Breakthrough methods for visioning

Berend-Jan Hilberts 2 1 Menno van Dijk
June 4th, 2014
Article by: Berend-Jan Hilberts, Robert Wolfe, Menno van Dijk
Breakthrough methods for visioning

Creativity as a concept remains hard to pin down. Many view the ability to find creative solutions as the pinnacle of creative leadership. Artists, designers, visionaries and thought leaders are all admired for the power of their creative ideas. Creativity is a well-researched topic, covered in many popular science and business economics books. Yet we continue to struggle with the mystique created around the topic, and the intimidating notion that this is a territory reserved for the so-called creatives.


Coming up with new ideas often requires what is referred to as "thinking out-of-the-box" and it's one of our main areas of focus in the Creative Leadership Program.  The idea is that our thinking normally follows the same patterns it did yesterday and the day before.  Even when we purposely try to use our imagination, our thinking is still structured by the properties of existing concepts and categories.

Creative leadership can break out of the box by letting go of inhibitions and habits. These inhibitions can be organizational but typically reside within the personal fears of the leadership: fears of failure, of abandonment, of isolation. Fears might be phantom or real, but in either case it is critical to name one’s fears and turn these fears into creative thinking challenges instead of inhibitions. It often takes a conscious effort, one that might feel artificial, to break out of that thinking box.

In corporations this is done by creating a “burning platform” – defining the current situation as so urgently in need of a solution that the only way forward is to jump ship. Financial loss is not enough of a motivation, as the typical reaction is to first attempt to repair the ship instead of jumping it. Consider the newspaper publishing world has attempted continuous cost reductions for more than 20 years – efforts at repairing the sinking ship – until all spirit, quality, capabilities and entrepreneurship have dissipated.

So creative leadership needs to be able to artificially force it’s thinking outside of these natural patterns and categories it will otherwise dwell in. There are different directions you can force your thinking in: You can reach deep to go to the roots of your thinking, you can aim high to burst through the ceiling of your box and you can leverage broad and go sideways.

creative thinking
Creative leadership helps you let go of inhibitions and habits that typically reside within the personal fears of leadership. Click To Tweet

Reaching deep

  1. Realizing the essential direction of change
  2. Reframing a current limiting belief

Aiming high

  1. Enlarging
  2. Backcasting

Leveraging broad

  1. Associations & Analogies
  2. Merging

This means giving an honest answer to the question: how is the world fundamentally changing? And then looking at what that answer means for our current situation. Look for the deepest kind of unquestionable understanding, what we tend to call a truth. This new truth can be a shock realization – a full understanding that the current business might become obsolete and that a new business model will take over. Think, for instance, of the realization that no editorial staff could ever outperform the knowledge of the crowd and hence that Wikipedia or one of its kind would completely replace Encyclopedia Britannica or Microsoft Encarta. Which of course did happen.

Begin by searching for the deepest statement that is held to be a truth concerning your world. Then ask yourself whether this statement continues to be a truth or whether the world is fundamentally changing.  Then look for the inevitable consequences. What will happen? What will fail? What are the opportunities? What action is needed? What if resources become really scarce, what if the digital world becomes ubiquitous, what if the Western world continues to age, what if China becomes the economic leader, what if?  These are not questions to support scenario building, but mega trends providing direction for creative thinking.

Breakthrough Methods for Visioning
The first step in creative thinking is to ask the question: How is the world fundamentally changing? Click To Tweet

Reframing a current limiting belief

Reframing is a conceptual direction to think out of the box, as well as a practical tool. Conceptually reframing means allowing the underlying beliefs commonly accepted within your domain or industry to surface, and to turn these around in order to come up with innovations. Tesla challenged and overturned the common belief that electric cars would have a very limited range. Green energy- cogeneration, solar and wind – overturned the common belief that only large scale centralized electric power production would be economically viable.  Amazon turned the common belief that people couldn’t be coaxed away from the retail experience on its head. And Apple iTunes completely toppled the common belief that one could not make money from music online.

