Helping Creative People Create

Identify the Dominant Ideas in Your Thinking

DSP 76: Droste Frame 2007-08-01
Creative Commons License photo credit: vernhart

Post written by Andre Kibbe, author of the blog Tools for Thought.

When trying to solve a problem or design a solution, there’s often some root certainty that frames our thinking about it. We need to explicitly identify ideas we take for granted in order to think beyond them.

These ideas that we take for granted are called dominant ideas. They’re presuppositions that slip by our analysis unless we make a conscious effort to prevent that from happening. Dominant ideas need to be identified explicitly; otherwise they contour our perception of what we’re examining and limit our options.

The dominant idea behind a telephone is having a microphone, speaker and numeric keypad. As an alternative, we could design a cell phone with a qwerty keyboard, but with no microphone or speaker. It would be used strictly for text messages, and be cheaper to make and buy than conventional phones.

The dominant idea behind an RSS reader is collecting feeds. For the sake of provocation, we could posit that the point of an RSS reader is rejecting feeds. We want to keep irrelevant information to a minimum. This might lead to using an RSS add-on to an email client, taking advantage of the email client’s keyword filtering capabilities. A Mac user with no interest the iPhone or Linux could set up the reader to trash feeds from a particular tech blog with those keywords. Switching the perception of an RSS reader from being a collector to being a filter shifts the user’s priorities.

As an exercise in lateral thinking, spend a minute or two with each of the following items. Identify the dominant ideas and see if there aren’t alternative ways of looking at the items.

  • Parties
  • Cameras
  • Nonprofit corporations
  • Batteries
  • Vacations
  • Greetings
  • Alternatives

There are no right answers. The object is to develop the habit of reexamining perceptions we take for granted. Someone might point out that the dominant idea behind a telephone is “to communicate.” You might think that the dominant idea behind a vacation is “relocation.” I might argue that the dominant idea is “two weeks,” or some similar block of time. Both perceptions have the potential for developing alternatives.

Alternatives to “relocation” might entail staying at home binging on DVDs, spending quality time with friends and family in town, or finally starting that backyard garden. Alternatives to “two weeks” might entail redistributing the time over a series of three-day weekends, arranging to convert the time into half-days at work, planning blocks of time off according to personal projects (e.g. a one-day project, a four-day project, etc.).

The dominant ideas behind any object, institution, concept or concern can always be reviewed, questioned or challenged. We only need to make the proactive effort to do it.

Andre Kibbe is the author of the excellent productivity blog Tools for Thought. Tools for thought examines new directions and currents in self-development.

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