"Every mile you go in the wrong direction is really a two mile error. Unlearning is twice as hard as learning." — Unknown
Question: Imagine the Roman Numeral equation below is made out of ten toothpick sticks such that “I” equals one stick and the “X” “+” and “=” all represent two sticks:
XI + I = X
Your mission – should you choose to accept it — is to fashion the correct answer by moving around as few sticks as possible.
If you answered one – by placing “I” on the other side of “X” – to create this new equation: IX + I = X, you solved the problem but you did not get the correct answer. The correct answer is zero. The equation merely requires you to flip the equation upside down:
X = I + IX
What is interesting about the problem is that when students had their brains scanned while solving the problem the brain waves associated with memory and conventional mental activity experienced abrupt decreases just prior to the solution becoming apparent. This result has lead researchers to theorize that thinking spatially may be one way to expand problem-solving potential.
Recently, I encouraged you to “become uncomfortable in your own skin” by unlearning the regular way you fold your hands or cross your arms. I’d now invite you to take this step further and identify a few other daily rituals that you can do in a spatially different manner.
For example, if you are right-handed trying using your left hand to brush your teeth or move the mouse on your computer. You may also consider putting your pants on with the leg opposite the one you normally use. Other ideas include eating corn-on-the-cob differently (e.g. if you normally eat corn horizontally along the rows try eating it in vertical fashion up the columns) or eating your pie from the outer edge.
Such activities sound frivolous but in each case the brain is required to reactivate seldom used neural connections and the new connections can lead to innovation insights that may facilitate unlearning older and more conventional ways of problem-solving.
For instance, eating pie from the edge was instrumental in causing pizza companies to experiment with making the crust more enjoyable by infusing it with cheese. And the analogy to the Roman numeral quiz is apropos of the engineer who was charged with making elevators run more quickly in order to appease growing customer discomfort with the long waits. When faced with legitimate safety concerns that limited the speed, the engineer flipped the question on its head and asked the seemingly ridiculous question: “What would we do if we wanted to make the passenger wait longer for the elevator?” The result led him to install mirrors by each elevator. The tactic didn’t change the speed of the elevator but it did take passengers mind for the delay and caused the underlying problem to go away.
Homework Assignment: In 1996, Guinness was plagued by plummeting sales due to consumers growing impatience with the time it took to properly pour a Guinness. (The process takes about two minutes). To overcome the problem, company officials made no changes to their beer and instead turned the “problem” of slowness into a virtue by creating a new ad campaign slogan (“Good things come to those who wait”). This, in turn, converted the supposed liability into an asset. Your assignment is to identify one trouble area in your business and turn the issue on its head. List at least one outcome from this process.