Reframing as a practical tool is surprisingly powerful. It starts with identifying a core limiting belief that is relevant within your domain or industry.

Breakthrough Methods for Visioning 2
Reframing is a powerful tool that starts with identifying a core limiting belief that is relevant within your domain or industry. Click To Tweet

Aiming high

If the first direction out-of-the-box was to reach all the way to the bottom of essential changes and hidden beliefs, the second direction is just the opposite: aim for the stars. Up, up and away. Push your creativity past the point where others go.  For this, we propose the technique of Enlargement which includes expansion, provocation or exaggeration, and secondly the technique of Backcasting.

Enlargement entails making one factor artificially large or incredibly small. Ask yourself: What if this product were extremely expensive? or what if it was given for free? Then start imagining what the consequences would be if you were to do that … and do it in a big, big way.  For instance, if you were to give your product away for free, how would you make money?

One application of this technique is the use of provocative targets. Small cost reductions can typically be realized by tightening the budgets, and a moderate cost reduction can be achieved through a meticulous review and optimization of the current ways of working. Now imagine an 80 percent cost-reduction target!  This would serve as a provocation of the current business model, and therefore trigger the creativity to come up with completely new ones.

Backcasting means launching an ambition into the horizon and then tracing back how you got there. For this to work it needs to be a big jump, one that cannot be solved with regular thinking but with creativity. Imagine that in two years from now we are reaching a million people every day.  From that vantage point in the future, we can ask how did we do it?  We would use goal-orientation, puzzles, and storytelling, all of which are used when backcasting.

Breakthrough Methods for Visioning 3
Aim for the stars and push your creativity past the point where others go. Click To Tweet

Leveraging broad

Once we’ve reached the essence and aimed for the stars, the following natural direction is to extend sideways. This lateral thinking can be done by making associations or merging unrelated insights.

Associations & Analogies. Associating means looking in your memory for concepts or ideas that can be linked to the initial concept. Analogies mean using something from outside of your field to make a point or give inspiration.  For instance, when Japanese engineers were trying to solve the noise problem of the Shinkansen bullet train, they looked into the animal kingdom. The found that the kingfisher’s beak was perfectly shaped to enter water without making a ripple, and modeled the nose of the train after it to burst out of tunnels in total silence.

Another example of how to use association and analogy to open up your thinking comes from the Pacific Power corporation, as told by Michael Michalko. Their engineers were looking for a solution to remove ice from power lines, as the weight could cause poles to topple. In an effort to break through their thinking, they grabbed a jar of honey that they found nearby. They started playing the association game: what does honey make us think of? Bears. How would a bear solve this? By climbing the pole and making the pole sway, and through the vibrations the snow falls off. Building on the principle of vibration, what analogy can be found? What else can make the lines vibrate? Helicopters. And indeed, after ice-storms helicopters now fly over the lines, removing heavy ice by the vibration caused by the downwash from their rotors.

Merging.  Merging is combining two or more existing concepts in a new way, or what Steven Johnson calls “the collision of ideas”. Surfing and sailing merged to become windsurfing, and kitesurfing was the next merger where kiting met surfing.  Cirque du Soleil was born as a combination of circus with world-class acrobatics. Which two worlds can you bang against each other to create a completely new concept?

Breakthrough Methods for Visioning 4
As well as aiming high, reach out further by making associations or merging unrelated insights. Click To Tweet

Seeing the water

There is a joke about two fish that are met by a duck as they are swimming about. The duck says, “Nice water, isn’t it?” When he is gone, the one fish asks the other, “What is water?”  It is hard to see the thinking that you are currently immersed in. The box that limits your creativity is difficult to recognize when you have never moved outside of it. We hope you find your bearings by reaching deep, aiming high and leveraging broad. Maybe even develop a love affair with the feeling of being out of the box so that you want to go there. Explore and get to know what works for you.

Want to improve your own creative thinking? Apply to join the THNK Creative Leadership Program, a 6-month part-time learning journey to help you realize your fullest creative leadership potential and scale your world-changing enterprise.