Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the famous French philosopher, did his best thinking on trips he made alone and on foot, which he called thought walks. Similarly, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the brilliant German author, took a walk whenever he wanted to think and come up with new ideas. It was during his long hikes in the mountains of Berchtesgaden that Sigmund Freud worked out his imposing structure of the unconscious, preconscious and conscious that has bound the twentieth-century psyche ever since. In fact, he told his good friend, Wilhelm Fliess, a Berlin doctor, that his book The Interpretation of Dreams was designed to have the effect of one of his hikes through a concealed pass in a dark forest until it opens out on a view of the plain. Taking a walk stimulated and refreshed their thinking.
Whenever you’re deeply involved with a problem, take a thought walk. You will find walking around your neighborhood, a shopping mall, a park, the woods, industrial complex and so on to be highly stimulating. Look for interesting objects, situations, or events that are interesting or that can be metaphorically compared with whatever project you happen to be working on. For example, suppose your problem is how to improve communications in your company. You take a walk and notice potholes in the road. How are “potholes” like your corporate communication problem? For one thing, if potholes are not repaired, they get bigger and more dangerous. Usually road crews are assigned to repair the potholes. Similarly, unless something is done to improve corporate communications, it’s likely to deteriorate even further. An idea with a similar relation to “road crews” is to assign someone in the organization to fill the role of “communications coach.” The role would entail educating, encouraging, and supporting communication skills in all employees. And just as road crews are rotated, you can rotate the assignment every six months.
A thought walk is one of my favorite techniques to stimulate creativity. A while back while aimlessly walking around my neighborhood, I noticed a U.S. Postal truck delivering mail. The road was in poor shape and had many large potholes that the truck had to avoid. The postal truck and poor condition of the road inspired an idea.
The postal service has thousands of trucks that travel on fixed routes and transport mail to every nook and corner of the country. Fitting the trucks with smart sensors, the trucks can collect important data on weather, communications, infrastructure and several other systems that determine the development and safety of the country.
The data gathered by these truck-mounted sensors would establish a baseline map of ordinary conditions, making it significantly easier to spot a problem or anomaly. Such a system could aid in homeland security by rapidly detecting chemical agents, radiological materials and, eventually, biological attacks; it could also assess road quality, catalog potholes and provide early warning of unsafe road conditions like black ice.
A system like this could also detect gaps in cell-tower coverage, weak radio and television signals and sources of radio frequency interference. This data could help provide uninterrupted communication services and promote more efficient use of broadcasting. I have a colleague working with the post office now to develop and implement this idea. This is a valuable resource that can make the postal service profitable.
Sometimes I will walk aimlessly and simply list objects or experiences that I find interesting. When I return, I draw a picture of the object or experience and list all of its characteristics. Then I list all the associations I can think of between each characteristic and a problem. I ask questions such as:
- How is this like my problem?
- What if my problem were a…?
- What are the similarities?
- This….is like the solution to my problem because…?
- How is …like an idea that might solve my problem?
- What metaphors can I make between….and my problem?
This kind of thought walking is incredibly productive. A designer friend of mine and another designer were thought walking together in New York City. They were discussing new product ideas when they stopped by the site for Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower in New York City. The spire of the building is planned to be 1,776 feet high – 1776 was the year when the United States Declaration of Independence was drafted. They were intrigued by the idea of using invisible information to generate visible forms that have meaning.
When they returned to their office, they mulled over possible ideas of using invisible information to create visible forms. Leafing through catalogs they came across ads for sweaters with computer generated space invader designs. Combining the sweater with the freedom tower inspired their idea. They came up with what they call voice knitting where an audio input (a song or a voice) is computer translated into a simple visual form to give a sweater or other piece of clothing its own unique style and vocal fingerprint of the owner.
Thought walks give you different aspects to focus on and different ways to interpret what you are focusing on. An engineer was contracted to find ways to safely and efficiently remove ice from power lines during ice storms. He was blocked. He took a break and went for a walk. He visited a store that had several different varieties of honey for sale in a variety of different containers. The store advertised the honey with a cutout of a large bear holding a jar of honey. He bought a jar and returned to his office.
At his desk, while simultaneously thinking of honey and his power line problem together, he came up with a humorous absurd solution to his problem. The solution was to put a honey pot on top of each power pole. This would attract bears and the bears would climb the poles to get the honey. Their climbing would cause the poles to sway and the ice would Avibrate@ off the wires. This silly idea got him to thinking about the principle of “vibration,” which inspired the solution. The solution the power company implemented was to bring in helicopters to hover over the iced power lines. Their hovering vibrated the ice off the power lines.
(Michael Michalko is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://www.creativethinking.net)