Every entrepreneur is trying to do something new and better. If your business doesn't improve in some way on the other dry cleaner in town or other app in the space, then why bother starting it, right? But inventing something truly different is rare—and very difficult. Is there any way those of us with less naturally creative minds can come with more inventive ideas?
Absolutely, says University of Massachusetts cognitive psychologist Anthony McCaffrey, who studies exactly what sort of thinking goes on the minds of inventors and recently published his findings in Psychological Science. Looking back at past "eureka!" moments—such as when someone looked at a burr stuck to a sweater and conceived of Velcro, for example—McCaffrey came up with a model of where out-of-the-box ideas come from.
"There's a pattern that, during the inventive process, people notice something that was overlooked and then they use that overlooked feature to build a new solution," McCaffery said in an interview.
"We're basically geared towards noticing the common things because that's most helpful in our daily experience. We don't want to have to figure out how to get a drink of water each time. But if you want to be innovative then your habits are your enemy and you have to fight against doing the common or habitual and know how to get to the obscure things," he explains.
The evidence from McCaffrey's lab is that this ability to see the obscure and unusual can be taught, and he's developed a tool kit to do just that. The techniques in the toolkit, McCaffrey says, are geared towards helping break us out of habitual thinking and return us to the fresh perspective we had when we were young:
If an inventor is stuck on a problem and could simplify it enough to describe it to a class of fifth graders, I would almost guarantee that those fifth graders would give you some new ideas that you have not thought of before.
Young kids are wild thinkers. They make wild associations. But when you get to that range of fourth through sixth grade, their minds are becoming a little more adult. So whereas really young kids will give you impossible answers, magic kind of answers like 'oh, my pet bunny will breathe on it and it will be fixed,' the fourth through six graders will have wild ideas but they'll still be kind of plausible.
[My techniques] are trying to get you back to when you were ten years old now that you've lost a little bit of that ability to associate more freely.
Thanks to a $170,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, McCaffrey is developing software to deliver his techniques to engineers specifically. But he claims that those in any sort of creative domain, from marketing to comedy writing, could benefit from his toolkit. So what does it contain? He offered some example techniques:
- The generic-parts technique. Generally we look at an object and simply see the way it's usually used—a plug goes in a socket to connect an appliance to electric current, and that's all there is to it. Those looking for fresh ideas should try to strip away their preconceived notions of an object by describing it without reference to its usual function, including its material, shape and size. That plug? It contains two small, flat pieces of metal. Look at it that way and it could be used as a screwdriver, for example. "The trick is to un-conceal the features relevant to your purposes," McCaffrey says.
- The thesaurus technique. "When you describe your goal, you're going to have a verb in there like 'I need to fasten things together' or 'I need to remove this from that,'" says McCaffrey. "Use a thesaurus on the verb. I've asked people, 'list all the ways you can to fasten things together' and most people come up with eight to 12. However, if you look in a thesaurus for the synonyms of fasten, the more specific ones give you things like, 'buckle, clip, weld, glue, tie, Velcro' and on and on. Where people can come up with eight to 10, the thesaurus is going to have 60, and obviously it's helping you think way beyond your narrow range."
McCaffrey also recommends those hoping to boost their inventiveness broaden their range of interests. "Have a wide interest in your reading, what you pay attention to, what's coming out in several fields of your choice," suggests McCaffrey. "Follow your interests and you naturally can make connections between them that others can't as easily see."