How to Think What No One else Thinks
By Paul Sloane
How can an individual think of things that no one else thinks of? The answer is to take a different approach on the issue. There are dominant ideas in every field. The innovative thinker challenges dominant ideas in order to conceive new possibilities.
Albert Szent-Györgyi de Nagyrápolt, a Hungarian physiologist who discovered Vitamin C, said:
“Genius is seeing what everyone else sees and thinking what no one else has thought.”
If an individual can identify the standard viewpoint and then survey the situation from a different viewpoint they have an excellent chance of gaining new insight. When American medical researcher and virologist, 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.”
The Ford Motor Company asked Edward de Bono (who originated the concept of lateral thinking) for advice on how they could clearly differentiate themselves from their competitors in car manufacturing. De Bono gave them an innovative idea. Ford had approached the problem of competing from the viewpoint 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 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 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City were amazed to see a young athlete perform a high jump with his back to the bar. Until that moment every high jumper rolled over the bar face down. American high jumper Dick Fosbur, introduced an entirely new approach called the “flop” leaping over with his back close to the bar and 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 2.24 meters. What he introduced was a literal leap of the imagination and it revolutionized high jumping. Now all top jumpers use the Fosbury method. He thought what no one else thought and conceived a new method.
Take a Different View
How does an individual take a different view of a situation? Instead of looking at the scene 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, or through the artists Salvador Dali orLeonardo da Vinci. Apply the “What if?” technique. Challenge all the common assumptions. If everyone else is looking for the richest region, look for the wettest.
If an individual had to study a valley, how many ways could they look at it?
- Look up and down the valley
- Scan it from the riverside or stand and look across it from each hillside
- Walk it, drive along the road or take a boat down the river
- Study a satellite photo
- Peruse a map
Each gives a different view of the valley and each adds to the understanding of the valley. Why not do the same with any problem? Why do individuals immediately try to frame a solution before they have approached the problem from multiple differing perspectives?
The great geniuses did not take the traditional view to develop existing ideas. They took an entirely different view and transformed society. Artist Pablo Picasso took a different view of painting; he saw cubes, shapes and impressions instead of accurate images. Scientist Albert Einstein imagined a new approach to physics; a world where time and space were relative. Naturalist Charles Darwin conceived a different view of the origin of species; he saw how they might evolve rather than how they were created.
Each of them looked at the world in a new way. In similar fashion, the founder of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos, took a different view of book retailing. British entrepreneur Stelios Haji-Ioannou took a new perspective on flying with EasyJet. The Swiss companies Swatch and IKEA transformed an individual’s view of watches and the way furniture is bought. If problems are attacked from new directions then individuals can think of things that conventional thinkers miss. It gives them unlimited possibilities for innovation.
Paul Sloane is the founder of Destination Innovation, a consultancy that helps improve innovation. He gives talks and workshops on leadership, creativity and innovation. He is the author of 17 books; the most recent is The Innovative Leader, published by Kogan-Page. Contact Paul Sloane at psloane (at) destination-innovation.com or visit http://www.destination-innovation.com.