Orthogonal—it’s a word you don’t hear every day. The definition is “not pertinent to the matter under consideration.” The word orthogonal comes from the Greek orthogōnios, meaning “right-angled.” While this word is used to describe lines that meet at a right angle, it also describes events that are statistically independent or do not affect one another in terms of outcome.
Or at least they don’t appear to affect one another or the outcome. The fact is they do.
I first heard the term orthogonal thinking at a dinner with Peter Diamandis—the BIG thinker, physician, author, and founder of the XPRIZE Foundation. I think about it all the time when I have a challenge to solve or I need a new way to approach an opportunity.
A McKinsey & Company article states: “Orthogonal thinking, which draws on ideas from many spheres, can spur innovation and unexpected solutions. Water.org brought ideas from microfinance to bear on the problem of providing access to clean water in the developing world by offering small loans so individuals could invest in their own water solutions. Creating opportunities for people to encounter new ideas could help to solve other difficult problems.” See more at http://voices.mckinseyonsociety.com/dare-to-be-orthogonal/.
Peter Drucker, the great business thinker, used the term synthetic thinking—blending science, art, design, medicine, architecture, and other seemingly unrelated disciplines to not only solve complex challenges but, more importantly, to create something new, something that didn’t exist previously.
Fresh thinking most often comes from nonlinear thinking.
So how can you introduce orthogonal thinking into your organization? Three idea starters:
- Redefine your problems and challenges as opportunities. Sounds simple, but in my experience, seeing problems differently and looking through a new lens often leads to breakthrough thinking.
- Get different people around the table. Nonlinear thinking is hard when the task at hand is being worked on by those so close to the challenge. The competing pressures on your time and the limitations of budgets, schedules, resources, political pressures, perceptual bias, and on and on can dig an even-deeper rut, leading to conventional thinking that leads to the same dead end.
- Ask different questions. Voltaire asked us “to judge a man not by his answers but by the nature of his questions.” Water.org asked a different question that led to a new way of thinking and a new result.
If you haven’t read Peter Diamandis’ book, Bold, it’s a good starting place for a new way of thinking. Orthogonal thinking.