Taking a different perspective can lead to stunning breakthroughs in any industry, writes Tina Seelig in InGenius.
“What is the sum of 5 plus 5?”
“What two numbers add up to 10?”
<This is edited for conciseness from an adapted excerpt of InGenius (Harper One) by Tina Seelig that appeared in Co.DESIGN of FastCompany (See below in Credits)>
The first question has only one right answer, and the second question has an infinite number of solutions, including negative numbers and fractions. These two problems, which rely on simple addition, differ only in the way they are framed. In fact, all questions are the frame into which the answers fall. And as you can see, by changing the frame, you dramatically change the range of possible solutions. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
We create frames for what we experience, and they both inform and limit the way we think.
Mastering the ability to reframe problems is an important tool for increasing your imagination because it unlocks a vast array of solutions…You can look at every situation in the world from different angles, from close up, from far away, from upside down, and from behind.
Photographers do it: Taking photos is a great way to practice this skill. When Forrest Glick, an avid photographer, ran a photography workshop near Fallen Leaf Lake in California, he showed the participants how to see the scene from many different points of view, framing and reframing their shots each time. He asked them to take a wide-angle picture to capture the entire scene, then to take a photo of the trees close to shore. Forrest then asked them to bring the focus closer and closer, taking pictures of a single wildflower, or a ladybug on that flower. He pointed out that you can change your perspective without even moving your feet. By just shifting your field of view up or down, or panning left or right, you can completely change the image. Of course, if you walk to the other side of the lake, climb up to the top of one of the peaks, or take a boat onto the water, you shift the frame even more.
In most cases, we don’t even consider the frames–we just assume we are looking at the world with the proper set of lenses. However, being able to question and shift your frame of reference is an important key to enhancing your imagination because it reveals completely different insights.
In others’ shoes: This can also be accomplished by looking at each situation from different individuals’ points of view. For example, how would a child or a senior see the situation? What about an expert or a novice, or a local inhabitant versus a visitor? A wealthy person or a poor one? A tall person or a short one? Each angle provides a different perspective and unleashes new insights and ideas.
Lift it to a higher plane: Another valuable way to open the frame when you are solving a problem is to ask questions that start with “why.” In his need-finding class, Michael Barry uses the following example: If I asked you to build a bridge for me, you could go off and build a bridge. Or you could come back to me with another question: “Why do you need a bridge?” I would likely tell you that i need a bridge to get to the other side of a river. Aha! This response opens up the frame of possible solutions. There are clearly many ways to get across a river besides using a bridge. You could dig a tunnel, take a ferry, paddle a canoe, use a zip line, or fly a hot-air balloon, to name a few. You can open the frame even farther by asking why I want to get to the other side of the river…
The simple process of asking “why” expands the landscape of solutions for a problem.
Artists do it: Some artists and musicians specialize in shifting our frame of reference to encourage us to see the world with fresh eyes. M. C. Escher, for example, is famous for graphic art in which he plays with perception, challenging us to see the foreground as the background and vice versa. In one of his famous works, the foreground and background consist of fish and birds. As you view the image from top to bottom, the birds in the foreground recede into the background as the fish in the background emerge.
Another example comes from the composer John Cage, who created a work called 4’33” (pronounced “four minutes, thirty-three seconds”). It was composed in 1952 for any instrument or combination of instruments. The score instructs the performers to sit quietly, not playing their instruments for the entire duration of the piece. The goal is for the audience to focus on the ambient sounds in the auditorium rather than performed music. This controversial piece is provocative in that it shifts our attention to the sounds with which we are surrounded all the time.
Other cultures do differently: We make the mistake of assuming that the way we do things is the one right way. For example, we believe that specific types of clothing are appropriate for different occasions, we have preconceived ideas about how to greet someone, and we have fixed ideas about what should be eaten at each meal of the day. However, a quick trip to China, Mexico, Pakistan, or Korea reveals completely different norms in all of these areas. If you go to a restaurant for breakfast in China, for instance, you will be served rice porridge flavored with shrimp or “thousand-year-old” eggs; in Mexico you might be served an omelet with huitlacoche, a delicacy made from corn smut; in Pakistan you could get soup made from the head and feet of a goat; and in Korea you will certainly be served fermented vegetables.
It is the essence of jest: There are some entertaining ways to practice changing your perspective. One of my favorites is to analyze jokes. Most are funny because they change the frame of the story when we least expect it.
A classic example comes from one of the Pink Panther movies:
Inspector Clouseau: Does your dog bite?
Hotel clerk: No.
Clouseau: [bowing down to pet the dog] Nice doggie. [The dog bites Clouseau’s hand.]
Clouseau: I thought you said you dog did not bite!
Hotel Clerk: That is not my dog.
Again, the frame shifts at the end of the joke when you realize they are talking about two different dogs. Take a careful look at jokes, and you will find that the creativity and humor usually come from shifting the frame.
How businesses do it? All companies need to continually reframe their businesses in order to survive. Reframing problems is not a luxury. On the contrary, all companies need to continually reframe their businesses in order to survive as the market and technology change. Kodak, Netflix and Amazon are among the oft quoted examples. A couple of more examples here:
The directors of the Tesco food-marketing business in South Korea set a goal to increase market share substantially and needed to find a creative way to do so. They looked at their customers and realized that their lives are so busy that it is actually quite stressful to find time to go to the store. So they decided to bring their store to the shoppers. They completely reframed the shopping experience by taking photos of the food aisles and putting up full-sized images in the subway stations. People can literally shop while they wait for the train, using their smartphones to buy items via photos of the QR codes and paying by credit card. The items are then delivered to them when they get home. This new approach to shopping boosted Tesco’s sales significantly.
Scott Summit, the founder of Bespoke, created a brand-new way to envision prosthetics for people who have lost a limb. It makes custom-tailored limbs for those who have lost them. Summit’s biggest insight was that some people with artificial limbs are embarrassed by their disability and want to hide their unsightly artificial limbs as much as possible. He reframed the problem by looking at an artificial limb not just as a functional medical device but as a fashion accessory. Essentially, he decided to make prosthetics that are cooler than normal limbs.
Reframing problems takes effort, attention, and practice, and allows you to see the world around you in a brand-new light. You can practice reframing by physically or mentally changing your point of view, by seeing the world from others’ perspectives, and by asking questions that begin with “why.” Together, these approaches enhance your ability to generate imaginative responses to the problems that come your way.
To the above, we could safely add the following too, I think.
How are similar problems solved in other disciplines of knowledge? For example, we have enough instances of how ideas are borrowed for human benefit from animal and plant life.
Credits: Tina Seelig has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford University Medical School. She is the executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. This post is based on the excerpt appearing at fastcodesign.com/1672354/how-reframing-a-problem-unlocks-innovation.
The text is re-sequenced and the headings in emphasis are mine.