Looking both ways


I took this photo on a late afternoon in London a day before New Year’s Eve 2003. It had just stopped raining, and I’d rushed out with my camera to take as many photos as I could in the last few minutes of light. I was probably doing a lot more shooting than looking. I guess this sign found me.

The sign reminds pedestrians that traffic is coming from both directions rather than just one. And if you’re from the US or other parts of the world where we don’t drive on the left, that direction might not be the one you expect. You learn quickly.

But since then this photo has reminded me that there is always more than one way to look at a problem. Our environments change. Our tools change. Our attitudes change. If we insist on looking at an issue in only one way, we will never see the unexpected connections and associations that make real breakthroughs possible.

This is one of the reasons I love traveling. I love being thrown into environments where everything is new and demands your attention. We shift from autopilot to hyper-aware. You can’t just simply order food at a restaurant or board a train, you have to actively process a new set of input. Every situation offers its own challenges and wonder.

Just when you think every toilet on earth is the same, you visit Japan.

IDEO’s Tom Kelley calls this thinking like a traveler. Where you consciously work to see everything as novel and foreign, just as you would if you’d stepped off a plane onto another continent. This mindset, especially when used in our everyday lives, can offer a limitless source of insight and imaginative problem solving. You never know what you might find if you’d only bother to look.

As the classic Peter Drucker quote says, “The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing them with new eyes.“

To put it another way, you may find new answers simply by changing the way you look at an old problem.

Any time you’re stuck or need an idea–step back and shift your perspective. Use new eyes. Stop. Observe. Take the time to focus and reflect on your experience. If you look closely, you just might see something in the commonplace that you’ve never seen before.

For example. Go to where your customers are–could be a trade show, retail store, message boards–anywhere conversations happen. Listen to how they talk to their colleagues or their peers about your product. The more authentic the conversation, the better the chance you’ll gain real insight. Even if they’re complaining. Phil Dusenberry, former chairman of ad giant BBDO, said that’s when people are most honest.

Or look inside your own company. Hold a design thinking session with departments outside your own. Read your marketing collateral. Search your website. Pretend you’re seeing everything for the first time, through the eyes of a customer.

What do you see?

“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, and eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” – Walker Evans


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