We Indians are gifted with Associative thinking

posted by Ravi Arora June 13, 2017

If one asks someone in Pune – “Where is Dagdu Seth temple?” The likely answer would be, “It is close to Shaniwar Wada”. And if you were to ask a follow up question, “And where is Shaniwar Wada?” The answer you are likely to get is, “I hope you know Laxmi road?”. If your eyes do not lighten up even now, you are very likely to receive the next response in the form of a question, “OK, don’t worry, tell me a few spots (landmarks) that you know in Pune?”

For a similar question in the western world, the first response would be, “It is 20 miles south east” or you would get a driving direction directly, “Take M9 and take exit 10…..”

Indians associate things with one another very easily. This attribute is not only true for things but also for relations. The three English words – Siblings, Uncle and Aunt – that are used to refer to relatives have distinct names (more than 30!) in Hindi language depending upon the relationship. These names tell the exact relationship that exists between two people. Surprisingly, every common man in India relates to these names comfortably. I personally struggle to comprehend when 3-4 people have multiple relationship amongst them!

The above is one of the manifestations of Associative Thinking. Let me give a few other definitions of associative thinking and state its importance for creative ideation. Associational thinking is the way the brain processes information through integrating patterns, seeing contextual relationships, connecting seemingly unrelated elements and three-dimensional mental modeling.

Associative thinking helps in better ideation

All innovations start with a creative idea. The research shows that Associative thinking is a key cognitive skill required to generate innovative ideas. Association happens as the brain tries to synthesize and makes sense of novel inputs. Association helps innovators discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems (Read three examples of problems: Traffic and Hotel, Train stations, Pot-holes and street-lights) or ideas.

Associational thinkers mentally hold the big picture and usually think in concepts and talk using paper, pencil or white-boards. They love sketches and visuals. They intuitively combine art and science in developing innovative solutions and have intense focus when there is strong personal interest. They bring energy and curiosity to ask tough questions.  Frequently, they infuse humor into whatever they do. To be effective, they need:

  • Blocks of uninterrupted time to think
  • The freedom to work in their own way
  • Big challenges and variety
  • Good resources and people who can think rapidly with them

There are four behavioral skills that support associational thinking:

1. Questioning

People with high associative thinking are usually consummate questioners who show a passion for inquiry. They have a high Q/A ratio, where questions (Q) not only outnumber answers (A) in a typical conversation but are valued at least as highly as good answers. This reminds me about the view many people have about Indians – Argumentative. I feel that an average Indian is probing, questioning and argumentative but this behavior is mostly visible when they are with their equal peers, friends or relatives. Most of us do not ask questions when we are in front of our managers or superiors (I have explained this in my post on drags). The research also states that individuals in countries like India, who grow up in societies that promote community versus individualism and hierarchy over merit, are less likely to creatively challenge the status quo.

2. Observing

Ability to be intense observers is another skill that people with high associative thinking have. This is also a strong trait of most Indians. Have you seen the crowd when a small accident or an incident happens on the road? Many people would spend a lot of time and almost all passerby would stop by to observe/know about the incident. Most Indians love to watch and observe things that are interesting or fast-paced. But how many of us would observe things or people which are not necessarily interesting and are slow paced? Ethnography, which is an emerging subject needs people to watch customers tirelessly for hours and days. I heard our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi urging us in his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ on April 30, 2017. He said, “…have you ever thought of travelling in a Second-Class Railway Compartment without a reservation, and going for at least a 24 hours ride? What great experience it will be? How are the lives of your co- passengers, what do they do at the station when they alight from the train? What you cannot learn in a year, you will learn in that crowded train travelling without any reservation for 24 hours! You might not get to sleep and might have to travel standing. Try it, just experience it once, I am not asking you to try it again and again, do it once.”

3. Networking

Innovative breakthroughs often happen at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields. Willingness and keenness to spend a lot of time and energy finding and testing ideas through a diverse network of individuals who vary wildly in their backgrounds and perspectives is another behavioral skill that is helpful for associational thinking. My personal view is that most of us (Indians) are not as strong as we are on the previous two skills. Our reluctance to interact with people from different caste, class and language discourages us to have a diverse network. ‘Like-minded’ is a phrase often used by most of us (unfortunately it has become a fashion statement) and we try to build our network keeping this in mind. Our networks are mostly with people with whom we can have interesting and free-wheeling discussions.

4. Experimenting

Constantly trying out new experiences and piloting new ideas is the last skill that is required for creative thinking and for executing innovations. People who possess this skill visit new places, try new things, seek new information, and experiment to learn new things. Most of us are not strong in this skill and let me once again quote our Prime Minister from the same ‘Mann Ki Baat’ – “I want to suggest you certain tips about of how to utilize your vacation. See that you gain a new experience. Try to take the opportunity of acquiring a new skill. Try to experience something that you have neither heard before, nor seen, nor thought of and yet there is a curiosity in your mind. You must try new places, new experiences and new skills”. He further says, “You’re able to ride a bicycle but have you ever tried to operate the three-wheeler cycle or rickshaw which transports people? You see, all these new experiments, these skills are such that they will bring you joy and will remove you from the limitations of life to which you’re tied down! Do something out of the box, my Friends…. Try to know about things about which you have no prior knowledge, it will definitely benefit you. Your inner human potential will awaken, and this will provide a great opportunity for development…”. To encourage this behavior of experimenting at the early age, our Prime Minister, in his July, 2016 ‘Mann Ki Baat’ spoke about tinkering labs.

To further fuel the development of these skills – Observing, Networking and experimenting in a manner that would promote innovations, the startup ecosystem comprising Venture Capital, incubators and accelerators would be of immense value. The Startup India program and the ever-growing interest of PE/VC/Angels would surely enhance these skills amongst Indians and the overall Innovation Quotient of India. Do you think Chief Innovation Officers/Evangelists in organizations can also do something?