Monday, March 14, 2011

Use Precedent Purposefully

When people are discussing future directions, there is a tendency to default to what has been done in the past. The conversation goes something like this: "What should we do?" "Let's brainstorm some alternatives" "Well, what did we do last time?" "What are other people doing?" "What is best practice in this arena?"

Why does this happen? The people may want to think more innovatively, but something is preventing them. That thing is the human brain. Throughout your life, your brain takes in pieces of information and arranges them in patterns in your memory. As new information comes in, your brain does a search to see how it might fit with other information already stored in your memory. When you look for an idea, your brain goes straight to its store of similar ideas and retrieves those. The "shelves" of your brain are stocked with examples of things you've seen or done or heard of before.*

Your brain offers you a selection of "templates" (or "precedents" in lawyer-language).

This explains why many people find it difficult to think laterally, and why a brainstorm often produces little in the way of novel suggestions.

To make the most of the brain's liking for precedents, search for examples that are "broadly similar" rather than "narrowly similar". You can do this by stating the challenge from a variety of different perspectives, and by experimenting with different levels of abstraction (by expressing the question in a more general or a more specific way).

New ideas often come from unconsciously combining elements of existing ideas. To maximize the likelihood of such a brainwave, you need plenty of examples to work with. Don't just go with the first idea that seems to be workable - map out a whole range of options, and examine the best aspects of each.

Have patience with the process, because new ideas take time to develop.

When creating your strategy, don't simply default to precedent. But if you are going to use precedent, use it purposefully.



  1. Shelley,
    Thanks for your post. People do focus on what has gone before them when brainstorming. It is for this reason that Robert Fritz (author of the Path of Least Resistance series of books and resources) recommends that people focus on what they want. Not just what they think they want, but what they really, really want.
    The process encourages people to dis-associate from their present reality when defining what they really want. The second step is to come to terms with your present reality and the third step is to work out how to move from your present toward what you want want.
    Fritz describes this as creating the future you desire.
    It is a powerful process that takes time to master as many of us are trapped by our past as your post has described.
    Gary Ryan