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After a semester of studying the ideas and processes surrounding creativity and innovation, Adams book Conceptual Blockbusting seemed to be an interesting and exciting read. Additionally, it would be interesting to see how ideas raised in his book tied into the concepts discussed in class. After reading the book, it is no surprise as to why over 300,000 copies have been sold, as the cover proclaims, and the book is currently in its fourth edition since its original 1974 release. Adams keeps readers interested from start to finish by including many examples and exercises which are easily relatable. There are many points of intersection with course material throughout the book, making it a good source of reinforcement at the end of the semester. In terms of personal application, there are many takeaways that I will incorporate into my thought process when dealing with idea generation and innovation throughout my career.
James Adams opens the book by building a framework for everything that follows. It is not acquiring information or knowledge that leads to thinking creatively, he writes, but rather the way our mind's functioning must be evaluated. To achieve progress in retooling our thought processing, Adams encourages readers to work through the problems and exercises in the book. Just as athletes must practice their sport to achieve the proper functioning during events, we too must practice thinking creatively to become better at it. Adams' example of placing letters above and below a horizontal line is a fascinating way to demonstrate all of the different ways people can view the same problem. He lists over 15 different responses he had received over the years, all of which could be valid depending on an individual's way of processing the problem at hand. When a problem needs to be solved, a brainstorming session follows the same procedure, resulting in many different ideas to then be evaluated. Similarly, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes, "Only a very small percentage of the great number of novelties produced will eventually become part of the culture. For instance, about one hundred thousand new books are published every year in the United States. How many of these will be remembered ten years from now?" (Csikszentmihalyi, 41). The same concept applies to ideas, that while millions of ideas are generated, only a small handful will actually be implemented. Adams also raises the fact that our problem solving habits are largely a result of genetics and life experience, and these habits actually help us solve problems more quickly than if we had to rely only on conscious efforts. However, creativity is hindered by these habits, as the author states that creativity "implies deviance from past procedure", so we need to be aware of what we are actually doing when problem solving (Adams, 8). Building this framework at the start of the book is excellent placement, in order to focus readers into how their participation and open-mindedness is critical; otherwise the book will not have the desired impact, if any at all.
Before one can adjust their thought process, they must be aware of what is blocking them from their desired level of creativity. As such, Adams informs readers about different types of conceptual blocks that they face, beginning with perceptual blocks. Often, we are blocked from perceiving exactly what the problem itself is, or critical information needed to resolve a problem. Readers are made aware of six different common forms of perceptual blocks. Stereotyping often prevents us from thinking creatively, as we assign attributes or qualities without actually analyzing the object or person. Adams' example of chairs in a warehouse is exceptionally thought provoking. If one only views them as chairs, the uses are very limited. However, if we look at the chairs for their actual attributes, such as fabric and other materials, we can come up with far more potential uses. In class, our exercise dealing with coming up with alternate uses for a plastic egg carton echoed this concept. Each student generated their own list of potential applications, which were then combined to a large aggregate list. Some ideas used the carton as it existed for other tasks, while other ideas repurposed the material into other use. This notion of looking at the product itself also relates to the article "Finding the Right Job for Your Product", as the authors stress that managers must first "understand and improv[e] the products on the dimensions of the experience so that it does the job better" (Christensen, 40). Once the managers have this knowledge from what essentially is the consumer's viewpoint, they can then determine their marketing and positioning strategies, as they can match the attributes and benefits to the customers' needs. Michel's article about service innovation also raises this concept of "finding the right job" within the service industry, following the same general steps that Christensen and Adams described. Oftentimes, this "take a step back" approach that Adams discusses is very helpful in thinking innovatively, as it forces us to re-evaluate our assumptions (which could be very off-track), and also improve the product to deliver better value.
The second perceptual block is the difficulty in isolating the problem, especially when in the midst of chaos or when being misled. The visual examples that Adams provides are excellent illustrations of this notion (Adams, 22-23). We must be alert and focused to identify the specific problem at hand. Conversely, another block we must be aware of is that we cannot put too many constraints on the problem, or else we risk framing the problem too closely that finding a solution is impossible. The exercise of drawing a continuous line through nine dots is extremely appropriate, as it illustrates how our mind adds restrictions that are not actually a part of the problem (Adams, 25-31). Additional perceptual blocks that Adams discusses are the need to view a problem from multiple viewpoints, and the need for saturation and use of all of our senses when problem solving.
