Our culture loves to celebrate “lightbulb moments,” moments where the genius inventor has a great idea suddenly pop into his head. In movies, the music swells and they drop whatever they are doing! Moments later, the invention emerges, a result of momentary creative genius.
This phenomenon, what some psychologists refer to as the “Illumination Phase” of the Creative Thinking Process is the result of connection-making. Connection-making is a powerful thought process that is the result of many creative breakthroughs. And in this series, “3 Steps to Solving Any Problem,” making connections is key.
Yes, making connections is a key step in solving any problem. But, training our minds to seek and see connections regularly – every day – and make it a natural habit instead of simply a step in a process… that’s where the power lays.
This article will show you important processes – how to create connections on demand, and how to increase connection-making as a long-term, everyday habit.
Review: The 4 Steps to Solving Any Problem
Step 1: The 10-10-10 Method. Generate ten possible solutions and pick one. Generate ten variations of that one, and pick one of those variations. Then generate ten variations of that solution. The goal is to generate lots and lots and lots of ideas, giving you something to build upon.
Step 2: Make Connections. Use your environment and other unique stimuli as inspiration to generate even more ideas. Your end goal is to wind up with 50-100 possible solutions to your problem.
Step 3: Converge and Analyze. Break down your solutions, find the best ones, strengthen them and make them actionable.
The psychology of connection-making
Creative psychology theorists such as Sarnoff Mednick and neuroscientist Anna Abraham explain that knowledge is arranged in our minds in hierarchies. Think of a tree with branches – all knowledge connects to another piece of knowledge. The more knowledge we have on a topic, the stronger the branches on a tree. When we think of a topic, we also activate our knowledge that is connected to that topic.
However, the connections between these topics can either be excitatory, where thinking about a topic increases the activation of other related topics, or inhibitory, where thinking about a topic decreases the activation of other related topics.
Look at this mind map of the word “White.” A person with inhibitory connections can easily make the connection between white and the primary associations of milk, color, chalk, black, light, and snow. However, they would struggle to make the leap from white all the way out to sweet.
Someone with more excitatory connections, on the other hand, can easily activate their neural network all the way out to sweet.
And that’s why making connections helps us find more creative solutions to problems – the more remote the connection, the more unusual the connection, the more unique and creative the solution can be.
When you’re looking to solve a problem in a way that nobody else is (such as your competitors), most people don’t get past those primary associations. Your gold is in the remote associations to your problem.
How to get to those remote associations
Strategy 1: Word Map
Draw a word map just like the one above. Put a key word related to your problem in the middle. Make connections as far out as possible. Allow those remote associations to trigger ideas that might solve your problem.
Strategy 2: Contiguity, Similarity, and Contrast
The ancient Greeks laid out three laws of association: contiguity, similarity, and contrast.
Contiguity means nearness. A baby’s shoe reminds you of the baby.
Similarity means something that is not physically near, but similar. A picture of a lion may remind you of your cat.
Contrast is an opposite connection – thinking of a short person may remind you of a giant.
Break down components of your problem, and then flip them using contiguity, similarity, and contrast. If you are working on developing new ways to innovate on a passenger car, break down each component. For example, the seats.
Contiguity – what else in the car is related to the seats? The seat belts? The fabric used? Could the seat belt be integrated into the seat somehow to be stronger? Could the seat belt be wrapped in a different material to make it more comfortable?
Similarity – what else in the car is similar to the seat? Or what other similar seats do we have? Couches?
Recliners? You know, some elderly people have a motorized seat that helps them get out of it. Could a car seat do the same?
Contrast – what else, totally unrelated to cars or seats – could be used to improve the seat? Self-massaging seats? Heated and cooled seats?
How to become better at making connections
The long-term goal is to build excitatory connections, to make it easier to get out to those remote associations.
I find that continually asking people what they have been curious about stimulates curiosity and connection-making. Give people time to go out and let their mind wander.
As a manager, supervisor, or teacher: Encourage and model frequent questioning.
Make curiosity a regular part of your daily practice, and continually ask questions that lead you further toward those remote associations.
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For more tips on how to practice creative skills, to hear more, contact Creative Dave to book a workshop or motivational speech for your school or organization before his roster is full for the year!
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