Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Synthesis of Knowledge

Recently I met a very successful businessman who is now my advertising client and he told me a story which nicely illustrated the power of creative thinking in business.

My client owns a big confectionery industry and he decided to extend his brand portfolio to high quality (no additives, no artificial flavours…) bruschette, but he encountered a problem. He needed a machine which would cut baked bread into bruschette but was not able to buy one because the machine producer had an exclusive contract with another company and would not sell the machine to the competing bruschette producer. My client did not get discouraged by this news and after a few days of thinking he got an idea. The most crucial part of the new bruschette machine, the one that made it special and difficult to get, was a set of rotating knives for cutting the bread into thin slices. Now, these knives reminded him of airplane propellers so he decided to contact an airplane engineer and ask for his help. The result: the prototype of a new machine is being developed and my team is preparing to launch a new buschette brand.


Pink paper giraffe in the back yard doing a scientific research!

Pink Giraffe sneaked into a back yard to do his research on synthesis!

No matter how good you are at something, sooner or later you will encounter a problem that you will not be able to solve using solely the knowledge from your own professional background (the solution to bruchette problem did not come from confectionery but from airplane industry). In fact, too much knowledge about something can sometimes hinder your thinking. It is a common truth that great experts often tend to be narrow-minded when confronted with new ideas – they rather stick to well determined truths and formulas so anything that goes beyond this learned logic is not regarded as relevant. In real life, sometimes people from completely different professions, even complete laymen can provide useful insights and ideas that solve problems and grow business.  

This brings us to an important element of creative thinking – synthesis of knowledge.


Synthesis of knowledge represents application of prior knowledge and skills to combine elements into a pattern not clearly there before. Synthesis is a major tool in creative thinking because it is directly responsible for the creation of major technological and scientific breakthroughs.

There are two ways in which you can use synthesis in your creative thinking: you can combine the knowledge and experiences that you have acquired during your life, or you can rely on the knowledge of other people and experts in different fields (interdisciplinary thinking).

Synthesis of self-acquired knowledge

Creative people are inquisitive by nature so it is very likely that as a creative person you have already gathered various experiences and learned different skills throughout your life. How often do you use these ‘other’ skills when dealing with your business problems? For example, a friend of mine who was once a successful basketball player told me that whenever he reaches the final phases in a particularly tough negotiations with his clients, he is reminded of the final minutes of an important basketball game. His experiences on the basketball pitch help him remain calm, concentrated and focused even in the situations when others would give up or give in and settle for less favourable negotiations outcome. When brainstorming for new ideas stay open to all kinds of knowledge that you possess: maybe your cooking, paragliding or singing skills will inspire you to find the solution to your business problem. To start your idea flow, you can ask yourself these questions: which things can I combine; what can I rearrange; what can I substitute in the project; is there an analogy with another process, what if…?

Synthesis of interdisciplinary knowledge

People learn throughout their entire life. No matter from how many schools you have graduated or how many books you have read, you will never be able to learn everything. Sometimes you will need help from other experts to move on with your project. This usually happens when, for example, your personal project reaches a scale where you need other experts to help you bring your business to the next level. The client that I mentioned in the beginning of the article, had never, ever, thought that one day he will have to work with the airplane engineer in order to produce a simple product like bruschette!

If you are working on a personal project and you cannot hire a professional interdisciplinary team, you can still count on your friends to help you. You can always gather them for a quick cup of coffee and discuss informally the ideas that you have. You will be surprised how many useful inputs you can get from the people whom you meet on daily basis and whose knowledge and opinions you sometimes take for granted.

To ignite your imagination I will invite you to try a simple and entertaining mind game. I will offer you a list of professionals different areas and a list of problems that you have to solve. Your task will be to choose a problem and then gather a team of experts who will help you complete the task. You will have to make a team of five experts and define an assignment or a role of each one of them in the team.

PROBLEMS/TASKS
Invent a new type of pencil to write on all imaginable surfaces.
Make an instructional video about the importance of fibre rich diet.
Promote the use of bicycles as a means of everyday transport among school children.
Design sleep-friendly seats in the commuter trains.
Design a new taste for a potato chips brand.
Invent a skin cream for growing chest hair.
Design a new line of fashion shoes for small dogs.
Promote rooftop farming.
Introduce 4 day working week.

LIST OF EXPERTS:
Sales person
Rocket scientist
Landscape architect
Veterinarian
Baker
Burglar
Sky-diver
Lights systems engineer
Dance choreographer
Bus driver
Radio announcer
Carpenter
Ventriloquist
Shiatsu practitioner
Chemical engineer
Journalist
Contortionist

Here is how I solved this task:


PROBLEM/PROJECT
Make an instructional video about the importance of fibre-rich diet.

TEAM MEMBERS AND THEIR TASKS/ROLES
Baker - Consultant & one of protagonists in the video. Provides information about food and health aspects of fibre-rich food from his point of view. Provides recipes and prepares fibre-rich meals.
Chemical engineer - Consultant & one of protagonists in the video. Explains digestion processes and absorption of nutrients into our body system. Explains benefits of fibre rich-diet from his point of view.
Sky-diver - One of the protagonists in the video. Promotes fibre rich diet and explains how it helps him achieve great sports results.
Journalist - Writes script for the video.
Radio announcer - Provides voice-over for the video.


It is your turn now to choose one of the problems that I have offered (or you can choose a problem that you are facing in your real life) and make your own interdisciplinary team. Please share your suggestions with me. Anyway, I hope you will have lots of fun doing this thinking exercise.
 

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If you wish to further explore this topic, you can check out the selection of my favourite books about creative thinking.


Key words for this blog post:
creative thinking synthesis of knowledge, creative thinking techniques, interdisciplinary thinking... 

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