James Adams also delves into the area of emotions blocking our ability to think creatively when problem solving. As he states, offering a new idea, and then trying to convince others of its value, can sometimes "make you feel like an ass" (Adams, 39), so people often tend to avoid sharing their new ideas. To strengthen the argument for emotional involvement in problem solving, Adams ties in psychological theories to draw several conclusions. For additional insight into the psychological principles behind cognitive thinking, the article "Cognitive Fitness" by Roderick Gilkey can be read in conjunction with Conceptual Blockbusting, as Gilkey delves further into how the brain's functioning affects thinking innovatively. First, we block out creativity because of an inherent fear of taking a risk, making a mistake, or failing altogether. We also are uncomfortable with breaking order, would rather be a judge of ideas than to generate them, and would rather work to find a solution by a deadline than to "sleep on it" and allow a better solution to "appear" (Adams, 50). A final emotional block is the inability to separate fantasy from reality when evaluating a problem. Adams uses a range of examples to illustrate these emotional blocks, but compared to other sections of the book, the subject matter of the examples does not appear as relatable to the average reader. While valid points are raised on this topic, I feel that this is a weaker theme within the book.
Cultural blocks are another major theme discussed in Conceptual Blockbusting. We must be sensitive to issues such as social taboos, tradition, science, the tendency to want to throw money at a problem rather than thinking through a solution, and quantitative versus qualitative debates. Adams also discusses the notions of fantasy, playfulness, and humor in regards to adult behavior versus child behavior. We also discussed these ideas in class, in regards to thinking creatively. Examples and Adams' personal reflection are effectively used to illustrate each of his cultural principles. One interesting argument that the author raises is that of left-handed versus right-handed thinking, explaining how the right hand is traditionally associated with more analytical and objective properties, where the left-hand is linked to more emotional and subjective attributes, consistent with left-brain and right-brain functions. Adams challenges readers to put themselves into a setting where they think only in left-handed mode to come up with ideas, and then switch to right-handed mode to make money out of one of those thoughts. This exercise is interesting as it forces us to retrain our thought processing, and encourages us to look at problem solving in this manner. Adams concludes his discussion of the theme of cultural notions with several simple examples of projects that could not be easily solved without breaking a cultural norm. These examples tie all of the types of cultural examples he mentioned together to leave readers with the takeaway that we must think around these cultural blocks in order to come up with the best solution to a problem. Whether or not we choose to admit it, we all face cultural blocks while problem-solving, and Adams provides a highly persuasive argument as to why we need to learn to either work past, or move around, them.
The reality of any problem solving is that our immediate working environment we- both social and physical -adds additional roadblocks to our path to finding the ideal solution. In every environment, we face distractions, whether that is due to family members, friends, the phone, sources of entertainment, other projects, etc. Especially when a job is tedious or stressful, we would rather do something else, even if it's talking to a relative that you really can't stand on the phone. Adams feels that we all have a particular type of ideal environment that will help to foster our conceptual thinking, the features of which are not all physical. Cooperation is often a major factor to successful problem solving, and we must also incorporate feedback and criticism into our work. Adding to Adams argument, one could add the notion that when we are happier, we produce better work, which applies to conceptual thinking as well. Teresa Amabile's article "How to Kill Creativity" addresses this environmental aspect, as environments where workers are praised "for creative efforts - not just creative successes but unsuccessful efforts too" are effective settings for creative thinking, as they "sustain such passion" and make people "feel as if their work matters" (Amabile, 83). Environmental blocks are not as significant as the other themes, which is likely why Adams spent comparably less time discussing the topic.
