The Disruptive Peacock, or Why the ‘wrong’ Way Might Be the Best Way



Disruptive Thinking asks you to look at a problem in a new, counter-intuitive way. Disruptive Thinking might just be the most powerful tool in the creative thinking arsenal.

The Disruptive Peacock

It is often appropriate to represent the thinking of the typical human as something that is linear; something that does not and indeed often cannot, deviate from the path it sets out upon, much like a Roman road.



With linear thinking, the outcome is almost always known before it is necessarily arrived at – there is no real scope for choice of deviation. Your options are to go forward along your pre-defined path, go backwards across ground you have already covered, or to stay still, not progressing.

Fan thinking, or The Peacock, offers you the opportunity to broaden and change the final outcome, whilst allowing you to hold on to some of the comfortable values and ideas you have invested in over the years.

The peacock’s tail, when closed, is much like the path above: narrow, linear and therefore limited or without possibility.

When a peacock opens its tail, the impact is quite astonishing. A very simple creature becomes both beautiful and intimidating, but more importantly it demonstrates to us, metaphorically at least, how easy it is to switch from the linear to a varied, multi-faceted approach of thinking.

The peacock’s feathers all originate from the same place, but each feather now represents either a widening of that single path, or perhaps many different paths or options that are now available to the creative thinker. The wider the peacock’s tail spreads, the more possible outcomes you have.

The important question of course, is what must one do, to open up the peacock’s tail?

The answer is:

  • Ask questions
  • Make suggestions
  • Find multiple solutions
  • Anything – including what is obvious

Here is a theoretical problem to which you could apply The Peacock:

Population Crisis

It is a commonly held belief that the world’s population is approaching a crisis point; it is possible that we will soon over-populate the world and this may have catastrophic consequences for all of earth’s inhabitants.

What is the solution to this problem?

When approaching this problem in a traditional, linear fashion, often only one solution will be arrived at:



This seems the most obvious and logical response; put a cap on the number of new people that enter the world. Indeed this is the very solution that China implemented on a national level in 1978.

The peacock requires you to look at the problem from a wider angle. How adventurous you are will determine how wide you wish to make your fan/peacock tail. It may be that you start simply by coming up with a single alternative answer:


However, to get a full range of ideas, you will benefit from finding as many solutions as possible, ie. Allowing the Peacock to open its tail as fully as possible.


You will notice that one of the solutions to the problem of population crisis is ‘make more people,’ this clearly goes against the expected set of responses from a linear thinker, and perhaps to even the most broad-minded, this might seem a little self-defeating.

The response ‘make more people’ could be considered as an example of ‘Disruptive Thinking’ (more on this later).

The next step is to begin the process of justifying each solution, which is where the real creativity comes in.

The obvious solution to a population crisis is to allow less new humans into the world. Clearly though, this is a highly controversial idea, and as mentioned already China’s ‘one child policy’ is the living example of this – a solution with as many drawbacks as resolutions.

So, wouldn’t it be useful to expand our view of the problem? If you can’t make less people, could you do something to the people you do have which would make them use less of the earth’s resources?

Is the solution channelling research and funds into extra-terrestrial living? A community on another planet would certainly alleviate the pressure on Earth’s resources and may well prove less controversial than reintroducing a harsh worldwide capital punishment regime, or refusing to immunise people against diseases we know how to treat as means to the same end, although, as always, all ideas should be explored.

The process of the Peacock forces you to look beyond the obvious. It does not however, encourage foolishness or bloody-mindedness. Whilst some solutions may be more radical or unlikely than others, the process of working through these and trying to rationalise them may lead to an un-thought of, but entirely tenable solution.

This sort of idea creation works well with secondary and primary school students. One way of simplifying the idea of The Peacock, is to look closely at the animal itself. When it has its tail fully fanned out, you’ll notice that the ‘eyes’ on the tail don’t only occur at the end. In fact they appear all the way up the feather. It could be useful to imagine each ‘eye’ as a stepping stone, leading you to a final, new and exciting point.

So what is Disruptive Thinking?

Disruptive Thinking is a concept that is based upon doing the opposite of what is expected/what convention tells you will be successful.

One of the best examples I have heard of, which illustrates the potential of Disruptive Thinking comes from the ultra-competitive drinks industry.

International megabrand Coca Cola and almost all of its competitors base their business model around the same 3 core components:

1. Fizzy drinks should be Cheap

2. Fizzy drinks should be tasty

3. Fizzy drinks should be aspirational

Disruptive Thinking dictates that we should find opposing ideas in order to find a new, workable solution, so you are left with 3 new ideas:

1. Fizzy drinks should be expensive

2. Fizzy drinks should not be tasty

3. Fizzy drinks should be functional

Looking at this second list, it seems almost inconceivable that any brand would choose this business model, and indeed if they did, surely it wouldn’t work?

But, that is exactly what Red Bull did. They marketed a new kind of drink that is expensive, not especially tasty unless mixed with other drinks, but which is ‘functional’ in the sense that it gives you energy/wings.

