This post was originally published by David Mercer at Hacker Noon
Convert any task that requires creative problem solving into a simple, step-by-step procedure.
Creativity on demand. That’s the dream!
Using the creative heuristic algorithm can help spark new business ideas for your next side hustle, new blog post ideas for your next content marketing campaign, identify gaps in the market, or make you more creative in your daily work.
The creative heuristic algorithm provides a mechanism for creativity on-demand by generating a large array of both closely and distantly related semantic concepts for the brain to associate.
Our brains are responsible for both logical, procedural planning and creative sparks of problem-solving genius — both very useful attributes in business.
The problem is that creativity seems to be elusive. It comes and goes. Not easy to conjure on demand:
- Bloggers suffer from writer’s block.
- Entrepreneurs struggle to come up with creative solutions
- Marketers try to captivate their audience
- Artists can’t seem to find the right inspiration
Everyone understands the frustration of trying to force creative ideas to flow. Often with nothing to show for the time invested.
It won’t necessarily help you become a better painter or musician.
It will help you be a better entrepreneur.
Before we take a look at how to put the creative heuristic algorithm into practice, let’s look at some background on how and why it works.
Why We Use Heuristic Algorithms
Not all problems are easy to solve. There are beasts out there, lurking in our mathematics — such as Non-Deterministic Polynomial Hard (NP-Hard) problems.
The Multiple Travelling Salesman Problem (mTSP) is a famous type of NP-Hard problem that applies to every-day life. Essentially, you want to work out the most efficient way for a bunch of people to visit a bunch of locations.
A very, very moderately sized traveling salesman problem can highlight why this hard to do.
Assume a small company has one delivery vehicle and needs to visit 100 locations. What’s the most efficient way to do this?
We could test every single possibility and then choose the lowest cost route (i.e. the route that has the lowest overall cost taking into account distance costs like fuel and wear and tear, and time-based costs like paying drivers).
To work out how many possibilities (permutations) there are in the problem we can say the following:
- Picking the first stop has 100 possibilities
- Picking the second stop has 99 possibilities
- Picking the third stop has 98 possibilities
- Picking the last stop has 1 possibility
To calculate the total number of permutations, we say:
100 x 99 x 98 x 97 x … x 3 x 2 x 1 = approx 9.33 x 10¹⁵⁷
That’s a pretty big number.
To put this number into perspective, the Sun is thought to have about 10⁵⁷ Hydrogen atoms. The Sun is very big. It contains about 99.8% of all the matter in our solar system.
A Hydrogen atom is very small.
10⁵⁷ is an enormous number. Yet it is infinitesimal compared to our 100-stop delivery problem.
Why Traditional Computing Doesn’t Work
Given these astronomical figures it’s understandable that one can’t simply write a script that instructs a computer to try every permutation. Not unless you’ve got some serious time on your hands.
The fastest supercomputers (all of them working together) on the planet would take longer than the remaining time left in the Universe (regardless of whether you favor a heat death, big tear, big crunch, or another as yet to be conceived doom) to come up with the answer.
Quantum computers might be able to handle this type of problem much quicker because they should, theoretically, be able to try an infinite number of permutations simultaneously.
Unfortunately, they’re not quite production-ready at the moment. We’re stuck with classical computing for now.
To solve (by solving I mean, close approximate) something this complex requires a… change of thinking.
Instead of solving complex problems procedurally (i.e. take one step after another in a defined way), we can use heuristic algorithms.
How Heuristic Algorithms Do Work
A heuristic algorithm is not procedural. Instead of following a set pattern of steps, it compares alternatives and tries to improve on them over time to reach a good approximation of the solution.
Nature uses heuristic all the time.
Consider an ant colony that has to scout for food and resources. Initially, ants head off in all different directions. If one finds some food it brings it straight back to the nest leaving a faint pheromone trail for subsequent waves of ants to pick up on.
If those ants find food at the same place, they also bring it straight back to the nest, adding more pheromones to the trail for other ants to pick up on. Over time more and more ants follow the strongest pheromone trails leading to the emergence of very efficient and direct routes between the hive and its surrounding resources.
It’s not only ants. Our genes employ heuristics.
They splice up, combine and recombine (mutate) in different ways leading to offspring with different characteristics. If those characteristics are favorable to survival they may be passed on.
In this way, mutations lead to the emergence of fitter individuals adapted well for their environment.
Heuristics aren’t simply a sneaky way to program software; they’re built into Nature on a fundamental level.
The ‘Creative Heuristic’ Algorithm
Humans have a strong procedural bias.
We identify a problem, come up with a plan of action consisting of a sequence of clearly defined steps and execute that plan to solve the problem. We apply that thinking over and over, again and again for pretty much every problem we want to solve.
Creativity is not procedural.
