You begin by understanding people’s expectations of their surroundings. Then, "you take those expectations and turn them upside down" and hope that you end up with a punch line—or "provocation," in business speak—that’s "unexpected but logical in hindsight," Williams, said during a session about innovating during the downturn.
About 50 session attendees—many of them professionals in business, technology, media and marketing—split into groups, taking 15 minutes to brainstorm ideas to "save The New York Times." Their prescriptions might not have been particularly innovative, but they may muster a laugh:
Observation: People read the newspaper.
Provocation: The newspaper reads the people.
Ideas: "Make the newspaper a collection of Twitter feeds."
Observation: Customers pay to read The New York Times.
Provocation: The New York Times pays customers to read its paper.
Ideas: "Extra tax rebates from the government for people who read the news…because we want to have an educated public."
Observation: Readership generates revenue.
Provocation: The paper has no readers.
Ideas: "Lease out the paper's writers and content creators to other corporations."
The key, Williams said, is to allow yourself to be as silly as possible without getting off-track. The provocation must always relate back to the initial idea.
"It’s a stepping stone off one track to another," he said. "It creates mental instability." A good provocation will make people laugh out loud, said Williams, but may also ultimately lead to new ideas.
One instance of success, Williams said, began with a simple observation: "Police officers have two eyes." That idea was then exaggerated to form a provocation, "police officers have 100 eyes," that helped lay the foundation for neighborhood watch programs.
So maybe there is hope for this method. But The New York Times might not want to toss out—or rent out—its writers just yet.