Inside the Box

The practice of systematic creativity

How Patterns Boost Our Performance...Without Even Knowing It

Our habits turn into patterns that can be reapplied to boost creative output.

Humans are creatures of habits, and these habits can be analyzed and codified into rules that help us perform better. Many times, we're not even aware of the habits that control our choices.

Conside the child's game, Rock-Paper-Scissors. The odds of winning are one in three. At least, that's what chance predicts. But people do not play randomly - they follow hidden patterns that you can predict to win more games than you should, a study has revealed.

At a rock-paper-scissors tournament at China's Zhejiang University, scientists recruited 360 students, placed them in groups of six and had each of them run 300 rounds against their fellow group members. As an incentive, winners were paid for each individual victory.

When players won a round, they tended to repeat their winning rock, paper or scissors more often than would be expected at random (one in three). Losers, on the other hand, tended to switch to a different action. And they did so in order of the name of the game - moving from rock, to paper, to scissors. After losing with a rock, for example, a player was more likely to play paper in the next round than the "one in three" rule would predict.

Humans follow patterns in many other domains including creativity. Research by Dr. Jacob Goldenberg suggests that or thousands of years, inventors have embedded five simple patterns into their inventions, usually without knowing it. These patterns are the "DNA" of products that can be extracted and applied to any product or service to create new-to-the-world innovations.

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The five patterns are:

  • Subtraction: Innovative products and services tend to have had something removed, usually something that was previously thought to be essential to use the product or service. The original Sony Walkman had the recording function subtracted, defying all logic to the idea of a “recorder.” Even Sony’s chairman and inventor of the Walkman, Akio Morita, was surprised by the market's enthusiastic response.
  • Task Unification: Innovative products and services tend to have had certain tasks brought together and “unified” within one component of the product or service, usually a component that was previously thought to be unrelated to that task. Crowdsourcing, for example, leverages large groups of people by tasking them to generate insights or tasks, sometimes without even realizing it.
  • Multiplication: Innovative products and services tend to have had a component copied but changed in some way, usually in a way that initially seemed unnecessary or redundant. Many innovations in cameras, including the basis of photography itself, are based on copying a component and then changing it. For example, a double flash when snapping a photo reduces the likelihood of “red-eye."
  • Division: Innovative products and services tend to have had a component divided out of the product or service and placed back somewhere into the usage situation, usually in a way that initially seemed unproductive or unworkable. Dividing out the function of a refrigerator drawer and placing it somewhere else in the kitchen creates a cooling drawer.
  • Attribute Dependency: Innovative products and services tend to have had two attributes correlated with each other, usually attributes that previously seemed unrelated. As one attribute changes, another changes. Transition sunglasses, for example, get darker as the outside light gets brighter.

Using these patterns correctly relies on two key ideas. The first idea is that you have to re-train the way your brain thinks about problem solving. Most people think the way to innovate is by starting with a well-defined problem and then thinking of solutions. In our method, it is just the opposite. We start with an abstract, conceptual solution and then work back to the problem that it solves. Therefore, we have to learn how to reverse the usual way our brain works in innovation.

This process is called “Function Follows Form,” first reported in 1992 by psychologist Ronald Finke. He recognized that there are two directions of thinking: from the problem-to-the-solution and from the solution-to-the-problem. Finke discovered people are actually better at searching for benefits for given configurations (starting with a solution) than at finding the best configuration for a given benefit (starting with the problem).

The second key idea to using patterns is the starting point. It is an idea called The Closed World. We tend to be most surprised with those ideas “right under noses,” that are connected in some way to our current reality or view of the world. This is counterintuitive because most people think you need to get way outside their current domain to be innovative. Methods like brainstorming and SCAMPER use random stimulus to push you “outside the box” for new and inventive ideas. Just the opposite is true. The most surprising ideas (“Gee, I never would have thought of that!”) are right nearby.

We have a nickname for The Closed World…we call it Inside the Box.

 

Copyright 2014 Drew Boyd

Drew Boyd is a professor of marketing and innovation at the University of Cincinnati.

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