How can a beehive be the clue to a solution? Engineers working for a power company in the northwest were struggling with the problem of how to de-ice power lines during ice storms so they don’t collapse from the weight of the ice.

The conventional approaches to the problem were proving to be very expensive and inefficient. It is not possible to think unpredictably by looking harder and longer in the same direction. When your attention is focused on a subject, a few patterns are highly activated in your brain and dominate your thinking. These patterns produce only predictable ideas no matter how hard you try. In fact, the harder you try, the stronger the same patterns become. If, however, you change your focus and think about something that is not related, different, unusual patterns are activated. If one of these newer patterns relates to one of the first patterns, a connection will be made. This connection will lead to the discovery of an original idea or thought. This is what some people call “divine” inspiration.

This is what the engineers did. Using a technique I described in my book Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques) on how to find and force connections between a challenge and random stimuli, they randomly picked a picture of “Beehives.” Then they listed a variety of things that are associated with beehives and listed them. Included were:

. Bees colonize and live in beehives.                                                      

. Beehives are used to store honey and pollen.

. Honey is a sweet food.

. Ancient Egyptians used honey to embalm corpses.

. Beehives are a favorite food of bears.

. Bears will climb trees to get the hive or shake the tree to make it fall.

. Vibrations make beehives fall.

. Bees communicate with each other with vibrating wings.

The associations with beehives and vibrating wings and bears vibrating trees got them all interested in the principle of vibrational motion. Bears retrieve beehives by shaking trees or by climbing them. Shaking would cause the power lines to vibrate and shake off the ice. A bear climbing a power pole would shake the pole and vibrate power lines as well. But how can we create and use vibration to remove ice from powerlines?

How can they vibrate the power lines economically? One engineer remarked that bees can hover like helicopters. That reminded him of the powerful downwash from a helicopter’s blades. The answer is to hover choppers over the lines and the downwash will vibrate the ice off the lines. This proved to be the most efficient and economical solution to the problem.

An interesting twist is to provide participants with instant film cameras and ask them to take a stroll and photograph interesting objects and scenes. Use them as prompts. A group of managers from various departments met to seek better ways to mesh functions. One of their photographs showed  birds looking at a pond of goldfish. To some it seemed that the birds were trying to communicate with the fish who could not hear them. As they discussed the photo, they realized they saw themselves as the unheard birds. Marketers felt that the researchers were preoccupied with scientific rather than commercial matters; while researchers felt that marketing was deaf to new technical insights. The result was that teams of marketers and researchers now meet quarterly to learn Ahow to talk to each other.@

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