The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, was responsible for producing some of the greatest advances in human thought. Modern society and education have tended to focus more on the discoveries resulting from these strategies than on the mental processes through which the discoveries were made. Many of his discoveries were the result of his work with language.
According to Aristotle, words are sounds that become symbols of mental experience through the association with past experiences and the processes of the subconscious mind. As a result, words can both reflect and shape mental thought. By using verbal prompts, he was able to draw out related ideas through the process of association and generate a multiplicity of different perspectives.
Below is an illustration of scattered dots and splashes. Can you spot any specific object in the illustration? Spend a few moments trying before you read further.
The chaotic spread of dots and splashes creates a visual noise that monopolizes the brain and leaves so little processing power that it’s difficult for the brain to consciously perceive the object, making it effectively invisible. However, if I asked you to spot the dog, the word “dog” will trigger your subconscious mind. Your subconscious will process thoughts and information about your experiences with dogs and will shape the way you perceive the patterns in the illustration. Eventually, you will spot a dog in the center. One word changed your perception.
Words also shape thought. To start with, it’s helpful to carefully choose words when phrasing a problem. Imagine you are the person in the illustration below. Your challenge is to tie together the ends of the two strings suspended from the ceiling. The strings are located so you cannot reach one string with your outstretched hand while holding the second. The room is bare, and you have only the things with you that you have in your pocket today. How do you solve the problem?
Initially, you might state the problem as: “How can I get to the second string?” Phrasing it this way gives you only one perception of the problem and you would then waste your energy trying to get to the second string, which is not possible.
In order to avoid settling for your first perception of the problem, the phrase “In what ways might I…….?” will invite you to look for alternative perceptions. For example, if you phrased it “In what ways might I and the string get together?”, you will likely come up with the solution—to tie a small object (such as a key, ring, watch, or belt) to the end of one string and set it in motion like a pendulum, then grab it while still holding the second string in your hand.
In each and every experience there is a multitude of other experiences lying in wait. Once you chose one you marginalize the others. To say it very simply, the moment we call something “a” we have marginalized all of its other possible states (b, c, d, e, and so on) into nothingness because we don’t see them. Once the problem was shaped as how to get to the second string, all other possible perceptions were marginalized.
When you look at a problem using a multiplicity of perspectives instead of one stabilized view, you bring forth a new understanding of the possibilities. The important thing is not to persist with one way of looking at problems. Try to come up with different ways to look at them. When Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate physicist, was “stuck” with a problem, he would look at it in a different way. If one way didn’t work, he would switch to another. Whatever came up, he would always find another way to look at it.
CHANGE THE WORDS. A quick and easy way to generate a multiplicity of perspectives is to simply change the words. For every word a person uses, there is a mediating response which provides the meaning of that concept for that individual. Many times, they may not be responses in the usual sense but all provide meaning of that concept for that individual. When you change the words in your problem statement, you initiate an unobservable process in your mind that may lead to a new perspective.
Toyota asked employees for ideas on how they could become more productive. They received few suggestions. They reworded the question to: “In what ways might I make my job easier?” They were inundated with ideas. Even tiny changes with words can lead to unpredictable, cataclysmic results.
Examine your problem statement, identify the key words, and change them five to ten times to look at your problem through different perspectives. Suppose you want to increase sales. Look at the different perspectives created by just changing the verb:
In what ways might I discover sales? In what ways might I adapt selling techniques from others?
Provoke sales? Advertise sales? Target sales? Inspire sales? Teach sales? Encourage sales? Grow sales? Evolve sales? Complement sales? Acquire sales? Predict sales? Segregate sales? Motivate sales? Invest in sales? Renew sales? Combine sales? Organize sales? Upgrade sales?
Following is a list of verbs to use as a tool when formulating problem statements. Simply scan the list, changing the verb when appropriate, and you will find yourself producing several different ways to look at your problem.
PLAYING WITH VERBS AND NOUNS. Playing with verbs and nouns encourages you to think of perspectives that you would probably not think of spontaneously. Try changing the nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns in your problem statement. For example, a problem might be “How to sell more bottles?” Changing the verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs makes this into “How to bottle more sales?” Bottling sales now suggests looking for ways to close sales, instead of ways to sell more bottles.
The problem “How to improve customer relations?” becomes “How to customize related improvements?” This new perspective leads one to consider customizing products and services for customers, customizing all relevant aspects of the customer relations department, and so on.
TRANSPOSE THE WORDS. One of Aristotle=s favorite ways to test a premise was what he called Aconvertibility.@ He felt that if a premise were true, then the negative premise should be convertible. For example, if every pleasure is good, some good must be pleasure. By simply transposing words, you achieved a different perspective. Sometimes changing the order of words in a problem statement will create a verbal-conceptual chain that may trigger a different perspective.
In the following illustration, words were arranged in two different series, “A” and “B,” and subjects were asked to solve certain situations. When “skyscraper” was listed first, subjects tended to come up with architectural concepts, and when “prayer” was transposed with skyscraper and listed first, it increased the likelihood of a religious direction.
SERIES A SERIES B
To change the order, transpose the words in your problem. Following are some examples:
In what ways might I get a promotion?
To: In what ways might I promote myself?
In what ways might I advertise my T-shirts?
In what ways might I use my T-shirts to advertise?
In what ways might I learn how to use the Internet?
In what ways might I use the Internet to learn more?
“All words are pegs to hang ideas on.”
― Henry Ward Beecher
For more information about how to look at things differently, read Cracking Creativity (Secrets of Creative Genius) by creativity expert Michael Michalko