Thought Walks

Brainstorming doesn’t always cut it

Sometimes you have a problem that requires an imaginative solution. The standard management method for adding a spark of creativity is to brainstorm the problem.

But brainstorming doesn’t always work. The ideas can be a little tired, you may not get something really new.

Random thoughts

There is an argument that innovation is just the combination of different ideas. So it follows that the more disparate the ideas the more radical the innovation will be. Brainstorming doesn’t drive disparate thoughts, each idea follows the other in a chain of reason.

If you follow that logic then it would make sense to try adding a few random thoughts to the process. Ideas that will jolt the chain of thought and take you outside of the proverbial box.

A simple way to do this is to have a thought walk.

Here is the approach:

Down tools and go for a walk. Out of your office and into the street, onto the factory floor, through the shopping centre or wherever takes your fancy.

Whilst walking pay attention to what is going on around you and pick out 5 to 10 things. It doesn’t matter what they are: items, ideas, sensations or sounds. Pick whatever grabs your attention. The only rule is that they shouldn’t be connected to the problem you are trying to fix. (If your problem is a dripping tap, don’t chose a spanner).

Then for each item on your list force it into your solution.

Let me give you an example:

The problem

In northern climates, particularly those that suffer from winter storms, ice on power cables is a big problem. The ice can become so heavy it snaps the cables, which in turn leads to power outages.

This is an issue for the guys who run the electricity grids. They have thousands of miles of cables that need to be de-iced at regular intervals. That is not an easy task to keep on top of.

The stupid idea

The engineers who face this challenge couldn’t think of a suitable solution, so to prompt some ideas they went on a thought walk. One of them came back with a jar of honey he had picked up in a shop.

When asked how that was going to help, he claimed it was easy.

I will put a jar of honey on the top of every pylon.  The bears in the neighbourhood will climb the pylons to get at them. The resulting vibrations will clear the lines.

Bears and high voltage pylons are a spectacularly bad idea, you end up with a lot of dead bears. This was a stupid idea.

The solution

But the idea of vibrations struck a chord (do you see what I did there?).  The engineers used helicopters instead of bears to create the vibrations. See the video below.

Next time you are stuck

Try introducing a few unconnected thoughts into the creative process.

If innovation and the principle of combining ideas interests you I recommend The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson. It was the source of my story, apocryphal or not.

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Image by Princess Lodges


  1. I’ve also seen studies that suggest that boredom helps too:

    However, I wonder how you would inject that into a company’s culture short of locking people up

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