The powerful Idea Kindlers of master magician Stewart James
Idea Kindlers are the second main component of creative problem solving, complementing Creative Infrastructure
I recently wrote about Creative Infrastructure as a part of the creative problem solving process used by the late Stewart James, inventor of more than 1,000 magic tricks. James proved to be an amazingly prolific inventor through:
his attitude and approach
his information repository
his networking and collaboration with other magicians
However, it’s equally important to consider James’s idea generation techniques. He referred to them as “functional thought-starters”. In the Manufacturing Ideas chapter, David Ben refers to the techniques as Idea Kindlers in his book Advantage Play, providing the raw material to generate idea “sparks” that could ignite into great ideas. You can find the full list of 21 techniques here. As you can see, the names are pretty colourful (and some of them may use some archaic language):
We’ll look at three of the techniques in this post:
12 Keys to All From the Pyramids
Grafter and the Tree of Knowledge
The Vision of Ezekiel
Note: unless I state otherwise, I’m merely presenting the ideas from Advantage Play, which were derived from Stewart James’s techniques.
12 Keys to All From the Pyramids
If you’ve heard of the term “virtual board of directors” then you’ll easily grasp this technique. Even if you haven’t, this Idea Kindler is simple at its core but we’ll start with a real life example.
Companies and non-profit organizations often have boards of directors that advise their CEOs, presidents and Board chairs. Many times these boards are simply a collection of allies that lets the company/organization leader do whatever they want to do. The true purpose of a board, however, is to bring a series of diverse skills and knowledge together and make them available to an organization’s leader to assist with problem solving and vetting proposals. In theory, a board’s composition should be diverse enough to be able to advise on a wide range of problems and opportunities.
The 12 Keys concept is to create, when needed, your own board of directors to advise you as you tackle problems. Here’s the catch: a 12 Keys board is not composed of flesh and blood people. Instead, a 12 Keys board is made up of people who you could probably never get access to in real life, including deceased individuals. Similar to deBono’s Six Thinking Hats concept, you imagine each of these people and what they would think about a problem that you need to solve. You “pose” the problem to each individual and you imagine what suggestions they would have.
Here’s an example: let’s say I’m writing a novel and I’m at a point where two characters are in conflict and one is about to kill the other. I don’t know what to do and what should happen to both characters. I decide to mentally consult some of my favorite authors plus some other well known writers. Just for fun, here’s a list of authors and how I imagine they might solve this problem:
Stephen King: the hero grabs a knife and stabs the villain in the heart… or tries to, but the villain turns into a clown holding balloons and giggles madly at the attempt, then drags the hero into the sewer where “everyone floats”
Bram Stoker: the hero stabs the villain but as the villain is a vampire they cackle evilly, pull the hero into a vice-like embrace, and bites into the hero’s jugular vein with gusto.
Kurt Vonnegut: at the climactic moment, the two main characters lock eyes, weapons raised, then Kilgore Trout enters the scene and explains how they’re in an experiment put on by rich aliens who are trying to understand death, having outlived it
William Shakespeare: well, William’s a bit freaked out by all of this so he explains how Hamlet killed his wicked uncle as it’s top of mind
the Dalai Lama: he would chide you for writing something so violent and suggest a round of meditation and community service to improve your mental health so you have the hero and villain resolve their differences, join forces and work to make a better world
And so on. You can approach this technique as seriously or as irreverently as you like but the idea is to challenge your own ways of thinking by adopting a different persona and trying to think like them.
Of course getting the support of real people is probably most effective when problem solving but this technique can allow you to bring the perspectives of people you’ve never met to the problem.
Grafter and the Tree of Knowledge
This technique is similar to a couple of techniques used by many organizations: as is and to be analysis (or perhaps more appropriately, what if).
A Tree of Knowledge, as envisioned by Stewart James, is very similar to what we call mind maps or concept maps these days. The goal of these diagrams is to take knowledge and break it down into its components so you can see the individual pieces and how they connect to each other. To use an analogy, the human body could be depicted as a Tree of Knowledge, with its various systems (gastrointestinal, nervous, musculature, skeleton and others) as branches and then subdividing each system into its components and facts about each one.
As is analysis is a similar process, where you take a subject and document it as much as possible in order to understand it well. A thorough as is analysis will show how each part of a problem is connected to other parts of the problem.
Another way of looking at this is to imagine key concepts about science, technology, art and the humanities broken down into components.
The Grafter part of this Idea Kindler is the concept of taking one piece or branch of knowledge and merging or grafting it to another branch of knowledge to see if this juxtaposition will trigger new ideas. This generates a “what if” scenario that could lead to your “to be” solution.
Here’s a grafting example: grafting the idea of medical practice to product category management. Let’s say you’ve got a line of laptops which has historically sold well but sales are down for all models in the line: what do you do? If you wanted to approach the problem like a doctor, you might look for “medicine” to help heal the laptop line, like improving performance, pricing changes or more. In an extreme model, you might assume that you’re in a war and your army has sustained excessive wounds, so you might need to “triage” your product line: healing as best as you can and focusing your efforts on those models that are most likely to survive, leaving the weakest to die.
This technique could be used in many ways by bringing seemingly unrelated knowledge together to see if the combination can lead to creative solutions.
The Vision of Ezekiel
This is another technique that involves combining different concepts together to generate new ideas. Referencing Ezekiel 1:16, Stewart James imagined three giant wheels with seven spokes on them, with each spoke representing a different idea or image. If you imagine each of the wheels rotating independently you can imagine each combination of spokes generating a different combination of ideas (not unlike the wheels of a slot machine, I suppose).
In my previous post I described how Stewart James would split a magic trick into three different parts: object, effect and method. To simulate how the Vision of Ezekiel could be used to help generate ideas for a new magic trick, you could imagine three piles of index cards, with seven cards in each pile, with the cards shuffled and placed face down. Each pile represents a “wheel” from James’s vision and each card represents a spoke. So you’d have an “object” pile, an “effect” pile and a “method” pile and each pile contains different possibilities:
The object pile could be a list of common objects used in magic tricks: top hat, handcuffs, deck of playing cards, scarf, rope, wallet, watch.
The effect pile could be a series of things that could happen to the object: disappear, change colour, break, etc.
The method pile could be a series of ways that the effect occurs: slight of hand, hide in a box, light on fire, shred, etc.
If you want to generate ideas of a magic trick, you would draw one card from each pile and see if they combine into a successful trick (note: this is kind of the opposite of a game of Clue, where you have to deduce which three cards are the solution to the crime: the Ezekiel technique gives you the cards right from the beginning!)
Let’s say that in this fictional example you draw the following cards:
Effect: change colour
Method: light on fire
Obviously it’s up to you whether or not you could make a good magic trick by combining these three things together. If the combination doesn’t work, you can always draw more cards to see if they make a better solution. Note: you don’t need to be bound by the cards you draw! If a better idea occurs to you when examining the cards you’ve drawn, use it!
Recently I’ve been thinking of adapting this method so you perform it using a standard deck of cards. A standard deck of cards provides a number of logical groupings:
four groups of 13 cards (by suit)
two groups of 26 cards (by color)
thirteen groups of 4 cards (by each face card value)
plus if you really want to mix things up you could use the two Jokers to add some unusual twists.
A deck of cards would give you even more ways to generate ideas if you give each playing card a unique meaning. (OK, OK, I’ll write a post about this to describe it in more detail).
The heart of this technique is to provide random combinations of concepts to see if they either provide usable solutions or lead you to other workable ideas.
Whatever lights your creative fire
I really love the Manufacturing Ideas chapter of Advantage Play. The concept of combining different ideas and elements together to solve a problem or to create something new is powerful. Quite often we do this unconsciously (or possibly intentionally): trying to solve problems by comparing them to other situations and replicating solutions that have worked elsewhere. Idea Kindlers can introduce a certain amount of randomness in your creative problem solving work which can lead to unexpected but valuable ideas. These techniques, while not perfect, can be ways to deal with more challenging creative work (or problems) and help you get out of creative ruts or dead ends.
Over to you: do you have any idea generation techniques that you’ve used in problem solving? Anything like these? Anything that seems off the wall or completely bananas but yields interesting ideas? Share your thoughts in the Comments section!
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