BUZZ BOOK REVIEW

How many times have you reviewed a business problem – or personal problem for that matter – and the insolubleness of the conundrum made you cringe with sheer disdain for the scabrous beast? The Buzzworthy Blog feels your pain. One way we’ve found to attack impenetrable dilemmas is to use a technique from Michael Michalko’s great book on creativity, Thinkertoys. If you’ve not got it on your business reference shelf, you might want to take a look.

One of Buzzworthy’s favorite techniques from the pages of Thinkertoys is for creative problem solving and is called “Assumption Reversal.” The gist of the approach is to throw out existing preconceptions that may get in the path of problem solving. As Michalko puts it: “Sometimes assumptions seem so basic, so fundamental, that we never think to challenge them.” He goes on: “Assumptions are maintained by the hug of history. Yet, history does not guarantee their validity, nor does it reassess their validity.”

That’s just crazy enough to make sense. One of the examples that Michalko asks his readers to imagine is the act of building a house using a “yard” stick that is actually an inch short. If we assumed that it was a full yard and used it to measure all that we built, everything would be wrong. Too short door openings, window cutouts, even ceilings. Clearly this might lead to trouble with pre-fabbed doors and windows – not to mention lots of confusion with the local carroty-clad Home Depot squadron.

Michalko says that “sometimes assumptions seem so basic that we never think to challenge them.” Buzzworthy spent a little over two hours helping a soon-to-be-distant relative in a chat/troubleshooting session over the holiday weekend with a perfectly nice online rep from Lexmark the printer company. Buzzworthy’s basic assumption was that Lexmark could revive Cousin Vinny’s year old printer and get its software communicating and cooperating again with a Vista encumbered laptop. The assumption was that Cousin Vinnywould be printing again in no time.

But Buzzworthy was wrong – as some of you may have guessed the moment you saw the word “Vista.“ After two hours of polite, but ultimately useless colloquy, the online representative from Lexmark threw in the towel and cried no joy: They had no fix for Vinny’s latent software compatibility issues. The proffered consolation prize was a 20% discount on a brand new Lexmark printer. Hmm, fool Buzzworthy once… (Anyone need two lightly worn Lexmark toner cartridges? Vinny can also throw in a Vista laptop…).

If Buzzworthy had considered the Thinkertoys “Blueprint for Assumption Reversal” before embarking on his  Lexmark printer expedition, he would have instead followed these six steps:

  1. State your challenge.
  2. List your assumptions.
  3. Challenge your fundamental assumptions.
  4. Reverse each assumption. Write down the opposite of each one.
  5. Record differing viewpoints that might prove useful to you.
  6. Ask yourself how to accomplish each reversal. List as many useful viewpoints and ideas as you can.

An Outer Box approach if ever there was one. If Buzzworthy had reversed assumptions and considered the possibility that the Lexmark crew might just throw in the towel over a software compatibility issue, he might have skipped the online chat altogether and instead sent Cousin Vinnie printer shopping. But it was not to be. Ultimately Lexmark chose to starve-out their ravenous toner consuming beast – and Cousin Vinnie as a customer.

 There are myriad – and admittedly better – examples of Assumption Reversal within the pages of Thinkertoys – along with another thirty or so techniques inspired creativity. It’s a keeper.

Heaps of highly creative and no doubt erudite business theorists have favorably hyped the power of “thinking outside of the box.” But few of the self-help literati have provided truly useful strategies for tapping the verdant creative real estate outside the stagnant square. Michalko’s Thinkertoys has dozens of practical methods for doing just that.

And that’s today’s Buzz.  

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