Of playground paradoxes and ancient gods: how to innovate with Janusian thinking

Today, we would declare in the playground, is Opposite Day. On Opposite Day, everything you said meant the opposite of what you said, so you had to say the opposite of what you wanted to say in order to communicate what you wanted to say. But to say Today is Opposite Day on Opposite Day meant it was not Opposite Day, so how could you spread the word around school that it was Opposite Day?

Still with me? Getting our heads around paradoxes takes some concentration. However, the ability to conceive of conflicting or opposite thoughts simultaneously has been identified as a mark of outstanding creativity by the psychiatrist Albert Rothenburg.

Rothenburg named this type of thought ‘Janusian Thinking’, after the Roman god Janus. Janus was a two-headed god, one of whose heads could look into the past whilst the other looked into the future. Whilst few of us have two heads with which to hold antithetical ideas concurrently, we can emulate the Janusian thought process in order to approach what we do at a higher level of thinking.

Rothenburg studied 54 Nobel prizewinners and attributed many major scientific breakthroughs or artistic works of genius to a specific process: taking a problem formulated in terms of opposing concepts or ideas, and trying to resolve the paradox.

Many of the problems you may have with your business can probably be captured in terms of a paradox.

Can you now think of a non-business equivalent to the problem your paradox describes?

In your analogy, what can be done to improve the situation?

Now can you apply this improvement back to your original paradox?

What’s your new big idea?

Rothenburg has claimed that Einstein, Bohr, Mozart and Picasso were all Janusian thinkers. Our paradoxes may be more Opposite Day than Quantum Theory, but with a little prayer to Janus we might come up with some creative innovations to improve on our company’s status quo.

Got a case of experts’ disease? Don’t call the doctor

In the lofty world of academic research into language, experts speak of a common plight of those who spend their days trying to decide whether sentences they encounter are grammatical or not: linguists’ disease. The symptoms? Because these specialists spend so long examining their area of expertise, they find that they increasingly struggle to maintain perspective and make accurate judgments over whether a sentence sounds right in their native language or not.


When you’ve built up a company yourself, or spent many years working in a certain sector, you probably know your stuff pretty well. But do you think you might ever find yourself suffering from experts’ disease? The more you know about a certain area, the more you think in a certain way about that area. We create the box we’re always being told to think outside of.

Our thinking remains inside the box, even when we search for new ideas. What’s more, we often surround ourselves by people with similar expertise or outlook, further limiting our horizons. Indeed, the greater our knowledge or experience of a certain field, the more difficult it is to innovate.


Don’t just self-medicate by telling yourself to think outside the box. And don’t call the doctor. A more effective treatment is to talk to someone who is not an authority in your field. Often the greatest innovators are those who do not have expert knowledge and so have to search elsewhere to bring new ideas and solutions to the table.

If you have a problem, run it past someone who is from an entirely different background to you. The less associated they are with your business, the more likely they are to offer you a new perspective. This could be anyone.

Track down people you know to be creative, imaginative or big on ideas. They may not have your professional know-how, but they might have a talent for innovation that could spark something new.

Talk to strangers. They might observe something you haven’t. Talk to customers or clients. Their criteria for how they evaluate your product could well be different from your own.


Talking to non-experts is only an effective treatment if you listen to what they have to say. Your success depends upon your ability to hear what they tell you and take them seriously. This can be hard to do when you are the expert and they are not, and you may resist what they have to say if it goes against your way of thinking.

If you consult someone, or even if someone offers you a suggestion unsolicited, make sure you keep an open mind to what they are saying. Resist distractions when you are listening, concentrate on extracting the key ideas and hear out what they have to say until the end.

Make sure you judge their content, not their delivery. Be critical in your analysis, but resist the temptation to make a judgment on their words until they have finished speaking: you may not like everything they have to say, but you might miss something valuable if you are overly hasty in reaching a verdict.


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