Dodge and Weave - It’s All In Your Head

There are all kinds of theories about where good ideas come from. And there are some excellent books and TED talks about the environments and business philosophies that foster and encourage creative thinking. But I’m more interested in how the process actually works in the human mind - because that’s the weird shit I trip out on.

My answer about how and why ideas form in the brain: who knows?

I think there may be some fibrous layer of mental capacity between the conscious and subconscious, the left and right hemispheres, the logical and the daydream, where ideas get pulled in from the ether to be given form and structure.

It’s as good a crackpot theory as any other I’ve read. And it’s my crackpot theory.

What I do know is that creative thinking is like anything else… disciplined practice makes you better.  So at the beginning of 2014 our creative department began weekly meetings that focused on creative puzzles and challenges. At first, we were soft and out of shape, but the more we practiced, the better we got; and even though the exercises differed and took on a different cognitive function, the effect was cumulative. And a lot of fun.

Here’s some of what we did:

The Candle Problem

This one is a classic - psychologist Karl Duncker came up with it as a cognitive performance test.

Here it is:

  • Affix a lit candle to a cork board so that no wax drips on the table set against the cork board.
  • You have a book of matches and a box of thumbtacks.

The solution for this one is on Wikipedia, here.

Ahhhhhh… now I’m out of matches.

It’s about functional fixedness. People who have lived overseas for extended periods, particularly in third world countries, are supposed to do better at it.

This exercise was good for product development creative.


"If you want to get better at boxing… box." - Mike, my boxing trainer


Remote Associations

In this exercise, the participants are given three words and told there is a fourth word that relates to the other three, directly or in concept.

One of these things…. oh wait, wrong puzzle.

Here’s a relatively easy example:

Elephant, Lapse, Vivid

The fourth word is: Memory.

You can find an excellent Remote Associations test here. There’s an easy and a hard version.

This one is good for developing insight. And the team loved it because drinking helps.

So here’s a great recipe for caipirinhas from Daniel Boulud to get you started.  Saude!

Lateral Thinking

This is the team’s overall favorite.

Lateral Thinking is a term coined by Edward de Bono in 1967. It means taking a mental side step to a problem instead of continuing to approach it linearly.

Typically, it involves the reading of a scenario (usually morbid) that superficially seems logically incongruent. The participants then ask the reader questions that can be answered with “yes”, “no”, or “irrelevant”, until they reach the solution.

Here’s an example:

In the middle of the ocean is a yacht. Several corpses are floating in the water nearby.
"Are the people floating in the water from the yacht?" - "Yes."
"Were they murdered?" - "No."

That’s right, iStock models. Keep drinking.

The exercise forces each detail to be examined in order to get to the solution. See the solution to this one here.

You can find more lateral thinking puzzles here.

This has been great for improving our skills with concept development.


"Creative thinking - in terms of idea creativity - is not a mystical talent. It is a skill that can be practised and nurtured.” - Edward de Bono


Bonus Round: Intuitive Thinking

All of these exercises got me thinking about how the mind can alternate from the cognitive progression of the puzzles above to the intuitive understanding of patterns and relationships. Then I started reading about Daniel Kahneman and I was floored.  Any meager understanding I thought I had been able to glean about the way the mind works was pulverized.

You can read or watch his incredible lecture “The Marvels and Flaws of Intuitive Thinking” here.

I’ll write more about it next time and how it’s influenced our creative thinking and the way we look at and understand patterns.

Have any good creative exercises you use to stay on point? Let us know in the comment section!


by Brian Desautel
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