How to look at your challenge in a completely different way

Assumptions can prevent you from seeing obvious solutions, yet they can also be a source of valuable insights. You often only have to take a closer look at what you take for granted, to discover novel ideas.

Using assumptions to gain valuable insights

Challenging the most essential elements of your subject will very likely provide you with some interesting insights. Creative ideas often challenge the obvious. With creative thinking, almost everything can be removed, altered or replaced.

Although it sounds difficult to think beyond your assumptions, it doesn’t have to be. There is a simple technique that even conventional thinkers can use. This technique is particularly useful if you want to develop new products or services.

Let’s take a look at an example, to see how this technique works.

Imagine for a moment we would like to create a new kind of ‘hotel’.

1. Make a list of all the assumptions that you have about your subject
What is essential for your subject? What elements can’t your subject do without?

For a hotel in general, our list of assumptions could look something like this:


  • Hotels have a building
  • Hotels have rooms
  • Hotels have beds
  • Hotels have guests
  • etc.

You can make the list as long as you want. However, it’s advisable to set a timer so you don’t get lost in this first step. Three minutes should be more than enough to create an extensive list, and to come up with the most important assumptions. Keep in mind that the first two steps of this technique are just the means, not the end.

People often find it fun to explore a subject, because it’s rather easy to sum up assumptions. Be aware, participants should not use up all their energy trying to find assumptions. You mainly want to use your teams ‘thinking power’ for the development of creative ideas.

2. Reverse the assumptions
e.g. Assumption: “Restaurants have a kitchen”, reversed assumption: “Restaurants have NO kitchen”

So, if we look at our ‘hotel assumptions’ , our ‘reversed assumptions’ would look like this;

Reversed Assumptions:

  • Hotels have no building
  • Hotels have no rooms
  • Hotels have no beds
  • Hotels have no guests
  • etc.

3. Generate ideas on how to realise the ‘reversed assumptions’
Obviously step one and two are a walk in the park compared to the last step; turning the ‘reversed assumptions’ into useful ideas.

We’ve noticed that people often find it difficult to start. It feels weird to think about a topic that is missing one of it’s crucial elements.

“This can’t be done!” “It’s impossible!” “What’s the use when it’s missing it’s most important part?!”

These initial reactions are completely normal. And they make perfect sense. Assumptions exist for a reason, they are often useful and necessary. However, in this case we’re NOT interested in arguments on why something can’t be done. The goal of this technique is to explore our topic, and challenge ourselves to find ways how it can be done.

Hotels have no building

  • An outdoor hotel
  • A hotel with lots of small buildings (private rooms) instead of one large building
  • A hotel inside a cave
  • etc.

Hotels have no rooms

  • Instead of rooms, the hotel has ‘cocoon’ shaped accommodations
  • One big room for all guests
  • A hotel with indoor tents instead of rooms
  • etc.

Hotels have no beds

  • All guests are sleeping on one huge water-bed
  • A ‘hammocks’ hotel
  • A hotel for short stays (couple of hours), you can take a shower and work in your room (yet you can’t sleep for the night)
  • etc.

Hotels have no guests

  • A hotel especially designed for hotel employees to learn in a ‘natural’ looking test environment
  • A pet hotel (no human guests) for when you go on holidays
  • A hotel that you can rent for the entire year (inhabitants instead of guests)
  • etc.

Try to generate as many ideas as possible for each individual assumption.
Needless to say, most ideas will still need some work afterwards. However, thinking about unusual scenarios helps us to reach more novel ideas.

If you have enough time, it’s useful to give your team some time to get familiar with this technique before they apply it on their own challenge. Let them use it on a unrelated and neutral topic first, so they understand how the technique works. (A challenge could be; Design a new sort of table, chair, coffee mug, wine bottle, etc.)

By taking away an essential element, you have to think about your challenge in an entirely new way. Thinking about it can lead to an idea in which you don’t need the element at all, or in which the lack of a certain element is turned into a benefit. It can also happen that you keep the function of the element, yet that you reach this function in another way. Every approach is fine as long as you develop novel ideas that inspire you.


Hungry for more?
If you would like to learn more techniques and strategies for creative thinking, perhaps you should join one of our monthly workshops in Rotterdam. Check our workshop page for more information.




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