How to Force A Beginner’s Mindset (When You’re Too Familiar With the Problem)

Don’t fool yourself into believing you can just think up a solution to a problem you’re trying to solve. If you could have solved it by now you would have, and dedicated thinking time isn’t going to shake anything else from the tree.


That’s why we use structured exercises designed to help us think differently than we normally do, and part of the reason these exercises tend to spark more ideas than banging your head on your desk is because they start from a place of ignorance. One of the best ways to approach a familiar problem is to do so from a beginner’s mindset (which is also a fundamental of Design Thinking).


A beginner’s or novice mindset will remove your assumptions, biases and pre-existing knowledge about the problem that blocks you from seeing fresh opportunities. It gets rid of the “we’ve always done it this way”s and the “that would never work”s, because without existing knowledge you aren’t sure of those two things.


But here’s the problem — you already know everything. You live the problem daily and know it inside and out. So how you do look at something so familiar with the fresh eyes of a newbie?


1. You Can Fake It.


Imagine you didn’t know anything. Ask someone else to explain it to you as though you were a child. Ask questions a child would ask. Bonus: explain the problem to a child and see if their beginner’s mindset drives an interesting line of questioning.


2. Ask Yourself (or have someone else ask you) 5 Whys.


The 5 whys is barely an exercise: It’s just asking why until you’ve run out of answers or had a breakthrough (usually one or the other and usually 5 times).


Q. Why do you have to use paper forms?

Because that’s how it’s done right now

Q. Why is that the way it’s done right now?

Because not everyone had a computer to OH MY GOD I’VE GOT THE SOLUTION

3. Bring in actual beginners.


This may sound like cheat mode but it’s very legal and very effective. Multidisciplinary teamshave many benefits, the most obvious being an outsider’s perspective. By bringing together people who are not close to the problem, you broaden the opportunity for solutions.


4. Set limitations.


With rules or parameters to guide your thinking, you block off familiar and easy solutions and remove the internal limitations you subconsciously already live by. This can be done by using a brainstorm deck (I made one and it’s free! You can get it here.)


Limitations can help you think of your problem from a different perspective; or change the rules to change the outcome. An example of a limitation (a card in the deck) would be “How would you solve this problem without using technology?” or “How would you solve this problem if the solution had to be environmentally friendly?”


5. Opposite Thinking.


This is one of the best exercises I’ve used and it’s quickly become a client favorite as well. By listing something you already know and then asking “what if the opposite of this were true?” you can remove the barriers of your own knowledge, identify and challenge assumptions and look at things from a new perspective. Opposite Thinking is definitely something to add to your toolbox.


Go forth and think freshly. You’ve got this!


If insanity is doing the same thing in the same way while expecting different results, then surely innovation is seeing familiar things in new ways for wildly different results.

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