Creative Thinking Technique: Reverse your Assumptions

REVERSESuppose you are elected to host a singles elimination tennis tournament. You have one hundred and seventeen entrants. What is the minimum number of tennis matches that would have to be arranged for this number of entrants?

When faced with this problem most people draw diagrams showing the actual pairings in each match and the number of byes. Others try to work it out mathematically. In fact the answer is one hundred and sixteen matches and one can work this out at once without any complicated diagrams or math. To work it out, reverse your thinking from the winners of each match to the losers. Since there can only be one winner in a singles elimination tennis tournament, there must be one hundred and sixteen losers. Each loser can only lose once so there must be one hundred and sixteen matches.

The assumption in the tennis problem is to focus on the winners and not the losers. Reversing your thinking leads us to consider the losers instead of the winners and the problem is rapidly solved. Reversing the way you look at things encourages you to consider things that may not be considered at all.

Reversals break your existing patterns of thought and provoke new ones. You take things as they are and then turn them around, inside out, upside down, and back to front to see what happens. In the illustration, Figure A shows two lines of equal length bounded by arrow-like angles. In Figure B, the arrow-like angles are reversed on one of the lines, which changes our perception and creates the illusion of the line being shorter. It’s not shorter, measure it and you will find it is still equal in length. The lines haven’t changed, your perception of them has.

4 lines.illus.1

In figure A the angles at the end of the lines seem to open up a potentially limited space. Reversing the angle seems to close off and limit the area, which changes your perception of the length of the lines.

A simple reversal of angles dramatically changes what we see in the illustration. The same perceptual changes occur when we reverse our conventional thinking patterns about problems and situations. When Henry Ford went into the automobile business, the conventional thinking was that you had to “bring people to the work.” He reversed this to “bring the work to the people” and accomplished this by inventing the assembly line. When Al Sloan became CEO of General Motors, the common assumption was that people had to pay for a car before they drove it. He reversed this to you can drive the car before you pay for it and, to accomplish this, he pioneered the idea of installment buying.

Years back, chemists had great difficulty putting a pleasant-tasting coating on aspirin tablets. Dipping tablets led to uneven and lumpy coats. They were stumped until they reversed their thinking. Instead of looking for ways to put something “on” the aspirin, they looked for ways to take something “off” the aspirin. This reversal led to one of the newer techniques for coating pills. The pills are immersed in a liquid which is passed onto a spinning disk. The centrifugal force on the fluid and the pills causes the two to separate, leaving a nice, even coating around the pill.

Physicist and philosopher David Bohm believed geniuses were able to think different thoughts because they could tolerate ambivalence between opposites or two incompatible subjects. Thomas Edison’s breakthrough invention of a practical system of lighting involved wiring his circuits in parallel and of using high-resistance filaments in his bulbs, two things that were not considered possible by conventional thinkers, in fact were not considered at all because of an assumed incompatibility. Because Edison could tolerate the ambivalence between the two incompatible things, he could see the relationship that led to his breakthrough.


In the illustration below, you can perceive four black arrowheads on a white background, or you can perceive four white arrowheads on a black background. You can choose to focus on the black or on the opposite white arrowheads. Focusing on the black arouses the notion of the white and vice versa. Similarly, any particular thought will arouse the notion of its opposite by simply adding “not,” or by reversing it.


Mathematician-philosopher, Bertrand Russell, once astounded his colleagues by demonstrating that in mathematical argument, every alternative leads to its opposite. You can provoke new ideas by considering the opposite of any subject or action. When bioengineers were looking for ways to improve the tomato, they identified the gene in tomatoes that ripens tomatoes. They thought that if the gene hastens ripening (black arrowhead), maybe they could use the gene to slow down the process by reversing it (white arrowhead). They copied the gene, put it in backwards and now the gene slows down ripening, making vine ripened tomatoes possible in winter.

REVERSING ASSUMPTIONS BLUEPRINT. Suppose you want to start a new restaurant and are having difficulty coming up with ideas. To initiate ideas, try the following reversals:

1. List all your assumptions about your subject.
EXAMPLE: Some common assumptions about restaurants are:
A. Restaurants have menus, either written, verbal or implied.
B. Restaurants charge money for food..
C. Restaurants serve food.
2. Reverse each assumption. What is its opposite?
EXAMPLE: The assumptions reversed would be:
A. Restaurants have no menus of any kind
B. Restaurants give food away for free.
C. Restaurants do not serve food of any kind.
3. Ask yourself how to accomplish each reversal. How can we start a restaurant that has no menu of any kind and still have a viable business?
A. A restaurant with no menu. IDEA: The chef informs each customer what he bought that day at the meat market, vegetable market and fish market. He asks the customer to select items that appeal and he will create a dish with those items, specifically for that customer.
B. A restaurant that gives away food. IDEA: An outdoor cafe that charges for time instead of food. Use a time stamp and charge so much for time (minutes) spent. Selected food items and beverages are free or sold at cost.
C. A restaurant that does not serve food. IDEA: Create a restaurant with a unique decor in an exotic environment and rent the location. People bring their own food and beverages (picnic baskets, etc.) and pay a service charge for the location.
4. Select one and build it into a realistic idea. In our example, we decide to work with the “restaurant with no menu” reversal. We’ll call the restaurant “The Creative Chef.” The chef will create the dish out of the selected ingredients and name the dish after the customer. Each customer will receive a computer printout of the recipe the chef named after the customer.

Reversals destabilize your conventional thinking patterns and frees information to come together in provocative new ways. For example:

• Suppose you have a glass of mint julep. Reverse this to the mint julep has you. How can we accomplish this? Imagine yourself falling into a glass of mint julep. This triggers the thought of inventing a shower attachment with different scents and perfumes.
• Drivers control the parking time of their cars. Reverse this to cars control parking time. This triggers the idea of parking anywhere as long as you leave your lights on.
• A chair has height. Reverse this to a chair is flat. This inspires the idea of a piece of thick padding material that you could lay over something else to make it a chair— like a large rock or downed tree. In effect, you could place the pad over anything in nature to make it a chair.
• Watches are made of permanent materials such as metal, leather and cloth. Reverse this to watches made of paper. Fashion changes more quickly than the materials wear out. Why not manufacture paper watches mad from tear-resistant paper material with a built in digital watch. The watch is purchased as a blank canvas, allowing the wearers to customize the watch band and face with their own designs. You can doodle on it with ball-point pens; markers, paint, or stencils, and either wear it yourself or give the custom-made watch to a friend as a personalized gift.


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