Some Tools of the Trade: Part 1


My team helps support creative practice in the Scottish Government: encouraging and equipping staff to come forward with, and implement, ideas that will improve our corporate systems and our policy making.

Sometimes what we do can seem a bit like magic. We come in, sprinkle a bit of fairy dust over a problem and ‘hey presto’, new and surprising insights and results!

But, in reality, we employ simple, tried and tested, strategies and practices for facilitating creativity and innovation. We have a suite of tools that we draw on to: examine things deeply, explore new ideas, perform experiments and test hypotheses.

So, I thought I’d bring my GovLoop residency to a close by sharing some of our secrets with you. Just don’t tell anyone else! In this post, I’ll outline some tools that can help us look at a problem in new ways and get to its root causes by creating as diverse a perspective as possible. I’ll also highlight some creative ways to generate ideas.

1. Explore and understand the problem

Challenge. Take part of a problem and find something about it to challenge and question. You can challenge many things, including concepts and dominant ideas, assumptions and beliefs, or processes. You can also challenge the impossible, the essential, the apparent boundaries, and ‘sacred cows’ that cannot ordinarily be challenged.

Logic modelling. This works by asking what outcome you are trying to achieve, and then works backwards to identify the underpinning ‘logic’ or ‘theory of change’ of policies and programmes. If used in this way, logic modelling can challenge the prevailing wisdom about how, for example, an existing policy contributes to outcomes. It can provide a stimulus to thinking differently about what other policies or interventions need to be in place to achieve a particular outcome.

2. Generate ideas

Reword the problem. Stating the problem differently often leads to different ideas. To reword the problem look at the issue from different angles. What’s the roadblock here? What will happen if we don’t solve the problem?

Think in reverse. If you can’t think of anything new, try turning things upside-down. Instead of focusing on how you could solve a problem or improve operations, think about how you could make things worse. Consider these ideas – once you’ve reversed them again – as possible solutions for the original challenge.

Use random input. Choose a word from the dictionary and look for novel connections between the word and your problem.

Mind map. Put a key word or phrase in the middle of the page. Write whatever else comes into your mind. See if you can make any connections.

Pick up a picture. Extract a concept or idea from the picture and use this to stimulate a possible solution to your problem. Is there anything in the picture which reminds you of your problem and how it might be solved? What activities are going on? What situations are being faced? Why are the people doing what they are doing? What principles are being used?

Escapism. Propose the wildest, most outrageous and preposterous things you can imagine. You use true escapism where there are no morals, rules, etiquette, laws or standards. You escape the physical limitations of the world to see what your ultimate solution would be. You should not limit yourself by anything except your own imagination, and even this you should push. Your mission in this technique is to write down the wildest, most ridiculous, stupid, wacky ideas you can come up with. They do not have to be practical, possible or even sensible.

Once you’ve done this, and only when you have finished, should you look back at the ideas you have generated. Then you should look for ways in which all or part of these ideas could be made practical. Think of the benefits you could gain by using the idea and work out how you can achieve the same thing in reality. How could you modify the suggested solution to make it work? How could you get the same effect? What changes in the world would you need to make the idea possible and how can you make those changes happen?

Next time, we’ll have a look at tools for selecting, implementing and communicating ideas.

Lesley Thomson is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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