We all deal with concepts whether we are conscious of doing so or not. At the same time, many people have difficulty with concepts because they seem vague, intangible, philosophical and academic. Most people prefer 'hands on' specific action to the vagueness of concepts.
'We shall solve this problem by finding the appropriate solution'. Such a statement is perfectly correct and perfectly useless. The 'appropriate solution' is indeed a concept - but not a very helpful one.
A horse is 'a method of getting from A to B' - so is an aeroplane. Does this mean that a horse is the same as an aeroplane? The killer phrase 'the same as' is very often used to kill new ideas because the very broad concept behind the idea is similar to the very broad concept behind an existing idea. If this new idea is the 'same' there is no need to pay any attention to it.
CONCEPT OF FOOD
'Incentive' is a concept. So is 'fragmentation'. No one has ever gone to a supermarket to buy 'food'. There is no package labelled 'food'. Most of the things that are bought in a supermarket come under the general concept of food. But this concept has to be delivered through a specific product. You may eat pasta, cereal, sausage, etc. All of these are 'food', but you do not buy food as such.
On the way from the very broad concept to the detailed idea there may be many layers of concept. Each layer is more specific than the layer above and less specific than the layer below.
Concepts can be categories of functions or an assembly of things or activities. An 'activity' is a concept. A 'game' is a more specific concept. 'Football' is yet more specific. The match between two specified teams is the actuality.
A 'holiday' is a concept. A 'seaside holiday' is more specific. There can be yet more detail: a beach holiday, a yachting holiday, a bird-watching holiday, an adventure holiday, etc.
The value of concepts is that we can use them to 'breed' ideas. One of the techniques of lateral thinking is to extract the concept behind an idea and then to seek other ways of delivering the same concept. The concept of a newsletter is 'very specific information' that is of value to the receiver.
The difference between a newsletter and a magazine or newspaper is the specificity of the information. Could such information be delivered in another way or through another medium? Very likely.
The skill of using concepts includes several different activities. There is skill in choosing the right level of concept to work with. A too detailed level will not breed new ideas but only ideas close to the existing ones. Too broad a definition of the concept will cover so much that any final idea may not be relevant or useful.
Then there is the ability to define the concept that is in use. When I ask participants at a seminar to define the concept behind insurance (non-life) I am always amazed at the range of responses, which cover just one aspect of insurance and leave out the most important aspects. The sharing aspects of both risk and compensation are very key, and yet they are often ignored.
Then there is the skill in finding the right words to describe the concept. You may be well aware of a concept, but unable to verbalise it effectively. Youngsters are well aware of the concept of 'cool' and can apply this to people. At the same time, they are unable to verbalise what 'cool' involves.
As an exercise, try to verbalise the concepts behind the following: pensions, internet, drug-taking, street signs, an airline ticket, a scooter and a rock artist. Your definitions will usually cover one or another aspect of the situation, but may well leave out one of its central features.
You may say that a rock artist is an entertainer. This is correct, but rather too broad. A circus clown is also an entertainer.
What is the concept behind sport? Could you use this concept to design a new type of sport?
What is the concept behind 'democracy'? Could you use that concept to improve democracy?
Definitions of concepts are rarely wrong. They are usually inadequate. You could define a car as a moving platform with four wheels. This is correct, but leaves out the 'engine' or 'self-moving' aspect. After all, a railway carriage is also a moving platform with four wheels.
VAGUENESS OF CONCEPTS
A cloud is as real as a brick even if the shape is not as hard-edged.
Imagine a series of boxes labelled A, B, C and D. Objects are placed in one or other of these boxes. The object is in the box or not in the box. This is the way we like to think. This is the way our intellectual culture has taught us to think.
Starting with such certainties we can move ahead in a logical progression: if something is in this box, then it has these characteristics and will behave in a predictable way.
Now imagine a wall, and in this wall there are four windows labelled A, B, C and D. You can look through the windows at objects on the other side of the wall. Someone looks through window A and sees an object. Someone else looks through window B and sees the same object.
This is very different from the box system. That is the nature of perception. One person sees something one way, and another person sees it differently.
It is the same with concepts. One person can define the concept in one way, and another can define the concept in another way. Both ways are valid. Both may not be equally useful in generating ideas. It is very different from our normal 'box thinking'.
So what do we have to do if there is no certainty of being right?
The answer is we explore as we do with creativity in general.
In creativity we look for alternatives. We do not say this is the only 'right' alternative. We explore other alternatives and see where they lead. We deal with possibilities.
With concepts, we try one concept after another to expand our range of conceptual possibilities. There is not the certainty of boxes, but there is the 'richness' of possibility.