REARRANGE OUR WORLD


Our world has changed immensely in the last few weeks but amid the upheaval and distress, there are reasons to believe we can emerge from the crisis with some human qualities enhanced, writes Matthew Syed on BBC.  Matthew Syed acknowledged one of my ideas that I wrote about in my book THINKERTOYS (A HANDBOOK OF CREATIVE THINKING TECHNIQUES). He wrote “A few years ago, Michael Michalko, a former US army officer, came up with a fascinating idea to sharpen creativity. He called it “assumption reversal”. You take the core notions in any context, subject, discipline and then, well, turn them on their head.

So, suppose you are thinking of starting a restaurant (obviously not possible right now!). The first assumption might be: “restaurants have menus”. The reversal would be: “restaurants have no menus”. This provokes the idea of a chef informing each customer what he bought that day at market, allowing them to select a customized dish. The point is not that this will turn out to be a workable scheme, but that by disrupting conventional thought patterns, it might lead to new associations and ideas.

Or, to take a different example, suppose you are considering a new taxi company. The first assumption might be: “taxi companies own cars”. The reversal would be: “taxi companies own no cars”. Twenty years ago, that might have sounded crazy. Today, the largest taxi company that has ever existed doesn’t own cars: Uber. Now we are living through a disruption (you might even call it a reversal) of unprecedented scale.

The coronavirus has turned our lives upside down and, although we hope to return to some version of normality in the coming months, it is probable that nothing will quite be the same again. Many have lost their livelihoods and businesses, and there is no diminishing the difficulties – emotional and financial – this has brought in its wake. But amid the darkness, there are also opportunities. Opportunities to reimagine the world and one’s place within it.

Reversal techniques are typically used by creative people working to come up with new products or innovations. I wonder if we can all use it to seek out a silver lining or two amid the grey clouds.

For years, bankers assumed that their customers preferred human tellers. In the early 1980s, Citibank concluded that installing automatic tellers would help them cut costs. However, the Citibank executives did not imagine that customers would prefer dealing with machines, so they reserved human tellers for people with more than $5,000 in their accounts and relegated modest depositors to the machines. The machines were unpopular, and Citibank stopped using them in 1983. Bank executives took this as proof of their assumption about people and machines.

Months later, another banker challenged this assumption and looked at the situation from the customer’s perspective. He discovered that small depositors refused to use the machines because they resented being treated as second-class customers. He reinstituted the automatic tellers with no “class distinctions,” and they were an instant success. Today, even Citibank reports that 70 percent of their transactions are handled by machine.

Henry Ford tried to get into the automobile industry for years and failed. The industry believed you had to bring people to the work at a tremendous cost. One day Ford was visiting a pig slaughterhouse and watched a line of butchers each cutting off a portion of the pig as the pigs moved on a conveyor belt in front of the butchers. He got his Eureka! The way to manufacture autos was to bring the work to the people. He did this by manufacturing assembly lines and changed the nature of automobile manufacturing forever.

Alfred Sloan took over General Motors when it was on the verge of bankruptcy and turned it around. His genius was to take an assumption and reverse it into a “breakthrough idea.” For instance, it had always been assumed that you had to buy a car before you drove it. Sloan reversed this to mean you could buy it while driving it, pioneering the concept of installment buying for car dealers.

Reversals destabilize your conventional thinking patterns and free information to come together in provocative new ways. For example, one town reversed drivers control the parking time of cars to cars control parking times. This triggers the idea of parking anywhere as long as you leave your lights on.

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stair, spray all the monkeys with ice cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result-all the monkeys are sprayed with ice cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, turn off the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and will want to climb the stairs. To his surprise, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Again, replace a third monkey with a new one. The new one goes to the stairs and is attacked. Two of the four monkeys that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing the fourth and fifth monkeys with new ones, all the monkeys that have been sprayed with cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs. Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been around here.

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