For those not initially comfortable with a widely spread peacock tail of ideas, Disruptive Thinking’ offers a clearly defined starting point.

This example comes from a talk given by Luke Williams (@LukeGWilliams) who writes the excellent Disrupt blog, which you should definitely check out.

Within the ‘real’ world, there are a number of really exciting examples of disruptive thinking in action.

Little Miss Matched is an American company which decided to disrupt a market which had not been changed for a long time – socks. Taking the basic premise of disruptive thinking (and the company name) you may be able to guess how they approached their business plan: sell socks in threes, not pairs (after all, it’s so easy to lose one!) and of the three socks, none of them should match (it makes the whole process of deciding what to put on in the morning or matching the washing up, much easier).

On paper, this seems pretty bonkers, even if you can see the logic, but it has been incredibly successful. I was in Toys R Us in Times Square recently and saw a Little Miss Matched installation for the first time. I was blown away with how beautiful it was – it made perfect sense as part of the young female market they are targeting.

The music industry was turned on its head when iTunes and other music download sites were introduced – the idea that we no longer needed to walk in to a shop and buy a physical album was revolutionary and incredibly disruptive. Of course, now we are seeing the same in the book and film industries.

However, it is possible to disrupt the disrupter, always staying ahead of the curve. Spotify decided that not only did consumers not need to buy a physical copy of the music, but they did not even need to pay for it. Impressively radical, but at the same time, it was a brilliant example of Cageless Thinking – a response to what was going on in the subversive, but prevalent illegal download market. People don’t want to pay for music and have shown that they are very willing to break the law in order not to. Spotify ease the conscience of those consumers who worry about getting caught, but offer them a similar service.

Disruptive Thinking is really a term I have only heard Luke Williams use in any broad sense, as something applicable outside of technology. Lots of people out in the cutting edge of education discuss disruptive technologies – technology that can change the way we do things in the classroom. Many believe iPads, mobile phones, blogs, podcasts, wikis, social networking are all disruptive technologies that could change education.

Those people are right, to an extent. Disruptive technology is important to education. Education needs to be at the fore of technological developments and students should have access to as much of this equipment as possible. They, after all, will be the ones who take it on, develop it, improve it, reinvent it and eventually disrupt it.

And this, really, is my point. Our students should be learning to think disruptively. Luke Williams says that Disruptive Thinking is being taught in design schools; that there they make the ordinary unexpected. This is not enough. Disruptive Thinking needs to be experienced by all students and accepted by all teachers.


The inspiring Michael Michalko (@MichaelMichalko) said ‘genius is finding a perspective no one else has taken.’ If that isn’t an endorsement of what Disruptive Thinking is all about, then I don’t know what is. His books on creativity are outstanding for getting students to approach problem solving and idea generation from different perspectives. If you haven’t come across Michael before, try his homepage.

Sir James Dyson is, I think, one of the best examples of a disruptive thinker. He took some of the most conventional household appliances and applied this new model of thinking. The vacuum cleaner that doesn’t need a bag and moves in any direction was revolutionary, the fan that doesn’t require a blade was confusingly brilliant and the Airblade hand-dryer which dries your hand using cold air and 80% less energy is impressive. In each case, Dyson has not completely reinvented the wheel; he has taken one or two aspects of the device and improved them by going against the convention. What he did, in theory shouldn’t work, and defied common sense. If he had been at school, he would have been ‘wrong.’ In a recent interview with Wired Magazine (UK) he said “At school, you’re not allowed to fail; the wrong answer is a bad thing. But all failures teach you something. I have lots of them every day.”

Students often ‘fail’ because they see things in a different way to us. Often they’re not ‘wrong,’ but they are not given the opportunity to justify their approach (see my post introducing Cageless Thinking for more on this). I run the ‘Disruptive Thinking Society’ at my school. Currently it is only aimed at 6th form students, but we meet regularly to attempt to think about problems or ideas in innovative, disruptive ways. They astound me with how conservative their thinking is at the beginning of each session, but by the end , they are 100 times more creative in their approach to what is thrown at them. These students should perform better (and by better I mean more creatively, thoughtfully and collaboratively) than others in interviews for universities or jobs and in real-life working situations, because they’ve been given the chance to think differently and had this validated.

Until Disruptive and other forms of creative thinking become more widely ‘taught’, students will continue to conform in the worst ways and continue to need PERMISSION to be innovative or to bend and break the rules.

Disruptive Thinking is not the solution to every problem. But, understanding it, utilising at the right times and allowing it to be a part of your problem-solving-creativity arsenal will make you a more exciting and innovative thinker.

Disruptive Thinking could be applied to the education system. Now more than ever it is becoming evident that incremental changes (linear thinking) are bad for the system; options are becoming narrowed and leading to discord from professionals within and acting upon and ‘in the interests’ of education.

Your thoughts on how Disruptive Thinking could improve education would be appreciated. I will post about this soon.

The mantra of Disruptive Thinking as I see it is simple: Reinvent, not Renovate.

Tags: creative thinking, disruptive thinking, lateral thinking

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