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Perceptual Creativity: Seek a new perception, discover new ideas

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At the beginning of August some 75 people gathered in Malta from all over the world (Korea, Australia, Singapore, Canada, USA, Russia, UK, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Oman, etc.). These were people who have been involved with my approach to the teaching of thinking. There were members of the APTT network of people certified to train my programmes (three: Six Hats, Lateral Thinking and DATT). There were members of the Creative Team (see my web site, There were educators interested specifically in the teaching of thinking in schools.

In one way or another these people are involved in the direct teaching of thinking as a skill. A problem which had not been solved for 15 years was solved using parallel thinking. The same approach resulted in a solution within 12 minutes of a major problem, with a saving of $10 million. Another session produced eight patent ideas for a major corporation. In another case, 21,000 ideas were generated in one afternoon, using just one of the lateral thinking tools. Executives who had always found it impossible to work cooperatively suddenly found themselves working together. At the most basic worker level, teams found that they could become far more productive. They could settle their own disputes and their disputes with other teams.

These 'practical' results are the ones that really matter. Pencil and paper research tells nothing about practical implementation. When the board of a major charity asks for the minutes to specifically record that using the Six Hats frame they had had their best meeting in 15 years, that means something.

The difficulty is that people who have not actually experienced the direct effects of teaching thinking find it hard to believe. Perceptions have their own stability and coherence. Since they happen in the self-organising system called 'mind', there are local equilibria which become very stable. Any change is resisted because the new position is unstable. So it reverts back to the original equilibrium. With regard to the direct teaching of thinking as a skill, there are the following components to the equilibrium position:

1. Thinking is a matter of seeing the world clearly. If you see the world clearly, then you will choose the right 'route' for action, as you might choose the best road if you have a good road map. So it is enough to teach information, and this will make clear the right route.
2. It is not necessary for everyone to re-invent the wheel. It is not necessary for everyone to learn the routine reactions and responses that have been worked out over the ages by far wiser people. So learn the correct responses and do not try to think things out.
3. Where the routine responses are not specific enough to indicate the action required, there are certain frameworks of value and behaviour guidelines which make thinking very easy. You just comply with the guidelines. This allows you to behave 'correctly' even when there is not a defined routine for the situation.
4. Thinking is a matter of judgment. Find the right routine. Make the right classification. Action is then easy.
5. Thinking is a matter of innate intelligence. Intelligent people will think well because they will learn the routines and how to recognise standard situations.
6. Judgment, analysis and argument are sufficient methods to help us identify the situation so that we can then apply the right routine.
7. The right habits of thinking will develop as we apply our thinking to different subjects. It is not possible to teach thinking directly as a skill.

These are some of the 'ingredients' which give us our stable perception of thinking. All the above imply that there is one 'truth' and the corresponding 'right action'. We seek to identify the situation and then to apply the routine we have already learned for that situation.

Perceptual creativity has two almost opposite functions. The first is to look at something unfamiliar and then seek to change the way we look at that situation to see if we can recognise a standard situation. This is the sort of thing that accountants and lawyers have to do all the time. How can we convert this unusual situation into a standard one? This is a very useful and perfectly valid function of creative perception. It is true that analysis can often break down an unknown situation into known elements. But there is also the role of creative perception which takes the perception as a whole and seeks to alter the way things are viewed.

The second function of perceptual creativity is to take an apparently known and fixed situation and then seek to see it differently. This is the basis of much creative thinking. Here we start with an apparently obvious standard situation. Now we make the effort to see if the situation can be viewed in other ways. A jury should be encouraged to do this. Both prosecution and defence are urging the jury to look at the evidence in a certain way. It is up to the jury to seek to find other possibilities.

I have often remarked that severe paranoia is fascinating from a system point of view. Most mental illness involves a breakdown or dysfunction of some system. There is some lack of the usual coordination. In paranoia, there seems to be an excess of meaning and an excess of organisation. Everything is superbly organised to give meaning. It could be argued that there is still a breakdown. The breakdown is the sense of perspective and reality. Why should everything be organised to 'affect' the thinker?

I mention paranoia here because there is a very high degree of perceptual creativity. Everything is looked at in a novel way so as to fit the story. A car has been parked at that corner for a very precise reason. The person making that remark in the grocer's has made it with a precise intention that fits into the overall picture. The degree of perceptual creativity is sometimes very impressive.

Perceptual creativity has two aspects. The first is the ability to see the whole thing in a different way. The second is to do with 'selective perception'. Here the viewer only 'sees' what supports his or her own view or intention. While both are creative processes, the first is usually more valuable.

We do not only see what is in front of us. We link what we see to what we know and what we are thinking. Everybody knows the story of the two shoe salesmen who went to a poor country. One salesman sends back the message: 'No market here at all. No one is wearing shoes'. The other sends back a different message: 'Fantastic market opportunity here. No one is wearing shoes'. The background information includes the following:

1. Whether the people could afford to buy the shoes, if available.
2. Whether shoes would offer any real or perceived advantages over the existing situation.
3. Whether habit and custom would permit people to switch over to wearing shoes.
4. Whether spending money on shoes would be the best use of limited resources.
5. Whether the wearing of shoes was of benefit to the maker of the shoes or to the wearers.

These are only some of the considerations that might have gone through the minds of the two salesmen.

Confusion is the enemy of action. The brain hates confusion. The purpose of perception is to make sense of the world around so that effective action can follow. The brain is superbly designed to form routine patterns that can cope with a stable world. The brain is simply not designed to deal with change. Perceptions have to be stable and unique. Whenever there are two possible competing perceptions the brain automatically emphasises the more likely (even if only slightly so) and suppresses the other. All this is necessary for effective action. Perceptual creativity goes against this natural tendency of the brain. The more possibilities we create, the more the difficulty in choosing between them. And until we choose between them, effective action is not possible. That is why so many believe that creativity leads to chaos and confusion.

Yet there is really no opposition between perceptual creativity and effective action. The purpose of perceptual creativity is to set out options. There follows the decision or choice process. There are several possible choice strategies. The preferred strategy depends on resources, need, background, culture and temperament. Is there a willingness to take risks if the rewards are high? Is the culture one of seeking a quiet life with minimal risk and minimal hassle?

1. Stick with the obvious perception unless an alternative perception offers clear and substantial benefits.
2. Seek to design actions which will work for different possible perceptions.
3. Explore further with the most likely alternatives before making a choice.
4. Assess priorities, resources and objectives and then choose the alternative which best fits these.
5. Make a strong case for each alternative and then make a choice.

The ability to make a choice needs to be developed in parallel with the ability to create alternatives. You cannot improve your decision ability by reducing the alternatives you perceive. You may get quicker decisions - but poorer ones.

My new book, which is called Simplicity, has now been published by Penguin/Viking in London. It will also be available in some other countries. If there is difficulty in obtaining copies, they can be ordered via the Internet from This site holds copies of most of my books.

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