The final sector of conceptual blocks addresses our mental tactics when problem-solving, as well as the communication of ideas. Adams simple example of continually folding paper in half vividly demonstrates the notion that we must address problems with the correct mental tactics. For this example, an analytical approach would allow for the correct calculation, whereas visual imagery or verbal approaches would not give the correct answer. We must evaluate the best method for solving each problem we face. Adams shares a list of 66 different strategies that can be used, or combined, to solve different problems, a valuable resource when considering his goal of having his readers completely re-evaluate their approach to conceptual thinking. The author also stresses the importance of communication, and that it cannot be taken for granted when dealing with creativity and innovation, as there are likely to be differences in interpretation to compound the issue of unclear descriptions of an idea or object. Adams defines and provides a plethora of examples for what he calls "alternate thinking languages", which include visual, verbal, analytical, and other sensory ways of addressing problems. The article "The Innovator's DNA" raises several concepts along this mental tactic approach to blockbusting. First, we must be able to associate things that seem unrelated, as "creativity is connecting things" (Dyer, 63). Furthermore, Dyer challenges us to question "Why", "Why not?" and "What if?", as well as playing devil's advocate, two additional strategies that can be added to Adams' list (Dyer, 63-64). One element of the mental approach to creative thinking that appears to be left out of Adams' argument is the notion that we should embrace and learn from failures, not be defeated by them, an idea discussed in both the fifth week of class, as well as in the articles "Failure by Design", "Strategies for Learning from Failure", and "How Failure Breeds Success". Our mental approach to problem solving is a major element that must be addressed when discussing how to think creatively.
After making readers aware of what is blocking them from true conceptual thinking, Adams continues by teaching ways to overpower the blocks. One element of creative thinkers, he writes, is a questioning attitude, much like an inquisitive child. The author informs readers that this is simple to add to your personality - just start questioning things. Without questioning the norm, we will just continue life as it is now, and not innovate nor improve products, procedures, etc. This principle is behind the success of many entrepreneurs, as they saw an opportunity that could be fulfilled, and turn profits, as a result of their questioning. Adams reminds readers that lists are an effective way to make us think conceptually, especially in competitive environments. By making lists as he suggests, we can overcome thinking only inside the box, coming up with other ideas of things to be done, or ways to improve current processes. Another wake-up call from the author is the need to break away from set techniques that we all have engraved into our minds. He uses an interesting example about the attributes of a ball-point pen as a demonstration of how we can come up with other solutions for a product. Group brainstorming is also suggested to feed off of the ideas of others, as is reaching across different disciplines, cultures, and environments. Adams once again appeals to readers interested in psychology, discussing how different famous researchers' findings can be applied to conceptual blockbusting. These applications are enhanced and supported by numerous examples, proving the author's proposed techniques. Having read this book, readers can put these techniques into action both consciously and subconsciously in order to think more creatively and innovatively.
One final element that must be raised in a book geared towards business people is how to apply this new way of thinking to a group or organizational level. As Adams writes, "During the past 15 years much attention has been paid to groups because of the realization that teams rather than individuals were perhaps the most powerful source of innovation in industry" (Adams, 160). He boils down group blockbusting techniques down to two: brainstorming and synectics. Brainstorming, as we discussed in class, must be free of evaluation, stress quantity of ideas, think as outrageously as possible, and build upon the ideas of others (Adams, 160). From the list of all ideas that are generated, the best can be selected. This was exactly what occurred with the Ice Cream store naming exercise that we conducted during class this semester - everyone came up with names, a master list was created, and then everyone voted for what the best ideas were. Synectics was a new concept raised in the book, where an outside group works with a client, and the leader cannot contribute his or her ideas to the group. Fewer ideas are generated in the synectics approach than a traditional brainstorming approach. Gary Pisano provides various structures for collaborative innovation that tie into Adams' discussion, but a particularly interesting format is that of the "innovation mall", where a company can post their problem to either a large group within the company, or even the public, for anyone to propose their solutions to the problem, which are ultimately reviewed by the managers of the company to determine the best course of action (81). By using this approach, the company executives are able to gather a great amount of ideas to then analyze on their own, as opposed to more face-to-face approaches where feedback may have to be given to each proposal. This approach also can open up the problem-solving to outside sources and/or customers, who would have a different viewpoint and approach than an employee within the company. Adams also describes different types of groups, as well as the best type of leader for each group. This is valuable advice, as it can be a guide point for any group that one is placed into throughout their life, not just at work. Furthermore, the author accurately details the elements that should be considered when creating groups, an idea that is often ignored by companies, bosses, professors, etc. For instance, Adams writes that the ideal group would be 5-10 people in size. I can confirm the upper limit of that range to be accurate, as last semester I was in a group of 15 assigned by the professor of the class, and the large group size caused more chaos and disarray for the project than anything else. The old saying "too many cooks in the kitchen" definitely applied, especially since there were limited tasks to divide amongst the 15 students. Furthermore, the article "Group Creativity" from the Encyclopedia of Creativity expands this notion, saying that "large teams may also have drawbacks since they may reduce the extent to which individual members feel accountable or important to the rest of the team. Thus, there may be some loss of individual motivation" ("Group Creativity", 447). Group creation is a very delicate subject when dealing with creative thinking.
