Concepts are a very important part of thinking.
If you want to have a beautiful mind you need to be able to handle concepts.
However, most people find ‘concepts’ vague, abstract and academic.
This is especially so in the USA where there is a hunger for practical, hands-on, do-it-now instructions.
Concepts are the parents of practical ideas.
If you can locate the parents of a child then you can find the brothers and sisters and even other relatives of that child.
Once upon a time the mayor of a small town in Australia told me that they had a problem with commuters who drove into the town in the morning and left their cars parked in the street all day.
This meant that shoppers could not find anywhere to park in order to visit the shops.
What is the operating ‘concept’ of a parking meter?
The concept could be ‘to get revenue from people’s need to park’.
That may happen but is probably not the main purpose.
Another concept might be ‘to get as many people as possible to use the same parking space in a day’.
This seems more likely.
Now if that is the concept then we can ‘carry out’ that concept in another way: No parking meters (save capital costs) and you can park anywhere you like in marked spaces.
But—you have to leave your headlights full on!
You would not want to leave your car parked for more than a few minutes as you would be running your battery down.
So people would park, run into the shop and hurry back as quickly as possible.
Of course, there are a lot of practical flaws in this idea, such as forgetful people, but it could be implemented in certain defined areas.
You always eat food.
But do you ever actually eat food as such?
You do not.
You eat steak, you eat chicken, you eat strawberries.
You always eat some specific type of food and not food’ in general.
Food is a concept.
A hamburger is the practical idea
Why Bother With Concepts?
One of the main values of identifying a concept is that this allows us to ‘breed’ other ideas from the concept.
Maybe there are other ways of ‘getting maximum usage of limited parking space’.
Most attempts to deal with traffic congestion in cities have one major flaw.
If traffic is reduced through people leaving their cars at home, those who benefit most are those who do not leave their cars at home—and now have clearer streets.
So we set up a ‘concept objective’.
How do we reward those who do leave their cars at home?
One approach is to require everyone who wants to drive into the city to buy a special permit, which would be displayed.
Every car owner is entitled to buy one such permit.
To drive into the city, however, you actually need three permits.
So what do you do?
You buy the two additional permits from someone who leaves his or her car at home.
That person now ‘gets paid’ for not driving into the city.
If there is a scarcity of permits then the price goes up and only those willing to pay the higher price can drive into the city.
The operating concept is to ‘put a price on driving into the city’.
The concept of ‘putting a price on driving into the city’ could be carried out in another way with a simple auction of a limited number of permits.
This last idea, however, does not reward those who leave their cars at home.
Pick Out The Concept
Let us take the following example: What is the concept of accident insurance?
The concept might be that all those exposed to the risk contribute to those who actually suffer from the accident.
In another example, domestic dogs and cats and rabbits come under the concept of ‘pets’.
That could also include canaries and white mice.
How would you define the concept of a pet?
You might suggest that it is ‘a living creature kept at home for no practical purpose other than to be loved’.
This is not completely correct because your cat might catch mice and your dog may act as a watch dog.
So we might amend the concept: ‘a living creature kept at home for the main purpose of being loved (including companionship)’.
Whenever you are listening to someone talking you should be making an effort to pick out the concept used.
This is a sort of shorthand, a summary, the underlying essence of what is being said.
Take a discussion on education in which changes in education are suggested.
You think you have picked out the suggested concept change as follows:
‘The old concept of education was to develop a liberal mind that was cultured and could then learn to do anything.
A lot of subject matter was taught to develop this “mind”.
The new concept might be to equip youngsters to function in society and to contribute to society.
This means much more emphasis on thinking skills, learning how value is created in society, practical mathematics and so on.
Is that correct?’
There are words which do seem to describe these two concepts: ‘liberal education’ and ‘utilitarian education’.
Unfortunately, the word ‘utilitarian’ has a restricted negative meaning.
It suggests that you educate people immediately as carpenters, plumbers and shop assistants, for instance.
This is quite different from teaching thinking skills or value creation in society.
It often happens that if concept words do exist then we risk being forced to look at things in these standard ways.
In fact, the type of education suggested falls between the existing concepts of ‘liberal education’ and ‘utilitarian education’.
The same thing happens with the direct teaching of thinking.
Educators say: ‘Philosophy does that.’
This is not true at all.
Philosophy does not teach the practical operations of thinking.
Even when philosophy does teach ‘logic’, this is only a small part of everyday thinking, where perception is even more important than logic.
