One of the many ways in which our mind attempts to make life easier is to solve the first impression of the problem that it encounters. Like our first impressions of people, our initial perspective on problems and situations are apt to be narrow and superficial. We see no more than we’ve been conditioned to see–and stereotyped notions block clear vision and crowd out imagination. This happens without any alarms sounding, so we never realize it is occurring.
Once we have settled on a perspective, we close off but one line of thought. Certain kinds of ideas occur to us, but only those kinds and no others. What if the crippled man who invented the motorized cart had defined his problem as: “How to occupy my time while lying in bed?” rather than “How to get out of bed and move around the house?”
Have you ever looked closely at the wheels on a railroad train? They are flanged. That is, they have a lip on the inside to prevent them from sliding off the track. Originally train wheels were not flanged–instead, the railroad tracks were. Because the problem of railroad safety had been expressed as: “How can the tracks be made safer for trains to ride on?” hundreds of thousands of miles of track were manufactured with an unnecessary steel lip. Only when the problem was redefined as: “How can the wheels be made to secure the track more securely?” was the flanged wheel invented.
Leonardo Da Vinci equated comprehension of the deeper structure of his subject with having multiple perspectives, specifically, from at least three different points of view. This seems to be a very fundamental and key part of Leonardo’s strategy—multiple points of view are synthesized together. Leonardo believed that until one has perceived something from a minimum of three different perspectives, one does not yet have a basis for understanding it. A true and complete knowledge comes from the synthesizing of these views. For example, when Da Vinci designed the first bicycle, he looked at this new form of transportation from the viewpoint of the inventor, investors who would sponsor prototypes and production, the bicycle rider or consumer, and the municipalities where bicycles would be used and then synthesized the views.
Just as the differences in point of view between your eyes gives you a double description of the world around you that allows you to perceive depth, multiple perspectives about your subject deepens your understanding. Educational psychologists have conducted many experiments illustrating how a multiplicity of perspectives opens awareness and creativity. In one study of beginning piano students, two groups were introduced to a simple C major scale. One group was told to learn the scale by responding to multiple perspectives, including thoughts and feelings; the other group was told to practice the scale in the traditional memorization through repetition style. When the groups were evaluated, they found the playing of the first group to be much more competent and creative.
In other experiments, researchers assign chapters about particular subjects (e.g., the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska act) to two groups. One group is asked to read the passage from multiple perspectives: its own, as well as that of the participants, wondering what they must have felt or thought at the time. The other group is told simply to learn the passage. Invariably, when the groups are tested, the groups that study using “multiple” perspectives outperform the other groups that use “traditional” learning methods in terms of information retained, the content of the essays they wrote and creative solutions proposed.
Look at your problem using multiple perspectives.
- First, write the problem from your point of view.
- Next write the statement from the perspective of at least three to six other people who are close to or involved in the problem.
- Finally, synthesize the different perspectives into one all-inclusive problem statement.
For instance, if you are starting a new business, write out your statement as you see it. Then from the point of view of your potential customers, your potential employees, your potential competitors, your family, your best friend, and from the point of view of your banker or investor. Synthesize them together into one all-inclusive statement.
The French artist Paul Cezanne changed the nature of art by introducing a multiplicity of perspectives and bringing forth a new visual consciousness with his multiple versions of Mont Sainte-Victoire and the multiple versions of the apples on his tablecloth. In physics Einstein suggested that even the distinction between matter and energy might depend upon a point of view. What was wave from one point of view was particle in another; what was field in one experiment was trajectory in another. The multiplication of different perspectives multiplies the possibilities.
Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.