Last week I wrote about the importance of challenging paradigms to achieve breakthrough innovation. Once an innovation brief or problem statement has been clearly articulated, there is a tendency for those charged with finding “the answer” to spring into action. By nature, most people are action-oriented; thinking is not a visible activity and, therefore, often not perceived to be “productive”. I contend, however, that critically thinking through the goal, assumptions, and challenges of the current situation is one of the most important, and productive, steps in the innovation process.
Critical thinking is a self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem. Great innovators use critical thinking to analyze, assess, deconstruct, and reconstruct alternative solutions. Over the course of my career developing and commercializing new platform technologies at P&G and Charles of the Ritz, I’ve found several techniques that work well to strengthen and leverage critical thinking skills. Here are six that I use to push the boundaries:
1. Reframe the challenge: Start with the assumption that there are many potential solutions. Instead of thinking, “How can we….”, think, “In what ways might we…”. This opens the mind to many more possibilities, especially at the very beginning. As Sherlock Holmes said, “Anything that isn’t impossible is a possible solution”.
State the challenge as a positive. Negative sentences require a lot more thinking and may slow you down. Positive statements also help you find the real goal behind the problem and are much more motivating. For example, instead of finding ways to ‘quit smoking’, you may find that seeking ways to ‘increase your energy’ or ‘live longer’ are much more worthwhile goals.
Frame your problem in the form of a question. Our brains love questions; if the question is powerful and engaging, our brains will try hard to answer it.
Another approach is to visualize your problem using cartoons, diagrams, or other visual aids. Some of Einstein's greatest breakthroughs came from visual experiments performed in his head, not in the lab.
2. Expose and challenge assumptions or paradigms. Start by writing down your current assumptions. Every problem comes with a long list of assumptions; many may be inaccurate. Don’t blindly accept conventional wisdom. Incremental thinking comes from reacting to what is, not what could be, and produces incremental results. Test each assumption for validity. Create a hypothesis for why a potential solution could work. Look for data that supports your hypothesis. Constantly test your hypothesis and modify as you get more data.
3. Deconstruct your problem: Many problems are very complex and are comprised of smaller problems. Try to identify the most significant parts first and how they are interconnected. On the other hand, sometimes the opposite is true and we overthink a problem, making it more complicated than it needs to be. Challenge all aspects of the current process. This is where process mapping can be particularly helpful. Keep things as simple as possible; this generally results in more creative, step-change solutions.
4. Reverse the Problem: Reversing the problem can be an effective way of getting yourself unstuck. Turning a problem on its head can help identify obvious solutions to the original problem. For example, if your problem is how to make something better, start by thinking of all the ways you can make it worse.
5. Investigate causes and circumstances: Probe details about the problem, such as its origins and causes. Especially if you have a problem that’s too vague, investigating facts is usually more productive than trying to solve it right away. Ask yourself questions about the problem. What is not known about it? Can you draw a diagram of the problem? What are the problem boundaries? Be curious. Ask questions and gather facts. Research your problem thoroughly. Analysis is a process of discovering facts and finding out what you do and don’t know about the situation. Involve the right people in the process.
6. Get different perspectives; leverage the power of diversity: Looking at problems with different eyes is a great way to gain new insight. How do other industries solve similar problems (innovation by analogy)? Ask a lot of people with different backgrounds the same questions. This is where the “free agent” economy offers significant value. Bring in subject matter experts on an as-needed basis to rapidly address specific issues, participate in ideation sessions, overcome roadblocks, and/or fill knowledge gaps. Leverage crowd-sourcing models and tools to gather insight and ideate/assess potential solutions.
Organizations and individuals benefit from the discipline of critical thinking. The techniques and processes employed to help deliver breakthrough business solutions also help individuals improve their personal skill set and prepares them to make connections and springboard off others’ ideas more easily. Need help strengthening critical thinking skills in your organization? Let’s talk about how a YourEncore Problem Definition or InnFusion workshop might get you started on your way.
About George Deckner: George has over 40 years of experience as a formulating chemist and has helped develop many of the core platform technologies used in the leading brands of skincare today. He spent 25 years with Procter & Gamble, where he was named a Victor Mills Research Fellow. While at P&G, he worked in skin care, global fragrance, and oral care product development. One of the top inventors at P&G, George has over 354 granted and filed global patents. George started his career with Charles of the Ritz Group, where he received the President’s Cup Award for outstanding business contribution and developed numerous skin care products. George is a member of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists and, since 2013, he has helped YourEncore clients bring their innovation initiatives to life.