When you believe you have extracted the concept from what is being said, you can check on this by asking a question: ‘It seems to me that the concept here is …
Is that correct?’
Concepts always seem rather vague.
You can imagine a hamburger.
You can see a hamburger.
You can taste a hamburger.
You can enjoy a hamburger.
You cannot do these things with the vague concept of ‘food’.
You can go to the pet shop to buy a puppy or a kitten.
You cannot go with the vague idea of buying ‘a pet’.
In daily life you can probably get by very well without ever thinking of ‘concepts’.
But if you want to generate new ideas, design ways forward or understand complex situations, then you need to develop some skill with concepts.
The word ‘reward’ is a concept.
The reward may take various forms: a smile; a star given by a teacher; monetary reward; a prize; recognition; promotion.
A reward is an appreciation of effort and achievement.
The concept is vague but very useful and very practical.
Say an employer wants to reward his staff.
The concept comes first and then he or she needs to figure out how to do it and what sort of reward would mean most to the staff.
You set off on a journey.
You know the roads that you need to take.
You do not consciously say, ‘Now I am heading north.’
You take the road you know and happen to be heading north.
If, however, you are setting out on a long journey and are not familiar with the roads, then the instructions might be, ‘Head north until you come to Castleford and then head due east until you reach Terence.’
Here, the broad directions are very important.
It is exactly the same with concepts.
When you are dealing with things with which you are familiar you do not seem to need concepts (even though they are there).
When you are dealing with less familiar matters, then concepts become very useful.
‘Don’t tell me to buy “food”.
Tell me exactly what you want me to buy!’
You do not go out into the street in your underwear, although usually you are wearing underwear.
The underwear is not visible but is there all the time.
It is the same with concepts.
They are there.
They underlie the practical things we do—even when we are not conscious of them.
Levels Of Concept
This is yet another difficulty when dealing with concepts.
What level of concept do we use?
‘Food’ is a concept.
But so is ‘protein’.
You could even say ‘steak’ was a concept because there are many different types of steak.
So we have three levels of concept from the very broad to the more specific.
How do you know which level to use?
There is no magic rule for choosing the level of concept to use.
Sometimes the very broad level is appropriate.
An aid agency might say: ‘People need food and shelter.’
That might suggest that any sort of food would do.
In the Irish potato famine (caused by a blight on potato crops), the British government sent over wheat, which was useless because the Irish did not know how to use, cook or eat the wheat.
On the whole, very broad concepts are not much use except to contrast different concepts, such as: ‘Should we run education on the basis of “reward” or on the basis of “punishment”?’
Here, the very broad concepts do serve a purpose.
At the other extreme are concepts that are so specific they are almost practical ideas.
While ‘steak’ is a concept it excludes fish, chicken and pasta.
The danger with concepts that are too specific is that they narrow the thinking.
If you think only in terms of the concept of ‘monetary reward’ rather than ‘reward’ you may not realise that a smile, a word of appreciation or some sort of recognition might mean more to your staff than money.
‘Achievement’ is a broad concept.
Youngsters need achievement.
If we narrowed that concept to ‘success in sports’ then we might build more sports facilities.
But there are many youngsters who are not interested in sport.
There may also be much cheaper ways of providing achievement.
The general rule for concepts is: not too broad and not too specific.
In practice, you would try out different levels of concept to find the level that seemed to work best.
You come to get a ‘feel’ for the right level.
Types Of Concept
Just as there are different levels of concept, there can be different types of concept.
Someone comes up with a new business idea.
This is to create ‘fast food’ with no premises.
So a central kitchen produces ‘Pete’s Food’.
This is food of a standard type, quality and price.
Any eating place can have a notice in the window saying: ‘We also serve Pete’s Food at Pete’s Prices.’
What are the concepts involved here?
There are the business concepts.
No need to have your own expensive real estate: you use other people’s places.
Because the range is limited and the product is standard there is less wastage and more economy of scale.
Instead of having many kitchens you have one central kitchen.
Then there is the concept of ‘branding’.
You can put money into advertising the brand in a way no individual restaurant could afford to.
The brand is also widely available so customers can develop brand loyalty.
Then there are the customer value concepts.
There is the reassurance of the major brand name.
This means quality and predictability: you know what you are getting regardless of the actual outlet.
There is reassurance on price: you know what it will cost you.
In fact, there are almost all the values available with traditional fast food chains.
