Everything starts with an idea

Spend more time thinking—you’ll help your clients more.

By Graham Allan, DSc, University of Washington, Seattle October 10, 2014
All consulting and specifying engineers know that their professional value often depends upon a chance encounter. Usually, someone with a problem approaches the engineer, asking for help. The help is needed as soon as possible because the client cannot see where to go. When is this new direction desired? As soon as possible! How can these needs be satisfied? By the consultant formulating an approach that the client and staff have not previously considered.
This is accomplished by the consultant employing creativity in conjunction with the facts of the client’s problem. Can every consultant generate such a new approach? The answer is an affirmative “of course” because otherwise the consultant could not long survive in this challenging role. One definition of a consultant is a person who supplies ideas to a client to solve or ameliorate troublesome situations.
It is instructive to consider how this ability arises. Is it because of educational training or a long period of experience? That these factors cannot be determinative is very well illustrated by the tale of the two Steves, Wozniak and Jobs, and their creation of the Apple Corporation. In fact, the case can be made that nearly everyone must be creative to some extent to even exist in our complex world.
However, many adults say routinely—and apparently believe—that they are not creative. Nonetheless, when children of all economic classes are observed playing with discarded cardboard boxes or sticks, the former can creatively become racing cars, or the latter swords and light sabers. As the child ages, how does this creativity vanish? Almost certainly, the negative comments encountered in life are highly effective in promoting the suppression of ideas. Thus, when the suggestions of subordinates are belittled by a superior, it is almost inevitable—for most people—that the flow of ideas will decrease or stop completely. Some consultants, together with their intrinsic creativity, have probably left employment with larger companies because of this all-too-common discouraging behavior.
The importance of being able to generate ideas is also largely ignored in education in preference to getting the “right” answer. The current national fixation on the emphasis of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fails to appreciate that math, for example, is mostly a tool and is neither an end in itself nor a passport required for a career in science or engineering. Except for the benefits of mental gymnastics, math must be preceded by an idea to be really useful. 
Edward de Bono has made a notable career as a consultant and author by emphasizing lateral thinking of ideas as a seldom-used creative complement to conventional left-brain, analytical and logical engineering thought. But strangely enough, most people, and even consultants, scarcely think. Analyzing the activities of a typical day, it is difficult to find even 1 minute that can be truly characterized as time devoted to right-brain creative thinking. 
This is true for everyone, and especially for professors. Most of the time we are all running on habits and left-brain logic, employing such misleading expressions as “I think it is time for a coffee break.” The word “think” should be reserved for the actual mental activity instead of being dispensed as a lazy language fill-in. It is surprising to learn that there are more than 80 verbs in the English language that can be used instead. 
A challenging experiment is to try to avoid saying the word “think” for a whole day. It is doubtful that you will be able to do this. The famous Irish author and dramatist George Bernard Shaw expressed the general lack of thinking succinctly: “Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.”
So clearly, everybody ought to try thinking more often because that engenders ideas and everything starts with an idea. How consultants can find the time to think creative thoughts and techniques to help do this effectively will be outlined in subsequent articles.

Graham Allan is a professor in the chemical engineering department and in the college of the environment of the University of Washington in Seattle. He has written more than 300 technical articles and book chapters, has been awarded about 70 patents, and consults for both industry and federal authorities.