An idea that was useful at one time may no longer be useful today and yet the current idea has developed directly from that old and outmoded idea. It is historical continuity that maintains most assumptions — not repeated assessment of their validity.
–Edward DeBono, Lateral Thinking
W. E. Gordon, who died this week at his home in Ithaca, NY, designed and built the world’s largest radio telescope. The size of 26 football fields and nearly seven times larger than the next largest radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory has been the source of great scientific discoveries, including proof that the gravity waves predicted by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity exist.
What was required for such a valuable innovation? Well, obviously, technical skill, creative thinking, persistence, and genius. The list could go on. However, according to his New York Times obituary, Dr. Gordon provided this insight: on the occasion of the Observatory’s 40th anniversary, he said that he and his colleagues had not remotely grasped the challenges they faced. “Their saving grace,” he suggested, was that we were young enough that we didn’t know that we couldn’t do it?”
In short, Dr. Gordon was not constrained by the governing assumptions of his day. Unshackled by their constraints, he was free to create what at the time was assumed to be impossible. Indeed, assumptions can act as a powerful constraint on our thinking. Consider the game of tether ball. Just as the pole and rope determine the distance and route the tether ball can travel, an assumption defines the universe of options available to solve any problem.
Creative problem solving and good decision-making often require assumption busting: identifying key assumptions, ruthlessly questioning their validity, generating new assumptions, and then asking “What if?” To complete the analogy, you need to dig up and move the pole; or even better: cut the rope and see where the ball sails.
While most of us are not on the cusp of an innovation on the scale of The Arecibo Observatory, we all face daily challenges. If you find yourself needing a breakthrough at work, in a personal relationship, solving a technical challenge, identify your key assumptions. Challenge them. Find those that are no longer valid. Articulate new assumptions. And then seek your breakthrough among the fresh alternatives that emerge.
Photo courtesy of the NAIC – Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF