How to think what no one else thinks
By Paul Sloane
How can you think of things that no-one else thinks of? The answer is by deliberately taking a different approach to the issue from everyone else. There are dominant ideas in every field. The innovative thinker purposefully challenges those dominant ideas in order to conceive new possibilities.
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, who discovered Vitamin C, said, “Genius is seeing what everyone else sees and thinking what no-one else has thought.” If you can identify the standard viewpoint then survey the situation from a different viewpoint you have an excellent chance of gaining a new insight. When Jonas Salk was asked how he invented the vaccine for polio he replied, “I imagined myself as a virus or cancer cell and tried to sense what it would be like.”
Ford Motor Corporation asked Edward de Bono, who originated the concept of lateral thinking, for some advice on how they could clearly differentiate themselves from their many competitors in car manufacturing. De Bono gave them a very innovative idea. Ford had approached the problem of competing from the point of view of a car manufacturer and asked the question, “How can we make our cars more attractive to consumers?” De Bono approached the problem from another direction and asked the question, “How can we make the whole driving experience better for Ford customers?” His advice was that Ford should buy up car parks in all the major city centers and make them available for Ford cars only. His remarkable idea was too radical for Ford who saw themselves as an automobile manufacturer with no interest in the car parks business.
The spectators at the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968 were amazed to see a young athlete perform a high jump with his back to the bar. Until then, every high jumper ‘rolled’ over the bar with his or her face down. Dick Fosbury, and American, introduced an entirely new approach, the ‘flop’, leaping over with his back close to the bar and his face up. Fosbury was ranked 48th in the world in 1967; yet in 1968 he caused a sensation when he won the Olympic Gold Medal with his unprecedented technique and a leap of 2.24metres. What he introduced was literally a leap of the imagination – and it revolutionized high jumping. Nowadays all the top jumpers use his method. He thought what no-one else thought and conceived a new method.
How can we force ourselves to take a different view of a situation? Instead of looking at the scene from your view try looking at it from the perspective of a customer, a product, a supplier, a child, an alien, a lunatic, a comedian, a dictator, an anarchist, an architect, Salvador Dali, Leonardo da Vinci and so on. Apply the What if? technique. Challenge all the common assumptions. If everyone else is looking for the richest region, look for the wettest. If everyone else is facing the bar then turn your back on it.
If you had to study a valley, how many ways could you look at it? You could look up and down the valley; you could scan it from the riverside or stand and look across it from each hillside. You could walk it, drive along the road or take a boat down the river. You could study a satellite photo. You could peruse a map. Each gives you a different view of the valley and each adds to your understanding of the valley. Why not do the same with any problem? Why do we immediately try to frame a solution before we have approached the problem from multiple differing perspectives?
The great geniuses did not take the traditional view and develop existing ideas. They took an entirely different view and transformed society. Picasso took a different view of painting; he saw cubes, shapes and impressions instead of accurate images. Einstein imagined a new approach to physics; a world where time and space were relative. Darwin conceived a different view of the origin of species; he saw how they might have evolved rather than been created. Each of them looked at the world in a new way. In similar fashion Jeff Bezos took a different view of book retailing with Amazon.com, Stelios took a new perspective on flying with Easyjet, Swatch transformed our view of watches and IKEA changed the way we buy furniture.
If we can attack problems from entirely new directions then we can think of things that conventional thinkers miss. It gives us unlimited possibilities for innovation.