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To Think Outside of the Box, Think of Something That Can Get You Fired

How reverse thinking can lead to the right idea.

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BY Ayse Birsel - 16 Feb 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Sometimes the best way to get to the right answer is to think of the wrong answer first.

This is especially useful when you're stuck.

Brand consultant and author Marty Neumeier talks about how designers go beyond thinking out of the box by "thinking wrong" in his book The Designful Company, something he explains Jonathan Ive, Apple's chief designer, cultivates:

"One of the hallmarks of the team is this sense of looking to be wrong...because then you know you've discovered something new."

3M calls this "Reverse Thinking--turning the problem upside down" and they've created a simple and user friendly guideline you can try on your own or with your team here.

Here are some examples to inspire you about how and when to use this tool:

 

Take something that is obviously a mistake or a "no-no" and use it for good

A wonderful example of wrong thinking is reverse graffiti, as illustrated recently by the South African artist William Kentridge who used the grime along the walls of the Rome's Tiber River to create a 550-meter-long work, Triumphs and Laments, to illustrate the city's history.

- Reverse thinking: Grime and graffiti is good for the city.

- Right idea: Let's use grime as an art material to do a mural that shows the history of the city.

 

Generate ideas that feel like a taboo until they're not

Imagine De Beers "right hand campaign" when it came out. To suggest that women can buy their own ring, from a company that invented the tradition of men buying diamond engagement and wedding rings for their fiances, was almost a taboo. They broke their own convention and in doing so invented a new market.

- Reverse thinking: Imagine women buying their own engagement or wedding ring.

- Right idea: Actually what if we created rings for the right hand that women can buy for themselves?

Note that once a taboo is broken it doesn't feel so much like a taboo. Today Uber seems very normal but only a few years ago challenging the NYC taxi system was a downright taboo. Until it was broken.

 

Break your fundamental principles to remember why they matter

At the beginning of the design of the Resolve Office System for Herman Miller, I did a quick exercise that proved to be very useful. Technology was changing office culture so fast that it was challenging our user-centered thinking, so I decided to ask the team the worst question I could think of, "Let's put technology at the center of work!" The ideation that followed was so rich, but so inhuman that it demonstrated the danger of putting an inanimate object at the center of our thinking. It was the best 30 minutes spent, as it drove the number one principal of design--people-centered solutions--so strongly that we didn't waiver from it for the next 3 years of development and it's fueled all of our future work together.

- Reverse thinking: Let's put technology at the center of our thinking. Then we can make smaller and smaller cubicles.

- Right idea: With the person at the center, everything should be human in scale and spirit, follow the body. The system should welcome the person, make them feel valued and at home.

 

Go against your own instinct

Let me share an example where I tried to apply reverse thinking to my own life. As a working mom of two teenagers, one of the most baffling questions for me is "How do I make my kids happy?" So I decided to reverse the problem statement to, "How can I make them unhappy?"

Easy to answer! Buy less junk food. Take their phones away. Embarrass them in front of their friends. Do less stuff for them. Sing and dance to my heart's content. You can add your own idea here: ___________________________.

Then I used the wrong answers to generate potential right ideas.

- Right ideas:

1. Buy more healthy snacks > We'll all eat better.

2. Take my own phone away too > Do more stuff together.

3. Embarrass them in front of their friends > Nothing to be done there :)

4. Let them do more on their own > They'll become more independent.

5. Sing and dance in front of them > Go to a karaoke bar together!

You know what my big AHA! was after doing reverse thinking? That my role as a mom is not to make children happy! Of course I want them to be happy, but I cannot make them happy. That is for them to do. This was such a huge revelation! And I wouldn't have gotten there without this exercise.

 

Get yourself almost fired

Another metric you should use when conducting reverse thinking is to ask yourself, "what is the worst idea that I can think of? The one that would get me fired if I told my boss." That is the level of "wrong thinking" you want to go for. Remember you're playing with ideas here and deliberately breaking your own prejudices.

We recently used Reverse Thinking as a tool in Design the Life You Love 2.0, in the context of work. The starting point was: how to deal with coworkers who have different political views than you? Here are examples of how wrong you can think and the right ideas it can lead you to--

- Reverse thinking: Spread nasty rumors about team members.

- Right idea: Spread good truths about your team members and promote their successes. You can read more about doing good in Adam Grant's gem of a book, Give and Take.

Next time you're stuck, try reverse thinking. Be playful and remember to push the wrong ideas as far out as possible. This will help break your own preconceptions. Then use the wrong answers to generate new "right ideas"!

Let me know how it goes. I am always on the look out for right ideas that come from wrong thinking to inspire creative teams.

Design the Life You Love!