We need to take a more heuristic approach by giving our brain the opportunity to compare many different, potentially creative possibilities.
If a problem is creative (i.e. not procedural) it is likely an excellent candidate for an heuristic approach.
It’s almost impossible to sit down and think of a game-changing disruptor off the top of your head. Similarly, coming up with a new small business idea or a new blog post idea, or a creative solution to a business problem can be a real challenge.
We can implement an easy-to-use heuristic approach based on one underlying principle.
The building block of creativity is association.
In other words, what we view as a creative idea is often, at its heart, an unusual or counter-intuitive association between two concepts that are connected in some way (either closely or loosely — see semantic similarity).
If the association is a building block, more blocks mean a higher chance of finding something interesting and new. And, if we want to generate associations we need more “things” to associate.
Thinking inside-the-box utilizes the things your brain already has available.
To change this up, we need to add new and different things to allow for ideas that fall out the box.
To really give our brains plenty of food for thought, we need a method of introducing a wide range of potentially new and unique associations between a distribution of anchor concepts and control concepts.
1. Create an ‘Anchor’ List
Create a big list of all the things you,
- love doing
- hate doing
- are happy doing
- get mad at
- are good at
- suck at
- would like to do
- would like to know
- are skilled at
- have experience in
- know about
- are interested in
- would love to learn
Do a thorough job. Try end up with 100+ concepts in the anchor list.
2. Create a Control List
The control list should ideally be a diverse list of concepts related to the niche topic you’re working in – i.e. blog post topics, side hustle ideas, etc.
In this specific instance our control list can be made out of concepts taken from existing business ideas, startups, new advances, market gaps, new tech… pretty much anywhere.
Search Google for concepts and ideas. Collate or jot down ideas you come across on a daily basis. Use existing ideas lists or niche resources.
3. Merge the Lists
Every single concept from the control list must now be merged with each concept in the anchor list.
Pretend my lists have two anchor concepts and 3 control concepts:
- Anchor Concept 1
Anchor Concept 2
Business Ideas List
- Business Idea 1
Business Idea 2
Business Idea 3
Merging these gives me the following.
- Anchor Concept 1 & Business Idea 1
Anchor Concept 1 & Business Idea 2
Anchor Concept 1 & Business Idea 3
- Anchor Concept 2 & Business Idea 1
Anchor Concept 2 & Business Idea 2
Anchor Concept 2 & Business Idea 3
Notice that total number of merged concepts is equal to the number of anchor list concepts multiplied by the business idea concepts. For this example,
These numbers grow very quickly. By the time you have an anchor list of 100 and a control list of 100 ideas there are,
100 x 100 =
potentially new ideas.
Not every single combination of concepts will have a meaningful association. For example, semantically identical concepts have nothing to associate between them.
The most creative ideas will often arise between the least obvious or least connected (semantically distant) concepts.
It takes a little mental jiggling to merge two seemingly unrelated concepts together into a workable new idea. It is this exact process that regularly surfaces unique associations that simply wouldn’t have occurred to otherwise.
That’s what makes the creative heuristic approach effective.
The creative heuristic approach works by forcing your brain to find associations between a diverse range of semantically distant concepts.
The point here is that your brain is actually being used. It’s not being forced to come up with a brilliant idea from thin air (which is exactly what we ask it to do when we sit down in front of a blank piece of paper and try to be creative).
Example: The Creative Heuristic Algorithm for Content
Consider the problem of coming up with interesting ideas for new content (a common problem for businesses, marketers, and entrepreneurs competing in the online space). Those ideas must be related to the company’s niche industry, but offer something unique and unusual to differentiate it from the mountains of competing for online content.
- Take one or more specific SUB headings from a piece of content to create an anchor list of sub-headings.
- Build a list of semantically related concepts (i.e. from a Google search) of those sub-headings to create a control list.
- MERGE every result gathered from every search.
- Creatively associate each of the merged concepts until a suitably creative and unique concept is found.
The exact same process can be applied to coming up with new business ideas or finding gaps in the market no-one else has.
The Creative Heuristic Algorithm 2.0
For more complex creative ideation, make associations of associations.
You can either:
- Add an additional, variable list to the anchor and control lists and merge all three.
- Create two lists of merged concepts and then merge those two lists.
These additional steps create linked chains of concepts that have significantly more variation in semantic distance than only two merged concepts.
For example, merging two lists of 200 merged concepts would provide 40 000 merged concepts for your brain to associate. Who knows what unusual associations you might come up with out of that many possibilities.
Like heuristics in Nature and heuristic algorithms in programming, you want to give your brain plenty of building blocks to play with in order to emerge creative new ideas.
Try it out. Have fun.
Crush it in the creative department.
This post was originally published by David Mercer at Hacker Noon