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For creative solutions, slow and deliberate thinking is the key

  • Always remember to understand the problem, generate ideas without being critical and be objective while evaluating ideas
  • Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman lamented that our cognitive biases mostly stem from thinking fast

To understand a problem, it is important to stay with it for a sufficiently long time.istockphoto
To understand a problem, it is important to stay with it for a sufficiently long time.istockphoto

In this fast-paced, VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) economy it would be foolhardy to suggest that you think slow.

Or is it?

The premium on thinking fast is misplaced. After decades of research, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman lamented that our cognitive biases mostly stem from thinking fast, or from our intuition. He calls this as “Type-1" thinking, as opposed to the “Type-2" thinking which is more conscious, slow and deliberate. Through a series of clinical and real-world experiments, Kahneman and his late colleague, Amos Tversky, demonstrated how for seemingly straightforward tasks we often end up making logically flawed decisions, and predictably so. While they touched upon intelligence, there wasn’t much of a deliberation on creativity.

I want to take their argument further. I believe creativity springs from thinking slow and staying with the problem and that speed is more counterproductive than commonly thought of to be.

Creativity is widely defined as ability to generate ideas which are both novel and useful, and innovation is when these ideas are executed and later, commercialized. The bottom line at The 3M Company, an innovation powerhouse, reads: “Research is converting money into knowledge, (while) innovation is converting knowledge into money." While creativity is not same as innovation, it is, nonetheless, a very essential component of innovation. Here, we are discussing creativity, and not innovation, and hence commercialization of an idea is not a key part of this discourse.

The process of creativity comprises of three compartments—discovery, ideation, and validation. The discovery phase deals with the problem and its understanding in the context with an intent to unearth the problem(s) from the symptoms. There are two typical biases when trying to understand the problem: First, the symptoms are often assumed to be the problems, and; second, it’s tempting to jump to the solutions immediately. For effective understanding of the problem, it is important to stay with the problem for a sufficiently long time and defer judgement, or the urge to solve the problem. Remember, a problem fully understood is half solved, and for that to happen the problem must be sharply defined. The ideation phase aims to generate ingenious solutions to a well understood and neatly defined problem. As identified earlier, the temptation is real to short-circuit the discovery phase and jump straight into idea generation, which is like “shoot-aim-ready" syndrome.

In ideation itself, there are two common biases, owing to Type-1 (read, thinking fast) tendencies. The first cognitive error is to value quality over quantity, or to stick to the misplaced adage “first-time right"; while the second slant is to scrutinize (others’) ideas as they are getting generated. It’s of prime importance to not settle for the first few ideas, because these are often the most non-creative ones as they originate from one’s past experiences, hunch, or common-sense—all three are non-creative in nature. It is critical to aim for quantity (to begin with), defer judgment, and being methodical in generating ideas.

Validation, the third stage, is about picking the most promising of the ideas using a sound logic. Here the quantity leads to quality and one sees the fruit of creativity. Cognitive biases are at play here, chiefly, the tendency of being subjective in scrutinizing ideas, and the all potent overconfidence bias. To bring in objective assessment of the ideas, it’s a good idea to use some matrix, for instance, the one from the design firm, Ideo, on “human desirability, technical feasibility and business variability", which is reasonably comprehensive. The overconfidence bias can be tamed by broadening the screening process and making it more democratic.

Compartmentalizing the thinking when problem solving will help you to slowdown the thinking, devote adequate time to understanding the problem, looking at various possibilities, and objectively picking the best bet. Not attending to these thinking compartments, or the inability to “slowdown", could lead to mediocre ideas, which, by definition, lack novelty or utility, or both.

So, the next time you are solving a problem keep the three rules in mind:First, understand the problem well before attempting to solve it; second, generate as many ideas without trying to be critical about your or other’s ideas; and third, be objective while evaluating ideas while making the process democratic. Perhaps the panacea for being creative and effective in this fast-paced world is slow and deliberate thinking, and that takes time.

Pavan Soni is the founder of Inflexion Point, an innovation and strategy consultancy.

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