Decision making – idea generation

“when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” – Sherlock Holmes “Sign of the Four”

I am a Sherlock fan but I am afraid this statement is nonsense and reflects a common error in how we make decisions. The statement above is incorrect because what is left after eliminating the impossible is not only the improbable ideas you have, but also all the ideas you did not come up with. It is more likely that the answer is something you did not think of because you limited your possibilities too early in the process.

I saw a good friend of mine this week who has been very worried for the past two weeks about a business problem. He had put a lot of time and energy into preparing a space to display artwork, but now it seems the lease might fall through due to issues beyond his control. He appeared stuck in a loop, thinking he had no control of this situation. I suggested we use an approach that I use all the time when looking at investment ideas.

  1. Write down all the things that could happen.
    This is an exhaustive list of all the possibilities you can think of. Include items which you think are “impossible” but are in fact just ones you dismiss because they seem too hard. I lead the way by insisting on putting an idea down he has previously told me is ridiculous. With that as the benchmark for how bad an idea can be and one that still makes the list, he came up with a dozen ideas in less than 10 minutes.
  1. Go back to each one and write 2 or 3 sentences about why this outcome would be good.
    Do not evaluate them, do not mention any potential obstacles or negatives. I refused to listen to them and cut him off every time he starts. I kept telling him that we would get to the negatives next and then he could explain to me why this idea was stupid. I call this stage “suspension of disbelief”. Once he released his imagination, he became very animated about many of the ideas. Including the ones he did not want to even put on the list because they were “impossible”.
  1. I lied. We are not going to look at the negatives now. Make Action points!
    Instead, go back over each of the items and work out what the action point is (AP) to take it forward. This is the information gathering phase. After you have done each of these, write down what you have discovered and let’s talk again and start to evaluate the ideas.

If you go back to my first 2 posts you can see the same basic idea.
To be creative you need to separate the idea generation phase from the analytical evaluation phase.
I hope to use this blog over time to share some of my investigations of ideas which even I may think hard to justify. But to come up with really good ideas, you have to be willing to entertain a lot of really bad ones.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement.” Sherlock Holmes “A Study in Scarlet”.

Well said Sherlock.

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