Carrying Out Thought Experiments

Carry out a "thought experiment" by inverting your thinking.

© iStockphoto/the_guitar_mann

Martin has two days to come up with new product ideas before the next team meeting.

However, he's stuck.

No matter what he does, he keeps having the same, tired ideas.

The clock is ticking!

Have you ever been in a situation like this? Many of us need to come up with innovative ideas from time to time. However, it's easy to get stuck in the same thinking patterns, which can limit our creativity. This is why using a technique like provocation can be useful.

Provocation is a lateral thinking technique. It works by disrupting established patterns of thinking, and giving us new places to start.

A key way that we think is by recognizing patterns and reacting to them. These reactions come from our past experiences, and from logical extensions of those experiences; and it's often hard to think outside these patterns. While we may know a good answer as part of a different type of problem, the structure of our brains can make it difficult for us to access this.

Provocation is a tool that we can use to make links between these patterns. In this article, we'll review Provocation, and discuss how you can use it to come up with creative ideas and solutions to problems.

About the Tool

The Provocation technique was developed and popularized by psychologist Edward de Bono.

You use provocation by making deliberately wrong or unreasonable statements (provocations), in which something you take for granted about the situation isn't true.

For instance, the statements "Cars have square wheels" or "Houses have no roofs" can be provocations.

Statements need to be outrageous like this to shock your mind out of existing ways of thinking. Once you've made a provocative statement, you then suspend judgment and use that statement to generate ideas, giving you original starting points for brainstorming   and creative thinking.

Understanding Provocation

Here's a useful way of thinking about the technique.

Imagine you take the same route to work every day. You're so used to it that you stop noticing the scenery, and you don't even have to think about which route to take to get to your office.

We can use this as an analogy for our normal approach to brainstorming, where we habitually follow the same track, or steps, when we brainstorm. This limits our creativity, because any forward movement is based on the step or idea we had before.

Now, imagine that you're leaving for work and, suddenly, you're magically transported to an entirely new location. You've never been to this place before, and nothing is familiar! If this happened, you'd have to start figuring out where you were, and how you were going to take a new route to work.

This is what provocation does, and it's why it can be so useful. Its purpose is to take you outside the routes that you normally think along, and put you in an entirely new place. Then, it's up to you to work back to where you want to be.

When you do this, you're addressing problems from a new perspective, and, hopefully, you'll generate new ideas.

Using the Technique

Provocation is quite straightforward to use, although it can be challenging when you first start.

All you do is make a shocking or outrageous statement about the problem you're trying to solve. Then, you begin to work back through several further steps.


The technique is most useful when your provocations are far-out. De Bono suggests that at least 40 percent of your provocations should be completely unusable. If you make "safe" statements, you won't get the full value of the technique.

Step 1: Create the Provocation

It can sometimes be difficult to come up with a provocation, simply because our brains are hard-wired to come up with sensible solutions.

One way to get started with provocations is the "escape method." Here, you make a statement that everyone takes for granted. This "take for granted" statement should be related to the problem you're trying to solve. Once you've created a take for granted statement, you can then come up with a provocative statement to counter it.


Due to severe budget cuts, you need to come up with ways to bring in more revenue to your department for things like staff gifts, holiday parties, and little extras for the office. So, your take for granted statement would be: "We take for granted the fact that the department needs to bring in more money."

The provocation to this assumption would be: "The department doesn't need to earn money".

Step 2: Create Movement/Ideas

Once you've made a provocation, you need to imagine what would come next. This is called the "moment-to-moment" technique. Essentially, you're going to imagine, on a moment-by-moment basis, what comes next.


Provocation: The department doesn't need to earn money.

Moment-by-Moment: Employees are coming to work, but not to make money. Because they're no longer trying to make a profit for the department, they decide to start working on creative pursuits during the day.

Because the employees feel so free to be creative, they begin to come up with all kinds of product ideas, artwork, and volunteer opportunities. They start to improve the department to make it a more pleasant and stimulating place. Morale and camaraderie improves since competition isn't an issue any longer, and the hierarchy of the department breaks down since there's no difference between entry-level workers and management.

Keep in mind that as you use the moment-by-moment technique, you don't have to follow one line of thinking. You'll get the greatest value from provocation if you try to come up with several alternative ideas, stemming from your initial provocation.

There are several other ways that you can create movement and ideas from your provocation. Examine:

  • The consequences of the statement.
  • What the benefits would be.
  • What special circumstances would make it a sensible solution.
  • The principles needed to support it and make it work.
  • How it would work, moment-to-moment.
  • What would happen if a sequence of events was changed.
  • The differences between the provocation and a sensible solution.

You can use this list as a checklist to help you brainstorm.

Step 3: Extract Value

Keep in mind that your goal is not to prove that your provocation is useful or justified. Your goal is to generate ideas that are separate from the provocation.

You extract value from the provocation by taking one of those ideas, and turning it into a viable solution to your problem.


Your initial problem was to come up with ideas that would add revenue to your department. And, you came up with a few possible solutions once you used the moment-by-moment technique.

You could give employees days off from their regular work to pursue some creative ideas within the department. They might come up with some innovative products or processes that would add revenue.

Another out-of-the-box solution might be to make full use of your team's creativity. For instance, you could encourage your team to create some art and donate to a team "art sale" for the rest of the company. The profits from each sale would go in a department fund used for holiday parties.

Provocation in Groups

Provocation is also a useful technique for encouraging team creativity  .

When using the provocation technique with someone else, or with a group, de Bono suggests using the word "Po." This stands for "Provocative Operation." The term is also a partial root of other words such as "possible", "hypothesis", "suppose" and "poetry" which, according to de Bono, all indicate forward movement, which is the purpose of the provocation technique.

De Bono suggests that when we make a provocative statement in public we label it as such with "Po" (for instance, "Po: the earth is flat"). "Po" acts as a signal, alerting everyone that the statement is a provocation and not one to be seriously considered. However, this does rely on all members of your audience knowing about provocation!


As with other lateral thinking techniques, provocation doesn't always produce good or relevant ideas. However, sometimes it does, because it forces you to think in different and original ways. Ideas generated using provocation are often fresh, creative, and original.

Key Points

Provocation is a useful lateral thinking technique that can help you generate original starting points for creative thinking.

To use provocation, make a deliberately outrageous comment relating to the problem you're thinking about. Then suspend judgment, and use the statement as the starting point for generating ideas. You can then move forward using the moment-by-moment technique, imagining how it would play out in the real world.

Last, you extract value from picking the ideas that might be feasible, and by developing them further.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Click here for more, subscribe to our free newsletter, or become a member for just $1.

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