Lateral Thinking: What Would Eno Do?

Making the familiar unfamiliar wakes us up. Our brains are great at creating taxonomies and categorising information as it comes in through our senses, and just as well. Imagine if every new chair we saw was processed by our brains as the first chair we’d ever seen – the world would be impossibly overwhelming and exhausting. But with a ‘chair’ category in our mental filing system, we’re freed up to think about other things, like what we want to have for lunch. This efficiency does come at a cost however – complacency. Our thinking can trundle along, assuming we’ve seen it all before. We develop routines and habits and we stop looking. But if we slant our perspectives, and approach something familiar as though it were new to us, we open up a whole world of possibilities.

Known as lateral thinking, it is often mentioned in relation to ideas generation and creativity. I like to think of it as comparable to peripheral vision or trying to remember a dream on waking up. In both cases, what I want to look at is just beyond my grasp; the more directly I try to look at it, the further it slips away. So it requires a different kind of looking and thinking – more sneaky and unexpected, as though the solution is an oblivious opaki and I’m a predator hunting it down. In fact, staying away from the solution for as long as possible, sometimes even heading off in what feels like the opposite direction, paradoxically, can end up being the best route to the most creative answer. There are many techniques for promoting lateral thinking – below are some of my favourites that I think are well-suited to generating new approaches to museum learning programmes…

Oblique strategies and constructive constraints

In 1975, musician, Brian Eno and artist, Peter Schmidt created a series of cards, titled Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas, to help overcome creative block. Each of the 113 cards holds a question, a statement or a challenge – all prompts to encourage lateral thinking. For example: ‘what would your closest friend do?’; ‘honour thy error as a hidden intention’; or ‘use an old idea’. This approach now has cult status and has been reprinted, reformatted and repackaged many times. There are various websites (example here) that, at each click of a mouse, presents you with a new ‘card’.

The Wikipedia page on Eno includes a great anecdote from an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle. It demonstrates how a very tight constraint, such as a narrow brief or quick deadline, can actually provide rich inspiration. In 1994, Eno was commissioned to create the brief start-up music for the Windows 95 operating system, known as ‘The Microsoft Sound’. He explains:

The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I’d been working on my own music for a while and was quite lost, actually. And I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, “Here’s a specific problem – solve it”. The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said “and it must be 31/4 seconds long”. I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel. In fact, I made eighty-four pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.

Chance operations

Musician and artist, John Cage, a friend of Eno’s, is famous for his application of chance operations – an attempt to remove the self entirely from the creative process. Systematic and methodical in his approach, Cage used the I-Ching and relied on chance (for example, the toss of a coin) to compose music and images.

Divergent thinking

Psychologist, J P Guilford created the ‘Alternative Uses’ test in 1967 to measure creativity and, by extension, the application of divergent thinking. Participants were asked to come up with as many alternative uses for an everyday object as possible in two minutes. Those who demonstrated divergent thinking were coming up with wildly imaginative lists as they were able to split the object’s everyday use from its potential to be something else – or, in other words, they were able to disrupt the brain’s tidy mental filing system. As a warm-up exercise for a team planning meeting, a divergent thinking task can be useful preparation for finding new approaches to a problem.

Making associations

I’ve blogged about this already (see Ideas by Association) but it’s also a good fit for lateral thinking. It seems to be a technique that works well across all artforms; I’ve been to talks by author, A.S. Byatt and poet, Jackie Kay where they have both spoken about bringing together disparate ideas or images to create something new.

Object as metaphor

A museum’s collections and exhibitions are a fantastic resource to generate ideas and as a springboard for discussion. For example, as a team exercise select a gallery and ask everyone to choose one object that in some way symbolises what they think about their current programme. After going around the group and allowing everyone to share their thinking and rationale, then repeat the exercise, asking the team to select an object that represents what they want their programme to be in three years’ time. Then compare and contrast. The selected objects will have additional qualities that can offer alternative perspectives on the issue under discussion. There is something magical about this way of working – I love how unexpected and surprising the outcomes can be.

Ask good questions

Levi Brooks has written an interesting article for 99U, titled Brainstorm Questions, Not Solutions. He advocates for slowing down and understanding a problem fully before attempting to find solutions. He also offers useful advice on how to structure questions, such as ‘challenge the underlying assumptions of the problem (including your own)’ and ‘understand fully how different people around you perceive the problem’. Having only just read Brooks’ article, and primed to look for good questions, I then read Bridget McKenzie’s thought-provoking piece, Towards the Sociocratic Museum, which is full of them! Just one example – “I think the key is not in the familiar question ‘how can museums survive?’ but in ‘how can museums do work that matters?’ and ‘how can our governance reflect our mission?’” By shifting the emphasis and considering the issue laterally, McKenzie is opening up a whole new way of thinking about the problem at hand.

And in other news…

With the exception of bank holidays, I’ve enjoyed getting into the habit of posting an article on my blog every Monday. I’ve been surprised by how much it’s helped my thinking by having to write down the stuff floating around in my head. Most of what I’ve written recently has been based on my reading. Over the next month, I will be in the US doing my Churchill Fellowship research and I’m planning for the focus of my blog posts to shift too. I want to use the blog as a notebook to capture my first impressions and initial reactions. This might fall into a weekly pattern, or it might be something else – I will just have to get there and find out.

I would love to hear your views or top tips for while I’m there, so do please get in touch.

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