Adams builds on the foundation of individual blockbusting, combined with group blockbusting, to reach the organizational level of blockbusting. One important characteristic that can either allow creativity and innovation to flourish or be strangled is the level of control embedded into the corporate structure. If organizations are too rigid and managers are not allowed to challenge or adapt the status quo, employees are not going to even think of creative way to do things differently in order to improve the company or its processes. The Coolburst case study displayed this type of rigid, anti-innovation management structure, where "everyone's entitled to [the marketing director's] opinion" (Wetlaufer, 38). Organizations such as Google and Pixar, however, encourage creativity amongst its employees, calling for them to spend a percentage of their work time on new, creative projects, as some of those projects could become the next great application or movie. Pixar also realizes that "smart people are more important than good ideas" and each film has a strong leadership team of a director and a producer, leaving out corporate executives (Catmull, 67-68). This allows creativity to be left to the "brain trust", as they make decisions that will impact the movie, while all involved in the creation of a film are given creative ownership over their individual tasks. Pixar's three operating principles provide a great framework for any creative organization: "1. Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone. 2. It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas. 3. We must stay close to innovations happening in the academic community" (Catmull, 71). Pixar demonstrates that collaborative creativity is not only possible within an organization, but that it can be highly successful. Organizations cannot achieve a creative and innovative structure immediately however. Adams also lays out five different phases of evolution and revolution that a company must go through as it grows from its founding to a large corporation. In the article "Get Creative!" from Businessweek, the author writes, "For managers, the biggest challenge may be making the leap from their Six Sigma process skills to new ways of thinking. For corporations, transforming themselves will require new sets of values and organizational principles." Moving onto a new way of thinking can be a daunting task for a large organization. Organizations must also appreciate, but not be controlled by, past success and traditions, which can be major conceptual blocks to moving into the future as an organization. Two final elements of organizational blockbusting that Adams describes, backed by examples, are rewarding and supporting creativity. Without these two systems, employees will not have the incentive to think innovatively, nor the resources to do so. Creativity must be embedded into the corporate culture of an organization, from the CEO to the Board to the employees. These principles are similar to those discussed in Social Entrepreneurship last semester regarding social intrapreneurship within organizations. Kevin and Shawn Coyne raise many of Adams' points in their article "Seven Steps to Better Brainstorming", discussing how to choose the right people and knowing the organization's decision-making criteria, as well as how to run the brainstorming sessions. After getting members throughout an organization to adopt Adams' principles for conceptual thinking, an excellent item of further reading is Sawhney's MITSloan article, which maps out twelve different dimensions for managers to put these innovative principles into action. However, until an entire organization is on board with the desire to think creatively and conceptually, efforts will be constrained by the blocks of traditional thought processing throughout the managerial hierarchy.
Conceptual Blockbusting is a must read for all businesspeople, especially the executives in companies who have the power to implement changes into their organizations, which will eventually trickle down to the employees. Entrepreneurs would also greatly benefit from reading this book, as they will be more aware of what is blocking them from truly thinking creatively, and building better businesses. James Adams wrote an excellent self-help book, as it not only tells readers what they need to do, but the examples and exercises provide reinforcement and bring the concepts into reality. Readers do not need any advanced knowledge to understand the points raised regarding creative thinking, as Adams makes sure that the language and examples used are applicable to everyone, unlike the article "Conceptual Blockbusters" by Kanak Gautum which uses more advanced and technical language and less easy-to-understand examples, leaving less of an effect on readers. Again, Adams' Conceptual Blockbusting is a book I would recommend everyone to read.
Personally, I know that the advice provided in Conceptual Blockbusting will be applicable to my future, specifically in a marketing career. While I may have previously thought of some of the points raised in the book, the examples and applications made the blocks, as well as the various ways to overcome the blocks, more obvious and real. I have already started to apply some of the principles in various aspects of my life, whether that be working with the Youth Group, or working on a marketing research project with a real-life arts client for another MBA course. This book is an excellent addition to an MBA program, as it is meant to develop better business leaders.