JamBerry Ltd

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Unlocking Creativity

10 Mental Locks and Some Ideas on Opening Them

10 Mental Locks

In his book 'A Whack on the Side of the Head' (Warner Books, 1990) Roger von Oech identifies ten mental locks - restrictive ways of thinking that we get shut into:

  1. The right answer
  2. That's not logical
  3. Follow the rules
  4. Be practical
  5. Play is frivolous
  6. That's not my area
  7. Avoid ambiguity
  8. Don't be foolish
  9. To err is wrong
  10. I'm not creative

'A Whack on the Side of the Head'

Von Oech suggests that 'we all need an occasional whack on the side of the head to shake us out of routine patterns, to force us to re-think our problems, and to stimulate us to ask the questions that may lead to the right answers'.

Fortunately the 'whack on the side of the head' recommended by von Oech is a metaphor - no physical violence should be involved! Metaphors are a powerful technique for unblocking thinking which has become stuck and helping us to see things differently.


Much of the language we use when talking about business involves the use of metaphors - we talk of 'flooding the market', 'pumping money in', or 'freezing assets'. Some of these metaphors have become cliches - so commonly used that we no longer register the gap between the words used and the message they convey.

Stand-up comedians are good at coming up with new metaphors, which make people look at the world in a different way. For example:

"Whales living off krill and plankton is like Geoff Capes eating only hundreds and thousands."

(Sean Lock)

"The Football Association holding an inquiry into why England didn't qualify for Euro 2008 is like an inquiry being held into why the Titanic sank by the iceberg."

(Sandi Toksvig, The News Quiz)

A business presentation will be enhanced by the use of metaphors. Some you can take 'off the shelf' (to use another metaphor!) - for example:

"The mind works like a parachute -it works best when it is opened"

(The Dalai Lama)

"People often say that motivation doesn't last. Well, neither does bathing. That's why we recommend it daily."

(Zig Ziglar)

At other times we might want to illustrate our points by coming up with our own metaphors. For example, in an e-mail to Sally Holloway when we were designing our 'Comedy Skills for Business Presenters' course, I wrote:

"It's like cooking a meal using two very different ingredients. Will it work best if we mix them together - like duck in a plum sauce; or will it be better to keep them separate as a main course and dessert, like chicken and banana?"

This metaphor helped to unblock our thinking and make decisions about when to bring together stand-up skills and business presenting, and at which points to keep them apart.

'What if?' Questions

Another useful technique for unblocking creativity is to ask "What if?" Paul Merton's flights of fancy on 'Have I Got News for You' often begin with a statement like 'Wouldn't it be great if...'

Wouldn't it be great if...

We started doing what we enjoy, rather than what we think will make a profit?

We told our customers/colleagues/bosses what we really think of them?

We made all public servants wear fancy dress (not just the judges!)

Some 'What if?' questions you might like to apply to your business - or which might prompt a reaction from your audience if used as part of a presentation:

What if...

We throw out all our policies and procedures and make up the rules as we go along?

We all stopped bothering to turn up in the morning?

Whenever we get a piece of advice, we do the opposite?


"How wonderful that we've met with a paradox. Now we have hope of making some progress."

(Niels Bohr, physicist)

Paradoxes can be a great source of inspiration. Von Oech writes 'the very act of seeing the paradox is at the crux of creative thinking - the ability to entertain two different, often contradictory notions at the same time'. For comics the bringing together of these different or contradictory ideas is often the source of their jokes.

Some paradoxes for you to mull over:

"If you can remember the sixties, then you weren't there"

(Timothy Leary)

"We can't leave the haphazard to chance"

(N. F. Simpson)

"I wouldn not care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as a member"

(Groucho Marx)

Challenge the Rules!

Stand-up comedians are very good at challenging 'rules' - often through asking 'why' questions. They'll identify an absurd aspect of everyday behaviour then ask "Why do we do that?" They'll also be willing to slay sacred cows (after all, they make great steaks!). The role of the comic is often to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable.

So - what if you started doing more of this in your business presentations? You'd certainly stimulate a reaction!

Steve Amos

January 2008

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