There once was an Indian medicine man who made hunting maps for his tribe. When game got sparse, he'd put a piece of fresh leather in the sun to dry. Then he'd say a few prayers, fold and twist it, and then smooth it out. The rawhide was now etched with lines. He marked some reference points, and a new map was created. When the hunters followed the map's newly defined trails, they usually discovered abundant game.
The medicine man had stimulated the hunters to look where they least expected to find game, by introducing random information into their thinking.
(This image is from Roger's excellent book.)
The medicine man's map acted as an oracle.
Oracles use randomly generated information to help us think laterally. They invite us to look at something in terms of something else. We’re unlikely to get new ideas by using our existing mental connections; like the hunters in the story, we need to look where we least expect to find something. (That phrase is from Philip K Dick, I think. I love it.)
It’s the randomness of the new information that matters.
We love oracles. We use them all the time. We read our horoscopes. We shuffle Tarot cards and throw dice. In ancient times, people visited oracles in places like Delphi, where priests or priestesses would utter strange pronouncements in answer to their questions.
And yet, in our work, we often do all we can to filter out randomness. As Kathy Sierra writes in an interesting blog post: "While we assume that randomness plays a big role in games, we do our best to strip it from "serious" products and services." That's good for quality control and consistency; but it's hopeless for innovation or radical problem solving. Without random input, we remain stuck in our old ways.
With information overload a constant threat, we filter and screen information relentlessly in an attempt to narrow the funnel. "But," writes Kathy, "all this filtering, tuning, and pruning keeps us stuck! We end up seeing only what we think we want to see--what we're already familiar with--and slashes our chances for serendipity. And that means slashing our ability to create and innovate, or even to be truly surprised and delighted."
So give random thinking a go. Open up your mind to the possibility of serendipity. Look, just a little more often, where you least expect to find it.
To create a simple oracle for yourself:
Type ‘random word generator’ into your search engine and you’ll soon find one. The generator will offer you randomly selected words that you can juxtapose against a problem to stimulate new ideas.
For example, suppose the problem is:
How to encourage my team to be more creative
I generated four words on a random word generator.
Salon: how about establishing a creativity salon or room, where the team can use toys and games to stimulate new ideas?
Curry: how about finding ways of mixing different ingredients into projects or team activities to spark creativity?
Captain: does the team need leadership to help them unlock their creativity?
Roof: maybe we need an overarching strategy that integrates creativity into team objectives and competencies.
The best words for this kind of lateral thinking are concrete nouns: words that name things physically present in the world. Concrete nouns stimulate our imagination with images, and the images create powerful sparks. Words like ‘finance’, planning’ or ‘region’ are not likely to be so rich in associations.