Written by Julie Jouault, a Senior Experience Designer at business innovation consultancy Wilson Fletcher
In a world where adaptability is critical, exposing yourself to different perspectives is not only essential to identifying risks and opportunities, it can also lead to better problem solving and breakthroughs in innovation.
Think of it as seeing a city from a plane: from up there you get a view of the entire city. You might see its surroundings and how it’s connected to the nearby towns. You might even be able to identify key landmarks and start noticing patterns in its layout. By changing your frame of reference, this new perspective challenges your established perception of the city.
The same is true of a company. So, how can you gain a fresh perspective when it comes to your organisation?
Here are a few of the principles and techniques we use in our work to help businesses think creatively.
Embrace diverse team opinions
As Matthew Syed puts it in Rebel Ideas,
‘If we are intent upon answering our most serious questions from climate change to poverty, and curing diseases to designing new products, we need to work with people who think differently, not just accurately.’
Right, now what does this mean in practice? And how can you ensure you’re putting the right things in place to achieve diversity of opinion within your team?
Step one: build more culturally diverse, broad-minded and multi-disciplinary teams. Diversity isn’t just about ethnicity, gender or social background: it’s also about skillset and how each individual approaches a problem.
When hiring, look for ‘non-traditional’ profiles, rather than someone who fits in a box. You’ll find these employees often approach problems in a unique way, sparking fresh thoughts in those around them.
Remove siloes and establish cross-department working groups. Take a sales agent, a financial director and a developer and set them a problem: you can be almost certain that they will all come up with a different answer. Combine those answers and you’re likely to get a unique answer to that problem. Get those people working together collaboratively and you’ll get something different again.
Step two: nurture a culture where the ideas can flow, where everyone on the team is actively encouraged to express themselves freely, without fear.
Psychological safety is essential to effective knowledge sharing. If people on your team don’t feel that their opinion is valued, or if they fear that their contributions may be negatively judged — or even that they might impact the future of their job — you aren’t going to get them to contribute to the problem in the first place. They may have fresh perspectives but they won’t share them.
Once your team is engaged, build a culture of positive reinforcement that promotes constructive critiques. Encourage the team to build on ideas, solve each other’s problems and move beyond the all too common ‘this can’t be done’ to generate solutions. Only then will you start getting to interesting ideas.
Understand your audience
To broaden your perspective further, invite inputs from a wider sample of people — ideally people who don’t know anything about your business or the service you’re offering.
Let’s take an example. Imagine that you have to design a service to improve how passengers get to an airport.
Instinctively, based on your own experiences, you might be tempted to jump into ideas along the lines of a journey itinerary, a cab service, or luggage pick-up and transfer… but this has already ignored a key question: who are the passengers?
How old are they? Do they have physical impairments that mean they can’t carry their own luggage? What’s their relationship with technology and how comfortable are they using it? Do they speak English? Do they want to use their own mode of transport? Do they prefer to get there as quickly as possible or are they happy to take a longer route if this means paying less?
This is only a fraction of the questions you may want to ask yourself to address this problem properly and, in most cases, they wouldn’t occur to you without talking to people for whom the service would be relevant.
User research is a powerful tool to generate insights and expand your own perspective. Talk to people who don’t look like you, think like you, experience the world in the same way as you do, and are likely to make judgements and decisions differently.
The more variety you get in your early ‘customer’ interviews, the better.
Bring in a fresh pair of eyes
If the first two points can help you set up the foundations for creative thinking, they often aren’t enough on their own to generate game-changing ideas.
You’ll be familiar with the concept of the echo chamber. It describes a situation where like-minded people in a closed environment develop similar perspectives that amplify themselves until it becomes hard to see them as anything but the truth.
This phenomenon is particularly true when relying exclusively on internal teams to innovate: you’re basically asking a group of people who are intimately familiar with their subject matter to think outside their frame of reference and come up with ideas that require cross-industry knowledge. It’s not easy.
