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 comes from a talk given by Luke Williams, which illustrates the potential of Disruptive Thinking. This example 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.

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.  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. 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, get his books.

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.




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