“[I]n the 21st century, we are being nudged forward—by our customers, our employers, our economy, and by the robots nipping at our heels—to be original.” Thus ends a Fast Company article on six changes that will turn you into an innovative thinker.
Why learn to think new?
It’s not just robots doing the heel-nipping. It’s also often the C suite, Boardroom, and investors, regardless of the size of your company. If you have been following this blog, you are familiar with disruption and design thinking as the building blocks of innovation. (You can access a quick overview in a video here.) Those building blocks are inspired by thinking new.
The good news is that most of us can become adept at thinking new and then applying those new skills in the workplace. Here’s how.
Training to think new
1. Look at the products, processes—and the world—less literally and more abstractly.
Steve Wozniak did when he had the idea to create a computer, keyboard, and monitor as an all-in-one product. No longer was a computer defined as three separate devices. Netflix did when it envisioned screening a multi-episodic show directly online, bypassing the old TV format. And the first 3D printer was a giant leap from the literal to the possible. Nike has become adept at dreaming about what a running shoe can be.
The new TV series, “Cosmos,” provides other examples, illustrating how scientists turned abstract thinking into knowledge, and even product development (such as John Herschel’s contributions to photography).
2. Look at the world in pictures.
Fast Company describes how Einstein recognized that “visual thinking can strip a problem down to its essence, leading to profoundly simple conclusions that ordinary language might not be able to reach.”
Training your brain to visualize things differently helps, and can be fun. Try viewing some amazing trompe l’oeil visuals here.
Steps one and two—abstract and visual thinking—sometimes happen together. Sometimes thinking one way leads to the other so quickly that it seems to be simultaneous.
3 and 4. Steal … er … research ideas from everywhere and anywhere, and unite two seemingly divergent ideas or technologies.
One way to do this is to think about what already exists and how it can be applied to a new field. Thomas Edison did this with his inventions. Even the Internet was born this way, once electronic computers existed.
The medical field has taken advantage of smart phones and apps to develop mHealth devices, which are changing customer’s relationships with health care providers.
A number of cities are taking advantage of smart ways to collect big data from residents to fine tune decisions on how best to spend tax dollars. For example, Boston’s Street Bump project uses data from its residents’ smart phones and apps to locate the worst pot holes.
And isn’t Google Glass a way of uniting what may once have seemed impossibly divergent: advanced technology and old-fashioned eyewear?
5. “Reverse the polarity,” or apply mirror thinking, upside down thinking, inverse thinking, or subtraction thinking.
Here is a way to start. Look at an obstacle in a challenging situation, and ask yourself, What if I looked at this as already working well? Now can I see what it would take to get us there?
A previous blog on How “Less” Became New and Better describes how to apply subtraction thinking.
The blog, Meet Bo and Yana, identified a lack of sufficient computer programmers in the education pipeline and, thinking about what it would look like to have enough programmers in that pipeline, realized that children as young as age 5 could learn programming.
6. Find the core contradiction or central paradox in the problem.
The one I like best is how governments have pivoted from being targets of complaints into centers of innovation by using crowdsourcing.
Websites such as challenge.gov turns more than 50 federal agencies’ needs into competitions with prizes that anyone can enter “to drive innovation and solve mission-centric problems—whether technical, scientific, or creative.” Many municipalities—such as Boston, mentioned earlier—are starting on this path as well.
Lessons in thinking new
Looking at the world through a prism instead of a tunnel can be learned. For those in positions to drive company innovation, it is a key skill that leads to disruption and design thinking.
A bonus tip – for these reasons and more, B schools and C suites are turning to improv lessons for students and employees as a standard approach to this type of training, according to Slate.