#510  from Innovative Leader Volume 10, Number 1          January 2001

Reversals and Decomposition
by Peter de Jager

Mr. de Jager, from Brampton, Ontario, consults and speaks on change and creativity.  He can be reached by phone 905-792-8706 or pdejager@technobility.com; website www.technobility.com.

What is creativity? How can we draw upon our creative powers to solve problems? In simple terms, creativity consists of actions (or thoughts) which are new and different. Ask most adults, "Are you a Creative person?" and you'll receive answers ranging from “No!” to “A little bit.” This is a pity, because most of us are quite creative.

Picasso said, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." The reason we lose our artistic power is that we are taught to “No!” too much. We are told there are no polka-dot cows and electric roses. That our ideas are stupid, that it can't work and that, "If it were a good idea, someone would have done it before!"

We are creative, but for the most part, that creativity has been buried beneath the worries of the day and the verbal abuse of naysayers.

You are creative. If you require hard evidence of your creativity, consider each day you voice hundreds, if not thousands, of sentences which have never been spoken before. Consider that each night you relax, go to sleep and dream the most fantastic dreams. Consider your sense of humor which takes people by surprise and makes them laugh.

We are all creative.  Our problem is how to remain creative in the corporate environment when problems need solving, and being different is frowned upon? In any profession you need the right tools, and there are tools to help you remain creative.

When you are being creative, you are being different. Being different is difficult because people who are different are singled out and put at risk. Try this experiment. Go out and buy a fluorescent pink and green tie and wear it into work tomorrow. Notice your feelings as the day goes by and people single you out for comments. Being creative, just by being different is tough and risky work.

When you are experimenting with new ideas you will need the courage to say, "This is an idea, lets play with it for a while before we decide it's 'useless.'" When you're reading this article, you'll need courage to say "These are different ideas, lets try them before we decide they won't work for us."

Two Tools

There are two techniques called Reversal and Decomposition, which you can use to force yourself into new ways of thinking about old problems.

When you use Reversal, you take a viewpoint and turn it upside down. When you use Decomposition, you take an established logical series of causes and effects and disconnect them from each other. There’s nothing complicated about either of these techniques, but each one requires some getting used to.

The best way to describe Reversal and Decomposition is to provide a detailed example. The following is from a retail chain of women's clothing.  Shortly before Christmas, the problem of customers returning gifts after the holidays was raised as we were preparing ourselves for a two-hour meeting. The executives explained that the volume of returns is significant.

Returns go against the basic concepts of retail! Normally customers come into the store and take garments giving money in exchange for their selections. But when you return goods, customers give the retailer used garments and get money in return. If this were an everyday occurrence retailers wouldn’t be in business for very long. It's not unusual to hand back hundreds of thousands of dollars just after Christmas. This negative cash flow takes the holiday spirit out of Christmas for most store owners.

How can one solve this problem? Customers are going to return goods and want their money back. There is nothing the retailer can do about that. You cannot change return policies just for the Christmas season (unless your name is Scrooge).  The problem is a traditional one, and most retailers never attempt to solve it. It's recognized as an insurmountable problem.

My role with this client was to sit in on executive meetings and offer ideas when I could. When the meeting was ending I suggested we spend a few more minutes on the Christmas return policy. I stated we obviously did not want the customers to return goods. Eight heads nodded in agreement. I then suggested that instead of not wanting them to return goods, we should reward them for doing so! At this moment eight executives probably decided my contract should be terminated.

It’s important to note that at the time I had no idea if the idea had any merit. I had reached for the creative tool labeled Reversal and applied it. Even to me, the idea sounded stupid. If we paid customers to return goods the negative cash flow would increase, not diminish. It sounded like a dumb idea. This is where creative courage is necessary.

This is the primary obstacle to creativity. When you offer an idea it is, at first, just an idea with little substance behind it. It needs to be fleshed out before you start looking for flaws. Every new idea is riddled with weaknesses. Knowing new ideas are full of flaws we sometimes stop ourselves from voicing the idea because we are afraid of rejection.

When ideas first arise they are weak and defenseless. It’s a very simple task to destroy an idea. A manager need just raise an eyebrow and most employees take the hint. They allow their ideas to die and get into the habit of keeping their ideas to themselves. If you don't give new ideas room to bloom, then you create a self-perpetuating environment where ideas are crushed or never spoken aloud.

When you have an idea (no matter how stupid it sounds) then you must voice it and defend it. At least until you have explored it in some detail. You will be surprised what can arise out of stupid ideas!

Back to the retail example. One of the cause and effects in the problem was that if a customer returns a garment then they must receive a refund. Reaching into the creative toolbox I pulled out another tool, Decomposition. I again applied it in a mechanistic, non-thinking manner and decomposed the link between cause and effect. The result was, if a customer returns a garment then we don't have to give them a refund. Let’s give them something else.

The two tools, Reversal and Decomposition worked together to create the following solution. The retail store decided that when a customer came in to return a garment, they would offer the client a gift certificate worth 110% of the original purchase price. In effect giving the customer a 10% reward for returning the unwanted garment.

The retail chain handed out more than $180,000 in gift certificates (thereby keeping about $164,000 in the cash registers). Customers were pleasantly surprised by their experience (they told their friends).

The real payback arose when the customers returned with their gift certificates. If you returned a garment worth $100, you now possessed a gift certificate for $110. When you returned to the store, did you go to the $50, $100 or $200 dresses? Many of the customers went to the $200 dresses because it would only “cost” them $90. At final count, the $180,000 worth of gift certificates resulted in $250,000 worth of sales.

Being creative is about thinking differently, but nobody said you can't use tools. The tools don't have to be complicated. They certainly don't have to be expensive. The only thing necessary to become more creative is courage and faith in the process. So the next time you need to be creative, Reverse the problem, Decompose your logic and wear a fluorescent pink and green tie.

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