As consultants, we’re often brought in to provide new perspectives, usually because, as ‘outsiders’, we can naturally look at things from a distance.
When teams are into the weeds of keeping the business running, that ‘zoomed-out view’ gives us a unique position from which to identify connections that, in turn, can lead to unlocking new ideas and identifying new opportunities.
Equally, in most cases, we aren’t experts in what our clients do which means we can more easily question things that may be overlooked by a well-versed audience. We’re also naturally free of any embedded thinking and internal politics that can make it difficult for a business’s teams to challenge opinions.
We have the licence, usually from the top, to make positive change happen without being tied to anything that exists. This rarely ever happens internally because even when there is appetite for it, the risks involved, plus the time and resources that are needed often place impossible constraints on how people think.
Challenge established assumptions
Creative thinking demands that you look through a different lens, away from what you know your business is today, to think more profoundly about what it could be instead.
Sometimes you can achieve this by engineering a scenario that forces you to respond to it in a new way. Using ‘What if?’ questions can be a powerful way to step away from the current state of things and imagine alternative futures.
You can also use reframing prompts like ‘Your company is on the cover of Wired. Why?’ Or ‘Your company only needs 10 people to run it. How does it do that?’ Responding to these prompts will help you generate ideas but you’ll also get a sense of how this scenario makes you feel. That shift in feeling (like suddenly being excited or intimidated at the prospect) can open up all sorts of new pathways in your brain.
Sometimes, these scenarios actually become a real threat. During the pandemic, some companies whose normal activities had been put on hold had to think creatively to generate new opportunities and invest in their future.
Some restaurants that were forced to close sold sets of ingredients for their best dishes so customers could enjoy their dishes at home. World-renowned Michelin stars delivered their signature dishes to people’s homes. Airbnb expanded their range of experiences to include mindfulness, cookery courses or art therapy… and pivoted their short-stay strategy to more long-term rental.
Most of those changes emerged from adapting to a new scenario and reimagining things that had been the same for decades, setting a new precedent in people’s expectations that will likely remain post-pandemic.
Give yourself time to think
We don’t dedicate enough time as we would ideally need to think. Yet, I often find it can be one of the most powerful tools we have.
Here at Wilson Fletcher, we talk a lot about our 4-day work week , and how the extra time we get each week has significantly improved our thinking and, at times, has completely disrupted our approach to the work we do.
It’s a bit like when you’re stuck on something. The more you focus on it, the harder it can be to find a solution. Sound familiar? Now, leave it for a while, engage your brain in something else entirely and come back to it: often you will see the solution appear.
In the background, your subconscious will have been processing the information and making sense of it all without you even realising. It just needed time and space to make the right connections.
We’re exposed to so much information today, at such a pace, that it can be difficult to find perspective. Taking a mental step back — which is literally defined as ‘to withdraw or remove oneself from something, often in order to consider it from a broader or more objective perspective’ — to allow your mind to switch modes, can provide you with the clarity you need to make a breakthrough.
And although we don’t all get an extra day a week, there are small tricks you can apply to get some time back or artificially create those mental breaks. Simple things like taking a walk outside, having a chat with a colleague about what you’re working on and asking for their input are effective ways to mentally recharge. Work iteratively: break down tasks into smaller chunks and plan blocks of time throughout the day/week, allowing enough time between sessions.
However you think about it, perspective is a critical component of shaping a business fit for the future.
Looking back at the last two years, it’s been difficult to think beyond the immediacy of everyday life as our horizons became shortened in the face of so much uncertainty. But it’s critical, particularly in times of doubt, to regularly challenge the established truth and expose yourself to different perspectives so you can better be prepared for what’s coming your way.
Julie Joualt is a Senior Experience Designer at business innovation consultancy Wilson Fletcher. She helps established organisations stay relevant by identifying and developing new service opportunities using design. Follow Wilson Fletcher on LinkedIn and sign up to their monthly newsletter, The Wrap, to get insights, actionable recommendations and news that will help strengthen your market position in tomorrow’s landscape.