Changing the Context

I read a study recently which looked at how physical context influenced the way people solved problems. Apparently when people sat outside of a box, instead of in the box or near the box, they were more creative in their thinking.

Architects and interior designers know this intuitively. If you go to The Cube in Shoreditch, a co-working space, there are different environments to cater for different types of thinking. Upstairs is full of light, with big windows to stare out, designed for creative or imaginative thinking (literally blue sky thinking) whereas downstairs has smaller, enclosed rooms (similar to a library) for deeper, analytic thinking where we benefit from no distraction.

Context plays a huge role in determining how we think and work.

The creative brief is a good example. A particular style of brief will inevitably have a bias towards a certain type of solution and a certain style of thinking (usually mirroring the style of the person who designed it). Similarly, one of the problems I have with strategic planning tools (from brand onions to triangles to double bubbles) is that they lock you into a very specific mindframe. They force you to think “problem – solution” or “consumer insight – brand benefit” and insidiously lead you down a very particular, and often limited, path, without you even realizing it.

I personally do better thinking in Powerpoint than in Word. Having to write a strategy long-form using Word, I’ll naturally veer towards an essay style, creating a detailed argument for the most robust conclusion. Whereas writing strategy in a visual Powerpoint presentation, will make me ditch the unnecessary bits and simplify the complex bits. It encourages me to lay out the story in a way that will maximize interest and excitement – because otherwise I’ll have to witness the boredom of my audience firsthand.

Changing the context can make a huge difference to the outcome, and yet so often we forget this. We try to change people, instead of changing the circumstances. When schools want to improve student behaviour, they try to modify the kids instead of modifying the lessons. When agencies want to create better work, often they start by retraining staff, or even hiring different staff altogether, instead of instigating fresh practices.

Trying to change people is much more difficult and much less likely to deliver good results. Whereas changing the context, the tools, the rules – is often remarkably easy and effective.

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  1. July 19th, 2012
  2. August 19th, 2012

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