Buzzword Breakdown: Achieving Orthogonal Thought

Mark McKinney
Written by Mark McKinney on
Buzzword Breakdown: Achieving Orthogonal Thought

Let’s talk about orthogonal thinking. I know I know, championing a buzz word probably did not win me any points. But over-usage aside, there is something to be said of orthogonal thinking. After all, it must be a buzz word for a reason, right?

Absolutely.It is why a man nearly gave his life to conquer Mt. Everest, why a computer can be technically right while being completely wrong, and the difference between you overcoming critical hurdles or completely missing the mark.

Before we go any further, let me define this fancy office-jargon. An orthogonal thought is an idea that is forged where two or more fields intersect. Thus, orthogonal thinking is the connection of multiple disciplines to generate innovative ideas. You have definitely heard of this concept before, maybe just not without this esoteric name applied to it.

However, I want to take this overused — yet very valid — term and break it down so that we can appreciate its nuances and practically implement it. It is a lot more intriguing than we might expect.

To figure out how to achieve orthogonal thinking, we need to understand its precipitant: obliquity. Oooh, another cool ‘O’ word. In John Kay’s book, Obliquity, Kay references an unintuitive but effective strategy for approaching any life challenge. In life, the best way to achieve our goals is to reach them indirectly — through obliquity. The best illustration of effective obliquity use is through the conquest of happiness.

Let me introduce mountaineer Reinhold Messner. In 1980, Messner reached Mt. Everest’s summit from the most treacherous side of the mountain, alone, and without oxygen. Who in their right mind would do that?

“[Messner] sought happiness by enduring misery, he chose the most demanding route, he deprived himself of aids that would made his progress safer and his success more probable. He achieved his objective obliquely…by overcoming obstacles he had placed in his own path.”

To me, this seems like the least direct path to happiness — Messner was tempting death and enduring severe discomfort. Yet, this made him happy. Conquering Everest through the most difficult of means gave him satisfaction.

But what does this mean for us non-mountaineers? Well, by directly seeking happiness, we will often come up short and dissatisfied. Instead, relish the challenge of the pursuit itself. As the cliché goes, enjoy the process and all its twists, turns, and stumbling blocks one step at a time.

I am reminded of the quote that I see as I walk out of my dorm-room in York Hall:

York Quote

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.”

The oblique method helps you achieve these big-picture goals — like happiness — through adaptation and iteration coupled with the constant rebalancing of new information over time. Obliquity values adaption through faithfully taking small steps forward over closed systems or static calculations. Obliquity is non-linear, unobvious thinking. Kay uses the example of performing well on the golf course:

“You can only swing well when you can swing without thinking about it.” By making the swing natural, you perform well. By directly concentrating on the movement, you often mess it up — you are trying too hard to be perfect and ironically do worse than if you had not thought about it.

At this point, I think we understand the essentials of obliquity. Now, how is it more practically achieved? Through orthogonal thinking.

Let’s take another example that Kay presents in Obliquity.

“I [Kay] asked the Transport for London website how to get from Paddington Station to Hyde Park Gardens. It told me to take a bus in the opposite direction, and then retrace the route of the bus on foot to Paddington Station. When I arrived there, I should walk directly to Hyde Park Gardens…It is, of course, quicker still not to use the bus at all.”

Through the basic definition of obliquity, you might think that the website used an oblique method for solving the question. Yet, if you reexamined Kay’s question, you would realize that he wants to find the quickest way to Hyde Park, not that Kay wants to find the fastest way to Hyde Park through the London Transportation System. Thus, the website provided a direct answer to a poorly presented version of the question.

As Kay suggested, the better answer was to skip the bus entirely and just walk there. The website did not even consider that as it did not fully understand the context of the question. Kay did, through the basic usage of orthogonal thinking. By considering different fields of thought, Kay was able to instantaneously consider skipping the transportation system by merely walking to Hyde Park. A mundane example, but one that illustrates how we can prevent ourselves from becoming locked into a frame of thinking via orthogonal thinking.

It is baffling to consider that our goals are often best achieved not by directly attacking the issue. Orthogonal thinking allows us to think more creatively by incorporating multiple disciplines and points of view to find solutions and answers. By doing so, we can approach challenges obliquely, instead of solving challenges with the immediately apparent — and often inefficient — answer.

Here are some suggestions to get started thinking this way:

  • Learn to play Go: An ancient Chinese board game that will get you looking at patterns and strategies differently every time you play.

  • Ask someone opposite of you to lunch: We surround ourselves with people who are like us. This can be based on beliefs, hobbies, majors, careers, etc. While there is nothing wrong with this per se, we need to periodically expose ourselves to social circles that view the world differently.

  • Practice finding commonality in dissonant concepts: Look at your world as it is now. What are the things that seem opposing or merely irrelevant to each other? How could you make those thinking similar, complementary, or dependent on each other? Begin this process by taking notes for things you read all on the same page. I guarantee you’ll be surprised by how many things overlap and complement each other.

  • Practice creating analogies: When writing or thinking about a difficult concept, figure out how you would explain it by creating an original analogy.

Now at your next meeting, not only can you sound cool, you can back it up too. I hope this brief deconstruction will help you with your next brainstorming session!

Mark McKinney

Mark McKinney

Hey there, I'm Mark. I graduated with a Master's from High Point University in North Carolina where I studied Entrepreneurship and Strategic Communication. I'm currently a Technical Solutions Engineer at Permutive.