If my back were against the wall and someone asked me, “What’s the most common question people have been asking you this year?” my answer would be:  How do I get my organization to “think different?”

Although I’ve received variations of the “think different” question for quite some time, it’s appearing this year with even greater frequency…and urgency.

In wake of The Great Recession, companies of every size and stripe have had to shift their ways of doing business…or go out of business.  So, if there’s a silver lining to the economic upheaval we’ve witnessed in the past two years, it’s a new willingness from leaders and teams to shift their mindsets. How can we Marketers leverage this new enthusiasm?

Thomas Edison Knew How to “Think Different”

I recently spent 3 years researching the innovation practices of America’s foremost inventor and innovator – Thomas Edison.  Few people know that Edison established 6 new industries in less than 35 years…a track record unequalled by anyone in history.  There is thus much we can learn from Edison about establishing a “think different” mindset. 

One of my favorite techniques for driving a shift in mindset is drawn from Edison’s second competency of innovation, which in my book I’ve termed Kaleidoscopic Thinking.

Wherever your organization may be in shifting its pre-Recession mindset, here is a technique for you to try. I use it in almost every training workshop I conduct because it generates robust results every time.

Edison believed that many problems could be solved by coming at them in non-linear ways.  Rather than tackling challenges head on using logic, numbers or linear approaches, Edison would often use what we Marketers today would call “whole-brain” thinking techniques.

Although the anatomy of the brain was certainly unknown in Edison’s time, what Edison quickly realized was that he could increase the number of potential answers to any problem by setting up analogies.  In fact, creating analogies was one of the most robust techniques he employed in developing the motion picture camera, the movies, the storage battery, and other world-changing inventions.  

Analogies helped Edison establish a mindset that could readily see patterns.  Using analogies as Edison did is important for Marketers today because it not only drives an ability to see new patterns in a complex business environment, but to also think in new patterns.  Isn’t that what establishing a new mindset is all about?

Edison Used Analogies to Drive Robust New Thinking Patterns and Insights

Edison believed the ability to “think in analogies” was one of the three most important qualities for success.  But before you conjure up nasty memories of your high school English teacher (“What’s the difference between an analogy and a metaphor?”), it may help to know that your mind is actually wired to understand and process analogies. Seeing patterns and processing analogies is the job of the frontal lobe…the juiciest problem-solving center of the brain.

An analogy is a comparison between two things which seem to be UNLIKE.  The goal of “analogical thinking,” however, is to find out how these two unrelated things in fact are ALIKE.

Although Edison could not have known about the frontal lobe – since it wasn’t discovered until after his death – he did realize that analogies offered huge doorways to seeing new patterns. And if you can think in new patterns, you establish a new mindset!

Use Analogies to Establish a New Mindset, a New Outlook

In setting up an analogical thinking exercise, you want to draw upon either two words or two concepts. One word/concept can be something you know a lot about, while the other can be selected basically at random. 

No kidding.  That’s because the frontal lobe of the brain is so powerful, it can create links between anything, often seemingly drawn from the outer limits of reason. And…isn’t that the whole point?

Below are four sample analogies that I’ve noted in the last six months which I particularly like. By finding linkages between the word/concept in Column #1 and the word/concept in Column #2, it’s possible to yield entirely new businesses, explain how something works, or solve a long-standing problem.  In the process, you will activate a robust new way to “think different!” 

Set up your analogies like this:

                      Column #1                                         Column #2

                WORD/CONCEPT #1                         WORD/CONCEPT #2

Example 1:  Roll-to-roll printing                           Solar panels

Example 2:  BP Deepwater Horizon well              Fire hydrant

Example 3:  Sail cloth                                        Human skin

Example 4:  The way the ear hears                     The way the eye sees

List out – or draw – on a separate sheet of paper ALL THE CONNECTIONS and ALL THE COMMONALITIES you see between one paired word/concept in Column #1 and Column #2.  There are no wrong answers.  Stay with the exercise for a good 20 – 30 minutes.  This delivers the most patterns and the best results!

Try analogical thinking as fodder for “thinking different” in your next meeting, or team problem-solving session!  I guarantee you’ll become hooked…just as Edison did.

Insights on how this may help your teams? Please share in the comments, we’d love to hear them!

Author: Sarah Miller Caldicott

A great grandniece of Thomas Edison and his second wife Mina Miller Edison, Sarah Miller Caldicott is Co-author of a groundbreaking book on Thomas Edison’s innovation best practices entitled Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of America’s Greatest Inventor. Sarah speaks to audiences across the country, and leads executive seminars on how to embed Edison’s Five Competencies of Innovation in their organizations.

*This post originally appeared on the MENG blog and has been reposted with permission.

Photo is Light Bulb No. 2 by Chuck “Caveman” Coker