I first had a Hawaiian Pizza in 1998 while in San Diego for a kayak national team training camp. Yes, one of my Hawaiian teammates encouraged us to try it while we were out to eat at a local restaurant. Up until that point, it had never occurred to me that pineapple could taste so good on a pizza. Hawaiian pizza became an instant favorite for me, and that combination of novelty and good memories with friends combined to make the experience memorable. Such visceral experiences have shaped my pizza topping choices, I say, for the better.
Entering into a new experience requires some form of provocation
On the whole, people do not step out of their comfort zones easily and doing so has to be clearly worthwhile or at least intriguing enough to let curiosity outweigh hesitation. This insight was formalized into the ideation process of Provocation and Movement by Dr Edward de Bono. If you’re interested in resources straight from the source, Dr. de Bono’s detailed thinking systems can be found here: Debono Thinking Systems.
Dr. de Bono proposed Provocation and Movement within a larger framework of methods he developed to help teams intentionally shift their own perceptions and conceptual framework. He described the human mind as an auto-organized system. Perceptual models are the organizing tool that stores information. The brain only sees what it is prepared to see: mental models and pre-existing shapes. Having our thoughts organized this way helps us identify the objects and actions occurring in our surroundings very quickly so we can largely ignore the things that aren’t recognized as dangerous or unrecognized. Quickly accessible mental models were good news for our ancestors who were glad to notice and react to hungry tigers, but the resulting trade-off of selective attention bias means that we often miss what is right in front of our faces. For a great example of selective attention, watch the video below and count how many times the basketball is passed between players wearing a white shirt:
That leaves the question of how to capture attention from a species designed to ignore so much, to literally miss the gorilla in the room if we are primed to look for tigers. The Lateral Thinking process is a set of tools one can use to step away from the same “vertical” repetitive thought patterns that lead to the same repetitive product design outcomes. Within Lateral Thinking as a concept, there are many techniques, but “Provocation and Movement” stands out as particularly useful for disrupting mental models relevant to product design.
Consider the attributes of a coffee mug. It protects hands from heat, is made of ceramic, and has one handle. By deliberately introducing illogical thoughts, we start to break down those mental models. What if the mug makes hands hot? What if it were made of flexible rubber? What if it had four handles instead of one?
Provocation breaks us from our mental models and cuts across patterns. We use provocation to intentionally break us out of the comfort zone of familiar existing patterns in order to see opportunities differently. If done properly, lateral thinking should elicit a similar internal reaction as running across a busy highway. It’s scary, perhaps dangerous in some social circles, but also useful if you’re trying to find uncharted territory. It takes courage to express ideas that seem wild, silly, completely over the top, but proper priming of the ideation group makes it possible.
Fruit on pizza? Hmm, mandarin oranges, apple slices, grapefruit, apricots, pears… why not pineapples?
Ultimately though, what’s the point of completely wacky ideas too grandiose, too rash to exist? That’s where Movement comes in.
We use Movement to transform the uncomfortable illogic into a meaningful adjacent possible. Those intentionally loony ideas… while they aren’t feasible as initially described, something about them does actually solve the problem. If you can suspend disbelief for a moment, take the seemingly illogical concept seriously and move it towards a useful idea. If the mug makes your hands hot, it could become a hand warmer on a cold day. If it were flexible, it could become collapsible as a durable piece of backpacking gear. If it had four handles, maybe it could be a share able set for friends.
Extract a principle, focus on the difference, and find benefit from the provocation. What is it about the idea that makes it odd? Are people just preconditioned to not accept fruit on their pizza given their dominant mental model, or is there a demonstrable taste preference? If not pineapples, then why not oranges? I can’t help but find appreciation in Dr. Seuss’ book, Green Eggs and Ham as a model for creative provocation and movement. Dr. DiMeo, would you, could you, eat pineapple pizza on a train? ..on a boat? …in the rain? It’s silly, yes, but eventually the Seussian characters find new benefit from their provocative journey.
It is true in both design and in life that oftentimes nonsense can be peeled away to discover an underlying truth. Sift away the dirt to find the gold that looks like dirt to everyone else.
We don’t always use Provocation and Movement in our ideation sessions, but the principle lives in every session through use of Challenge Statements. The exercise is simple: take the Unmet Need Statement as defined by Dr DiMeo and make it weird. The best challenge statements start with, “How might we...”, establishing a provocative call to solve the unmet need. In my experience, the problem with challenge statements is that they aren’t weird enough. It’s easy to be safe. Being bold and provocative while rooted in solving real problems takes effort.
Once the challenge is identified and the challenge statement is created, it’s easy to look only for the quick, obvious, expected solution. The first thing that pops into your head may work. The low-hanging fruit growing on the idea tree may get the job done, but great ideas only emerge from a thorough creative exploration that includes the ridiculous, the absurd, the nonsensical, the Seussical, and yes, even the occasional pineapple.
Prototypes, then Theory
As Dan Ariely once observed, you cannot reverse engineer the taste of food by looking at the nutrition label. The process of trial and error using low-cost, high-upside prototypes is an empirical process of exploring the new, testing for fit, then building upon the 5% of ideas that work. After the fact, one can build nutrition labels describing why the solution is healthier and theories of why the acidity of the pineapple mixes so well with tomato sauce when cooked. You have to first experience the new, then try to understand why it works. Things fall apart when the order gets reversed and chemists, not cooks, try to derive the recipe and give you “everything the body needs…” as experienced by the Nebuchadnezzar's crew in the Matrix.