Carrying Out Thought Experiments

Provocation is an important lateral thinking technique. Just like Random Input, it works by moving your thinking out of the established patterns that you use to solve problems.

As explained earlier, we think by recognizing patterns and reacting to them. These reactions come from our past experiences and logical extensions to those experiences. Often we do not think outside these patterns. While we may know the answer as part of a different type of problem, the structure of our brains makes it difficult for us to link this in.

Provocation, originally developed by Edward de Bono, is one of the tools we use to make links between these patterns.

How to Use the Tool:
We begin by making deliberately stupid statements (Provocations), in which something we take for granted about the situation is not true. Statements need to be stupid to shock our minds out of existing ways of thinking. Once we have made a provocative statement, we then suspend judgment and use that statement to generate ideas. Provocations give us original starting points for creative thinking.

As an example, we could make a statement that 'Houses should not have roofs'. Normally this would not be a good idea! However this leads one to think of houses with opening roofs, or houses with glass roofs. These would allow you to lie in bed and look up at the stars.

Once you have made the Provocation, you can use it in a number of different ways, by examining:

The consequences of the statement
What the benefits would be
What special circumstances would make it a sensible solution
The principles needed to support it and make it work
How it would work moment-to-moment
What would happen if a sequence of events was changed
You can use this list as a checklist.

Edward de Bono has developed and popularize use of Provocation by using the word 'Po'. 'Po' stands for 'Provocative operation'. As well as laying out how to use Provocation effectively, he suggests that when we make a Provocative statement in public the we label it as such with 'Po' (e.g. 'Po: the earth is flat'). This does rely on all members of your audience knowing about Provocation!

Edward de Bono's books, including Serious Creativity, explore this sort of technique in detail.

As with other lateral thinking techniques, Provocation does not always produce good or relevant ideas. Often, though, it does. Ideas generated using Provocation are likely to be fresh and original.

The owner of a video-hire shop is looking at new ideas for business to compete with the Internet. She starts with the provocation 'Customers should not pay to borrow videos'.

She then examines the provocation:
Consequences: The shop would get no rental revenue and therefore would need alternative sources of cash. It would be cheaper to borrow the video from the shop than to download the film or order it from a catalogue.
Benefits: Many more people would come to borrow videos. More people would pass through the shop. The shop would spoil the market for other video shops in the area.
Circumstances: The shop would need other revenue. Perhaps the owner could sell advertising in the shop, or sell popcorn, sweets, bottles of wine or pizzas to people borrowing films. This would make her shop a one-stop 'Night at home' shop. Perhaps it would only lend videos to people who had absorbed a 30-second commercial, or completed a market research questionnaire.
After using the Provocation, the owner of the video shop decides to run an experiment for several months. She will allow customers to borrow the top ten videos free (but naturally will fine them for late returns). She puts the videos at the back of the shop. In front of them she places displays of bottles of wine, soft drinks, popcorn and sweets so that customers have to walk past them to get to the videos. Next to the film return counter she sells merchandise from the top ten films being hired.

If the approach is a success she will open a pizza stand inside the shop.

Key points:
Provocation is an important lateral thinking technique that helps to generate original starting points for creative thinking.

To use provocation, make a deliberately stupid comment relating to the problem you are thinking about. Then suspend judgment, and use the statement as the starting point for generating ideas.

Often this approach will help you to generate completely new concepts.

In the next article we look at DO IT - a simple but useful creativity process. To see the article, click 'Next Article' below. Alternatively, look at some of the other places you can go.