Proposed Experiment

Negative Thinking

“Decalcomania” by Rene Magritte (1966)


The following document shows a set of steps that are aimed to foster wider creativity and innovation regarding a problem within any organization. This approach (here called “Negative Thinking”) makes use of the areas that we normally consider to be “outside” or “irrelevant” to the problem at hand.

Functional fixedness makes us think that we already know what the problem is, therefore our minds begin to look for a solution immediately. By focusing on what the problem is not we aim to delay this process and allow us to gain a wider perspective when looking at what we are actually trying to solve.

Sometimes the problem is not the problem, but the way we look at it.

This project adapts processes taken from Probing and Blitzing (specifically thinking fast and slow), Visualising and Scaling, although there are influences taken from the whole experience of the Creative Practices module.

In every part of this process, we are going to offer examples and exercises to try yourself. This, being an experimental workshop, hasn’t been tried on large scales problems and their investigation has been developed by applying it to a small set of problems within a particular organization.

Problem: At NAS, we are having an issue with the storage of artwork in our office. We keep them at the marketing office as a temporary stopover before being picked up by the buyers. This timeline can be observed as follows:

  • We have an exhibition in one of the NAS Galleries.
  • An artwork gets bought.
  • After the show, this artwork gets delivered to the marketing office in order to be picked up by the buyer.
  • The artwork can stay in this state for months (even years) without the buyer picking it up. This causes a clog of artwork in the office and a general lack of space.
  • We don’t provide a delivery service because this increases the artworks cost too much (we had problems with insurance before).

Start with “what is not?”

1 – What is not the problem: First try to outline the problem in the simplest, most raw, and basic way you can. You can do this by writing the problem and starting deleting words without losing meaning (example: Alt Text as Poetry).

Example of simplification of the problem by deleting words.

The idea is to remove as many words as you can.

After roughly marking the field in which we are going to play, we need to stop the urge of the team to jump into solving the problem. We can do this by focusing on the negative space around our problem.

2 – What are the areas that don’t play a part in this problem: Try to not focus on the problem but rather on what it is not. We can do this by giving a set time to the team to come up with areas that are relevant to the organization but not part of the problem. The objective of this is to let the mind get away from the problem, letting the solution brew and taking out the seriousness of it.

Example of the analysis of areas within the organization that don’t play a part in it.

Since we have previously defined the problem, our minds are unconsciously trying hard to solve it. Focusing on any area outside the problem will always be linked to what we are trying to solve. This is a way that might work to overcome the things we are taking for granted (or functional fixedness).

After this exercise, we have a well-defined (simplified) problem and an extended area in which we can find solutions. We have expanded our possibilities.

Wrong answers only

3 – How can we mess it up?: In this stage of the exercise we let our minds go wild (diverging). There’s no wrong answer. Criticizing or commenting on others’ ideas is not allowed (brainstorming). The idea of this part is to try to come up with the weirdest, funnier, craziest idea for our problem. Have fun!

For this part is important (but not a requisite) to take into consideration the areas that don’t play a part in the problem (see exercise 2). They might help to see new possibilities on how to develop wrong answers.

Examples of ideas that seem to be wrong or unviable are to be implemented.

We will always find a way to come back to the problem. We are also social beings and we might be compelled to participate in each other’s ideas. The only way to participate in someone else’s idea on this part is to “build up”.

For example:

  • If someone says an idea like: “we eat them” you are not allowed to say: “that’s stupid” or “what a great idea”. No opinions or critics are allowed.
  • If someone says an idea like: “we use them as tables” someone is allowed to build up on that. With something like: “we use them at tables and then make our Christmas dinner on them!”.
  • The uses of “yes, and” and “yes, but” are allowed as long as they build upon the idea and don’t interfere with it. Example: “yes but need to remember to make a child’s table!

The goal of this part of the exercise is to be free from trying to have a “right” answer. We are focusing on deliberately having a wrong answer. This could allow the team to have fun, relax and find new ways to approach the problem.

4 – Impossible solutions. Wouldn’t it be great if?: If money, time, space, or gravity weren’t a problem, how would we approach this? For this part of the exercise, we need to take every “wrong” answer and make it possible.

Examples of the transformation from “wrong ideas” to “possible ideas”.

In this stage is totally fine to discard ideas. Some of them will definitely be too out there to be rationalized to be factual. And that is totally fine!

Most of the ideas that are able to pass to the next stage are related to “areas that are not part of the problem” (see exercise 2).

We have now taken a problem, simplified it, analyzed the environment, diverge, converge and reframe the opportunities that we have for solving this problem.

Think inside the box

5 – Do not overthink it: Easiest, fastest and cheapest. We need to pick 3 ideas from our last exercise (see exercise 4) and bring them “inside the box”.

This “box” is formed by everything that we have control over. This can be budget, decision-making, timelines or any other type of power we have.

We focus our approach on 3 main subjects:

  • Cost: (cheapest to implement)
  • Speed: (fastest to implement)
  • Easiness: (easiest to implement)

We pick our 3 ideas and give them a score from 1 to 3 in each subject, 1 being the best score (most possible) and 3 the worst score:

Examples of the categorization of ideas by actuality.

In the case above we have picked 3 ideas and realized that only 2 follow the standard that we have set before (cheap, easy and fast). We have decided to implement both of them as follows:

  • We are installing a piece of new furniture in the office in order to serve as temporary storage for artwork (idea 1).
  • We are creating a protocol that states clearly that after a certain amount of time (let’s say 90 days) every artwork will be returned to the artist.

6 – Implement!: This is the last part of the experiment.

Final considerations

There is definitely a point of resistance that we may encounter when working with these dynamics. For some people, this might seems pointless and disengage very rapidly from any creative effort toward this methodology.

This kind of exercise might work better in an environment of good culture. I believe that if people are allowed to have a laugh at work it might indicate that they could achieve the ideal outcomes presented in this project.