The Importance of Orthogonal Thinking for Innovators
In the early 1960s, George de Mestral invented a material that almost everyone knows of today. His inspiration for this invention came during a hunting trip, when his dog ended up covered with burs. George de Mestral observed how the burs clung on to his dog’s fur, and with that, he began inventing hook and loop fasteners. Eventually, he patented Velcro.
He may not have known it, but George de Mestral was practicing orthogonal thinking. By taking inspiration from one domain and applying it to another, he formed an insight that led to a pioneering innovation.
At Method, our business design team uses orthogonal thinking to help organizations innovate by pursuing new business models, markets, and strategies. We focus on providing viable long-term recommendations, which requires a deep understanding of the ever-changing future. The practice of drawing conceptual similarities from seemingly unrelated fields helps us navigate through ambiguity, build conviction, and generate these recommendations.
Method’s business design team intentionally promotes orthogonal thinking both internally (within our team) and externally (with our clients).
Externally, our business designers work across many industries. We may work on a healthcare scope for one project, move onto an environmental, social and governance (ESG) engagement, then serve an energy company.
We invite our clients to transcend their industries, too. One recent project involved enhancing a paid membership experience for a national retailer. To recommend a certain strategy, our team developed case studies on how five different companies grew customer engagement and revenues by embracing a specific set of experience principles. The diversity of these five companies was essential to demonstrating the industry-agnostic success of these principles.
Internally, Method’s business design team promotes a culture that is conducive to orthogonal thinking: a fly on the wall (or on Zoom) would observe leaders that encourage speakers to share ideas with minimal self-editing, and listeners who suspend judgment when listening. Every other week, the business design team has a “mood board” meeting. Similar to how graphic designers use mood boards to inspire designs, this meeting is also meant to inspire creative business design thinking.
Each meeting, a rotating host facilitates discussion around a business design-related prompt; this can be any topic that is remotely related to business design. Some recent hits include: Netflix’s ad-supported subscription tier, Alphabet’s business units, and a venture fundraising round for Swiftly. This practice allows team members working with clients in vastly different industries to practice orthogonal thinking, which may spark inspiration for a challenge in their own domain.
Orthogonal thinking is a core tenet of our business design practice. Whether one is inventing Velcro or proposing a new business model, finding and using inspiration from other domains unlocks powerful thinking, and in turn, generates effective and creative solutions.
More helpful resources:
- Business Design and Emotional Intelligence, by Dr. Vanina Delobelle
- How We Design Digital Experience Strategies at Speed, by Lusine Tarkhanyan, PhD
- Why We Need More Than Design Thinking for What’s Next, by Helen Le Voi