Have you ever been in a wood that just looked like a random assortment of trees and then when you take a few steps to the side you see that all the trees are laid out in neat rows? Sometimes we are standing in the wrong place to see an obvious answer. We have to deliberately take a different point of view and come at the problem from a new direction before we have a chance of creating a radical solution.
Albert Szent-Gyorgy, who discovered Vitamin C, put it this way, “Genius is seeing what everyone else sees and thinking what no-one else has thought.” If you can survey a situation from a different viewpoint then you have a good chance of gaining a new insight.
Add together these numbers in your head: 398, 395, 396, 399. If you add them the conventional way then it is taxing piece of mental arithmetic. But if you notice that they can be rewritten as 400-2, 400-5, 400-4 and 400-1 then it is easy to see the total is 1600 – 12 = 1588. By taking a slightly different view of the problem or restating it in a different way it becomes much easier to solve.
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.
Lindsay Owen-Jones is the Englishman who, as CEO, brought a new perspective to the French group L’Oreal and has achieved remarkable growth. He was recently asked whether he feared new competition in cosmetics from Unilever and Proctor and Gamble. He explained that L’Oreal has a different point of view from fast-moving consumer goods companies, “Competition in our business is not about price wars and money-off coupons. The consumer is guided by product performance. Is it pleasurable, seductive, imaginative and beautiful? Is this what I want at this moment in time?”
Why do we immediately try to frame a solution before we have approached the problem from multiple differing perspectives?
If you had to study a valley then 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 do we not do the same with a business problem? Why do we immediately try to frame a solution before we have approached the problem from multiple differing perspectives?
The great guru of lateral thinking is Edward de Bono. He describes how he consulted with Ford Motor Corporation about how they could compete more effectively in Europe. De Bono’s idea was very innovative. Ford 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 great innovators 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, Einstein imagined a new approach to physics, Darwin conceived a different view of creation. 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 come at problems from entirely new directions then we have unlimited possibilities for innovation.
By Paul Sloane
Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills and The Innovative Leader. He writes, talks and runs workshops on lateral thinking, creativity and the leadership of innovation.
Photo: puzzle on the wall from Shutterstock.com