Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Creative Thinking: The Art of Reexamining Assumptions

by Andre · 4 Comments

Birds on the Wire Yesterday, looking at a bank building, I saw a sign whose top surface was covered four-inch wires jutting upwards, acting as a bed of nails for any birds that would have otherwise landed. I’ve always disliked this “solution” to the bird problem, since it aesthetically detracts from the sign and has probably injured more than a few birds. I decided to take a moment to think about what assumptions went into putting spikes on the sign.

  • We need to discourage birds from landing on the sign
  • We need to keep the sign clean
  • We need to keep birds off the sign
  • We need to keep birds from settling on the sign

These four assumptions superficially look the same, but they have subtle differences with different implications which, if questioned, can lead to a different design conclusions. The first three assumptions above are the obvious ones, but the one that caught my attention was the fourth one: keeping birds from settling on the sign — which is different than keeping them from landing on the sign.

What if it wasn’t necessary to keep birds from landing on the sign? After mentally running through a few options, I came up with the idea of running wires a few inches over the top of the sign, parallel to the surface, but sleeved with thin PVC pipe (probably in segments). That way, a bird could land on it, but would be unable to remain upright. The sleeve would pivot on the wire, so the bird would have no way of settling on the sign. The same method could easily be applied to power lines: put loose segments of PVC around the wires, and birds couldn’t land on them without spinning on the tubes’ axes.

A few days ago I heard an interview with a forum moderator discussing his strategy for dealing with repeat trolls. Instead of banning them from the forum, he configured the server so that the trolls’ connection would time out. Rather than assuming it was necessary to confront or banish forum members, he simply inconvenienced them to the point where the frustration of posting outweighed the gratification of provoking others.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Thinking is more than problem solving. In addition to solving problems, we often need to turn our attention to understanding those problems in the first place. How a problem is framed is integral to how it’s solved.

Taking a trip to France might raise the question, “How do a learn French?” But the question, “How to I learn French for travelers?”, or better still, “What French expressions do I need to know?” narrows to the problem domain and flattens the learning curve significantly.

The essence of creative thinking is reexamining assumptions. Whenever you have trouble solving a problem, take a closer look at how you’re wording the problem, and try to identify what assumptions are going into the problem definition. Try to spell out several assumptions, not just one. It’s often one of the last assumptions that’s the least obvious, with the greatest potential for overturning.

(Photo credit: Martin Clifton)

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Tags: Creativity


  • DuffNo Gravatar // Dec 11, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    Great bird/sign solution. I’ve often wondered about more humane and aesthetic solutions to that problem. Food for thought!

  • MarelisaNo Gravatar // Dec 11, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    Hi Andre: I did labor arbitrations while I worked for the Panama Canal and one of the most important aspects of preparing the case was deciding how to word the issue. The wording of the issue could influence the entire case. How you word a problem is equally important since it sets your mind down a particular line of thought. I love your bird solution :-)

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Dec 11, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    @Duff: I’ve thought about it more than once, but more about the solution than the problem.

    @Marelisa: Interesting. That must explain why legal documents are chock full of qualifiers. I suppose it’s even more important to frame legal issues appropriately, since one set of assumptions will highlight a different set of laws than another set of assumptions, so you’re forced to be strategic about defining things. Was your arbitration work before or after the Canal’s jurisdiction reverted back to Panama?

  • peterNo Gravatar // Dec 11, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    Thanks for the reminder about thinking patterns. I seem to run up against all kinds of strange flaws with internet technology — usually using systems or software others have designed and its a big struggle sometimes to stop and think — wait, what am I assuming about why this problem is occurring. We often have to completely turn off all logical assumptions because our perception of what is logical has too many built in pre-conditions. So much for the assumption that technology was going to simplify our lives!! Ha!