Ed Glassman
Ed Glassman

How to Shift Paradigms and Think Outside the Box

To be truly creative, you have to think outside the box and shift paradigms. A paradigm is a belief structure within which you think and act. Existing paradigms can produce tunnel vision and affect your creativity.

A paradigm shift changes your belief structure and your perspective so you see things differently and creatively. How can you shift a paradigm? By following some simple approaches.

ACT NON-EVALUATIVELY: Think non-evaluatively, and list suggestions non-evaluatively, and listen non-evaluatively. New paradigms often seem farfetched and need special protection to survive.

Evaluation uses old information. When we evaluate, we immerse ourselves in old paradigms. To escape old ideas, stay non-evaluative and allow bizarre new paradigms and ideas to survive so they can trigger quality ideas. Adopt brainstorming rules.

THE PROBLEM’S ESSENCE: Knowing a problem in depth unfortunately means you have a myriad of pictures in your mind that spoil new thinking. To avoid these old pictures, work on the problem indirectly. Start with the ‘essence’ of the problem, the action verb that captures the main activity.

For example: the essence (or action verb) of an

–auto jack encompasses ‘lifting things;’

–a wheelbarrow, ‘transporting things;’

–walking on water, ‘floating things’ or ‘freezing things;’

–a bullet proof vest,impenetrability;’

–reuse of cans and bottles, ‘recycling things;’

–improving the can opener, ‘opening things.’

So instead of starting with how to improve the can opener, a creativity team first discussed ways to open things using analogies and metaphors from industry, animals, plants, other cultures, etc.

What happened? They discussed:

–squeezing the base of a dog’s mouth so it will open;

–a clam relaxes a muscle so tension on the back hinge of the shell forces the clam open;

–as peas ripen, the tough green covering develops a weak seam and the pea pod splits open.

The team forced combinations between the weak seam of the pea pod and opening cans. This did not lead to an improved can opener, as they originally intended, but it did lead to opening cans by pulling a weak seam, a common way to open most cans now, a fine example of a paradigm shift.

REVERSAL-DEREVERSAL: Turn your problem upside-down. When you get it right-side up again, you might face a new direction.

1. Reverse the key verb of the problem statement. For example: write spoil instead of stimulate; decrease instead of increase; fail instead of succeed; etc.

2. Non-evaluatively list solutions to the reversed problem statement.

3. Dereverse each reversal by writing “how-to” in front of each solution.

4. Smooth out the wording of the new problem statement until it makes sense.

5. Choose an appropriate new problem statement to use during idea generation.

Here’s an example of reversal-dereversal: 

1. Reverse “How to stimulate creative thinking in meetings” into “How to spoil creative thinking in meetings.”

2. One way to spoil creative thinking is to have dominating people present in the meeting.

3. Dereverse this statement to: “How to stay creative with dominating people present” or “How to get rid of dominating people.” Pursue paradigm shifts as they occur.

GUIDED FRESH EYE: Think about your problem as someone or something else.

For example…

a) Dolphin, bat, eagle, jellyfish, lion, pea pod, oak seed (choose one)

b) Chemical engineer, mechanical engineer, Martian, artist (choose one)

c) Biologist, chemist, secretary, banker, frog, geneticist (choose one)

d) Architect, building contractor, carpenter, accountant, shark (choose one)

e) Physicist, astronomer, musician, dancer, elephant, farmer (choose one)

Hydraulic engineer, clothes designer, trumpet player, cougar (choose one)

Restate the problem.

VERB SUBSTITUTION: A systematic change of a verb in a problem statement often transforms perspectives so paradigm shifts occur.

For example, you can transform: “How to get rid of a dominating person”…into:

“How to work with a dominating person.”

”    ”  change a dominating person.”

”    ”  succeed with a dominating person.”

”    ”  enjoy a dominating person.”

”    ”  handle a dominating person.”

”    ”  avoid a dominating person.”

”    ”  succeed in spite of a dominating person.”

”    ”  get along with a dominating person.”

”    ”  retrain a dominating person.”

”    ”  negotiate with a dominating person,” etc.

Note the different paradigms that occur with each verb substitution, possibly providing new ways to approach your problem. Substitutions for the word ‘dominating’ or ‘person’ in the problem statement may also provoke an insightful paradigm shift.

W-QUESTIONS: Asking questions that force you to look at a problem in a different way might lead to unexpected new paradigms.

For example, please answer the following questions about the problem:

• Why?

• Who?

• What?

• Where?

• When?

With whom?

And again, why?

I discuss other methods to shift paradigms, especially the use of metaphors with some advanced creativity techniques, in my book: “Team Creativity At Work I & II: Creative Problem Solving At Its Best.” CLICK here OR HERE.

A TRUE STORY: After a creativity session during which we redefined problems innovatively, a vice president of a Fortune-500 company told me he astonished himself with the many new paradigms he obtained on a problem on which he had already worked for several years. He achieved useful paradigm shifts using these techniques.


At the beginning of my creative thinking workshop, I often ask “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Most people give no answer. Some answer the “sound is silence,” a breakthrough in realizing that the answer does not have to be clever.

When I ask children this question they look puzzled. Sometimes they wave one hand through the air listening for the answer. Actually, the waving of one hand is one answer to the question.

According to Yoel Hoffman in “The Sound of One Hand: 281 Koans with Answers,” the acceptable answer is for a novice to face the Zen master, take a correct posture, and silently extend one hand forward. This answer embodies much of Zen philosophy. It is immediate, nonverbal, spontaneous, and intuitive, and so is creative thinking.

The Zen answer has many nuances that we need not pursue. Suffice to say that three years of meditating on the “sound of one hand clapping” produces a paradigm shift in the novice’s view of reality.

A paradigm shift is a change in your belief structure that changes your perspective and allows you to see things differently. My purpose in using the riddle about the “sound of one hand clapping” is to produce a quick paradigm shift to help creative thinking.

I want to jolt people into realizing that the way we perceive a problem limits our thinking. Almost immediately, some participants discover some creativity-spoiling habits that block their creative thinking. This discovery prompts a change in perception of creativity, and how to enhance it.

These people discover that ideas can be expressed nonverbally, as well as in writing. They see the value in being spontaneous and intuitive, as well as rational. They see the need to be immediate, as well as reflective. They see that creative thinking can be helped by changes in perception.

All this is triggered by a Zen riddle. This article is also like a Zen riddle in that it is intended to change your perceptions, produce paradigm shifts, and enhance your creative thinking.

And checkout my book: “CREATIVITY TRIGGERS ARE FOR EVERYONE: How To Use Your Inventiveness To Brighten Your Life.” CLICK here OR HERE.

His book: “Team Creativity At Work I & II: Creative Problem Solving At Its Best,” is available: CLICK here OR HERE.

His book: “R&D CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION HANDBOOK: A Practical Guide To Improve Creative Thinking and Innovation Success At Work” is available.   CLICK here  OR HERE

Ed Glassman, Professor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, founded the Program For Team Excellence And Creativity at the university. He led scores of problem-solving creativity meetings and creative thinking workshops-seminars for many large and small companies. He was a ‘Guggenheim Foundation Fellow’ at Stanford University, a ‘Visiting Fellow’ at the ‘Center For Creative Leadership’ in Greensboro, NC, a Visiting Professor at the University Of California at Irvine, and a Visiting Scientist at SRI International.

About the Author
Ed Glassman, Ph.D., is professor emeritus and former head of the "Program for Team Effectiveness and Creativity," in the medical school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was also a visiting fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina.