Unlocking the innovative mindset
The cultural foundation for building an agile, adaptive organisation
“Everyone takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world”. — Arthur Schopenhauer
In December 1998, the Financial Times published a feature article about a thinking tool I’d developed.
The tool was based on my previous decade of experience working with clients throughout Europe, Asia and the US, helping them create cultures of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness.
The FT article called the thinking tool “This exciting new gadget” and said it:
“…will help you unlock your innovative mindset and allow you to pull different perspectives together and lift thinking to a higher out-of-the-box-level”.
The “gadget” was the 2D3D thinking tool below.
The idea of a ‘thinking tool’ was inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s famous dictum:
“If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”
The 2D3D thinking tool is a 3D solid object, which when viewed from one angle looks like a circle.
Viewed from an orthogonal axis it looks like a square.
And seen from the third orthogonal axis it looks like a triangle.
Each viewpoint yields a very different perspective on the same object.
What you see depends on the angle you’re coming from.
[If you find it difficult to visualise, you can see it in this six minute video.]
The 2D3D thinking tool embodies a fundamental but frequently overlooked truth about human perception — none of us ever sees the whole picture.
We each come at things from our own particular angle, and thereby each gain unique, individual, and diverse - but inevitably partial - perspectives on any situation.
Each of these personal perspectives is inherently incomplete, biased, and one-sided.
Just like the circle, triangle, and square facets of the 2D3D thinking tool, we each only ever grasp a ‘2D take on a bigger picture 3D reality’ that none of us can ever see in its entirety.
The 2D3D thinking tool embodies the traditional Indian folk story of the six blind men and the elephant.
Each of the six men grasps a particular aspect of the elephant — the trunk, the tusk, the leg, the ear, the side, the tail — and mistakes the part for the whole:
The trunk means the elephant is like a snake
The tusk means it’s like a spear
The leg means it’s like a tree trunk
The ear means it’s like a fan
The side means it’s like a wall
The tail means it’s like a rope
The six men engage in heated debate, disagreeing about the true nature of the elephant none of them has seen.
Of course, if rather than asserting their individual perspectives to be the truth they instead explored what each other grasped, they’d be able to form a much richer collective understanding of what they were dealing with.
Although the six men in the story were physically blind, even if we have 20:20 vision we still never see the whole picture.
It’s vitally important to realise that our inability to see things in their entirety isn’t a personal failing — it’s just a natural, inevitable part of being human.
But what is a personal failing, and a major barrier to organisational innovation, agility and adaptiveness, is mistaking our personal 2D perspective for the whole reality.
The trap of 2D perspectives
It turns out to be all too easy to fall into the self-deceptive trap highlighted by Arthur Schopenhauer in the quote above.
By taking “the limits of our field of vision to be the limits of the world”, we mistake our 2D perspective for the whole 3D reality.
Caught in this trap, we only relate to those who see things the same way we do, aligning with them and alienating everyone else.
Then, when we encounter someone who sees things differently, our thinking will be along the lines: “We can’t both be right. And I know I am – so you must be wrong”.
Similarly, we won’t be able to entertain their perspective because “If you were in any way right, that would make me completely wrong”.
In terms of the 2D3D thinking tool, Circlists - the people who tend to see the 2D circle as “reality” feel most comfortable being around other Circlists.
The more Circlists hang out with other Circlists, the more they’ll see Triangolans as mistaken, misinformed, or misguided for seeing the 2D triangle as “reality”.
Triangolans of course will return the favour, holding similarly dim views of Circlists.
And neither will see eye-to-eye with Squarians…
This mutually reinforcing tendency to become ever more deeply entrenched in the perspectives we share with “people like us” is the reason so many organisations fracture and fragment into fiefdoms, factions, and silos.
Local perspectives become increasingly embedded amongst “us”, and “we” become increasingly disconnected from “them” — colleagues who see things differently.
Then what start out as simple misunderstandings end up becoming deeply embedded institutionalised misalignments resulting in:
Mistakes — where time, energy and money get wasted doing things that don’t add value;
Missed opportunities — where things that would add significant value don’t get done; and
Friction & inertia — where it takes an age to get anything done.
Adopting 2D3D mindsets
Contrast this deeply dysfunctional but sadly all-too-common scenario with what happens when people adopt 2D3D innovative mindsets instead.
As we’ve seen, a 2D3D mindset comes from, and further cultivates, the active awareness that all perspectives, including our own, are inevitably incomplete, biased, and one-sided.
When this realisation really, genuinely hits home, not just cognitively but viscerally, we begin to see the different 2D perspectives of diverse others not as threats, but as opportunities to enrich our understanding.
As a consequence of this mindset shift, we become curious about what others see that we don’t.
We then begin to approach others with this attitude, and they pick up on the fact that we’re genuinely curious about their perspectives.
They can feel we’re not interrogating them so we can gather evidence to prove them wrong, but that we’re earnestly inquiring because we’re genuinely interested in understanding what they see that we don’t.
Encounters like these are innately imbued with a respectful attitude that dissolves distrust, breaks down barriers, and nourishes healthy productive relationships.
Then the very same people we previously saw as mistaken, misinformed, and misguided automagically appear interesting, insightful, and inventive.
In this way, 2D3D mindsets unblock and unlock cooperation and collaboration, sparking new insights that lead to new ideas, experiments, and initiatives, unleashing the collective capacity to co-create new value.
In other words, 2D3D mindsets are the cultural foundation for building an innovative agile organisation.
Despite the Hollywood myth of the lone genius in a white lab coat working 100 hours straight and then running out into the sunshine shouting “eureka”, innovation is a team effort that emerges from the bringing together of multiple different perspectives to co-create new value in new ways.
It was whilst working at one of the world’s leading open innovation labs from 1983-1995 that I learned how 2D3D mindsets are at the very heart of a future-fit culture of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness.
Our work involved combining skills, capabilities, ideas, insights and perspectives from such diverse technical fields as digital and analogue electronics, real-time software, optical physics, mechanical engineering, biotech, industrial design, human factors and product manufacturing to solve clients’ pressing business challenges.
But alongside all these technologies, we worked closely with client people across their internal value creation functions, helping break down barriers and build high quality, productive relationships between their own people.
This experience of creating future-fit cultures of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness set me on the professional path I’ve been on for the past 35 years, helping people in organisations discover high leverage, low risk ways to systemically cultivate innovative 2D3D mindsets throughout their organisations.
Unlocking 2D3D mindsets unleashes the organisational magic of innovation, agility and adaptiveness — as people increasingly value, exchange, and integrate their different 2D perspectives as part of their normal ongoing day-to-day actions and interactions.
When innovative 2D3D mindsets are widely adopted, sense making, decision making & action taking become ever more tightly coupled, rapidly and repeatedly iterated, deeply embedded and widely distributed throughout an organisation — vital if it’s to thrive in our increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world.
As individuals, it’s strangely liberating when we first realise it’s not just OK to not know everything — but that none of us ever can.
When this penny really, truly drops, we naturally and automatically become curious to seek out other perspectives, both to enrich our own understanding, and to collectively co-create new value together.
Then the futile, fatuous fights about whose inherently incomplete, biased, and one-sided 2D perspective is “right” and whose is “wrong” fall away, and a future-fit culture of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness emerges instead.
That’s why, nearly a quarter of a century after the FT feature, the 2D3D thinking tool remains at the centre of my professional practice — and forms my Substack logo…
Schopenhauer published a collection of thoughts in Parerga and Paralipomena - Greek for Appendices and Omissions - in 1851. These were subsequently published in various English collections including Studies in Pessimism, translated by Thomas Bailey Saunders in 1913. Within Studies in Pessimism a section titled Further Psychological Observations includes this full quote [Item 69]: “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world. This is an error of the intellect as inevitable as that error of the eye which lets us fancy that on the horizon heaven and earth meet. This explains many things, and among them the fact that everyone measures us with his own standard—generally about as long as a tailor's tape, and we have to put up with it: as also that no one will allow us to be taller than himself—a supposition which is once for all taken for granted.”
The dictum is cited as one of Buckminster Fuller’s favourites on the Buckminster Fuller Institute website.
The Indic source of the elephant story is the Jain concept of Anekantavada.
This four minute video describes the importance of avoiding fragmentation into fiefdoms, factions, and silos.
Cambridge Consultants in Cambridge UK.