Scaffolding Your Way to Better Ideas

I’ve been told that the term “Scaffolding” is used in the psychology and education fields. I first heard the term used by my partner with regard to idea generation — and it immediately struck me as a helpful way to look at things.

The scaffolding I’m talking about is the kind of structure required to help you arrive at better ideas. Essentially it’s exploration and baby steps for the brain. Let me explain!

Breakthrough ideas are rarely the result of logical thinking. Instead, they pop into our brains after we’ve had some time to think about a challenge or problem. Sometimes this process happens in moments. At other times it might take years. Einstein is said to have pondered the challenge around relativity for 10 years.

We’ve all experienced the frustration of not being able to think of an idea when we need one most. This of course can put you into panic mode which is counter-productive. This is what drives you to drink, or worse.

Facilitators and individuals often try “tools” to bust through mental walls. Tools like Forced Associations. Forced Associations are essentially mash-ups of two concepts in the hope that the brain will make a new connection and provide you with a fresh idea. For example if I’m trying to think of new and different ways to market myself as a public speaker I might mash-up the concept of a blood test. What does a blood test have to do with booking more talks? Nothing! And yet the collision of the two things might jar my mind to an interesting idea.

Forced associations often work. However, when we try the forced association mash-up we are often stymied and simply can’t make a connection. So…that’s where this Scaffolding idea comes in. Taking my example of the blood test and speaking marketing above, instead of simply asking myself  directly “What’s an idea?” I do some intermediate steps. First, I list attributes and descriptions of each. Blood tests have me thinking of:

  • medical tests
  • doctors offices and doctors
  • needles
  • cholesterol
  • diabetes
  • cute nurses (I’m not editing my thoughts!)
  • fear of bad news

I could make a longer list, but I’ll stop and just review what I’ve got and ask myself what do any of these things have to do with booking more talks? I’ll look for words I find intriguing…diabetes strikes me for some reason, so, I think about what diabetes is all about. Okay, it’s a disease, it’s very common, it has to do with blood sugar, it’s serious medically, it can be treated, for some behaviour change can make a positive difference. Now, it strikes me intuitively that behaviour change is the link to booking more talks. How might I change my marketing “behaviour”? This gives me the idea of an “exercise program” of frequent contact with meeting planners. thinking more about this idea, I provide them with something more than just my marketing hype, I give them something that “prevents their disease”. This might take the form of a newsletter of ideas to help meeting planners, the by product of which is I get more exposure to my target audience. That’s my fresh idea!

This is what scaffolding does for you, it helps your thinking one small step up at a time, leading your thinking to the point where the brain closes the gap and makes the final connection to a good idea.

So, when desperate for a better idea, try scaffolding. There is a lot more to say about this because I’ve only provided one example of how to do it, but there are ways to scaffold your thinking beyond tools like forced associations. I’ll hold those for another post, but in the meantime, the coaching is — explore the fringes of the challenge you are working on and give your mind intermediate steps.


Posted in Creative Problem Solving (CPS), Creativity and Self-Expression, Idea Generation, Innovation