Every so often, I’m faced with the realization that something I really believe isn’t so. There’s that momentary sense of profound disorientation that forces me to stop and really think—and adjust myself to a new reality.

Sure, that whole Easter Bunny realization was a downer, but over the years I’ve come to really like this feeling—almost treasure it. Why? Because it means I’m learning something new and non-trivial.

Larry Keeley calls it reframing the problem, Stephen Covey calls it a paradigm shift, Weird Al Yankovic just says that everything you know is wrong. Whatever. All I know is that whenever it happens to me, it means more creative ideas… and more passion! So I seek it out for myself and for the clients I work with.

In a previous life, I was an engineer in a large company’s centralized technology research organization. Our job there was to figure out what technologies would be important in several years’ time, create them, and transfer them to the businesses. And it was a creative place, a real dream for a geek like me. There were like-minded engineers everywhere and we had remarkably wide latitude to work on stuff that really interested us. But I became restless. There was creativity, to be sure, but it was rooted in technology. Not quite “if you build it, they will come”, but there was definitely something missing. It was like we were innovating inside a box that was defined by the technologies we worked on.

About the same time (and purely by accident, but that’s another post!), I became interested in user-centered design. I wanted to learn more, so I went to CHI98 in LA… and I noticed two things right away: there were definitely more hugs than at the IEEE gatherings, and there was an emphasis on design thinking and driving innovation from users that I’d never been exposed to before.

So I hired an anthropologist.

Well, the story is a tad more complex than that, naturally. But the bottom line was that my team started going out into the field to collect data about people who might someday use the technologies we were working on.

And that’s when I got hit by a big reframe.

Because I realized that my engineering experience hadn’t equipped me to deal with the information we were collecting. Or more precisely, I wasn’t prepared for the mental approach involved. Up to that point, I tended to see the world through the lens of hypothesis testing: we have some idea, we go test it, we accept or reject our hypothesis. We do more experiments.

But my new anthropologist friend was talking about “grounded theory,” which says that rather than gathering data to test hypotheses, we gather data to generate hypotheses. She kept telling us to forget what we thought the solutions were and just go observe our customers with a focus on the problem we were trying to solve. And hypothesize in the moment. She wanted us to realize that the initial technical solutions we’d jump to often limited our thinking. To be more creative, we’d have to think outside of the box. Even if it felt like jumping without a parachute.

And you know what? Our engineering teams started coming up with more and more creative ideas by setting aside the technical solutions at first. We already knew about technology, but by immersing ourselves in our customers’ realities as well, we started seeing connections between technologies and needs that we hadn’t seen before. Some of the most creative ideas came from field studies without pre-existing technological solutions. In my favorite study, we examined how families communicate and it eventually helped lead to an entire set of applications and infrastructure equipment around immediate content sharing. We had no idea where this might lead at first, but understanding the behavior allowed us to “twist” existing technology to meet real, but non-obvious market needs in a new way.

Over time, I learned to let go of my hypothesis testing mindset and let induction take over. It wasn’t exactly like everything I knew was wrong, but it was a new way of thinking… a paradigm shift from hypothesis testing to hypothesis generation. It was a little disorienting at first, but my fellow researchers and I got used to ideas coming from user data, rather than ideas being validated by user data.

Over the years since then, I’ve learned that steeping the design teams I work with in customer data is one of the best ways to produce those reframing, paradigm-shifting moments. Teams often find that the most important question isn’t “what’s the right solution?”—it’s “what’s the right question?” You can almost see the “a-ha” moments. Jaws drop, sometimes literally.

I guess that’s why I love taking teams through Contextual Design so much. Just being around when a team experiences one of those moments is priceless. Usually—as I’ve experienced personally—it’s followed by a burst of creative ideas—and a burst of passion.