Breakthrough thinking traps and two types of brand projects

A prospecting shaft. Mch. 26. Claim 44 below Discovery, Hunker Creek

A prospecting shaft. Mch. 26. Claim 44 below Discovery, Hunker Creek (1901) by Joseph Burr Tyrrell, 1858-1957, CC: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

Strategic brand ideas are rarely linear textbook answers; they often call for an original reframing of the problem or reinvention of the rules. Strategy is sometimes called “The creative before the creative”, but fundamentally both share a similar ambition – the quest for breakthrough ideas.
Breakthrough thinking is just as mysterious as breakthrough creativity – the two are intertwined. And while there have been attempts at exploring it, you won’t be surprised to know that there are no recipes. However, occasionally there are some useful tools and models.

One of my favourite descriptions of the quest for breakthrough ideas, highly applicable to design thinking, is found in David Perkins’ book “The Eureka Effect: The Art And Logic Of Breakthrough Thinking”.
Perkins constructs a model of breakthrough thinking based on the analogy of digging for gold in the Klondike. During the gold rush, everybody is looking for gold, and there are various methods of digging for it. When you find gold, if you have even little experience, you’ll know you’ve hit gold. But the big question is “how do you know where to dig?”

In that tricky terrain, the breakthrough answers and brilliant ideas are out there somewhere, but to get to them, the creative thinker must confront four types of thinking traps:

  1. The wilderness of possibility – The terrain is hectic and full of details. Nearly every spot looks either suspicious or promising. Every nook and cranny may be hiding the answer, but where to dig? Which opportunity to choose?
  2. The clueless plateau – The terrain is so bereft of any information or detail, it’s impossible to identify the potential areas where solutions may be buried.
  3. Narrow canyons – You may not realise it, but the path is taking you further away from the solution and limiting your exploration to barren areas. You may struggle, but there are so many limitations that the range of actions possible seems extremely narrow, almost as if there’s no way out. A worse incarnation of the canyon trap is when you may think you are choosing the right path, but actually you have a distorted view of the territory. You’re walking trapped in the canyon and you don’t even realise it.
  4. The oasis of false promise – This is it, you’ve found a spot that looks promising, this must be it. But actually, there’s nothing there, and you may dig and dig and sweat and nothing will come out of it.

There are techniques to mitigate and attempt to get over those traps, and sometimes half the job is realising which trap you’re dealing with. Here are some tactics to deal with the aforementioned traps:

  1. Spoilt for choice? Develop qualifiers/filters to make you choosier. Find a system for your roving. (And if that doesn’t work, rove randomly enough to hit something).
  2. No idea where to start? Try and generate more opportunities, roam more freely, and stay alert for any clue, however small.
  3. Stuck in one direction? Try removing any constraints or reframe the problem and see what new directions open up.
  4. Going for a promising direction but not yielding results? To begin with, don’t limit yourself too soon, don’t fall in love too quickly with solutions, keep roaming for a while. Have been focusing on an area of promise with little result? Try moving away, explore a new area and see what new possibilities open up.

Thinking back on brand challenges encountered through the years, I’m surprised to discover that most projects tend to fall into one of the first two types – Either you’re drowning in information and possibilities, with dozens of seemingly exciting alternatives and little evidence to what is worthy of staking a claim, further development or exploration. Alternatively, you find yourself in a bleak “insight desert” grasping for shards of useful information or any clue to point you in the right direction.

Why are the other two types more rare?
Simply because if a client falsely thinks they have the solution already or believe they are on the right path and nothing exists outside the box – they are unlikely to turn to strategic or creative advice in the first place. Instead, those “non-project” situations will sit there, waiting for someone to sound the wake up call of reality (to get out of the oasis trap) or for someone to breakthrough a new direction (to get out of the canyon trap) – either from the inside, or the outside.

Cross-posted on The Crossed Cow

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