Mallet’s mallet and lateral thinking

mallet's malletIf like me, you are in your thirties and grew up in Great Britain, the chances are you watched “Wacaday” on Saturday mornings on TVam with Timothy Mallet and Michaela Strachan. It was a wild and crazy program aimed at young children. My favourite part of the show was “Mallet’s Mallet”.

The game consisted of the host Timothy Mallet firing a random word at one of the two contestants, who then had to come up with another word that was associated with it. The other contestant would then find another word and so and and so forth. The first person to hesitate or say a word that wasn’t associated got bonked on the head with, you guessed it, Mallet’s Mallet. There’s a clip from one episode below showing a couple of kids who weren’t so successful!

Thank you to Master Six for posting the video on YouTube.

All joking aside though, I never realised the skills I was learning while playing this game. Not only do you have to think on your feet, but you have to be creative. As an adult, often people tell me I am very creative at thinking up solutions to problems, but it never occurred to me to wonder where this came from.

random-wordsWord associations

That was until I learned a creativity exercise called random entry. The tool (based on work by Edward de Bono) uses a random word (noun) to help spark new ideas on for example how to solve a problem. Being able to quickly think of word associations is a big plus when doing this exercise. Thank you Mallet’s Mallet!

According to Edward de Bono consulting:

Edward de Bono’s Lateral Thinking tool, Random Entry, uses a randomly chosen word, picture, sound, or other stimulus to open new lines of thinking. This tool plays into the power of the human mind to find connections between seemingly unrelated things.

When you see, hear, touch, or taste something, your brain processes the information it receives based on your past experience, know how and culture. This processing involves the brain “filtering”, “labelling” and “storing” the information with similar pieces of information previously stored information for easy retrieval later. Edward de Bono calls this filter the “perceptual screen”.  This screen is used to analyse each piece of new information, and determine what it is by comparing it with existing information.  The information is then labelled as part of an existing thought pattern and stored.  For example, I remember watching Mallet’s Mallet as a child. My perceptual screen has probably analysed that memory and labelled it as “childhood memory”, “television program”, “game” and “word association”.  When someones asks me about “word association”, my brain then accesses the thought pattern containing the label “word association”, retrieves the memory and I eventually remember the television show.

Now imagine that you are trying to think of new ideas. You are thinking, “How can I motivate my team?” Your brain accesses the thought patterns labelled “motivation” and “teams”.  You start to think of how you’ve motivated teams in the past, you think of how other managers you know have done it, or methods that you’ve heard or read about.  In fact most (if not all) of these ideas will have been stored together in same thought pattern.  Unfortunately, once you start accessing one thought pattern, it’s difficult to break out of it, and so the number of ideas you can think of is limited unless you can break out of that thought pattern.  Brainstorming with someone else helps us to do that as they have different memories, experiences and backgrounds, and so their perception screen would have created different labels and thought patterns.  They might think of different ways to manage the teams; different ways a team can be put together.  Unfortunately, although two heads are definitely better than one when it comes to thinking of new ideas, eventually, you both will become stuck within your own thought pattern and will run out of ideas.

Lateral thinking

Lateral thinking tools like random entry however, help you to think outside of the box (i.e. thought pattern), by providing a “stepping stone” to different experiences and therefore to a different thought pattern where you can mine even more creative ideas.  In short, the tool helps you to break your thought pattern, and get out of the rut your thoughts have gotten into.  The trick is to associate the new thought pattern with the original question, “How can I motivate my team?”

Let’s try an example:

You have your problem, “How can I motivate my team?” You’ve already done some open brainstorming techniques and been really creative. Your mind has been working overtime doing research and drawing from your past experience, know how and culture to think of good ideas. Unfortunately now you’ve exhausted the pool of ideas available within this thought pattern.

This is where you start to use the tool. You look outside the window and see a bird perched on a fence. Your random word will therefore be “bird”.  Note there are lots of random word generators available on the web as well, if you truly wish for a random word!  I like this one in particular: random word generator

robinOnce you have your random word “bird”, first use word association (Mallet’s Mallet) to find 5 new words. So when I think of the word bird, I remember going bird watching as a child with my father, and using binoculars. There, I have a new word.  My first new word is “binoculars”.

Then when thinking again about the word “bird”, I start to think of different kinds of birds and I think of a “Robin”. Robin is therefore my second new word. The idea is to continue until I have 5 new words. My five were:

  1. Binoculars
  2. Robin
  3. House
  4. Bath
  5. Cage

I can now ignore the word “bird”. Instead I take my first new word, “binoculars” and I try to come up with a link between binoculars and the problem “How can I motivate my team”. To do this, I use more word association. So when I think of binoculars, I think of eyes, I think of sight, and glasses.  Then I remember how much my last trip to the opticians cost and how unhappy I was.  I needed new glasses due to spending a lot of time working in front of the computer.  And then the new idea hit me. Maybe the company could start a scheme where if you needed glasses and used computers a lot at work, the company could help to pay for the glasses. This would certainly make me feel happier and I would think more positively about the company.  Thinking of my team, the scheme might inspire more loyalty in the team as a lot of them wear glasses.  Eye strain causes headaches, and the lack of both of these might make my team more productive.

_DSC0112Once the idea is fully formed, I go back to the word “binoculars”.  I try to think of other associations. Binoculars are like telescopes, and there is an observatory near by.  Perhaps the company could pay for family trips to local venues like the observatory, the zoo, or even further afield like Alton Towers.

The word binoculars still makes me think of sight (I’m in a new thought pattern!), and then I remember Google glasses. I start to think “What does Google do to motivate their teams?” They have relaxation rooms and wide open spaces to prevent stress build up in the work place. Could we implement something like this in the company?  What are other companies doing to motivate their teams, perhaps we could benchmark?

Once you’ve exhausted the new word  (and new thought pattern) you simply move onto the next new word and start again.  If that word doesn’t inspire you creatively, you simply move onto the next word. Generate as many ideas as possible, working them from initial concepts to fully formed ideas.

What do you think? Could this tool help you to generate new ideas and solutions?

Incidentally, for all those (like myself), who begged their parents to get them a mallet’s mallet for Christmas and were sorely disappointed, you can buy your very own Mallet’s Mallet here Mallet’s Mallet. While I am sure this TV program isn’t the only reason I am creative, I am really glad I practiced the game so hard as a child!

+Alesandra Blakeston

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