We can’t see air—right? It’s invisible.
But we see it all the time. We see it by way of what it can do—such as when it moves leaves on a tree.
If all we saw was air being the stuff we breathe, Columbus would have never sailed his ship to the New World, we wouldn't build wind farms to produce energy—and we wouldn’t be able to burn fossil fuels (ironic, isn’t it?)
To continue to innovate, we need to be willing to see, think and feel differently—which takes work. In his fascinating HBR article, Tony McCaffrey refers to a concept called functional fixedness, where we often fixate on the common use of an object to the point where we miss innovation opportunities—ones right in front of our eyes.
To this point, Tony sites the story of the Titanic—coupled with some interesting facts from historic record:
- The Titanic was maneuverable for a reasonable amount of time after striking the iceberg
- The iceberg was 50 to 100 feet tall and had a surface area of 200 to 400 feet
- The tragedy: Everyone saw the iceberg as a big huge thing that sinks ships. Nobody saw it as a lifeboat
- Here's what could have happened: The Titanic could have maneuvered a “lean” into the iceberg and passengers could have climbed or jumped to the flat surfaces of the iceberg to wait for help to arrive
We all experience the "Titanic effect" without realizing it. For example, my partner (Sue) and I experienced a power outage one day early this spring. After a day without repair, we decided to drive to the store to purchase ice—so we could protect the food in the fridge. As we began driving down the driveway and venturing into the dark, we carefully maneuvered around the last few remnants of winter (the weather was warm, but a few snow piles remained).
Now wait a second:
- Option 1:
- Burn fuel
- Drive in the dark
- Risk our lives
- Spend time getting to a store
- Remove hard earned money from our pocket
- Purchase water that has been frozen by someone else
- Add more plastic to the recycling challenge
- Option 2:
- Walk outside with a container
- Scoop-up some of the water frozen by God
- Protect our food
We had a good laugh, got out of the car—and proceeded to execute Option 2.
Thinking better, together:
I found this object next to my golf ball on a golf course recently:
The next day, I asked Sue what she thought the object might be. I said, “I wonder if it’s part of an exotic cigarette or cigar container of some sort?” I figured that was a possibility since a golf course is such a great place for guys to practice their bad habits—such as telling dirty jokes, liberally uttering expletives—and of course, smoking cigars.
While we pondered, I typed “amurai” into Google on my iPhone (I was the lazy one). Instantly there were a number of hits for “Samurai”. Within moments, Sue said, “I got it!—It’s a piece of matchbook from the restaurant called Samurai ”. We rubbed our fingers on the paper and confirmed, “Yep, it’s a cardboard-like material consistent with a matchbook”. I Googled again—and sure enough—the logo and typeface matched that of Samurai restaurants.
By thinking together (and by tapping multiple senses and sources) we arrived at the conclusion within moments—versus me pondering the thing for a day. Why do I think we were able to arrive at a conclusion more effectively?
- Two heads are always better than one
- My reference to smoking might have helped Sue surface the notion of “matchbook” (Or, for all I know, maybe I originally and subconsciously "knew" the thing was a matchbook and therefore thought of smoking)
- We collaborated with a computer (Google) which is the equivalent of consulting millions of humans (sort of)
- We were better at “seeing” the object when we looked at it and touched it
- Sue is smarter than me
- Sometimes things appear—and we can’t see them
- Sometimes we see something—but it's not really there
- Sometimes we see something—but it's different than what it appears to be
- Sometimes we see just one single thing—and don't realize how many things it can be
How can we see "more"? Tony explains one approach in his article.
We’re in an era like never before–a time during which we can overcome our collective challenges and realize our greatest dreams—if we work (and think) better together.
Toward this end, you’ll be seeing more from us on the topics of cognitive science, creative thinking and global collaboration. There will be writings, webinars, resources and ultimately some technologies—all geared toward helping us think better about thinking, together.
Craig Arthur James 2012