Leonardo Da Vinci believed that to gain knowledge about the form of problems, you began by learning how  to restructure it to see it in many different ways. He felt the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things. He would restructure his problem by looking at it from one perspective and move to another perspective and still another. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem.  Leonardo called this thinking strategy saper vedere or “knowing how to see.”

One of the many ways in which our mind attempts to make life easier is to solve the first impression of the problem that it encounters. Like our first impressions of people, our initial perspective on problems and situations are apt to be narrow and superficial. We see no more than we’ve been conditioned to see–and stereotyped notions block clear vision and crowd out imagination. This happens without any alarms sounding, so we never realize it’s occurring.

Once we have settled on a perspective, we close off but one line of thought. Certain kinds of ideas occur to us, but only those kinds and no others. What if the crippled man who invented the motorized cart had defined his problem as: “How to occupy my time while lying in bed?” rather than “How to get out of bed and move around the house?”

Have you ever looked closely at the wheels on a railroad train? They are flanged. That is, they have a lip on the inside to prevent them from sliding off the track. Originally train wheels were not flanged–instead, the railroad tracks were. Because the problem of railroad safety had been expressed as: “How can the tracks be made safer for trains to ride on?” hundreds of thousands of miles of track were manufactured with an unnecessary steel lip. Only when the problem was redefined as: “How can the wheels be made to secure the track more securely?” was the flanged wheel invented.


Trigger your spirit of inquiry by using “color” questioning which is a particular application of the work of Jerry Rhodes, who did extensive research on managers at Phillips. At the core are types of questions that one might ask. The questions are identified with colors as follows:

GREEN—Think of the color green as fertile and creative. Green is the color of imagination and ingenuity. Ask “What if?” or  “Suppose we?”

YELLOW—Think of the color yellow as neutral and objective. Yellow is the color for description of fact. Ask “What is?”

BLUE—Think of the color blue as hopeful and positive. Blue is the color for judgements and opinions of value and need. Ask “What can we do?” or “What should we do?

RED—Think of the color red as negative. Black is the color of limitations and constraints. Ask  “What can’t be done?” or “What’s not possible?”

Many of us have a tendency to favor one or two of these colors, and some of us do so in such disproportion that we are unable to entertain questions outside of our predilections. Sometimes we’ll get so hung up on a particular line of questioning that we’re prevented from moving forward.

“Color” questioning prompts you to think of questions from each of the core categories. Label four separate sheets of paper: green, yellow, blue, and red. Think of as many green, yellow, and blue questions as you can and write them on the appropriate sheets. Whenever you have a negative question, write it on the sheet labeled “red.” At a later stage, review the black questions, and try to look for ways to overcome them. You can post your questions in columns on a large sheet of paper. You can also write them on index cards and tape them to the wall under the appropriately colored card. Or, you can use colored magic markers and flip charts.

After listing as many questions as you can for each color, prioritize the questions and then decide which questions you should address first.

If you’re working with a group, simply have the participants brainstorm as many questions as they can about a specific topic. Afterward, group the questions according to colors and post them on flip charts. Prompt the group to extend each core category by asking questions such as, “What green questions might unlock our imaginations?”, “We need more blue questions?”, and “ Have we exhausted the possible yellow question possibilities?” After the group has listed as many questions as they can for each category, have the group prioritize the questions and then decide which are the most important to address first.

ABOUT Michael Michalko

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