Are you stretching your thinking beyond the obvious to find new solutions? We have a tendency to use the first workable idea when trying to make something work, fix a problem, or make an improvement. This has been described as "satisficing," where we try alternatives until an acceptable solution is found and then stop looking for other options. This approach is in contrast to optimal decision making, which seeks the best possible alternative available.
In some cases, stopping at the first solution yields a good outcome, and further investment of time and resources to find other options is not a reasonable investment.
However, when there are high-value challenges with a lot to be gained, it makes sense to develop and explore more alternatives. Indicators of high-value challenges include high energy consumption, expensive raw materials, and low productivity. More education and experience foster an attitude that the first solution found is the best.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Edinburgh recently did lab tests indicating that four- and five-year-olds are open to trying more alternatives than college students.
The experiment was led by developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and graduate student Sophie Bridgers. Children tried a variety of novel ideas and unusual strategies to solve the problems posed in the lab.
They showed flexible, fluid thinking. Researchers noted exploratory learning comes naturally to young children, whereas adults jump on the first, most obvious solution and stick to it. Changing our thinking patterns can free the mind to generate new alternatives and ideas. There are several techniques to break established thought patterns and discover new ideas:
- Challenge assumptions. Real idea stoppers are the assumptions we make—challenge them!
- Ask why we need this. Is this the real problem or challenge?
- Think negative. A powerful technique is to define the worst possible solution imaginable and then try to learn from it. You may be surprised how this can change your perspective.
- Observe. Rather than working on the challenge, spend time observing what is happening with an open mind.
- Ask questions. They are always a good way to learn more, and are often doorways to new insights. Ask: Why? What? How? When? Where?
- Play and experiment with some novel ideas to go beyond the obvious.
- Explain the challenge in simple terms to those not associated with the situation. Many times, this brings new insights and clarity for new solutions.
- Be watchful for the automatic “no” to new ideas.
I learned one of the most powerful ways to generate alternative ideas at the University of Buffalo Creative Education Foundation. Ask this question: In what ways might we (insert your challenge or problem)? This is a great way to get people to create alternatives.
“At the heart of science is an essential tension between two seemingly contradictory attitudes—an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense. Of course, scientists make mistakes in trying to understand the world, but there is a built-in error-correcting mechanism: The collective enterprise of creative thinking and skeptical thinking together keeps the field on track.”—Carl Sagan, in his essay, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.”
About the Author
Bill Lydon is an automation industry expert, author, journalist and formerly served as chief editor of InTech magazine. Lydon has been active in manufacturing automation for more than 25 years. He started his career as a designer of computer-based machine tool controls; in other positions, he applied programmable logic controllers and process control technology. In addition to experience at various large companies, he co-founded and was president of a venture-capital-funded industrial automation software company. Lydon believes the success factors in manufacturing are changing, making it imperative to apply automation as a strategic tool to compete.
A version of this article also was published at InTech magazine.