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will help you become aware of your own conceptual blocks. Later, we shall discuss in more detail how you can overcome those blocks.


Constancy, in the present context, means that an individual becomes wedded to one way of looking at a problem or to using one approach to define, describe, or solve it. It is easy to see why constancy is common in problem solving. Being constant, or consistent, is a highly valued attribute for most of us. We like to appear at least moderately consistent in our approach to life, and constancy is often associated with maturity, honesty, and even intelligence. We judge lack of con- stancy as untrustworthy, peculiar, or airheaded. Prominent psychologists theorize, in fact, that a need for constancy is the primary motivator of human behavior (Festinger, 1957; Heider, 1946; Newcomb, 1954). Many psychological studies have shown that once individuals take a stand or employ a particular approach to a problem, they are highly likely to pursue that same course without deviation in the future (see Cialdini, 2001, for multiple examples).

However, constancy can inhibit the solution of some kinds of problems. Consistency sometimes drives out creativity. Two illustrations of the constancy block are vertical thinking and using only one thinking language.

Vertical Thinking

The term vertical thinking was coined by Edward de Bono (1968, 2000). It refers to defining a problem in a single way and then pursuing that definition without deviation until a solution is reached. No alternative definitions are considered. All information gathered and all alternatives generated are consistent with the original definition. De Bono contrasted lateral thinking to vertical thinking in the following ways: vertical thinking focuses on continuity, lateral thinking focuses on discontinuity; vertical thinking chooses, lateral thinking changes; vertical thinking is concerned with stability, lateral thinking is concerned with instability; vertical thinking searches for what is right, lateral thinking searches for what is different; vertical think- ing is analytical, lateral thinking is provocative; vertical thinking is concerned with where an idea came from, lateral thinking is concerned with where the idea is going; vertical thinking moves in the most likely direc- tions, lateral thinking moves in the least likely direc- tions; vertical thinking develops an idea, lateral think- ing discovers the idea.

In a search for oil, for example, vertical thinkers determine a spot for the hole and drill the hole deeper and deeper until they strike oil. Lateral thinkers gener- ate alternative ways of viewing a problem and produce multiple definitions. Instead of drilling one hole deeper and deeper, lateral thinkers drill a number of holes in different places in search of oil. The vertical-thinking conceptual block arises from not being able to view the problem from multiple perspectives—to drill several holes—or to think laterally as well as vertically in problem solving. Problem definition is restricted.

There are plenty of examples of creative solutions that occurred because an individual refused to get stuck with a single problem definition. Alexander Graham Bell was trying to devise a hearing aid when he shifted definitions and invented the telephone. Harland Sanders was trying to sell his recipe to restau- rants when he shifted definitions and developed his Kentucky Fried Chicken business. Karl Jansky was studying telephone static when he shifted definitions, discovered radio waves from the Milky Way galaxy, and developed the science of radio astronomy.

In the development of the microwave industry described earlier, Percy Spencer shifted the definition of the problem from “How can we save our military radar business at the end of the war?” to “What other appli- cations can be made for the magnetron?” Other prob- lem definitions followed, such as: “How can we make magnetrons cheaper?” “How can we mass-produce magnetrons?” “How can we convince someone besides the military to buy magnetrons?” “How can we enter a consumer products market?” “How can we make microwave ovens practical and safe?” And so on. Each new problem definition led to new ways of thinking about the problem, new alternative approaches, and, eventually, to a new microwave oven industry.

Spence Silver at 3M is another example of some- one who changed problem definitions. He began with “How can I get an adhesive that has a stronger bond?” but switched to “How can I find an application for an adhesive that doesn’t stick firmly?” Eventually, other problem definitions followed: “How can we get this new glue to stick to one surface but not another (e.g., to notepaper but not normal paper)?” “How can we replace staples, thumbtacks, and paper clips in the workplace?” “How can we manufacture and package a product that uses nonadhesive glue?” “How can we get anyone to pay $1.00 a pad for scratch paper?” And so on.

Shifting definitions is not easy, of course, because it is not natural. It requires individuals to deflect their tendency toward constancy. Later, we will discuss



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