When people try to come up with solutions to a problem, they typically do one of two things:
1. Look at the problem and determine if there is an obvious, reasonable idea that pops out -or-
2. Participate in a brainstorming session where one throws out possible solutions with minimum judgment.
Both of these are valuable techniques. However, an additional, potentially more powerful method exists which involves a provocation. In simplest terms, a provocation can be thought of as an idea considered too radical and unrealistic for even a brainstorming session.
The purpose of the provocation is to forcibly cause your mind to move out of well worn mental tracks, allowing you to come up with potentially radical solutions to the problem at hand.
Brainstorming vs. provocations
Although brainstorming involves throwing out solutions without active judgment, there are still implied bounds on the solutions being offered. The ideas are at least somehow feasible within known reality. This is not the case with provocations. By considering the absurd and non-nonsensical, one is forced to break out of critical thinking mode and move into the creative realm.
The creator of the technique, Dr. Edward de Bono, has coined a shorthand for provocation to indicate that the idea is not be taken at face value. That word is ‘po‘. Having a dedicated and short word can prove useful when generating ideas since it makes provocations easy to distinguish from ideas generated from conventional methods.
Provocations may be best understood by an example.
Cars run out of gas after only a few hundred miles
- Po, Invent a car that tows a gas station behind it
- Po, Invent a car that runs on air
- Po, Make everything that the car has to drive to closer
The provocations do indeed solve the problem, however as mentioned earlier they are not what you would consider realistic or even possible.
Turning the provocation into a good idea through movement
You may wonder then, what the point of provocations is if all they do is give you nonsense answers. While it’s true that provocations taken by themselves aren’t much help, they become valuable when coupled with movement.
Put simply, movement is what we mentally do to transform provocations into usable ideas. There are several ways in which movements can be created, but for now I’ll only discuss movement via principle.
In movement via principle, we extract a key idea from the provocation that’s important in solving the problem. We then devise a more realistic solutions based on that principle.
Combined provocation/movement technique
In summary, the combined technique using movement via principle is:
- Generate provocation(s) that ‘solve’ the problem under consideration
- Extract the principle that underlies the provocation
- Move to realistic solutions based on the principle
Movement from the example provocations
Let’s take a look how one could move from the three example provocations:
Invent a car that tows a gas station
Principle: Having a gas station towed behind the car would allow a large amount of gas to always be at the car’s disposal
Solutions utilizing principle
- Tank size of cars could be increased
- Invent a car/gas station system where cars could be refilled from mobile gas stations (car equivalent to in-flight refueling)*
Invent a car that runs on air
Principle: By having the car run on air you would make the fuel the car runs on readily available in its environment
Solutions utilizing principle
- Look to add solar panels to car for supplemental power
- In hybrid cars look to supplement battery recharging with wind resistance when slowing not just when brakes.
Make everything that the car has to drive to closer
Principle: If everything is closer to each other than you just have to drive shorter distances, thus your gas goes further time wise
Possible solutions utilizing principle
- Plan out your routes for the week based on task location
- Analyze what things you need at the store to combine and reduce trips
The solution marked with an asterisk in the mobile gas station example may feel a bit like a provocation itself. Sometimes solutions like this could be additional provocations or just feasible but radical real solutions, depending on what you view your limitations to be.
Business or personal applications
Some of these solutions could be helpful from a personal perspective or could represent a business opportunity. For instance, in the last example I list a couple of things that an average person could do to shorten their trip distances. These solutions could be transformed into a business opportunity if they used something like a cell phone app to help calculate routes and track trips.
Now use provocations to get some great ideas
As I’ve illustrated the combination of the provocation plus movement is incredibly powerful. And even then, I’ve only scratched the surface of the technique and its variants. I discussed movement via principle however there are a few other methods of movement that I’ll be discussing in future posts.