the instant challenge room so that no team gets an unfair advantage by knowing what to expect. Only the appraisers and the team’s coach are allowed to watch the teams solve the instant challenge, parents must wait in a designated part of the tournament site. As a parent and former coach, I don’t know which is worse, not knowing what is happening in the instant challenge room or watching your team struggle with a challenge without being able to help. Destination Imagination has a strict non-interference rule, so if you’re the kind of parent that can’t keep your hands off the science fair project, be forewarned, Destination Imagination will be great for your kid and stressful for you.

That day the teams walked into a room to find a large open space on the floor and a table of materials. On the floor at one end of the room was a line of tape. Behind the line was a leaf blower. For their instant challenge, teams were given five minutes to construct a vehicle from the materials on the table that would hold and transport ten Ping-Pong balls. At the end of five minutes, the teams were to place the vehicle behind the line. They would have one minute to use the leaf blower to move the vehicle as far as possible across the room. Teams received points for distance travelled multiplied by the number of Ping-Pong balls remaining in the vehicle when they turned off the leaf blower.

Almost all the teams that day focused on the word, “vehicle.” Almost all the teams noticed that among the materials were items that looked like wheels (soft drink cup lids) and axles (pencils). Consequently, almost all the teams built some form or cart with a lid to contain the Ping-Pong balls. A few teams created a sail to catch the wind from the leaf blower. Given the power of the wind created by the leaf blower, the makeshift wheels and sails were as resilient as a kite in a hurricane. The diabolical scoring based on the distance travelled multiplied by the number of balls remaining in the vehicle left a lot of teams with a score of zero after the leaf blower wrecked the vehicles and scattered the Ping-Pong balls.

One team approached the challenge in a completely different way. They didn’t allow themselves to be constrained by the setup of the challenge. Instead of focusing on the word, “vehicle” or the suggestive nature of the materials, the team focused on containing and moving Ping-Pong balls. After thinking it through for a few minutes, the team rolled a piece of cardboard into a tube. They closed one end with a soft drink cup lid, filled the tube with the Ping-Pong balls and then sealed the other end with another soft drink cup lid; basically, they created a can filled with Ping-Pong balls. They laid the can down on the floor, turned on the leaf blower and watched in delight as it rolled across the floor and came to rest against the wall on the other side of the room with all ten Ping-Pong balls securely contained.

In his 1970 book Lateral Thinking, Edward deBono made a distinction between two thinking processes. He described vertical thinking as reasoning in a straight line or following a sequence of steps as one might do to solve a well-defined problem in logic or mathematics. By contrast, lateral thinking concerns itself with generating alternative ways of interpreting the problem. “Lateral thinking,” according to deBono, “is also concerned with breaking out of the concept prisons of old ideas” (1970, p. 8). The team that created a Ping-Pong ball can in response to the instant challenge used lateral thinking to create a novel solution.

Most of the problem-solving methodologies used in organizations (process reengineering, lean six sigma, kaizen, etc.) have strong vertical thinking orientations. Vertical thinking may not produce novel or unconventional solutions, but it will reliably yield a solution that improves the situation. Lateral thinking attracts intuitive leaps or insights by remaining open to information, ideas and connections that may seem irrelevant. As deBono put it, “Vertical thinking digs the same hole deeper; lateral thinking is concerned with digging a hole in another place” (p.15). In other words, vertical thinking will improve the status quo; lateral thinking will increase the novelty of your options.

Creative inquiry is not just about posing questions that spur new ideas. Creative inquiry is also about posing questions that reframe our assumptions. Once we define the problem we want solved, we inadvertently impose constraints. For example, If you manage a hotel that has been receiving complaints about how long it takes for the elevators to arrive, you might believe you have a “slow elevator problem.” If you focus on the people rather than the elevator, you might reframe the issue as, “a bored guest problem.” It’s easier to reduce complaints by putting mirrors and other distractions near the elevator doors than it is to upgrade the elevator system.

