Make Money

Trade Now!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Getting to the Second Right Answer: Three Tricks to Increase Innovative Thinking

When General Electric’s engineers were experimenting with developing a new rubber compound, they stumbled on an odd material that stretched, bounced, and generally behaved in unusual ways. It was interesting, but they couldn’t see any use for it. They mailed samples of the material to several leading engineers all over the world, asking for ideas about how it might be used. Zilch. Nada. Then a perceptive toy store owner saw the possibilities, and gave the world Silly Putty.

If you had asked the engineers “What is this?” they would have said: “a new rubber compound.” That’s the first right answer. But the toy store owner, seeing adults at a party play with the curious item, saw what creativity expert Roger von Oech calls the second right answer.

What keeps us from being more innovative? Too often we stop at the first right answer and don’t explore other possibilities. Here are three tricks to help you discover the second (and sometimes third, fourth, and fifth) right answers.

Trick #1 Slow down - Don’t assume that you know what the problem is.

You’re trying to solve a problem. You think you know what the problem is; what you want to do is discover solutions. So when you ask a friend for help and he says: “What’s the problem?” you tell him. Your answer to the question “what’s the problem?” is the first right answer. But there is nearly always a second right answer, and perhaps several more.

Example #1:

One IT person commented: I thought the problem was that I was having difficulties relating to my new boss. But when I asked the question “who is contributing to my problem?” I found it was much deeper than that. I realized that I have tremendous support from several administrators, but very little support from the staff members to whom I am supposed to teach the new technology. They tolerate me, but it really doesn’t matter to them whether I am there or not.

The strategy that the IT person used to come to this realization has been around for ages. He simply went through the standard questions reporters ask: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How, relating each to his problem. For example, for “where,” he asked “where does this problem occur most often?” Since each of these questions leads to different answers, the list automatically takes you to second, third, and fourth right answers. It was the “who” question, “who is contributing to my problem?” that led the IT person to his insight.

Example #2

Overwhelmed by work, Letitia jokes, “Maybe I ought to just check myself into a nursing home for a month!” Her friend asks, “What would that change?” Becoming thoughtful, Letitia says, “If I were sick, it would give me a legitimate reason to say “no” to extra assignments and prove to my boss that I really can’t take on any more than I already have.” This leads Letitia to realize: “the problem is that I don’t feel justified in saying “no” unless I’m just about dying.”

That’s the first right answer to the question, what is the problem? But when Letitia asks herself “why would you have to be dying?” she ends up saying something a little different. “The problem is that my boss hates whiners, and I don’t know how to tell him how bad things are without sounding like a whiner.”

That’s the second right answer to the question “what is the problem?” Letitia arrived at it though a spontaneous joke about what would solve her problem: putting herself in a nursing home. Ask yourself what silly idea would solve your problem – and then go deeper to question how that would help.

Both of these methods – asking the who, what, when, where, why questions and looking for silly solutions to your dilemma - help to insure that you don’t stop at the first right answer to the question, what is the problem? If you slow down and take some time to search for the second and third right answers to that question, you’ll be more likely to invest your time and energy in solving a version of the problem that gets to the root of it.

Trick #2 Rephrase your problem as a positive “How to…”

Once one of your answers to the question “What’s the problem?” has hit you as a version that gets to the heart of the matter, rephrase that answer in the form of “How might I,” “How can we,” or simply “How to.” The developers of the CPS (creative problem solving) method emphasize how important it is to describe problems in terms of “How to” accomplish something positive.


Once Letitia sees that the problem is that she doesn’t know how to tell her boss how bad things are without sounding like a whiner, she can rephrase her dilemma using the “How to” phrase:

1. “How to let Mr. Robertson know how bad things are without sounding like a whiner.”

2. “How to let Mr. Robertson know about the difficulties we face while coming across to him as someone who wants to help our whole organization address those challenges successfully.”

Can you sense the difference between these two statements? Both how to statements stimulate curiosity and brainstorming in a way that simply saying “my problem is that I’m overwhelmed at work and can’t say no to my boss” does not. The second more positive version moves those brainstorming ideas towards a positive vision of what we are trying to create. How to questions ask “what are some different ways that we could accomplish this?” and so they generate many answers beyond the first right answer.

Trick #3 Shift your lenses

In a way, the toy store owner who saw the Silly Putty that the engineers missed didn’t do anything different from what the engineers did. Both looked at this material through lenses that were familiar to them. The toy store owner looked at the world through the lens of “fun products” while the engineers looked though the lens of “industrial products.” So one way to get to the second right answer is to shift lenses, to bring other perspectives to bear on the problem you are trying to solve or on the possibilities that you are trying to discover.

One obvious way to do that is to bring in people with different perspectives, a strategy that is built into team approaches to problem solving. Ask yourself who else you could bring in to gain a different perspective on the issue. The person who is the newest hire, or the in-law who has most recently joined the family, are likely to have viewpoints that we would not discover on our own because they are coming to the situation with fresh eyes.

Anything that helps us see a familiar situation in a new way can help us generate a different right answer.


One artist described how she would place the paintings she was working on in different places in her home – in the hallway around the bend of the stairs, or on a kitchen counter. In this way, she’d come upon them unexpectedly and look upon them with fresh eyes.

Here are some other strategies that can help.

1. Look at the situation through the opposite lens.

Example: if you have been generating ideas by looking through the “What if?” lens, you can reverse that and ask “what if not?”

2. Look at the situation through multiple lenses.

Example: Borrow from your college courses and look at a situation through a variety of lenses, such as political, psychological, social, historical, and economic.

3. Look at the situation through a lens that you know people often neglect.

Example: Look through the Big Picture lens, asking questions like “Is there anything about our organization as a whole that might be affecting this?”


Searching for the second right answer keeps us more open-minded. Our minds slam shut when others present their ideas in a way that implies that if one person is right, then everyone else must be wrong. But when we think in terms of the second right answer, we can be right without other people having to be wrong. When someone makes a statement, like “obviously what we have to do is” and then dictates a solution in a tone of voice that would normally end all discussion, we can say, “That’s the first right answer. What might a second right answer sound like?” And the road to innovative thinking is opened.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Adgitize your web site.

My Other Network

Add to Google
Subscribe rajeshSEOmetrie Report StumbleUpon My StumbleUpon Page Subscribe with Bloglines Blogging Blog Directory

Friend Connector

get it!

Get Chitika eMiniMalls