Escape Thinking

Prepared by Dr Robert Polster

The purpose of this document is to outline a business workshop technique for generating new ideas. In the course of my work helping large organizations to redesign work processes, I sometimes run workshops to generate ideas.

The approach is mainly based on methods and ideas described by Edward De Bono in his book "Serious Creativity". Generally I am dealing with a pragmatic group of business people who may be skeptical of the value of creativity methods, so I begin by explaining the motivation. I explain that we are born without pre-conceived ideas about the world, but that with experience, we come to recognize patterns and categorize the things and situations we see: This is a chair; that is a book; that's a car, this is a fire, etc. With experience, we become able to find a category or pigeonhole into which to put many situations. This is great because it allows us to react rapidly to these situations. Not much time is needed for thought or analysis. The disadvantage is that our thinking becomes limited. If we do not have a pigeonhole into which to put something we are looking at, sometimes just don't see it. We carry many assumptions around in our minds, and these assumptions make us blind to new possibilities.

The book "Test Your Lateral Thinking IQ" by Paul Sloan offers several examples of assumption blindness. When the French built the Maginot line after World War I as a defense against the Germans, it was assumed that the next war would be fought the same way as the last war, but with better equipment. They therefore focused on building a strong fortification along the Franco-German border. The German blitzkrieg through Belgium made this defense obsolete.

Another example: The first time North American Indians saw a European on horseback, they thought they were seeing a new creature with two heads, two arms, and four legs.

De Bono provides an illustration of the tendency to assume that what already exists must remain. He suggests a game in which letters are presented one at a time and the goal is to form a word from these letters. The first letter is A. The second is T, so the word AT is formed. The next letter is R so we form RAT. E arrives, so we form RATE. G is next and we form GRATE. Then a T arrives, and at first most people try to fit it into GRATE, without success. It is only by rejecting the idea that the letters must stay in this order that a person is able to integrate the second T and form TARGET. An industrial example of this is the automobile turn indicator. For forty years, the turn indicator on automobiles was a mechanical arm attached to the side of the vehicle to imitate the way the driver's arm was previously used to signal the turn direction. It remained that way because for a long time no one challenged the assumption that it had to be done that way. When the assumption was finally challenged, the more efficient blinking turn indicator was invented.

What we want to do then is to let go of our assumptions for a moment so that we can see if this reveals new possibilities. To break us away from our assumptions, De Bono suggests the creation of provocative statements that suggest new directions for our thinking. For example, he says that to develop a new concept related to restaurants, one might list assumptions about restaurants like: Restaurants serve food; and You pay the bill when you leave. Using the Escape Technique, we then transform these assumptions into provocations. "Restaurants serve food" becomes "Restaurants do NOT serve food." We then use this as a starting point for looking at restaurants in a new way. It might lead to an idea like creating an elegant restaurant-like place that does not serve food but instead rents space to people who want to host a picnic in elegant surroundings and bring in their own food.

After explaining all this, I then have the group create a list of assumptions about the business operation they want to improve. From this we randomly select an assumption and apply the Escape technique to create a provocation. They then spend just a few minutes thinking on their own about the provocation, and writing private lists of ideas that occur to them. We then share the ideas and discuss them for the purpose of clarification and producing still more ideas. This process is repeated for as many assumptions as time allows.

Following this, we evaluate the usability of the ideas produced. Those that seem interesting but have problems can be examined further. For each of these, we list the problems and then try to develop solutions for each.

De Bono also offers a number of other techniques for creating provocations, which are outlined in his book.

People in the workshops seem to like this technique. I suspect they like the fact that it is a structured approach that focuses on the problem at hand as opposed to a more scatter-gun brainstorming approach. Starting with what is familiar to them, by listing assumptions about their current situation, eases them into the process and perhaps makes it easier for them to warm up to the approach.

Dr. Robert S. Polster
Phone: 703-379-5700
Richard S. Carson & Associates
FAX: 703-379-5707
2144 California St., NW Suite 513
Washington, DC 20008

Last updated: 18th October 1996