London Advertising Agency

How to Avoid Getting Stuck: Opposite Thinking

Written by Kate Waters, Chief Strategy Officer at Now.

You know when you have an idea, and suddenly you start to see all sorts of bits of ‘evidence’ that magically appear to confirm your brilliant hypothesis? This is what scientists call ‘confirmation bias,’ and it’s one of the tricks our brains play on us to help us save time and mental effort. If we’ve found a solution to a problem, we’re hardwired to see things that support it, and, conversely, to ignore the evidence that might challenge or disprove it.

The problem, if you’re a strategist or a creative, or if you make your living having ideas, is that ‘confirmation bias’ makes it very hard to see the flaws in your ideas, and even harder to think of alternative (possibly better) solutions to a problem. Which is why I ‘collect’ thinking tools to help me see things from different angles and find new ways into problems.

One of my favourites is something I call ‘opposite thinking’. You start by listing all the assumptions that you’re making in solving the problem. So, for example, if the challenge were to design a new chair, you might list assumptions like ‘it’s got four legs’, ‘it’s designed for one person to sit on’, and so on. Then you write down the ‘opposite’ of each of these assumptions. A chair could have no legs, or perhaps three legs, maybe more than one person could sit on it? And then you start to play with all the possibilities when you strip out the assumptions you’ve made. A chair with no legs? That’ll be a stool. A chair that seats more than one? That’s a bench or a sofa…

And it doesn’t just work for furniture. When we worked with Wellcome to create a new science teaching programme for primary schools we used ‘opposite thinking’. Knowing that we needed to engage an audience who were not naturally fans of science, we questioned the assumption that we had to talk the language of science. We chose to do the opposite: we ‘disguised’ science as ‘thinking skills’ and the multi-award-winning Explorify programme was born.