Random Input is a creative thinking strategy associated with Edward de Bono and his lateral thinking programs. Lateral thinking is thinking that, instead of continuing to move in familiar directions, takes off laterally to new and innovative places. De Bono’s writings are based on the assumption that lateral thinking strategies can be taught and systematically applied to problems. One of these strategies is random input, or random entry.
Random input entails using a random word, picture, or even sound, to open new lines of thinking. The idea is not to directly solve the problem using the random word, but to use the random word in to help your mind begin thinking in new directions. According to several websites—none of which I’ve been able to verify— Campbell’s Chunky Soups originated with random input. Here’s a version from slyasafox.com.
When Campbell’s Soup was brainstorming new ideas for soup products they used the random word tool. I wasn’t there so I don’t know the exact sequence of words that came out of the brainstorming session. Here’s my take on what happened. Campbell’s was looking for a new kind of soup or an expansion to their current product line. They used the random word tool and started with the word “apartment.” Then they brainstormed around that word. No logic, they just let the ideas flow – apartment lead to building, build, tools, hammer, saw, drill, knife, which eventually lead to fork. Someone on team said, “You can’t eat soup with a fork. It would have to be in chunks to do that.” So Chunky Soup was born.
Regardless of whether the story is true or apocryphal, the example is a good one.
To use random input, you first must have a clearly defined problem. For example, imagine that it is the fifth day in a row when the weather has been too bad to go outside for recess and your students are all stir-crazy. You want an idea for an innovative indoor activity that will help all of you take a break and expend some energy. After your solo brainstorming is unsuccessful, you might decide to use random input. To find a random word, you could open the dictionary to a random page, point at a random place, and slide your finger down until you come to a noun (since they work best). If doing random input with younger children you might want to prepare your own list of nouns that are familiar to your students. Or with older students or adults, you could use one of the online random word generators like Creativity Tools Random Word Generator. (You might also want to experiment with their phrase generator and other tools.) I decided to go the technology route. When I opened the generator, the word it gave me was “snake.”
When I saw that word, and had been thinking about recess, I immediately recalled a funny story from many years ago. Colleague Jim Curry told about teachers who compared notes on the worst teacher “duty” assignments ever. The winner was a teacher who was regularly assigned “snake duty,” beating the bushes around the playground with sticks to scare off the snakes before recess. (Really, isn’t that the worst “duty” ever?) But recalling that story sent my mind in several directions. Maybe we could use funny stories at recess time. Could we have silly story hour? A joke competition? Or maybe we needed to find “duty” assignments for the students. Could they burn off some energy cleaning the room or assisting the custodian? None of those options occurred to me until I saw the word “snake.”
When using random input, resist the temptation to think that the random word has nothing to do with your problem so it should be eliminated. The whole point is that random associations will take you to places you hadn’t imagined. Give it a try!