A Very Quick Introduction to Anticonventional Thinking (ACT)
by Jeffrey Baumgartner
Anticonventional thinking (ACT) is an alternative to brainstorming, creative problem solving (CPS) and similar collaborative creative thinking methods. As its name implies, ACT is about purposefully rejecting conventional thinking in favour of unconventional thinking at every step of the creative process. Here is a very quick introduction to ACT and the logic behind it.
The Creative Goal and Ideas
When you are looking for creative ideas, you inevitably have a creative goal in mind, whether conscious or not. Maybe you want to improve a product. Maybe you want to come up with a romantic Valentines gift for your sweetheart. Maybe you want to write a novel.
If you are like most, healthy, intelligent, creative people, you look around your brain for raw material -- such as knowledge, experience, memories -- with which to construct ideas. Because you are focused on your creative goal, the raw material will be closely related to that goal. Let's say you want to come up with new mobile telephone ideas to revive an existing product that is losing market share. What do you do? You think about telephones, about your competitors' phones, about packet data (if you are an engineer), about the Internet and that kind of thing. Your brain is effectively pulling up this data which it uses to make ideas.
At the same time, a part of your brain, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, is busy reviewing your ideas, filtering them and rejecting the ones that might embarrass you: ideas that are stupid, or too silly, or which you fear might make you seem foolish to your colleagues.
Thanks to the focus on information closely related to your goal and the filtering out of the potentially embarrassing ideas, the remaining ideas that come to mind are usually rather conventional. In our mobile telephone example, you might think about a faster processor or a higher resolution built-in camera or sleeker design. Good ideas, but conventional and rather obvious.
The Problem with Creativity Tools
Now the problem with a lot of creativity tools is they do not really take the mental idea generation process into account. Brainstorming, for instance, encourages you to have a lot of ideas, but it does not encourage you to think differently. Crowdsourcing is the same: it encourages lots of ideas but often discourages diversity of thought. Why? Because voting systems tend to vote up conventional, popular ideas and ignore unconventional, weird ideas)
Mindmapping encourages you to branch out your thinking in a visually attractive way – but again, it does not actively encourage diversity of thought.
Birth of ACT
A couple of years ago, I took a look at the research into why brainstorming and similar methods are not effective at generating truly creative ideas. I looked at research into how the brain solves problems. I looked at my experiences as a writer and artist as well as how I have collaborated with other writers and artists over the years. I even spoke with some scientists doing cutting edge research. My aim was to come up with a better alternative to brainstorming.
I believe I have achieved that with anticonventional thinking. Unlike brainstorming, ACT is based on research which, to be fair, had not been performed in Mr. Osborn's time.
ACT recognises, for instance, that creative ideas are inspired not in idea generation, but in how you understand and formulate your creative goal because that defines the kind of ideas your brain will build.
ACT recognises that diversity and uniqueness of thinking is far more important than generating a large number of conventional ideas.
ACT recognises that working towards a big idea and an action plan is far more likely to lead to creative results – and hence innovation – than is a long list of ideas.
ACT Is a Simple Four Step Process
I have refined ACT into a simple four step process that is easy to follow.
Step 1: Deconstruct Your Creative Goal
More than anything else, the characteristic that differentiates highly creative people from everyone else is that when faced with a problem or a goal, highly creative people spend most of their time thinking about the goal, looking at it from various perspectives and questioning it. Other people immediately try to come up with ideas. In ACT, you must learn to restrain your desire to have ideas and focus on deconstructing your goal. You do this by asking open questions (such as Why?) and attempting to answer them. In my workshops, I provide a list of over 20 sample questions that can be asked.
Questioning and deconstructing our goal gives us a more diverse view of the goal, brings in new information and that ensures that when we start working on ideas, we have more diverse raw material that can be used in constructing them.
Step 2: Formulate a Sexy Goal
One of the reasons that brainstorms so often result in a lot of boring ideas is because the average brainstorm is based on a boring “problem statement”. In ACT, you must come up with a sexy goal; a goal that is provocative, interesting and desirable; because such goal is far more likely to result in sexy ideas that are provocative, interesting and desirable! Compare: “In what ways might we improve our mobile telephones” with “Design a device that performs the functions of a secretary, fits in your pocket and makes phone calls!”
Which of the two is likely to inspire more creative ideas? The second of course! A sexy goal forces your brain – and the brains of anyone participating in idea generation – to think about the goal in new, unexpected ways. Moreover, because a sexy goal encourages sexy ideas – it encourages the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to let through ideas that it might otherwise be inclined to reject. Indeed, one of the key aims of ACT is temporarily to reverse that bit of the brain so that it rejects boring, conventional ideas and filters through unconventional, sexy ideas.
Step 3: Build a Big, Creative Idea
Finally, we come to idea generation! This is where ACT really differs from brainstorming and other so-called creative thinking methods. In ACT, the aim is to build a big, sexy idea that enables you to achieve your sexy goal. The big idea, of course, is built up of smaller ideas. Typically, the big idea serves as a framework and the smaller ideas fill out the details.
Moreover, in ACT you are encouraged to criticise ideas – especially boring ideas. There are some rules to criticising ideas, to ensure that everyone remains focused. But, criticism, debate and discussion of ideas is expected in ACT.
Now, if you think that allowing people to criticise ideas will make participants upset and inhibit ideas, you're wrong! In my experience, participants in ACT sessions find it refreshing to be able to criticise ideas because doing so allows them to really discuss and understand them. Think about it, if in a normal brainstorm someone suggests an idea that does not make sense to you, you are prohibited from questioning it – particularly if you doubt the idea. How can you understand the potential of an idea if you cannot critically question it?
Step 4: Action Plan
Because ACT focuses on generating one big, sexy, creative idea – you can immediately get to work on an action plan for implementing the idea. This, again, makes it very different from brainstorming and crowdsourcing where you have to sift through dozens, or hundreds or even more ideas, in order to find one to implement.
That said, the thing about a big, sexy, creative idea is that when you think about implementing it, you can easily feel overwhelmed. There will be permissions to be sought, budget allocation, committees to deal with, changes in operations and more. Indeed, such apprehensions often discourage people from implementing highly creative ideas.
Fortunately, ACT recognises this issue and steals some thinking from personal development methodology. In ACT, you break your big, sexy, creative idea down into a series of small, doable steps. Baby-steps, if you will. For instance, the first step may be to draw up a business plan. That's not so hard, is it? Perhaps it is. Then the first step is to outline a business plan and assign responsibility for different elements of it.
In addition to breaking the big idea into smaller steps, you must also assign responsibility for each step. Importantly, you – and others who developed the idea – need to take responsibility yourselves, at least initially. If someone outside the group needs to perform a task, then one of your team's steps is to persuade the outsider to perform the task.
By breaking you big idea into small tasks, each with a person assigned responsibility, you make it much, much more likely that your idea will be realised.
If you are used to brainstorming, ACT can seem very different. Possibly even a little scary. But, I've been leading ACT workshops since late 2011 and have found that with a little coaching, people find it easy to follow, fun and effective.
You can learn more about ACT in this 17 page booklet or feel free to contact me if you have questions.
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