Context: How Arranging Ideas Spawns New Ideas

Given the staggering number and diversity of human minds that have been at work throughout the history of this planet, at this point there may be no such thing as a truly original thought. It’s all been “thunk” before, as someone recently said to me. The ideas already exist – we’re just moving them around, pretending they’re new and occasionally exciting.

That’s one way to view the potential output of the human mind – but I think it’s a pretty “narrow minded” approach (yes, pun intended).

It seems to me that there may be infinite possibilities for creative thinking (not mere cleverness, but truly creating new ideas) because, in my opinion, context creates meaning.

This is why I wish content management and knowledge management tools could be used like a tarot deck. Let me explain, I know that sounds weird…

(NOTE: My earlier article on Arranging Ideas was far more popular than I expected. Even better, the weblogs eLearningPost, Knowledge-at-Work, Knowledge Jolt with Jack, elearnspace, Small Business Blogging, and Brewed Fresh Daily have expanded upon it with their own thoughts and context. So forgive me for waxing philosophical once again, but I suspect I may be onto something…)

I have a strange hobby. I use tarot cards (and other symbol-rich decks) to sharpen my concentration and to think creatively about new ventures or existing situations.

No, I am not trying to work magic or foretell the future, so don’t ask me about the upcoming presidential election. I simply find that focusing on visual symbolic random juxtaposition not only helps my thoughts flow more easily and coherently – it also can generate intriguing new ideas.

This shows the creative power of context. When I lay down a randomly-chosen card full of rich visual symbols and consider “How might this relate to X situation or person?” my mind starts generating and exploring possible connections. It tries each connection on to see how well it “fits,” or resonates both rationally and intuitively. The randomness with which the cards are chosen greatly enhances the creative potential of this process because it often forces me to consider connections or options that I probably would not have come up with on my own. Often, unexpected connections generate new ideas.

No idea exists in a vacuum. It is connected to related ideas, and to the real world, and to other people’s perspectives. Those connecting threads of context are where the vast creative potential of the human mind lies.

This is where I think most content management and knowledge management tools (including wikis and weblogs) fall short. As far as I understand it, these tools focus mainly on discrete chunks of captured thoughts and information (such as addresses, articles, product descriptions, meeting notes, or comments). The point of these systems is storing and labeling info-chunks so they can be easily retrieved and shared. The point is to not lose the chunks, and to be able to access them fast.

In other words, these systems seem to operate on the assumption that the best way to enhance an individual’s or group’s effectiveness and efficiency is to record in fine detail everything that each group member thought, did, made, or observed.

I think that kind of storage-and-retrieval tool can indeed be a valuable aid to many existing processes, but it doesn’t do much for creativity. At least, most of those systems are not designed specifically to enhance and leverage creativity. But they could be – and that’s where I think the value of the end results and the sheer fun of using these tools can rise dramatically.


Here are a few quick, sketchy ideas on how content management and knowledge management tools might be modified with new functions that could enhance creativity for an individual or organization:

  • Random elements: If you want to think creatively and rearrange an established hierarchy, it helps to throw something truly new into the mix over which you have no control. This is the power of randomness. In general, it would be nice to be able to ask the system to deliver a random element for the user to consider, just to stir up the pot. The random element could be a chunk of information stored within the system, a bit of abstract metadata from the system, or something from the outside world (a random word, date, quote, picture, symbol, news story, Web page, etc.) The point is not to make rational sense but to challenge one’s mind to stretch and explore.

  • “Card layout” for visual juxtaposition: It helps creativity to be able to work with chunks of information visually. I’d like to be able to view for each chunk of information or content a thumbnail or key metadata as if presented on a card. Then I’d like to be able to lay those cards out in deliberate or random juxtapositions – either using preset layouts or designing my own on the fly. I’d like to be able to save each layout, and comment on connections between individual “cards” or observations about patterns emerging in the layout. Those comments could themselves become “cards” (expanding the layout with new ideas), or they could become an accompanying narrative for the layout (like a picture caption). The point would be to use the “card layout” as a tool for generating new ideas by considering existing ideas in a new context.

  • Better brainstorming tools: The “card layout” concept may not appeal to everyone’s creative tastes. Everyone’s mind works differently. Therefore, the card layout could be one of a library of brainstorming tools embedded within the system for individual or group use. MindTools is a great place to start to get ideas about useful tools to aid brainstorming and creativity. I’d love to see more of these sorts of functions included in content management and knowledge management systems – or just used a la carte.

  • Sticky notes: New thoughts rarely pop into existence fully formed. Often, you just have a rough intuitive sense that you might have spotted a significant connection between two or more chunks of information, or a new option, or a larger pattern. You want to jot down a quick note for further consideration – but later, that note becomes meaningless out of context. I would love it if content and knowledge management systems allowed you to create an electronic “sticky note” that would remain associated with the context within which it was created – a history of recently viewed documents, specially chosen and tagged information chunks, etc. If much of the contextual association could be handled automatically, the note taker could concentrate more on capturing the essence of the new thought or observation, rather than reiterating the existing material.

I realize that these ideas will not appeal to people who are strictly rational, logical, and bottom-line oriented. Good. The dominance of that particular mental outlook stifles creativity and ultimately destroys the fabric of business and society. I think we need more creativity, not less, in just about every type of endeavor.

Tools that primarily catalogue past thoughts, actions, and creations are, literally, history – they don’t by themselves move forward. I’d like to play with some new tools that actually help move thoughts forward, sideways, and in every possible direction. I believe we already have the components to build those tools – and I’m waiting for skilled developers to put them together in fun ways so we can enhance creativity in places where it’s most desperately needed.

…Yes, I really do wake up thinking stuff like this. OK, now it’s time for some caffeine, a bike ride, and then real work. I’d love to hear your comments on this musing.

3 thoughts on Context: How Arranging Ideas Spawns New Ideas

Comments are closed.

  1. The Power of Context
    Amy Gahran writes about the power of context to stimulate new idea creation and develops a few ideas for creativity enhancements to KM tools. I share a few of my own associations (including Tony Goodson’s writing on bricolage) and push the tools ideas…