The ambience may not be guaranteed although even this could be remedied with inspection and standards so that unsuitable places did not get Pete’s Food.
There is the delivery concept.
This is a key part of business because without ‘delivery’ an idea is useless no matter how great it might be.
The delivery concept is to make use of other people’s premises.
Delivery to these premises might be on a daily basis, or less often if the product can be stored.
There may be business concepts: why would this be a profitable business?
There are mechanism or delivery concepts: how does this actually get done?
There are value concepts: what are the real and perceived values to the buyer, client or customer?
There are information concepts: how do people find out about this?
There are acceptance concepts: why should people accept this idea?
There are competition concepts: what might competitors do and how will this affect us?
In short, there can be different types of concept.
Every area can have its concepts just as every area can have its practical ideas.
Concepts are tricky.
Getting the concept habit is not easy.
But instead of backing away from this most important component of the beautiful mind, it is worth putting some effort into developing the concept habit.
Here is an exercise that will help develop just such a habit.
Make an effort to pick out the concept or concepts in each of the following situations.
Do this on your own or compare, and discuss, your thinking with someone else (or a group).
You should always try to pick out the major operating concept.
You can also try to pick out the different types of concept in each case:
Concepts are rarely complete. Concepts capture the main ‘essence’ but may not cover all aspects.
What is the concept of a tree?
A way of centralising energy reception (from the sun) and water and nutrients (from the soil).
A way of putting together a volume of photosensitive material (leaves) in a more efficient way than spread out on the ground (grass).
A way of raising photosensitive material above the ground in a competitive environment (bushes and other trees block the sunlight).
A biological organism with long-term viability. Some trees live for eight hundred years. (Compare to the life of grass.)
Each of these is a valid concept.
Not one covers the whole situation completely.
There is instead a collection of relevant concepts.
You could seek to put them all together in a single concept but it would be likely to be complex and far from complete.
Though they do overlap, a concept is not exactly the same as a definition.
The definition of a Dalmatian may be ‘a dog with a coat of black spots on a white background’.
Of course, there is far more to a Dalmatian as any breeder would tell you.
In fact, Dalmatians produce a special chemical in their urine which other dogs do not.
The concept of a Dalmatian might be ‘a striking-looking dog that is friendly and easy to train’.
The definition of an election might be ‘the expression of choice by a group of people’. The concept might be ‘a mechanism whereby those with a right to choose express their choice in an objective manner—and a readiness to accept the result of that choice’. The ‘readiness to accept’ might seem unnecessary but is in fact a key component.
Compare And Contrast
Once you are comfortable dealing with concepts and extracting concepts from what is being said (or written) you can start to compare and contrast concepts.
How different is this concept from that one?
Are these two apparently different concepts actually similar, and just expressions of one broader concept?
Has the concept really changed or is this just a variation?
Does this concept actually include the other concept (at a different level)?
Working with concepts provides a different perspective and perception.
What is the concept of ‘public transport’?
Is the ‘public’ part important?
Does this imply the concept of ‘use without having to own’?
Is a key component of public transport the fact that many people are moving in a comparatively small travelling space?
This is high-density travel.
If everyone in a bus had to get out and drive his or her own car, that would take up a great deal more space.
Is the concept ‘pay for use only as required’?
You do not have to own the bus, garage it or maintain it.
Transport is now purchasable in small quantities.
There are negative concepts, too.
Public transport is not available on demand both as to time and to starting point.
There is limited flexibility with regard to choice of destination.
There is less privacy.
Concepts are a very important part of thinking and a key component of a beautiful mind.
Concepts are like parents that breed children (ideas) and like road junctions that open up several other roads.
Concepts are important in generating ideas and designing ways forward. Where there is no routine available, concepts are essential.
You need to seek to pick out the concept behind what is being said (or read). What is the concept here?
Once you can pick out concepts you can compare and contrast them. Are they really different? What are the points of difference?
Concepts will always seem vague because they have to be translated into specific ideas before they can be used.
You can be using a concept without being aware of the concept you are using.
There may be different types of concept: business concept; value concept; mechanism concept; operating concept, etc. Wherever there are ideas there also are concepts.
There are different levels of concept from the very broad to the quite specific. In general, the middle layer is the most useful.
Concepts are not always complete but they carry important aspects of what is being thought or done.
Concepts, definitions and descriptions do overlap. Descriptions need to be complete, to define and separate. Concepts seek to distil the essence.
