Sparking Creativity Through Provocation

By: John Cabra

According to Edward De Bono, a scholar in the scientific study of creativity, a provocation deliberately causes your mind to move out of true and tried mental tracks that often are formed from one’s training and experiences.

I work for a consulting firm, Knowinnovation, dedicated to advancing scientific innovation. When working with scientists, we will invite two to three speakers to “provoke” the scientists through a 10-15 minute presentation, that might include a theoretical model, research, trend, or point of view.

We tell the scientists that the provocations come with the understanding that participants do not need to accept the provocation; neither does the provocateur have to convince the participants. The purpose is to prompt discussion and ultimately spark creativity by pushing participants’ thinking to the fringes and outside their domains.

Once when working with NASA (i.e., scientists charged with determining life outside of our planet), we brought in Dr. Lee Cronin, a top chemist at the University of Glasgow ( I remembered his provocation as if it happened yesterday. He asserted that “We are so chauvinistic to biology. If you take away carbon, there are other things that can happen.” In essence, he was saying that if you are searching for life with carbon in mind, you risk not detecting life in some other forms.

Edward De Bono identified five types of provocation.

ESCAPE – negate a fact or statement taken for granted.
REVERSAL – take the opposite of a fact or statement taken for granted.
EXAGGERATION – if something can be counted or quantified, significantly increase or decrease the number.
DISTORTION – alter time sequences or causal relationships within facts or statements taken for granted.
WISHFUL THINKING – “Wouldn’t it be nice if….”

To close, think of a challenge or problem requiring new thinking. Select a type of provocation. Then, create a provocative statement and apply it to spark ideas to tackle your challenge.