Were you able to do it?
That seems like a strange question to ask. Of course you could. But the strangeness of the question says something fundamental about the way your memory works. Memory provides you with the information it thinks you need when it thinks you need it. When you are walking through the supermarket (or asked to think about it), information about food and shopping is easy to recall. When you are at a football game, your knowledge of the rules and types of plays is easy to think about, but the texture of fresh romaine lettuce is not.
Now back to innovation.
When you need to solve a problem in a new way, you have two options. One is pure research and development. The other requires finding knowledge (which we already know) that offers a novel solution. When you gather a group for an ideation session, you are betting that the group already knows how to solve the problem, they just have to find the answer.
As I just showed you, pulling information from memory happens effortlessly. That means that in order to solve a problem, you need to ask your memory the right question.
To get a sense of what I mean, consider James Dyson. As I discuss in my new book Smart Thinking, Dysonset out to invent a more effective vacuum cleaner. He noticed that vacuums lose suction as the bag fills, because the pores in the bag get clogged. Most people who tried to fix this issue in the past attempted to solve the "bag problem" by crafting a more effective vacuum cleaner bag.
Instead, Dyson realized a vacuum takes in a combination of dust and air and needs to separate the dust from the air. Once he thought about the problem in this way, he was able to recall his own knowledge about the industrial cyclones used in sawmills. Industrial cyclones use centrifugal force to separate particles from air rather than a filter. He then designed a small industrial cyclone into a vacuum and created a highly successful business.
To solve the problem, Dyson focused on its essence. But what exactly constitutes the essence of a problem? One good exercise in "different" thinking is to consider proverbs. Take the adage, "The noise of the wheels does not measure the load in the wagon." What other commonly-known proverbs does this remind you of?
You might immediately think, "The squeaky wheel gets the grease." Notice, though, that these two proverbs don't mean the same thing. They are just similar on the surface. Remembering proverbs based on the surface is like a vacuum innovator focusing on solving the 'bag problem' rather than finding a more essential problem to solve.
Now, think about the core meaning of the first proverb. It means that the surface form of something doesn't indicate its essence. Once you think of the proverb in this way, you may be reminded of other proverbs like "You can't judge a book by its cover," or "All that glitters is not gold."
It turns out that if you practice finding the meanings of proverbs, you can get better at finding the same kind of essential definitions of problems you are trying to solve. Describing problems in this way will help you retrieve the knowledge you have that is most likely to lead to innovative problem solutions.
Ultimately, the key to innovation is not to "think different," but rather, to think about different things.
Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently editor of the journal Cognitive Science, and consults regularly through his company Maximizing Mind. Follow him on twitter @abmarkman.