PSI (Problem + Stimulus = Idea)
When to use it
PSI is a simple approach that can be used in several ways.
As a simple thinking tool, it can trigger an effective thinking process.
As a framework for a whole approach, it can accommodate a number of methods of stimulating ideas.
It is a good tool to use when you are stuck, as it gives a logical structure.
As a quick tool it sets a direction. More serious use requires effort to define the problem and experiment with stimuli.
How to use it
Define the Problem
The P of PSI stands for Problem. The first step is thus to clarify the problem that you are seeking to solve. If you are not clear on the problem, you will have difficulty in finding a good solution! Some thoughts for this:
- Try writing it down in several ways.
- Say the same thing in different words.
- Describe it from different viewpoints.
- Think about what ‘success’ means.
- Think backwards: what is ‘not success’.
For example, if you are seeking to stop a window leaking, you can define the problem as staying dry or keeping out water, it can be about sealant or surfaces, materials or coatings, corners or the entire frame. You can even look at it from the viewpoint of the rain or the window.
Find a Stimulus
The S of PSI stands for Stimulus. It is amazing the number of stimuli you can find around you. Almost anything will do, although something evocative is better, as it will trigger more ideas. The bottom line with stimuli is that if they work, then fine, but if they do not work or run out, then there are plenty more lying around.
For example, a stimulus for the leaky window could be found by looking through the window. Can you see a tree, a car, a running child?
Bang them together
The magic equation of PSI is:
P + S = I
or, more fully:
Problem + Stimulus + Idea
In other words, you bang the Problem and the Stimulus together and see what Ideas this creates. It sound simple, and is. But that does not mean it is not effective. As in much creativity, it’s the simple things that work best.
Thus, for example, when you look at the tree, you could wonder how the inside of the tree stays dry. Could you apply some bark? It has fibres in it. Could you pack the area with waterproof fibre? Or what about the car. That has windows – how does it keep out the water, especially at speed in the driving rain. It uses rubber seals that fit closely over the window and flex with any movement.
Problem: How to get plants to grow in contaminated soil.
Idea: Have a bonfire in a pit to burn away the contamination, then root the plant in the ashes.
How it works
PSI uses the principle of forced association, which gets your brain out a rut by bringing together things that have not previously been combined. In its flight from the discomfort of this, the subconscious brain will give you whatever you want, including useful ideas.
PSI takes this a step further by deliberately using the problem as one part of the combinatory equation.
A very simple principle that is at the heart of much creativity is Bisociation can be used both as an understanding and even as a stand-alone creativity tool.
The simple principle of forced association is of ‘banging things together’ that have not previously been brought together, or at least not recently.
Bisociation, a term coined by Arthur Koestler in his book, ‘The Act of Creation’, where he discusses the principle of forced association, amongst others. It is a quite a nice term, combining ‘bi’ for two ideas and ‘association’.
A + B = C
A simple ‘calculus’ of forced association is the equation A + B = C, where A and B are two things being brought together that result in the idea, C.
The lever of Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is the term used by social psychologist Leon Festinger to describe the state of discomfort created when we hold two opposing thoughts in the mind at the same time. In social psychology, this classically happens in such situations when a person who thinks of them as being kind and thoughtful does something like walk past a beggar on the street without giving them anything. They typically react by trying to get away from this discomfort, for example by walking faster or pretending the beggar is not there.
In creative forced association, the act of verbal vandalism in bringing together two words or thoughts that do not go together is enough to shock the subconscious brain into giving you whatever you want, including good ideas, just to get away from the discomfort of holding together words that it does not think should go together.
David Straker is a creative professional who has spent many years in R&D (hardware and software), won a few patents for his employers, and since the 90s, has been a business consultant—training people in blue-chip companies around the world. He has written a number of books, including two on problem-solving and one on inventing.
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