Interviews with Corporate Innovators

How to Shift Paradigms & Think Outside the Box

This article was extracted from Edward Glassman's new book Team Creativity At Work I & II: Creative Problem Solving At Its Best. ©2010 by Edward Glassman, Ph.D.

To be truly creative, you have to think outside the box and shift paradigms. A paradigm is a belief structure within which you think and act. Existing paradigms can produce tunnel vision and affect your creativity.

A paradigm shift changes your belief structure and your perspective so you see things differently and creatively. How can you shift a paradigm? By following some simple approaches.

ACT NON-EVALUATIVELY: Think non-evaluatively, and list ideas and suggestions non-evaluatively, and listen non-evaluatively. New paradigms often seem farfetched and need special protection to survive.

Evaluation uses old information. When we evaluate, we immerse ourselves in old paradigms. To escape old ideas, stay non-evaluative and allow bizarre new paradigms and ideas to survive so they can trigger quality ideas. Adopt brainstorming rules.

THE PROBLEM'S ESSENCE: Knowing a problem in depth unfortunately means you have a myriad of pictures in your mind that spoil new thinking. To avoid these old pictures, work on the problem indirectly. Start with the 'essence' of the problem, the action verb that captures the main activity.

For example: the essence (or action verb) of an auto jack encompasses lifting things; a wheelbarrow, transporting things; walking on water, floating things or freezing water; a bullet proof vest, impenetrability; reuse of cans and bottles, recycling things; and improving the can opener, opening things.

cover of Team Crativity at Work I and IISo instead of starting with how to improve the can opener, a creativity team first discussed ways to open things using analogies and metaphors from industry, animals, plants, and other cultures. What happened? They discussed squeezing the base of a dog's mouth so it will open; a clam relaxes a muscle so tension on the back hinge of the shell forces the clam open; and as peas ripen, the tough green covering develops a weak seam and the pea pod opens.

The team forced combinations between the weak seam of the pea pod and opening cans. This did not lead to an improved can opener, as they originally intended, but it did lead to opening cans by pulling a weak seam, a common way to open most cans now, a fine example of a paradigm shift.

REVERSAL-DEREVERSAL: Turn your problem upside-down. When you get it right-side up again, you might face a new direction.
  1. Reverse the key verb of the problem statement. For example: write spoil instead of stimulate; decrease instead of increase; fail instead of succeed.
  2. Non-evaluatively list solutions to the reversed problem statement.
  3. Dereverse each reversal by writing "how-to" in front of each solution.
  4. Smooth out the wording of the new problem statement until it makes sense.
  5. Choose an appropriate new problem statement to use during idea generation.

Here's an example of reversal-dereversal:
  1. Reverse "How to stimulate creative thinking in meetings" into "How to spoil creative thinking in meetings."
  2. One way to spoil creative thinking is to have dominating people present in the meeting.
  3. Dereverse this statement to: "How to stay creative with dominating people present" or "How to get rid of dominating people."
Pursue paradigm shifts as they occur.

GUIDED FRESH EYE: Think about your problem as someone or something else. For example:
  1. Dolphin, bat, eagle, jellyfish, lion, pea pod, oak seed (choose one)
  2. Chemical engineer, mechanical engineer, Martian, artist (choose one)
  3. Biologist, chemist, secretary, banker, frog, geneticist (choose one)
  4. Architect, building contractor, carpenter, accountant, shark (choose one)
  5. Physicist, astronomer, musician, dancer, elephant, farmer (choose one)
  6. Hydraulic engineer, clothes designer, trumpet player, cougar (choose one)

Restate the problem.

VERB SUBSTITUTION: A systematic change of a word in a problem statement often transforms perspectives so paradigm shifts occur. For example, you can transform: "How to get rid of a dominating person"...into:
"How to work with a dominating person."
"How to change a dominating person."
"How to succeed with a dominating person."
"How to enjoy a dominating person."
"How to handle a dominating person."
"How to avoid a dominating person."
"How to succeed in spite of a dominating person."
"How to get along with a dominating person."
"How to retrain a dominating person."
"How to negotiate with a dominating person."

Note the different paradigms that occur with each verb substitution, possibly providing new ways to approach your problem. Substitutions for the word 'dominating' or 'person' in the problem statement may also provoke an insightful paradigm shift.

W-QUESTIONS: Asking questions that force you to look at a problem in a different way might lead to unexpected new paradigms. For example, please answer the following questions about the problem:

I discuss other methods to shift paradigms, especially the use of metaphors with some advanced creativity techniques, in my recent book Team Creativity At Work I & II: Creative Problem Solving At Its Best.

A TRUE STORY: After a creativity session during which we redefined problems innovatively, a vice president of a Fortune-500 company told me he astonished himself with the many new paradigms he obtained on a problem on which he had already worked for several years. He achieved useful paradigm shifts using these techniques.

Message from Edward Glassman: Please contact me through my website.

Dr. Edward (Ed) Glassman was a Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1960 to 1989. He founded the 'Program For Team Excellence and Creativity' at the university. Now retired, he was the President of The Creativity College, a division of Leadership Consulting Services, Inc. and led problem-solving Creativity – and Innovation – meetings and creative thinking workshops and seminars for many large and small companies. He was a 'Guggenheim Foundation Fellow' at Stanford University from 1968 to 1969, and a 'Visiting Fellow' at the Center For Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1986.

While living in Chapel Hill for 34 years he authored several books on creativity at work, and wrote creativity columns for a local newspaper. Ed Glassman now lives in Moore County, North Carolina, where he has written a weekly column on "Creativity At Work" for the Citizen's News-Record and a column on "Business Creativity" for the Triangle Business Journal in Raleigh. He also wrote articles on creative thinking and on team excellence for Supervisory Management, R and D Management, Intrepreneurial Excellence, The Female Executive, Laboratory Management, Management Solutions, and The President.

Edward Glassman's biography appears in Who's Who In America and Who's Who in the World.

Ed Glassman is the author of Team Creativity At Work – I: You Do Want To Be More Successful Than Your Competition, Don't You? (2010), Team Creativity At Work – II: Brainstorming Isn't Enough Anymore (2010), Creativity Handbook: A Practical Guide to Shift Paradigms and Improve creative Thinking at Work (1996), The Creativity Factor: Unlocking the Potential of Your Team (1991), and For Presidents Only: Unlocking the Creative Potential of Your Management Team (1990), and numerous articles about creativity and leadership. Readers should note that Team Creativity At Work – I: You Do Want To Be More Successful Than Your Competition, Don't You? and Team Creativity At Work – II: Brainstorming Isn't Enough Anymore are both available under one publication titled Team Creativity At Work I And II (2010). Author Ed Glassman may be contacted at his website.