How Can We Break Out of Our Thinking Ruts?

Nancy and I just got back from an excellent trip to Italy. We each had presentations at different events there, and we also had a chance to take some time to see the sights. One of the things that we got to see in Rome was the Colosseum. Here’s a shot of us while we were there:

One of things that is really striking about the Colosseum is how much it looks like modern sports stadiums. Building on ideas from naturally occurring amphitheatres, which were then used to make small performance venues, the Romans solved a number of problems in stadium construction in ways that we’ve continued to use for 2000 years now.

How can we get 50,000 people close enough to see human-scale action? The Colosseum solves this – steep tiers in a round stadium.

How can we get these people in and out of the stadium efficiently? Multiple entrances leading to numbered seats in sections.

How do we generate the maximum amount of revenue from wealthy patrons? Luxury boxes – something that modern stadium builders forgot until the 1990s.

What kind of surface should we use? The Colosseum invented the ancient equivalent of astroturf – artificially constructed surfaces meant to replicate a natural playing field. You can also see behind us that underneath this surface they built the locker rooms and other facilities needed to support events in the stadium.

Remarkably, the Colosseum really isn’t that different from the places we go these days to see sporting events.

In many respects, stadium building has been pretty innovation free for the past two millenia.

I wonder if we build stadiums that look like the Colosseum because the Romans solved the problems of stadium building perfectly, or because we’re stuck in a rut in the way we think that stadiums should be built. Jeffrey Phillips makes a point about how we can stuck in these ruts (the whole post is worth reading):

Most businesses are about identifying a few important patterns, determining that the patterns are viable and sustainable, and reducing the patterns to an algorithm which can be improved and made more efficient.

If you consider most large businesses today, they work to specific patterns. Within an industry, the vast majority of competitors in an industry have the same business models and make money in the same ways. The patterns are repeated – the same customer needs are met by a range of competitors using many of the same channels, offerings and features. Over time the patterns and algorithms become more important than the market, which build walls and silos which dictate how businesses provide services to customers. These patterns and algorithms create blind spots. Businesses forget that patterns aren’t permanent, and build monolithic structures to provide ever more efficient pattern matching solutions.

Is that where we are in stadium building? It might be. Jeffrey’s post is building on another excellent post by James Gardner, thinking about innovation in classical music. He watched a string quartet perform a modern composition, which initially he didn’t like. Then he started to think about it more deeply, and realised that this is often the way that people respond to innovation.

There’s a paradox here – how do we avoid the ruts that pattern recognition and reinforcement can lead to? On the one hand, we have to know the subject intimately to have enough expertise to break out of the box. Here is how Gardner describes it:

They start playing. An original, world premiere original composition.
It is modern. It is chaos. It is terrible.
Except, it isn’t so terrible, once you begin to listen. There is order, but it is hidden away under the discords. There is harmony, but it isn’t the harmony you expect, so you don’t hear it.
In particular, there is extraordinary skill in the musicians. The whole thing sounds like a mess, but every bow is going the same direction. The timing of each note is perfect. The silences between the notes precise.

The innovation wouldn’t be possible without the technical skill. The paradox, however, is how expertise can often also prevent us from using our skill to find new ways. Glenn Wiebe makes this point nicely with a quote from the Heath Brothers in Made to Stick:

Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path.

How can we get around this problem?

The first step is to be aware of it. The second is to find ways to identify these basic assumptions. Finally, we then need to discover ways to work around them.

One way to do this is to find new angles from which we view the problems that we’re trying to solve. John Hagel and John Seely Brown provide a great example of doing in this an article addressing how to design work spaces more effectively. They suggest that if you focus on increasing flow, you will end up making spaces that are radically different. The shift in focus to flow, instead of efficiency is the key to innovation:

…we might apply a key principle of nature’s “constructal” design as discovered by Duke University engineers and authors of “Design with Constructal Theory”, Adrian Bejan and Sylvie Lorente. In order to survive, all systems must evolve by providing greater and greater access to the currents that flow through them. This applies to all physical, biological and social systems that survive and thrive. Whether we are talking about river basins, trees, lung design or our cities, it turns out they all obey this constructal law.

This suggests that maximising flows within and across workspaces should be a key design principle. But let’s take that one step forward. None of the systems just described are static; they are constantly evolving. This suggests another design principle: how to design for evolution rather than creating a static design optimising for the present. What would it mean to design the systems we work in to continually evolve our ability to experience more and more flow, especially the flow of people and ideas?

What kind of stadium would we get if it were designed for flow? I don’t know, but I bet that it might be something that looks quite a bit different from the Colosseum (finally!).

Thinking ruts are dangerous – they make us vulnerable to radical innovations. If you want to break out of these ruts, these are the kinds of questions to start thinking about:

What are the basic assumptions in your field – the patterns that you are trained to reproduce? What happens if you use your expertise to create something different, instead of recreating what you’ve always done? What would your product or service look like if it were designed to maximise flow?

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

3 thoughts on “How Can We Break Out of Our Thinking Ruts?

  1. I am not sure who originally said it, but a quote came to mind when reading about ruts here. It goes…Know what a rut is? A coffin without the ends and top.

    Pretty dramatic, but a good point none the less. It’s the never-ending delicate balance between finding a pattern that can be optimized for advantage while remaining agile and innovative enough to keep that advantage in the marketplace.

    It’s an increasingly ambiguous problem these days that companies find themselves ill-equipped to handle.

    We have found that empathy – tapping a gut sense on what people need – can help companies keep this balance and advantage. Combined with hybrid thinking – multiple disciplines in the same mind – can be a good antidote to ambiguity. Or getting oneself out of the coffin, er, rut.

    Thanks for the post and your thoughts.

  2. Thanks for the comment Clynton.

    It is a really difficult balance to maintain. I agree with you on the importance of emathy – it’s something that I’ve written about a number of times here as well.

  3. Sir, I really impressed to your published data, i am also the student of TIM, but it is initative degree programm in pakistan. some your valuable advises will help me to chose the subject for research thesis. There are lots of areas for resesearch.

Comments are closed.