Dinosaur Hall, Fort Worth Museum of Science and History
“The problem is never how to get more innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get the old ones out.”
- Dee Hock, founder, Visa, Inc.
“…you can’t truly hope to beat alcohol until you give up all hope of beating alcohol. This necessary shift in outlook generally happens as a result of ‘hitting rock bottom,’ which is AA-speak for when things get so bad that you’re no longer able to fool yourself.”
- Oliver Burkemann, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (2021)
Dry January began in 2013 with Alcohol Change UK both as a public health campaign and to inspire thinking about drinking addiction. The first of the famous Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Steps reads “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Only when the addict can admit that drinking makes any decent life impossible can the reality of addiction be faced at last—so that steps can at last be taken to devise a life that has a chance of working.
Giving up on what is unsustainable doesn’t just apply to destructive drinking. It is the foundation of an approach to problem-solving that begins with the destruction of what is not working.
For AA members, the “admission statement” is designed to initiate what psychotherapists call a second-order change: a shift in perception (sometimes sudden, sometimes gradual) that results in a totally new appreciation of a situation or problem. The second-order perception then allows for an entire range of solutions that were not even visible under the first-order viewpoint. It is from this newfound range that entirely new solutions can then be allowed to emerge.
This is why “idea extinction” is so important: it is the destructive act necessary to ridding ourselves of the delusion that the old idea can somehow be forced to become effective. Nothing short of total annihilation can move the mind forward and away from what has proven a failed idea. This is the “rock bottom” that’s as good as an education about maladaptive thinking.
Creative problem-solving consultant Steve Grossman explains why, for better ideas to be born and nurtured, worse ideas must be put to rest: not gently, but terminally and for good. Once this occurs, the old ways of thinking can be buried. Now when the problem is reopened and fresh, the technique of reversing assumptions can be applied. Assumption Reversal exposes the unconscious assumptions supporting old solutions—which can then be examined and discarded. The outcome: prospecting for value in completely new territory. AR builds from a reopened base: a redefined concept of the problem to be solved. This entirely refreshed way of looking at the situation then can expose new potentials the newly opened mind can take full advantage of.
Like a light suddenly switched on, old ways of resolving the problem are extinguished. This act creates the potential to turn products and services to unexpected and more successful uses and directions. (See his article “Extinction: A Power Tool to Source New Ideas” (2019), www.creativityjournal.net.) He explains that “In helping businesses solve difficult and persistent problems, I have discovered that it is not any lack of ideas that prevents even very bright people from finding solutions. Instead, one of the biggest roadblocks to new and creative solutions is not conjuring new ideas but in ridding the brain of those already embedded.”
Examples of second-order thinking are the hallmark of invention and innovation. Computers were assumed to be for scientists only, working in labs, and used to crunch numbers. The total demand was projected at 100,000, worldwide, all scientists. But the current computer as mass media in every home show what happens when they are programmed for words and images rather than calculation. On the road, vans and off-road vehicles were for commercial and sporting purposes only before the minivan. In 1983 Lee Iacocca saw the potential for a family vehicle with cargo and passenger space, saving Chrysler and shaping all car design into the future—and now making a comeback in sales. (He also noted that focus groups are not the pathway to new concepts.)
In education, before World War II, college-bound students were scholars, bound for academic careers in teaching and research, not the general public. College is now an expected achievement of an extended learning curve. Amusement parks were sketchy places far from family life and middle-class taste; their redesign as theme parks left Disney as the world’s top entertainment brand. All of these major innovations in the information, transportation, education, and entertainment fields have transformed life. They all involved a major rethinking about their purposes and possibilities. Add the 3D printing of body parts, the space station, interstellar exploration, smart watches, Alexa, and even discount brokers (as everyone becomes a stock-market investor) to that list.
Failed products and initiatives suffer from an “optimism bias,” the conviction that every megaproject, ad campaign, or invention has a good chance of making it in the marketplace. In reality, few building megaprojects meet their objectives of cost or demand, and 90% of all new products fail. A short list of these projects includes Afghanistan (unmanageable starting with Britain’s invasion in 1830), the Segway (which didn’t replace walking), the Orkut social network (too early to reach critical mass), Disney’s America (the infrastructure politics went wild), the metric system, Prohibition, Kmart, the 2004 Athens Olympics (leading to Greece’s debt trap), the Chunnel (an ongoing net loss to the UK, along with Denmark’s Great Belt Tunnel), and Enron (too good to be true).
These cases became caught up in a downward spiral of cost overruns and benefit shortfalls they couldn’t recover from to prove themselves viable. A perennial problem in project management is failure to look deeply at their assumptions at the front end, the far cheaper alternative to launching and then making expensive fixes as things fall apart. The analysis of how people actually will use these things, and the conditions needed to make their use possible, is far more desirable at the fuzzy front end than putting out fires in a system doomed to fail. Many times, proposals on the table need to be prematurely, permanently sunk to save millions or billions, so that proposals better conceived and designed could use that same funding to launch and succeed.