What If You're Wrong?
Why to Counter Intuitive and Long Held Beliefs
Joel Saltzman


       In a photograph by Marc Riboud, "Eiffel Tower Painter" (1953), a worker in overalls makes a ballet-like stroke with his brush while perched on a girder high above Paris. What he's doing is challenging what many would consider to be a "given" about painting the Eiffel Tower -- suggesting that it's not work at all, but fun.
       No matter how logical, gotta-be-true, no-doubt-about-it your assumption, STOP: Ask yourself if maybe it "ain't necessarily so." 1) It's fun, and 2) it often leads to great solutions.

       Assumption: When people use a stapler, they leave it on their desk. Maybe yes, maybe not often.
       Inspired by research that indicated that 80 percent of Americans pick up their staplers to use them, in 1997 Hunt Manufacturing Co. debuted a new kind of stapler, designed with an ergonomic grip and intended for hand-held use. Not only did questioning an assumption -- Do people use their stapler while it sits on their desk? -- lead to winning various awards for the hand-held design, it also brought new attention and incremental sales to an otherwise flat market.
       Meanwhile, Hunt questioned another assumption -- Must staplers lay lengthwise on a desk? Realizing there wasn't a rule, per se, Hunt decided to make its new stapler -- the Boston StandUP -- stand vertically, ready to be gripped and put to use. It takes up less room, looks like a small piece of art, and neatly sets itself apart from the crowd. [Editor's Note: For another example of a "vertical not horizontal" solution, consider the BeoCom telephone from Ban &Olufsen, with a handset that stands vertically on the desk.]

       Assumption: Home buyers want basements. Mr. Homebuilder, you sure about that?
       According to surveys by Kaufman & Broad Home Corp., when given a choice many buyers prefer doing without a basement. Losing a basement dramatically cuts costs and benefits both builder and buyer. Glen Barnard, K&B's division president in Colorado, admits: "The preferences about basements were probably there for years, but we never bothered to ask." Ask questions, learn about life -- specifically yours.

       Assumption: You can't let people return used cosmetics. Can you?
       At Rite Aid you can. When Rite Aid introduced its money-back guarantee, cosmetic sales shot up by about 25% -- more than offsetting the occassional return.

       Assumption: A credit card is the shape and size of, well, a credit card. Until 2002 that was true. That's when Discover Bank broke a time-honored mold by introducing its Discover 2GO Card. Shaped somewhat like a painter's pallet, it features its own protective case, even a key-ring option. Ever leave home without your American Express Card? If you took your keys, you're probably still in the money -- assuming you signed up for a Discover 2GO Card.

       Assumption: Vodka is clear. Or is it?
       Introducing, Blavod vodka, double-filtered, triple-distilled, and totally black. At Flints, a supper club in Santa Monica, California, owner Dodd Harris explains: "People wear black in this town -- it's the color they use to project their power."
       What's next? A credit card in black? Actually, American Express already has one. Considered by some the ultimate status symbol, the black card, with no credit limit, is offered to customers on an "invitation only" basis. You can't even apply for one. One just shows up in your mailbox one day. (Or it doesn't.)

       Assumption: When designing a restaurant, lighting is important. While this may be true nearly 100% of the time, still, it "ain't necessarily so."
       Welcome to Invisible, Berlin's no-lights, no-sights restaurant. Here, patrons are escorted to their tables by blind waiters. And the entire meal is served -- and enjoyed -- in the dark.

       Assumption: At a casino, security guards -- unless undercover -- should be dressed as security guards. A "no brainer," perhaps? Not for Steve Wynn. At Wynn's Caesar's Palace, the figures standing guard are security gladiators. How intimidating is that!

       How do you get a great, new idea? First, clear the deck of your old ideas by listing your assumptions -- everything you "know to be true" about your product, service, or problem du jour.
Let's say you're a manufacturer who's impressed by the example of the StandUP Stapler and you want to create a new kind of stapler. First, make a list of everything you "know to be true" about staplers. No matter how "obvious" the assumption, write it down. For example:

       1. They use staples.
       2. When they run out of staples, you need to put new ones in.
       3. They lay flat on a desk -- until recently, that is.

       Having listed every assumption you can think of, now go back and challenge each assumption.

       1. Do staplers have to use staples?
       2. What if you had a stapler with an endless supply of staples? Or a stapler that was disposable -- you just threw it out when it ran out of staples?

       That's how you do it. You list each assumption, then rigorously challenge each of your assumptions -- no matter how obvious the given or ridiculous the alternative.

       Let's look at our first assumption: Staplers use staples. Here's a "given"
that's so obvious on its face, what can you say but: Of course they use staples!
       Now stop -- ask yourself if maybe it "ain't necessarily so."
       A stapler that doesn't use staples, you ask? How can that be?
       Easy -- with the Staple Free Stapler from Made By Humans. How does it work? It cuts out tiny tabs of paper that somehow fold over and clasp together. It's a neat little trick, no doubt about it. ("Never run out of staples again - ever!") But the real trick was questioning that most basic assumption: Do staplers have to use staples?

       As the founder of Visa, Dee Hock, puts it: "The problem is never how to get new innovative ideas into your mind -- but how to get the old ones out." Rid yourself of "that's how it is" -- Of course staplers use staples! -- and new ideas have a chance to grow.
       Whether it's painting the Eiffel Tower or designing a stapler, remember to counter intuitive and long held beliefs by questioning your assumptions. You may just awaken a new and exciting How'd-they-come-up-with-that-one! solution.

[Editor's Note: For more examples of why it pays to question your assumptions, see:
Moneyball, by Michael Lewis.]


Joel Saltzman is a speaker, facilitator and consultant who teaches people in business to Shake That Brain!® and discover solutions for maximum profit. A former comedian and best selling author, he can be reached Toll Free at 877-Shake It! (877-742-5348)
e-mail: joel@shakethatbrain.com
Visit his website www.shakethatbrain.com/wow

 

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