Conceptual Blockbusting (4th edition), James L. Adams

Perseus Publishing, 2001, 220 pages, C$25.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7382-0537-0

At the intersection of psychology and business literature, it’s often difficult to separate useful works from loosely-outlined collections of pithy aphorisms. Businesses, by definition, have money and want to make even more money. There is no surprise, then, to see that there is a significant market for works promising untold riches in five (or ten) easy catchphrases. The “business” section of your local used bookstore is filled with past management fads, too-easy answers to complex problems and ridiculous attempts to exploit businesspeople’s massive insecurities. (My favorite in the genre being Richard Marcinko’s The Rogue Warrior’s Guide to Leadership.)

If you don’t believe me, go ahead, take a trip and have a look. I’ll wait. But while you’re there, if you happen to see James L. Adams’ Conceptual Blockbusting, take it out of the stack and bring it home with you; it deserves better company than a stack of tomes on how to manage Japanese-style.

For Conceptual Blockbusting is not your usual business psychology book, nor is its appeal strictly limited to anyone trying to get ahead in a corporate hierarchy. No; this is a book that, under a business guise, aims to teach everyone how to think better.

In a nutshell, this is a book that purports to break the unproductive habits that defeat the most innovative thinking. But in doing so, it delves deep into the sources of inspiration and the methods of the human mind. The subtitle says that it’s “a guide to better ideas” and might as well believe it: in a succinct 220 pages, it delivers enough thinking material to keep anyone busy for a while.

I’m hardly the first one to feel so positively about the book. “300,000 copies sold!” claims the title page. Not only is it at its fourth edition, twenty five years after its initial publication, but I was pleasingly surprised to recognize within its pages a few familiar classroom exercises. Adams’ work has been influential and this newly-refreshed edition is an ideal way to see why.

More than half of the book is dedicated to the identification of conceptual blocks; the kind of constraints, acknowledged or ingrained, that restrict us in our quest for better ideas. Stuff like social taboos, hasty mis-perception of problems, personality quirks or lack of expressive knowledge can all contribute to dull solutions. By enumerating how we’re not quite as free-thinking as we perceive ourselves to be, Adams makes us conscious of the problems and gives us pointers on how to get around these blocks.

Other areas covered in Conceptual Blockbusting include an examination of thinking languages (and how, say, mathematical or verbal thinking may not be universal problem-solvers, to the dismay of those trained in those techniques), ways to crack those idea blockers (far beyond the usual “brainstorming” cliché, though this is also covered and explained in good detail) and a savvy glimpse at how ideas can be nurtured in organizational structures.

All of which could be trite stuff if it wasn’t for Adams’ polished delivery. After four editions, his material is optimized for both pleasure reading and reference purposes. His style is direct, dense but curiously pleasant to read and re-read. This is the kind of book worth refreshing once a year if only to ingrain those conceptual blockbusters in daily thinking. It doesn’t take much to see in Conceptual Blockbusting a good primer on the structures of human thinking and a springboard to deeper reflection.

Or maybe not; if all you want are better ideas and a solid business psychology book, this one’s for you. Deceptively effective, solid without being flashy, there are good chances that James L. Adams’ book will still be available twenty-five years from now, in hopefully an even-better edition.

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