A Situation Someone Wants to Change

As teenagers, my three daughters shared a bathroom situated between two bedrooms. My oldest daughter, Abby had her own bedroom on one side of the bathroom. My middle daughter Hannah and her younger sister Bekah shared a bedroom on the other side of the bathroom. There are two doors leading into the bathroom from each of the bedrooms and two sinks in the bathroom, one per bedroom. In real estate jargon, this arrangement is referred to as a “Jack and Jill” bathroom, although in our case it’s more of a “Jill and Jill” situation.

Two of my three daughters wore little to no makeup in high school and did not spend much time caring for their nails. Hannah, on the other hand accumulated an ample collection of cosmetics, nail polishes, and other beautification equipment I’m too unfamiliar with to name. It was not unusual to find one sink of the bathroom splattered with mascara droppings. On the counter near the sink sat an open bag of colorful tubes and bottles. An electric hair device was permanently plugged in and often dangerously hot. There would be a hand-mirror here and a roll of toilet paper there. It would not be unusual to find a half-filled water bottle or two on the counter, evidence I suppose of some exertion related to whatever was happening on that side of the bathroom. You could say that the situation I’m describing constituted a persistent problem and that my wife Katherine and I felt stuck about how best to resolve it. By the way, the problem has been solved. All of our daughters have moved out.

I mention the situation with the messy bathroom because it illustrates two important points about problem solving and design thinking. David Straus, the founder of Interaction Associates and the author of How to Make Collaboration Work, defines a problem as, “…a situation someone wants to change” (2002, p.19). By this definition, when it comes to collaborating with my daughter on cleaning up the bathroom only one of us has a problem because only one of us has a situation he wants to change.

The second point illustrated by the messy bathroom situation has to do with the main principle of human-centered design thinking. If I want to use design thinking, I need to consider the motivations and needs of the people served by an innovative solution. A design thinker might reframe the challenge from “How do I get my daughter to keep her bathroom clean?” to something like, “How do we reduce the amount of nagging around the house?”

Perhaps you’re thinking that a more authoritarian approach to getting my daughter to clean her bathroom is called for. First, remember that creative inquiry is about novel options. Secondly, let’s look at the effectiveness of more traditional and direct parenting tools in light of David Straus’ definition of a problem. Let’s say, for example that I tell Hannah, “you can get your phone back when this bathroom is clean.” I have now created a situation that my daughter is motivated to change. In other words, she now has a problem to solve. Notice however that Hannah is not solving the problem I want solved. She is working on changing the ‘get-my-phone-back’ situation. I’m more interested in her making progress on the ‘show-respect-for-other-family-members’ situation. Consequently, I shouldn’t be surprised if Hannah succeeds in solving her problem, but in the long run it doesn’t really solve my problem.

Straus’ definition of a problem and design thinking’s bias for starting with desirability both suggest that getting unstuck through creative inquiry means identifying what I call the “targets” and the “tensions.” Targets are the people served by a new idea or option; the people whose lives you aim to improve are collectively the targets. Tensions are the needs or dissatisfying situations that a new idea or option will resolve. Robert Fritz introduced the concept of creativity as the resolution of a tension in his 1991 book, Creating. Fritz wrote, “There will always be structural tension at the beginning of the creative process, for there will always be a discrepancy between what you want and what you have” (1991, p. 27). For Fritz, the creation resolves the tension.

One way to use creative inquiry to help a leader, team or organization get unstuck is by clarifying and aligning on definitions of the target and the tension. In the case of the messy bathroom, the targets are the family members living in the house and the tension is the stress of constant nagging. There are any number of ways to choose a target and a tension.

A tension can exist in the current state for a target, in which case the target has a situation they are motivated to change. Envisioning a possible future that some target will want once they become aware of it can also create a tension. In other words, even if I am content with my current situation, once I see something that will improve my life, I now have a situation I am motivated to change. One can create tension for a target by working forwards from a dissatisfying present or working backwards from a compelling future possibility.