Turn your Assumptions Upside Down

Turn your Assumptions Upside Down

Create September 16, 2012 / By Michael Michalko
Turn your Assumptions Upside Down

Reverse the assumptions you make to provoke unconventional thinking patterns.

Years back, chemists had great difficulty putting a pleasant-tasting coating on aspirin tablets. Dipping tablets led to uneven and lumpy coats. They were stumped until they reversed their thinking. Instead of looking for ways to put something on the aspirin, they looked for ways to take something off the aspirin. This reversal led to one of the newer techniques for coating pills. The pills are immersed in a liquid which is passed onto a spinning disk. The centrifugal force on the fluid and the pills causes the two to separate, leaving a nice, even coating around the pill.

You can provoke new ideas by considering the opposite of any subject or action. When bioengineers were looking for ways to improve the tomato, they identified the gene in tomatoes that ripens tomatoes. They thought that if the gene hastens ripening maybe they could use the gene to slow down the process by reversing it. They copied the gene, put it in backwards and now the gene slows down ripening, making vine-ripened tomatoes possible in winter.

REVERSING ASSUMPTIONS. Suppose you want to start a new restaurant and are having difficulty coming up with ideas. To initiate ideas, try the following reversals:

1. List all your assumptions about your subject.
EXAMPLE: Some common assumptions about restaurants are:
A. Restaurants have menus, either written, verbal, or implied.
B. Restaurants charge money for food.
C. Restaurants serve food.

2. Reverse each assumption. What is its opposite?
EXAMPLE: The assumptions reversed would be:
A. Restaurants have no menus of any kind.
B. Restaurants give food away for free.
C. Restaurants do not serve food of any kind.

3. Ask yourself how to accomplish each reversal. How can we start a restaurant that has no menu of any kind and still have a viable business?
A. A restaurant with no menu. IDEA: The chef informs each customer what he bought that day at the meat market, vegetable market, and fish market. He asks the customer to select items that appeal to him or her and he will create a dish with those items, specifically for that customer.
B. A restaurant that gives away food. IDEA: An outdoor cafe that charges for time instead of food. Use a timestamp and charge so much for time (minutes) spent. Selected food items and beverages are free or sold at cost.
C. A restaurant that does not serve food. IDEA: Create a restaurant with unique decor in an exotic environment and rent the location. People bring their own food and beverages (picnic baskets, etc.) and pay a service charge for the location.

4. Select one and build it into a realistic idea. In our example, we decide to work with the "restaurant with no menu" reversal. We'll call the restaurant "The Creative Chef." The chef will create the dish out of the selected ingredients and name the dish after the customer. Each customer will receive a computer printout of the recipe the chef named after the customer.

Reversals destabilize your conventional thinking patterns and frees information to come together in provocative new ways. For example:
•Drivers control the parking time of their cars. Reverse this to cars control parking time. This triggers the idea of parking anywhere as long as you leave your lights on.
• Dentists have dental tools. Reverse this to dentists do not have dental tools. How can a dentist do dental work without tools? This provokes the idea of patients buying their own tools, which are stored by dentists in sterile compartments, to help prevent the spread of disease.
•A chair has height. Reverse this to a chair is flat. This inspires the idea of a piece of thick padding material that you could lay over something else to make it a chair like a large rock or downed tree. In effect, you could place the pad over anything in nature to make it a chair.

Suppose you are the CEO of a large retail operation. One assumption is that for a CEO to run a profitable retail operation it must be tightly controlled. Suppose you reverse “tightly controlled” to “not controlling.” Consider the paradox that might be stated as "the best control comes from not controlling." The legendary founder of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton, was a living demonstration of this contradiction. Walton was normally in his office only from Friday and Saturday to noon. Yet Wal-Mart was considered one of the more tightly managed organizations in the retail industry.

Someone once asked Walton how he could possibly run Wal-Mart when he was out of the office much of the time. He responded by saying, simply, that this was the only way to run a customer-focused organization. He spent Monday through Thursday in the field interacting directly with customers and employees and seeing what the competition was up to. In fact, while he was alive, Wal-Mart stores were built without an office for the store manager for the same reason. The manager’s job was to be out with the customers and employees.

Wal-Mart, itself, is the result of assumption reversal. After WWII, Sam Walton bought a Ben Franklin franchise in Arkansas. At that time, the corporation pushed product onto the franchise and the owner to push the product onto the customer. Walton reversed this push—push to pull—pull. His argument was that he knows the demographics of his market and he knows what his customer need and want. His idea was to pull needs and wants from his customers and then to pull these from the corporation. So instead of pushing product, allow him to pull the product from the corporation. Walton later said that no matter what he said or did he couldn’t get the corporate types to understand his retailing philosophy. So, he said, they forced him to go out and build his own stores and become the richest man in America.

THOUGHT EXERCISE: Suppose two boys of different ages and skill levels are playing badminton. The older boy is much better than the younger one and wins every game. The younger boy is discouraged and refuses to play. Since this spoiled the fun for the older boy, it posed the problem of how to keep the younger boy playing? What idea would you propose on how to change the game? Think for a moment before you read further.

How did you do? A conventional thinker would suggest offering the younger boy a handicap or to exhort him to be a good loser. Competition is the crux of the problem. The reversal of competition is cooperation. One idea to keep the boys interested is to change the game into a cooperative game with the goal of seeing how long the two boys together could keep the bird going back and forth.
Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. Find out more here.

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