News & Views

Opinion / The Relevance Trap

by Georgia Malden

Everyone is looking for the next game-changing idea. But are they looking in the right places, and could that be a problem? Georgia Malden makes the case for leftfield inspiration*

*(Or, if you want to disrupt your category, don’t look to your category for solutions)

One of the joys of working at Contagious is that it’s our job to immerse ourselves in the widest possible range of ideas and influences. But the daily reality for our clients is often very different. They’re relentlessly and single-mindedly focused on solving their specific business challenges. As a result, they often and understandably come to us asking how companies just like them have solved problems just like theirs.

But of course, that’s the wrong question.

The constraint of examples

A recent Guardian Science Weekly podcast on the nature of creativity really resonated with me. Dr Anna Abraham (reader in psychology at Leeds Beckett University in the UK) discussed a bias that she called ‘the constraint of examples’. This is the notion that if you show people examples that are very salient to the problem at hand it imposes huge limitations on their ability to generate new solutions. This is based on an experiment conducted by a team of cognitive psychologists of creativity in the 1990s. They asked two groups to come up with ideas for a toy that had never existed before. To one group they showed ‘inspiration’ examples of toys other people had come up with; to the other they showed no examples. Lo and behold, the group that had seen the examples came up with ideas that shared many similarities to what they’d seen; while the group that hadn’t seen the examples came up with more innovative toy ideas.

The results of the experiment felt all too familiar. Have you ever been in an ‘ideation’ workshop where the ideas generated bear a remarkable resemblance to some of the inspiration material just shown, however much people are encouraged to ‘think wide’? (By the way, according to the same toy experiment, asking people to ‘think wide’ has no effect whatsoever.)

Conceptual expansion

But that doesn’t mean examples aren’t useful. Indeed, they can be crucial.

Dr Abraham explained in the podcast (check it out here, from about 20 minutes in) that there are two key factors at play when it comes to creativity – novelty and usefulness. That is: the generation of original ideas, and the selection of the most useful idea based on past experience or memory. For something to be creative, it can’t just be new, it also needs to have practical value. These two processes are not linear, nor present in different hemispheres of the brain (the old left-brain, right-brain theory) but they are constantly interacting.

The problem is that the usefulness route offers the path of least resistance. The easiest way to come up with a solution is to draw on the most applicable known precedents, particularly from recent memory. But if you do that, you’re not going to come up with anything new. Meanwhile the novelty function requires what Abraham calls ‘conceptual expansion’ – the ability to broaden the parameters of what you think is relevant.

The good news is that you can help people do this by juxtaposing or connecting previously unlinked or loosely related concepts in a new way. I.e. use examples, but make sure they come from tangential and seemingly unrelated categories to start making connections people might not previously have thought of. This is not miles away from the combination or recombination theory of creativity, which argues that new ideas are really the product of combining or remixing other ideas (see for example Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From and William Duggan, Creative Strategy).

It seems so obvious, but it’s amazing how often clients still only ask to see examples from their category or competitors.

Overcoming the constraints in workshops

It's why in Contagious Insider workshops, we try to mitigate the constraining influence of examples, and indeed aid conceptual expansion, by making sure the examples themselves push the boundaries of what logic might tell you is relevant. Other boxes we look to tick include: making sure the teams comprise a diverse set of experiences and backgrounds; introducing loosener or ‘palate cleanser’ exercises that encourage people to look at things in new ways or refresh their minds (people who are easily distractible, like sufferers from attention deficit disorders, are less likely to be constrained by examples, so it’s good to build in a healthy dose of distraction); and allowing time for reflection. That goes for time before and after the session as well as during it.

Of course, getting to new game-changing ideas is a complex process, and a single ideation workshop alone rarely delivers a market-ready solution, even if you take into account the steps above. It’s likely there’ll be scattered insights or the nuggets of ideas that benefit from further assessment and creative combination, to ensure they’re not just new but genuinely valuable too. But if you start with a too limited idea of what you think is relevant in the first place, no amount of white wall space and post-it note action will help you get there.

So, the next time you’re struggling to find the perfect benchmarks to inspire your own solutions, it might be because you’re just looking in all the right places. It’s time to embrace the illogical, the random, the unexpected. Sometimes looking in the wrong places is not as irrelevant as you might think.