I’ll start with a very simple question: What do you see here?
You either see one or two figures in the drawing (spoiler alert: rabbit and/or duck), but in any case you can see only one of these figures at a time. To see both, you have to change the way you are looking. This figure exemplifies the general phenomenon of aspect-seeing, formulated most originally by Wittgenstein, one of the greatest philosophers and logicians of the 20th century. In this article, I’m going to explain why this notion of aspect-seeing is particularly useful for anyone wanting to innovate conceptually or practically. In effect, it is so useful, because innovation is essentially about changing the way that you see.
In my examples, I’ll focus on ways of seeing a product or business because the force of the concept will be easier to grasp; but the same points could be made for technological and conceptual innovation.
In addition to the above drawing (by Jastrow), Wittgenstein illustrates his point about aspect-seeing using another diagram, one that looks something like this:
Here’s what he says about it:
You could imagine the illustration appearing in several places…a text-book for instance. In the relevant text something different is in question each time: here a glass cube, there an inverted open box, there a wire frame of that shape […] Each time the text supplies the interpretation of the illustration.
But we can also see the illustration now as one thing now as another. – So we interpret it, and see it as we interpret it. — (Philosophical Investigations, xi)
To get Wittgenstein’s point, it’s important to emphasize that changing what we see is something that involves a genuine change in what we perceive; it’s not just a matter of “different interpretations” over the same content. If we are able to achieve a new interpretation of something, we experience something like a jump, a discontinuity in what we see that thing as. From one interpretation to the next the object itself changes. For example, in the case of the Wittgenstein’s box figure, when you pass from seeing the drawing as a glass box to seeing it as a wire frame, the solid walls disappear, etc.
Granting Wittgenstein’s point let’s return briefly to the first drawing: How did you see it initially? As a duck? You could have seen it as a rabbit. As a rabbit? You could have seen it as a duck. Wittgenstein says that in each case you see two different aspects of the drawing. While marking the perceptual shift involved in the duck-rabbit is interesting, I find Wittgenstein’s second example more striking. Why? Because the surprise of seeing now duck, now rabbit masks our perceptual achievement in grasping it differently each time.
“Aspect-Seeing” as a Device for Innovation
The example of the second drawing shows that ways of seeing something as are generated through practical activity, i.e. what you think you’re trying to do determines what you see. It also gives us a sense of the liberty and flexibility it’s possible to develop when we are aware of aspect-seeing. Even though it may be harder in some cases than in others to change the way we see something as, (habits of seeing, social norms and even language playing an important role), we in principle always have the power to do so. Indeed, we might say that innovative individuals, artists, scientists or entrepreneurs, possess the power of aspect-seeing to a very high degree.
The captions (from top left to bottom right): The sky / The pocketknive/The table/The sponge
René Magritte: La Clef des Songes (1929)
Cultivating aspect-seeing opens up an enormous potential for innovative-seeing and, thus, thinking.
Now, if it true, as I believe it is, that many of the most successful business models in the last decade have been driven by innovators who had learned to see their company’s activity as something different, this means that they have managed to escape a certain inflexible way of seeing it, in order to see the possibilities of doing something else.
This should help explain why the concept of “aspect-seeing” is so useful. Consciously manipulating the way you see something as, can transform an activity or an object without losing sight of what it is at present. If you try to see what you already have as something different, you are more likely to find ways that integrate well with what you are already doing.
In some cases, seeing your business as something different is about gaining a better understanding of what you already do. Start-up companies often find it difficult to understand what they are doing. To fail to understand the problem your business solves or the nature of the service you are offering is risky and will most likely lead to failure (Twitter, of course, reminds us that there are always exceptions).
Experimenting with different ways to see your activity can lead you to a better understanding of it.
“Grown-up” companies tend to have the opposite problem: they know all too well what they are doing, but get stuck in a conceptual fixedness. They can find new ways for their business through experiments in seeing as.
Aspect-Blindness as an Innovation Roadblock
I think that, figuratively speaking, the inability to see both the rabbit and the duck is a universal phenomenon. Wittgenstein calls this aspect-blindness, and it appears as one of the main roadblocks for both innovation and problem-solving across all disciplines and activities. The habit of seeing something only as a duck (or a rabbit) becomes quickly entrenched, and it may be hard to change the way you see without someone, as Wittgenstein would say, “showing you the way out of the flybottle.”
Aspect-blindness doesn’t merely happen on an individual level. It’s social, and maybe even built into language. Aspect blindness is also contagious. Some people speak of “group think”: people with the same scientific background or in a certain school or company tend to align to one vision. If the majority of the people you deal with see your activity as a rabbit, this will reinforce your blindness for the duck in it.
To overcome your blindness, it may be enough to invite someone from outside the blind group to tell you how (s)he sees your activity. To bring it back around, we at hypios see Wittgenstein as a virtual co-founder because hypios was conceived to help companies overcome aspect-blindness by connecting them to the people who will help them see both the duck and the rabbit. Indeed, we love to use hypios for our internal problems, because we learn so much from the diverse viewpoints of our Solvers.
Exercises in seeing as: Google, McDonald’s, Twitter, Apple:
Here are a two quick questions for you:
What is Google? What is McDonald’s?
My guess is that if you had never asked yourself this question before, the first answers that came into you head, were “a search engine” and “a fast food company,” while you would have been perfectly justified in saying “an advertising company,” because that’s how Google makes their money, and “a real estate business,” because McDonald’s became really big through an implementation strategy which focused as much on real-estate as on food.
What’s more, both companies have an interest in most people (including their employees) seeing them the more traditional way.
Now, it’s true that Brin and Page didn’t set out to found a big advertising company when they founded Google. They wanted to make a better search engine. But it’s because Google’s management learned to see Google as an advertising company that they are still around. Many of the features of their services, and some of the services themselves wouldn’t be the way they are if Google wasn’t all about advertising: do you really think you need to log in with your Gmail account mainly for copyright reasons? I don’t. Google Books is yet another way to gain a deeper understanding of individual users, because “what we are depends on what we read” (Elias Canetti) and what we buy depends on what we are.
Here’s another question:
What is Twitter?
There will probably be less consensus here. People use it for different things. But it is clear is that it is not essentially what it was conceived to be, i.e., a microblogging service, where people constantly tell their friends what they are doing, for example cooking spaghetti.
Well now it is more about information-sharing, and less about friend than about people you find interesting. When the founders had realized this, they changed the question prompting tweets from “What are you doing?” (which revealed their initial intention) to “What’s happening?”. The users and the founders diverged in what they saw twitter as and it was only when the founders saw everyone using it to swim, walk and fly that they realized that it wasn’t a rabbit.
Now here’s a question that’s starting to become tricky:
What is Apple?
I wonder if Apple has undergone a change in the way they see their business. They are not mainly a hardware company anymore. They have become a publisher and distributor. Since the iPad, each launch of a new kind of Apple product has been coupled with the launch of a store: the iPod and the iTunes store, the iPhone and the App Store, the iPad and the iBook Store. Apple’s a publisher in the App Store, a distributor (or e-tailer) in the iTunes and iBook stores. If it were as easy to track bugs in books and music as it is in software, Apple, as they learn from the sucess of their App Store, might also start to release music and books soon. The only thing which could cause trouble for Apple is that while they have beautiful rabbits and ducks, they are so scared of losing control that they may end up immobilizing them.
Klaus-Peter Speidel is the VP of Communications at hypios, which provides enterprises with open innovation ecosystems.