Practice frame shifting to spot untapped innovation opportunities

drawing on the right side of the brainPerception separates the innovator from the imitator. To see anew, learn to set aside preconceptions by exploring new perspectives.

How might we shift our perspective and explore what we might be missing? This is a common question I ask myself all the time because I want to overcome our human tendency to bring our preconceived notions with us whenever we are attacking a problem; therefore limiting our view of potential alternatives.

How do we overcome that?

Innovation is more a matter of attitude and perspective than process. I’ve written previously that there are four ways we can discover new insights. Insights are unexpected shifts in the way we understand how things work, and one way to get insights is by shifting our frame.

Ed Catmull makes a poignant point in his book, Creativity Inc., that Pixar has avoided stagnation because they’ve created mechanisms that force them to constantly fight their own mental models, and put Pixar’s collective heads in a different frame of mind.

The most innovative leaders are reframers, and unleash innovation in their organizations by asking new questions, and/or immerse themselves in the environment they wish to understand. I’ve written extensively about asking better questions to get better answers, here I’ll extend on that to include immersion.

But first…

How artists learn to see

In her popular book Drawing On The Right Side of The Brain, Betty Edwards teaches students how to heighten their powers of observation by getting them to draw an upside down human face.


Back in the day, you’d often hear about the concept of left-and-right brained thinking, later called L-mode and R-mode. The L-mode was verbal/analytic, R-mode was visual/perceptual. So, when people are learning to draw they need to shut down the L-mode. This amounts to learning to suppress the part of the brain that jumps to conclusions, seeing an image as only an image and not as an object.

So, think about what happens when we try to draw a face. Most of us sketch out the nose, eyes, forehead, ears and mouth, but unless we’ve learned to draw formally; they are terribly out of proportion. They don’t resemble anyone in particular. That’s because, to the brain, all parts of the face are not created equal.

We don’t draw a face as it is; rather, we draw it as our mental model says it is. The models of objects we carry in our heads have to be general; they must represent all variations of the given objects.

Art teachers use different tricks to train new artists. For example, they place an object upside down so that each student can look at it as a pure shape and not as a familiar, recognizable thing. By doing so, the brain cannot impose its model of a face upon it.

Inverting a customer experience to see anew

A few years ago I consulted for a well known large women’s retailer on how to dramatically improve their customer experience. This retailer was having issues with customers leaving written comments about certain employees not treating them well, or simply not responding to their needs. While this could be categorized as a training related challenge, it wasn’t.

I thought it was a challenge of perception, and getting store employees to give a damn about customers. To get employees to see anew, I had them play a game of “un-happiness”. Basically, I stated the following challenge: What if we intentionally wanted to bankrupt the company by making our customers uncomfortable every time they come into the store? How would we screw up their experience?

So, I had people develop lists of all the different ways they could screw things up. Some of which they were already doing. Next, I had them act out exactly how they would do that at every point of the customer journey. At first, people were laughing at the things that they were acting out. I also had them switch roles, from employee to customer so they could experience it first hand. It was at this point that people started feeling uncomfortable, because “it didn’t feel good doing it”, as someone said.

Finally, I had everyone tell the group, managers included, what they had learned from the exercise. People didn’t cry, but they did feel like they had experienced something for the first time. They internalized it!

The whole exercise lasted less than an hour. The point was made. A lot of the things that were making people uncomfortable were things that they were already doing, and all in all there were 7 key themes that emerged. The deliverable was very easy, all the things that felt uncomfortable for the employees to act out, were the things that they were no longer going to do.

Two months later this store won best customer experience score for their region and state. And, where third place for the whole country!

The better you are at observing, the better you will be at generating creative ideas

The above story is an example of frame-shifting by observing, experiencing things from a different point of view. Most situation won’t be as extreme as my exercise, but there are always opportunities for improvement; no matter how small.

In his PechaKucha presentation (below), Bob Hambly, Creative Director of Hambly & Woolley, shares the benefits of having good observation skills:

  • Heightened awareness: You notice minute details that may have been previously overlooked.
  • Ability to Identify Trends: You can connect current events which will predict future developments and opportunities.
  • Discover Opportunities: You are open to inspiration from your surroundings and all of its shapes, colors, textures, etc.
  • Spark Innovation: You see where improvements can be made to everyday processes, instead of taking them as is.

To understand we must empathize, and observation is the most important innovation breeding habit of all.

Key Takeaway

Drawing an upside down face, inverting roles and asking thought provoking questions, are frame-shifting mechanisms that can push us to experience Vuja De. Basically, it’s as if you’ve experienced something for the first time, setting aside your preconceptions.

In TED video below, Emily Bensadoun explores the topic of The Art of Perception from an art critic’s point of view. It’s a short video, less than 5 minutes, but with a great message: take the time to slow down and understand the world around you, you’ll never know what you’ll find.

Remember: To spot untapped innovation opportunities, we have to shift our frame of reality. One way is to observe the world around us with fresh eyes. This is why ethnography is a powerful innovation technique, you have to slow down, dig a little deeper and understand the world around you; and your customer’s too. And because it’s visceral, it changes your perspective; whether you want to or not.

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