The False Rule

If you face a tough problem, obvious solutions will usually not suffice. To tackle truly tricky challenges, you need unusual approaches. Creative thinking techniques can help you find such approaches.

There are many thinking techniques that can help you generate more original ideas. Most of these techniques work because they force you to change your perspective. They force you to look at the situation differently and to look for answers in different directions.

“You Cannot look in a new direction by looking harder in the same direction”

– Edward de Bono

One particularly useful technique to force yourself to generate unusual ideas, is the ‘False Rule’. Like many thinking techniques, the False Rule technique consists of three simple steps:

Step 1. Pick a rule that does not match your challenge.
For instance, use one of the following rules (but make sure the rule does not seem to match your situation)
– “Refrigerate after opening”
– “Shake well before using”
– “Applicants must be over 18 years old”
– “Flush after use”
– “Keep out of reach of children”

By using a rule that is meant for a totally different situation you are forced to look for answers in unusual directions. By using the rule out of context you increase the chances of finding a truly original approach.

Imagine for instance the following situation: you noticed that some of your employees spend many hours of the day gossiping around the coffee machine. You don’t want to be that sourpuss who constantly monitors peoples every move, but you also realise this behaviour is costing the company money. You’re looking for a way to subtly prevent people from taking lengthy coffee breaks. A rule you could pick is ‘refrigerate after opening’. This rule is definitely not applicable to your situation, and therefore an excellent choice.

Step 2. Apply the rule to your challenge
See what happens when you apply the rule. This will not be easy. After all, the rule is meant for a completely different situation. Connecting the rule to your challenge might seem impossible at first. But don’t give up too soon. The fact that it will be hard to connect the strange rule to your situation is exactly what makes it so powerful. It forces you to make a connection that you would usually not even consider.

How can you apply ‘refrigerate after opening’ to your situation? Well, perhaps you should cool down employees as soon as they reach the coffee machine… By turning off the heating in the hallway where the coffee machine is located you can make it unpleasant to linger there for too long. You could even place a fan with cool air next to the machine, preventing people from staying there longer than absolutely necessary. Or maybe the machine should be placed outside?

Don’t limit yourself to one-on-one applications of the rule. This will not always be an option. Use the rule as inspiration. Associate freely and use what you can.

For instance, there are many more ways to make being around the coffee machine less pleasant. You could start playing annoying music around the machine…

Step 3. Use the reason behind the rule
Take a close look at the reason this rule was introduced in the first place. Why should people under normal circumstances follow this rule? What’s its goal? Could this principle be used in your situation?

The reason behind ‘refrigerate after opening’ is clear enough; its goal is to prevent food from going bad. How could this logic be applied to your challenge? You could think of ways to prevent employees from turning ‘bad’ (in this case: unproductive)… Maybe you can facilitate productivity around the coffee machine. Perhaps you should introduce an idea wall next to the machine, enabling people to write down any good ideas they have (or problems they struggle with). After all, the coffee machine is where people meet and exchange ideas!

Too challenging?
Of course it is possible that even after serious contemplation, no useful insights are found. While its steps are simple, the False Rule is not an easy technique. If you are not experienced in creative thinking (yet), you might want to start off with an easier technique like ‘Analogy’ or SCAMPER.

I urge you to give seemingly ‘odd’ techniques like the False Rule a chance though. It won’t take you more than ten minutes to use this curious technique, and it might well lead you to surprising insights. Give it a shot and please share your experiences with the technique in the comment box below!


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