Via Tyler Cowen, Tony McCaffrey, a psychology PhD from the University of Massachusetts describes a systematic way of coming up with creative solutions to problems. He calls it the “generic parts technique”:
Here’s how GPT works: “For each object in your problem, you break it into parts and ask two questions,” explains McCaffrey, who is now a post-doctoral fellow in UMass’s engineering department. “1. Can it be broken down further? and 2. — this is the one that’s been overlooked — Does my description of the part imply a use?“
So you’re given two steel rings and told to make a figure-8 out of them. Your tools? A candle and a match. Melted wax is sticky, but the wax isn’t strong enough to hold the rings together.
What about the other part of the candle? The wick. The word implies a use: Wicks are set afire to give light. “That tends to hinder people’s ability to think of alternative uses for this part,” says McCaffrey. Think of the wick more generically as a piece of string and the string as strands of cotton and you’re liberated. Now you can remove the wick and tie the two rings together.
Does this work? Beats me. But according to McCaffrey, “obscure features and obscure functions” are the key to every single innovation he’s studied. What’s more, in a study he did, “People trained in GPT solved eight problems 67 percent more often than those who weren’t trained.”
However, I suppose the best part is that it sounds relatively simple, and we all love simple techniques, don’t we? The next time I’m stumped about something I’ll give this a try and report back to you.