Sunday, October 5, 2008

Think Better, an Innovator's Guide to Productive Thinking by Tim Hurson

This is basically a 'self help' sort of book. According to the author, if you buy this tome, read it, and apply the contents, something great will happen.

So I bought it. And I read it. And I applied the contents.

What this book is about is thinking more creatively, not thinking more deeply, as it were.

The core premise of the book is that typical thinking relies heavily on what we've done previously. Learning by experience is what humans do. Hurson calls this 'reproductive thinking' as it reproduces the past. This is frequently a good way to do things. But no amount of reproductive thinking will turn an adding machine into a spreadsheet. To make this leap, you need "productive thinking."

The crux of the book is how to think this way. Suppose you have some problem. You assemble your team of people (works individually too, but that isn't his focus) and write down every solution the team can think of to that problem. Analysis is not allowed - just raw ideas. Within a few minutes, people have called out the obvious solutions. The leader of the group keeps writing them down and asking for more using a number of techniques in the book. Before long, people will start giving dubious solutions. This is good. Finally, at some point, the answers become bizarre. This section is what Hurson calls the "third third" of the list. He posits that the good stuff - the truly innovative solutions - are at the bottom of the list. Most of the time, they are worthless. But if you allow these fledgling ideas to live for a while, sometimes they attain flight status.

While we had our power outage, I had 9 days to try this. I am designing some software. I started making a list of the solutions to my problems (this software has many facets which constitute many problems.) I wrote down ideas, concerns, drawings - anything. What I found was that once I ran out of ideas, I'd make some connection, and I'd get 25 more ideas. Then I'd be empty. But the next day it would happen again. It was difficult, but I finally - finally - made it to 100 ideas and thoughts, an arbitrary goal designed to make me stretch. Then I saw another connection and wrote down 30 more ideas! I stopped because the ideas, if valid, were straying from the actual problem domain and started applying more to an alternative piece of software.

I ended up with 3 really good innovations. (I'm sure others would think of these things instantly, but by God they were new to me!) One of these innovations would allow the software to perform a seeming completely different function with only trivial modifications - if it's built right.

There's a lot more to the book, as it talks about how to make the ideas to concrete solutions, walking through phases of idea-to-solution. Again, posing each step a problem then using these free-flowing lists of solutions to find the most innovative answers to problems.

So, the pros:

1. The technique seems to work for me as an individual.

2. Trying it is cheap. You need a) the book and b) office supplies. You do not need a guru, a Change Process Facilitator, pure Tibetan mountain spring water, or to sacrifice a chicken.

3. There are probably 6 phases and numerous sub-phases in the full solution process. So there are other parts of the book that I didn't mention but are worthwhile. For example, he mentions that some people in the organization may work against you. Commendably honest. Such a person is treated as a problem to be solved. You write this person's name down so you can make lists of solutions to this persons behavior. This section is short and I can't help but feel he stopped short for political correctness - and perhaps legal reasons!

The cons:

1. The book is almost certainly a sales tool for the author's consulting company which he mentions repeatedly. Perhaps the book is an answer to the problem, "How can we educate people about our system and thus make more money?" in which case it's a very practical proof of concept!

2. I can't imagine a team of people using this technique because it feels 'new age.' You'd have to have a lot of trust among coworkers.

3. The book is repetitious. Make lists! Make lists! Blah.

4. TMCBSHA. I mean, Too Many Cute Business Self Help Acronyms. The industrial strength solution he discusses has many phases and sub-phases. It seems like every one of them as some hokey acronym associated with it. examples:
IF (imagined future)
DRIVE (do, restrictions, investment, values, essential outcomes)
AIM (advantages, impediments, maybes)

Now, each of these sections may be worthwhile but my god it's killing me. This is what makes me suspicious about the technique. I feel like he's putting the sizzle before the steak. I don't need sizzle to work a problem. But Hurson might need it to sell his book!

5. The numerous steps (and their acronyms!) in the full solution need to be in a diagram so I can follow them.

Finally, if you make your living by thinking (versus, say, by chopping off ninja heads) and you're in a rut, consider _Think Better, an Innovator's guide to Productive Thinking_ by Tim Hurson. I give it a 3 of 5, where no such book can possibly score a 5 due to the built-in hokiness and cheerleading of it all.

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