The Mental Digestive Phase: The Second Step in Creative Problem Solving

Recently I launched a series of blogs on the creative process where I made a case for the importance of creative problem solving for entrepreneurs and shared the first of five steps in the creative process developed by James Webb Young in his book, A Technique for Producing Ideas.  If you are following this series, you know that the first step involves gathering raw material that is both general in nature and specific to the problem.  This installment will focus on step two of the process. 

But first let’s review. The creative process begins with problem definition and gathering raw material.  Entrepreneurs find creative solutions by combining what they know, who they know and who they are – this is the raw material you are collecting.  And remember, the more diverse the material and the greater the quantity, the more you have to work with in the subsequent steps. As discussed in the first step of the creative process, keeping a journal is a great way to begin to compile what you are learning during the first step.  I am curious about whether, after reading the earlier posts,  you tried to incorporate some of the ideas suggested in the previous posting.  Were you able to begin to find ways to learn something new?  Did you create a journal for your ideas?  If so, you are now ready to begin to train the mind to make connections – the second step in the creative process.

 According to Webb Young

What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which ideas are produced; and how to grasp the principles which are the source of all ideas.

Thinking about this step like the process of building a puzzle is a great analogy.  When I talked with Benson Riseman on Enfactor about his thoughts on entrepreneurship, he used the construction of a challenging puzzle to describe the entrepreneurial journey.  In this podcast, Benson suggested that when we first open a puzzle box and see all those tiny pieces, we may get overwhelmed and think that the job is too great to tackle or we may think we are missing something because we don’t immediately see how everything fits.  But if we just start – find the edge pieces or figure out a color strategy and begin to look for ways to connect the pieces – with patience, they will come together.  And, amazingly, the pieces will create something meaningful once they are connected.

In this stage, what you are seeking is to make connections and find relationships – i.e., fitting together the pieces of raw material like a puzzle. However, this mental digestive process is more abstract than the first stage of gathering raw material,  because as Webb Young suggests, “it goes on entirely in your head.”  However, in this blog posting, my goal is to provide you with some concrete steps you can take to initiate this process.

During the mental digestion process, there are three phases. Like a puzzle,  you start by putting together the pieces that are easy (like the edges and matching large sections of colors in a puzzle). These are the obvious connections.  When you are working in this phase of the process, write these down.  No matter how incomplete, jot them down in your journal.  At this point, when I assign this to my students, most of them think they have finished the assignment because they don’t see any more obvious relationships. But, once we talk in class they begin to see that they are still early in the process and this is where the second phase of the mental digestion process begins.  You too, may want to stop once you have a long list of connections but I encourage you to keep going.

With practice, the mind has the capability to go well beyond the obvious.  However, like working a puzzle, when you are training the mind, you may need to call on a few techniques to keep the process moving forward.  To facilitate the second phase, write down all the limits or boundaries you have put on your thinking.  In other words, what do you believe about the problem you are trying to solve that you held constant throughout the first phase?  Once you do that, remove those constraints or even state the opposite.  Then see if more relationships and connections emerge once you have removed or expanded the possibility boundaries. (For more on this process listen to Frans Johansson talk about removing associative barriers).  This second phase may yield some extreme possibilities and you may be tempted to dismiss them, but don’t do so.  Add these to your list and keep going.

You will know you have entered into the third and final phase of the mental digestion process when you get to the point that you are circling back, are truly frustrated and begin to question everything you have been working on up to this point.  When you know you have really persisted in finding connections and relationships and your mind reaches a state of exhaustion with the entire process, it is time to set the entire project aside and move on to the next step in the creative process (which I will discuss in the next blog posting). For now, the goal is to practice.

Training the mind to find connections and relationships is like any other skill – it takes practice.  For example, you can create a practice of combining two unrelated ideas to generate something of value. Take a hobby and a new technology and see if you can find a way to connect them to solve a problem you have observed in your world.  One fun technique you can use is to generate a list of novel applications for an ordinary item – like a flower pot or a pencil.  In my graduate class on creative problem solving,  I give my students many assignments that require them to find connections.  In one recent assignment, the task was to take the technology used in autonomous vehicles and apply it to an existing problem and generate a new product or market solution. One of the students in my class recently was an Olympic athlete from Mexico.  At the time, he was training in Tampa by swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.  One of the challenges he faced was that he had to look up periodically to see where he was headed and to make sure he did not have any obstacles in his path.  However, looking up in this way slowed him down.  His creative solution to the class assignment was an autonomous lead that could “swim” ahead of him and provide his course and notify him or even change course as needed.  This student already had general information about swimming and training and he also had personal experience. All of this general material could then be combined to provide a novel idea and a creative solution to the specific problem. 

These are just a few ideas for how you can enhance your ability to identify creative and innovative solutions to problems.  Making connections and finding relationships is a skill that anyone can learn, but like any other skill, to become proficient, you will need to invest time in the process of training the mind.  Most people are too busy with everyday life to create a practice that will enhance their mental digestion process.  But, perhaps right now, as the world still struggles with the pandemic, you will use some of the time you have to take on this practice.  I recently read that one producer of puzzles in the US saw a 370% increase in sales after the stay at home requirements began. Over the next few weeks, maybe you want to try a puzzle and also start your own journal of ideas and creative problem-solving practice.  As I tell my students, entrepreneurship and the creative process is a practice.  Much like yoga or meditation, the goal is not to perfect the process but to show up regularly and practice.  In time, you will be amazed at the results.  And in a few weeks, you will be ready for our next discussion on what happens in the third step of the creative problem-solving process. 

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