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Using creative inversion to boost product design sprints
Insight 14: The power to explore the unknown and innovate purposefully
The unknown has always kept us on our toes, pushing us to be better prepared and anticipate change in our lives. Still, it is hard to claim we are proficient at it. It's a struggle to adopt a non-linear way of thinking, the must-have capability to enter and explore the unknown.
Linear thinking is helpful when there is enough data to boost the accuracy of predictions and with problems that are easier to define. But when it comes to more complex situations, radical change, and ambiguous problems, you need to consider a fresh perspective outside current scoping.
"You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it." Albert Einstein
Product teams use design thinking methodology to innovate, discover, and refine products quickly and effectively, combining logic and intuition. The process typically compensates for the unknown through thorough testing and validation, so products are not launched based on empty assumptions.
However, there is a limit to what the methodology can do. While it can be effective when the problem statement is clearly defined, most of the time, the reality is ambiguous and complex, making it hard for a clear picture to settle. The unfamiliar and uncharted territories can freeze exploration and keep even the most creative teams from discovering opportunities beyond the visible horizon.
The UK Design Council is a big proponent of adopting a systemic view to deliver meaningful change and positive social and environmental impact. The proposed shift from "discover" to "explore" can be a significant step in recognizing the need to travel into the unknown to connect deeply with what is happening or is yet to happen. It also recognizes the benefits of staying a little longer with the problem to better understand what is at stake.
For us as strategic designers, exploration is at the core of innovation - charting a new space of opportunities without the pre-determined idea of what to expect but always keeping a bold and proactive vision of the future.
If more exploration can be integrated into the current design sprints, more opportunities could arise by mapping the edges of the unknown and the untapped potential for value creation.
Product teams typically use various design and creative problem-solving methods to think differently, generate ideas, and turn problems into opportunities.
"How Might We" (developed by Procter & Gamble): a brainstorming technique to explore different ways for solving a problem (not too broad and not too narrow).
"Alter Ego" (Todd Herman, The Alter Ego Effect): a method to shift identity into somebody else (imagine what they say, think, do, or feel) to transform the perspective on the problem by changing attitudes and beliefs.
"Five Whys" (introduced by Toyota): a problem-definition technique, starting with a problem statement to drill down to the root cause and clarify any issues that are not visible at first.
"Six Thinking Hats" (Eduard de Bono): a lateral thinking method, wearing one hat at a time with a specific scope and role.
These tools are useful when you have a problem statement to spark creativity, but are they sufficient to turn discovery into exploration and again into discovery? We want to raise awareness around a powerful technique for exploring the unknown - creative inversion.
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How is inversion a tool?
Inversion thinking is inspired by the German mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, who made fundamental contributions to elliptic functions, dynamics, differential equations, determinants, and number theory. He often solved difficult problems using a simple strategy: invert, always invert.
Inversion is the process of building a structure and then flipping it around. Think of it as a negative space. This approach is counter-intuitive at first because it is easier to think about the solution. So, why spend time thinking about the opposite of what you want? Because you can learn just as much from identifying what doesn't work as you can from looking at what does.
There are other benefits too:
Challenge your perspective and consider hidden elements you may have missed.
Put into the spotlight errors or roadblocks that are not obvious at first.
Counteract the gravitational pull of the confirmation bias, something that will always be there.
Look for new ways to reframe the challenge and be more creative and unconventional.
So, what happens when you begin to apply inversion to your product development process?
Few stories do a great job of illustrating the power of inversion when it comes to innovative thinking. Take the classic short story "The Machine Stops" by E.M. Forster, written in 1909. It is science fiction set in a future where humanity lives underground, completely dependent on a vast, all-encompassing machine for their every need. It explores the consequences of technological overreliance and isolation.
It is fascinating how he uses the inversion process to provide insights into human nature that spans several decades. His ability to imagine the internet, the age of AI assistants, digital communications (video calls, text messages), social networks, and long-distance travel by airplanes is astonishing. However, another hidden gem is even more difficult to fathom - getting key insights into human nature. He accurately captured how we would adapt and lose parts of ourselves through technology.
Let's explore some examples of inversion in the story to illustrate the immense flexibility and freedom of the technique to explore the unknown:
People who survive in this world are not the strongest but the weakest (a physically vulnerable population is centrally controlled much easier).
The Machine determines the surroundings in which people live. Humans don't dictate the progress of technology. The machine does.
Strength is expressed not by a physical body but by the beauty of one's ideas (senses are subdued and atrophied, losing a sense of space and self).
The notion that direct experiences and social connections matter is no longer true. It is best to be as far removed as possible from direct contact with others, observations, and ideas.
The inversion changes the laws of reality quite drastically. As a result, you are free to explore, no longer limited by what you know to be true. With this method, Forster constructs a radical and novel world. He may have wondered, how far will we go in allowing technology to influence our lives? As time passes, he keeps surprising us, being a great explorer.
The connection to recent events is hard to ignore:
We didn't imagine living a life of complete self-isolation, just like the characters. But we do now, after COVID-19.
We couldn't imagine that "the machine" would ever stop. We can't be too sure now with the steep takeoff of generative AI.
Practical tips for inversion
Inversion helps you think differently, challenge the novelty of your ideas, and feel more at ease in the unknown. Here is a process to follow to experiment further with the inversion method:
Start with what is obvious in the present. In your reality, what is taken for granted without questioning? Some of these ideas may create blind spots, so gather as many elements as possible to see where some of the biggest ideas can become lacking.
Invert the most obvious elements completely and create an imaginary world. Perhaps, instead of focusing only on the desired result, you can also play with failure to consider unintended consequences. Ask new questions: what happens in this world? What is the currency of exchange - money, attention, time? How would you thrive there?
Extract valuable ideas from the imaginary place and return them to the present reality. What change is it possible to drive? How can you make the now better?
Aging novelty in the early phases of the exploration is a powerful way to extract the elements of practical value. You integrate learnings from trial and error before you validate the product with users and declutter some problematic assumptions that slow product development.
In summary, inversion is a powerful technique to add to your product sprints when you want to:
Be more agile and creative when you are stuck on a challenge.
Build a flexible mindset, capable of questioning the validity of assumptions and even your best ideas to learn and grow.
Simulate the outcome to make more informed decisions under uncertainty.
Exploration has changed history more times than one could count. For designers, product teams, and creative problem-solvers - it's your responsibility to bring the unknown into the light and enrich the present. The better you get at exploration, the greater the quality of your product ideas.
Give it a go and have fun practicing it, even if you only dare to walk backward at first. The confidence will come in time :)
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