IDEAS THROUGH ASSOCIATION

I am sometimes asked where I get my ideas for these blog articles.  While a majority of then have come from my management experiences, I often get ideas from what I read on a regular basis and from the suggestions of my readers and subscribers.  These last two categories were both relevant to the topic I address here.

The recent death of Apple co-founder and boundary-breaking thinker Steve Jobs, has unleashed a raft of biographical material covering his life, achievements, and creative genius.  One thing in particular that strikes me was his ability to see relationships between apparently disparate things and to find inspiration for his product designs in unique places.

A recent “BusinessWeek” biography (October 10, 2011 edition) relates how Jobs once told a Stanford University graduating class that he eventually combined calligraphy sessions he attended at Reed College in Oregon with computers —“beauty and technology” in his words — as a big “connect-the-dot moment” in his life.  A Walter Isaacson forthcoming biography reportedly relates how Jobs once found product design inspiration in a Cuisinart he spied in a department store (“The Week” on-Line articles October 2011).

I have also recently been communicating with a subscriber in Taipei, Taiwan whose web-based business — vetter@getvetter.com — aims to help clients generate innovative ideas that drive their businesses forward.  The term my colleague uses for what I call associational thinking is “thinking sideways”;  a process he describes as a manager generating a discussion among colleagues concerning some new business idea unrelated to their own business, hoping to help his folks become more comfortable expressing their personal opinions and expand the way they think about possibilities in their own business practices.

In a recent article entitled  — “Get More Ideas Out of Your Team” — I encouraged managers to create opportunities for creative, non-judgmental, idea generation among their colleagues and subordinates.  Thinking sideways or associational thinking is a natural stimulant for that process.  But my experience has taught me that, for many, thinking this way is often a challenge and will require effort on your part for it to succeed.

The difficulty is that many people simply do not think in associations, nor do they easily see parallels between things in their own venue or occupation and those in another.  It is not simply a matter of raw intelligence, rather it involves a cast of mind and way of focusing on the world around us.  In addition, many organizations strongly inculcate a sense of their own uniqueness in their employees, which often renders them strongly attached to the “not invented here, ergo not relevant here” fallacy when it comes to ideas from outside their insulated world.

I remember once recommending a favorite book of mine — “Leadership and the New Science” by Margaret Wheatley — to an extremely smart work colleague.  Margaret’s provocative book explores what we can learn from the new sciences, especially sub-atomic physics, that has direct application to our human organizations and how they change.  My colleague’s comment to me after reading some of it was “pure intellectual twaddle”.  So there you have it, resistance to the max.

So, if encouraging associational or sideways thinking is challenging, difficult, and sometimes will require hard work and perseverance on your part, is the effort worth it?  ABSOLUTELY.  Part of every manager’s job, beyond getting the work done and keeping things operating effectively, is to find ways to move their organization beyond the present steady state.  This is especially true of finding new paths to productivity, efficient use of resources, better customer service and satisfaction, higher returns on investments, greater profits, and maximum use of the talent assigned to them.

If many brains are better than one, then many ideas are better than a few.  If insular thinking has its limits, then thinking outside your box has considerable potential to expand your horizons.

The best managers intuitively understand these realities and encourage innovative, associational thinking whenever possible.  If thinking sideways isn’t their great strength, they reach outside themselves and exploit the ability to do so they discover in others.  Above all, they champion the ideas that arise from this sort of thinking process — often in the face of skepticism from the “not invented here crowd” — and act on them with the courage of their conviction that the organizations for which they are responsible will be the better for it in the long run.

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