General Business

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Guy Browning

Brainpower: Learning to think differently

The British Library Conference Centre, London

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Guy Browning is really very funny. He both counselled and entertained Guardian readers in his column, ‘Office Politics’, and his highly humorous books include Double Your Salary, Bonk Your Boss, Go Home Early and the intriguingly entitled Never Hit a Jellyfish with a Spade.

He wasn’t, however, at the British Library to advise the London Business Forum (LBF) on how to navigate their way through the office jungle. He was there instead in is his other guise of business guru who helps big companies come up with good ideas.

Good ideas, Browning told the LBF, come from being both innovative and creative: “Creativity is thinking new things and innovation is making them happen.” Innovation is integral to business success but so many of us are failing to do it. Why? Not enough of us are thinking “outside the box,” he suggested. According to Browning, businesses work very hard to box us in – from the titles on our business cards, which are box shaped, to our offices where we sit in a box (a cubicle), at a box (a desk), staring at another box (a computer) that shows yet more little boxes (the windows open on the screen).

There are three things that Browning believes are required to tear ourselves free from these boxes, things that we don’t necessarily have easy access to in business life:

  1. Time
  2. Peace and quiet
  3. The permission to be creative

Once we have given ourselves the permission to be creative there are techniques, Browning revealed, that everyone can use to come up with new ideas. One of these is ‘lateral thinking’ where taking an indirect approach to a problem can prove more fruitful. To illustrate Browning suggested looking at a glass of water to develop ideas for cat food. A glass of water is liquid, connect this with cat food and you could have, “cat soup.” “That’s a soup for cats not forcing your cat into a liquidizer,” Browning was quick to point out.

Our “lazy” brains and what Browning called “the titter factor” will often prevent us from finding that great idea when using this method, he warned. We are inclined to reject the more obscure connection as meaningless but it is here where the best idea is undoubtedly hiding. “It’s always the difficult connection that is the new connection,” Browning explained.

Browning often advises his clients to “think in a different brand.” Adopting another company’s “vision and values” can allow for a much more creative approach, freeing you from the constraints of your own organisation’s branding and giving you “double the brain power.” “You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it,” said Einstein.

One of the most important lessons for creativity that Browning wanted to teach the LBF is that “nobody sees the world as it is, everybody sees the world as they are.” We must, he argued, be conscious of the way that we see the world in the first place in order to see the world differently. It is this change in perspective which leads to fresh thinking.

Our ability to see something from another’s viewpoint is often hindered by our inability to really listen to other perspectives. “People’s default mechanism,” argued Browning, “is not to listen.” Yet he explained that “one of the most powerful creative […] lessons is giving people a damn good listening to.”

“There are no new ideas, only the import of old ideas into new places at new times,” Browning told the LBF but, he insisted, the fastest way to find these ideas is to talk to new people and “listen to them with an open mind.” Returning to where he started, he urged his listeners to give themselves permission to be creative. “Sometimes,” Browning concluded, “you have to make those big leaps into the dark.”