The Galileo Effect

Sun Apr 4 2013 Michael McQueen

In the late 16th century, a medical student in the Italian city of Pisa observed a swinging chandelier with interest. Later, after scrutinizing a collection of chandeliers of all shapes and sizes arcing from left to right the student, one Galileo Galilei, concluded that whatever their form or size, chandeliers take roughly the same time to complete one arc.

Galileo's subsequent experiments led to theories that rocked the prevalent school of thought in Europe at the time – namely that the universe revolved around the Earth.

Galileo's new theory which placed the sun at the centre of the universe was seen as threatening to the scientific and religious assumptions of the day and led ultimately to a decree denouncing it as heresy. Despite this, Galileo staunchly defended his theory and was placed under house arrest for his heretical stance until his death in 1642.

Although Galileo suffered greatly for his views, the ground-breaking discoveries he made in the fields of mathematics and astronomy laid the foundations for what would later become known as the Scientific Revolution. Today he is even referred to as the father of modern science.

Great minds think... unalike

History is punctuated by great thinkers like Galileo who posed questions others were unwilling to ask – and who saw things that others failed to see. These great men and women were able to think beyond the paradigms of their times – and dramatically change the world as a result.

Although conventional wisdom tells us that "great minds think alike," the reality is that many of the greatest minds have thought decidedly unlike their peers.

From the scientific and medical through to the organizational or commercial fields, history shows us that continually relying on past assumptions and practices can prevent mankind from taking giant leaps into the future.

As such, the secret to innovation and creativity is to re-frame the realities we see – to actively look to see things from different perspectives or points of view. This goes to the very heart of the theme of innovation. As Dr Wayne Dyer put it, "When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change."

The Power of Fresh Eyes

Futurist Alvin Toffler once argued that Old information looked at through new perspectives makes new information, and he's right. Quite simply, leveraging the perspective of those who have fresh eyes or a different point of view is a powerful way of imagining new opportunities and solutions that may not otherwise have been apparent.

During the 1960s space race, for instance, the U.S. spent millions developing a pen for astronauts that would work in zero gravity. When faced with the same challenge, the Russian solution was to have their cosmonauts use a graphite pencil instead. The idea was so simple and obvious, but somehow had not occurred to NASA's best and brightest.

From a business perspective too, fresh eyes can be a uniquely powerful source of creativity and innovation.

In IKEA's early days, a marketing manager was struggling to fit furniture back into a truck at the end of a catalogue photo shoot. Watching as one attempt after another met with failure or frustration, the photographer suggested removing the offending table's legs – a simple but genius idea. Following on from this suggestion, it occurred to IKEA's leadership that if all their furniture could be shipped and sold disassembled that they could save significantly on freight costs.

This one suggestion from a fresh eyes perspective became the foundation of IKEA's enormously successful flat-pack business model. Having assembled my fair share of IKEA furniture over the years, I often wonder how many relationship breakdowns that one photographer has been indirectly responsible for in the years since!

Who is your Galileo?

In an era where imagining new ways of competing and doing business is critical for staying relevant and competitive, it is vital that leaders allow for and embrace the input of their own Galileos – those with fresh eyes or different perspectives.

Galileos can come in a variety of forms. They may be:

  1. The ambitious and naively optimistic young employee who has just joined your team. Blissfully unaware of 'how things have always been done', this young team member will often ask the most important innovation question of all – why do we do things that way? This question alone is powerful because it breaks the spell of the status quo and forces us to ask ourselves whether the way we have done things in the past is appropriate in the future.
  2. Those who are new to the industry or who are from as different area of specialty. The value of this second group's input is that they have no trouble thinking outside the box as they don't know what the box even looks like yet.
  3. Outsiders who have no vested interest or insider knowledge. This may be in the form of customers or the general public – people who don't know your business as well as you do. Such outsiders have an uncanny ability to see things that don't make sense and can point out the gaps (and even solutions) that those too close to the situation often fail to see.

While the input of those with different points of view can be revealing and revolutionary, it can also be highly uncomfortable and confronting. Like the 17th Century Catholic Church, many organizations see fresh eyes perspectives as a threat and therefore dismiss or reject such views to their own detriment. This is a mistake that leaders must be careful to avoid if they hope to remain ahead of the curve as times change.

Galileos may come in many shapes and sizes but their voices are amongst the most important to be heard. So who is your Galileo?

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