Skill in thinking in concept terms only comes with practice. Part of your mind should be watching and noticing the concepts being used by yourself and by others .
From Serious Creativity
It is important to be able to work with concepts and at the concept level.
Concepts are general methods or general ways of doing things.
Concepts are expressed in broad, blurry, nonspecific ways.
Every concept has to be put into action through a specific “idea.”
The purpose of working at concept level is to be able to “breed” further ideas.
Sometimes concepts are created directly.
At other times it is useful to “pull back” from any idea to discover the concept behind the idea.
Whenever anything is being done we should make an effort to extract the concept or concepts involved (whether they were designed or not).
Once we can extract the concept, we can then strengthen the concept, change the concept, or find better ideas with which to put the concept into action.
There are “purpose” concepts, which relate to what we are trying to do.
There are mechanism concepts, which describe how the effect is going to be produced.
There are value concepts, which indicate how something is going to provide value.
The Concept Fan
This is particularly useful for “achievement” thinking: “How do we get there?”
Achievement thinking includes problem solving and task completion.
The concept fan is an elaborated way of seeking alternatives by using concepts to “cascade” further alternatives.
We work backwards from the purpose of the thinking to the broad concepts or “directions” that we would have to take to get there.
Then we work backwards from the directions to the “concepts” which are the ways of moving in that direction.
There may be several layers of concepts ranging from the broader to the more specific.
Then we work backwards from the concepts to the “ideas,” which are practical and specific ways of putting the concepts into action.
When setting up a concept fan it is possible to start at any point and then to move forwards to the purpose of the thinking or backwards to the specific ideas
From Creativity Workout
“Lateral thinking” is the creativity concerned with changing ideas, perceptions and concepts.
Instead of working harder with the same ideas, perceptions and concepts, we seek to change them.
This “idea creativity” is not the same as “artistic creativity,” which is why a new term was needed.
In the course of the book you will practice both perceptual creativity and constructive creativity.
Perceptual creativity involves looking at things in different ways.
It involves extracting concepts.
It involves extracting values.
It involves opening up connections and associations.
Constructive creativity means putting things together to deliver value.
This is “design thinking.”
While education focuses a great deal on analysis, there is practically no attention at all to design thinking.
Yet life and human progress depend on design thinking.
Analysis is important, just as the rear left wheel of a car is important—but it is not enough.
Readers of this book will develop creative habits of mind and a fluency in dealing with ideas, concepts, perceptions and values.
The emphasis is on the creativity of “what can be” rather than the usual education emphasis on “what is.”
Creativity in Management, Revised Edition
Thinking broad and thinking detailed
Concept and Function
We often use a lot of different words to describe the ‘broad idea’.
In some cases it is more appropriate to use one word rather than another.
… ‘What is the function of this switch?’
… ‘The concept in this course is teach-yourself.’
… ‘The principle is that of paying people by what they actually produce, not by time.’
… ‘The general method we use here is to separate casualties into three groups: those who can wait; those who cannot be saved; those who need urgent attention.’
You should be aware of these different words.
They do have slightly different meanings, but you would only confuse yourself by trying to remember the distinctions.
Just think in terms of broad idea and detailed idea.
Often it is convenient to work at three levels: detailed idea, broad idea, broad approach.
Really there are detailed ideas (which can be carried out) and then broad ideas.
Some broad ideas are broader than others just as some roads are broader than others.
Concepts and Information
What is a concept?
It is almost impossible to define—and almost not worth trying.
But I recognize concepts, look for them, design them, and use them.
Furthermore, there is a distinction between a concept and an idea.
An idea is something specific that you can carry out.
A concept is a more general, abstract notion that has to be carried out by means of a specific idea.
For example, traveling along a road is a concept, but in practice, you have to do something specific such as walk, ride a bicycle, or drive a car.
Contrary to our normal thinking, concepts are often more useful when they are blurred, vague, and fuzzy, because then they have more potential.
If they are too detailed, they cover too little.
If they are too general, they cover too much and provide little direction.
In time, a creative thinker gets a feeling for when a concept is specific enough, yet general enough at the same time.
There is little distinction between a concept and a perception.
When we look out at the world we never see raw data.
The data we receive has already been organized into patterns by previous experience (the self-organizing nature of the mind).
A person born blind who suddenly becomes able to see cannot see.
That person has to learn to see and to build up usable patterns.
This organization into patterns, sequences, or groups we call perception.