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Thinking tools: How to identify assumptions by distorting time

Closeup of a white man's hand twisting precisely one knob on a midi mixer control

The first and most important thing I did for my team was provide them the tools to make decisions. We were stretched across too many ideas and too many new directions to take at once. And without focus I wasn’t sure what we’d achieve. I introduced prioritizing and stack-ranking our work with OKRs, creating feature-level focus with impact/effort matrices, and developing role expectations using Eisenhower principles.

Decision-making tools provide great heuristics for winnowing a set, but they don’t expand thinking or surface assumptions.

Whatever you’re ruminating on, I bet your decisions are oriented around reducing your decision set to fit a prescribed timespan. What if instead of defining your projects by the time, you questioned the assumptions you’ve made in the first place? What if you used the oblique strategy of distorting time? (1).

Questions for expanding and narrowing timelines

First, identify a project that’s assumed to take a year, then ask yourself (and your team):

  • Half-time: What if we only had six months? What would we try instead?
  • Quarter time: What would we do in just three months?
  • 10x: What if we had 10 times as long? What would we do differently?

Using these questions got me thinking beyond my initial assumptions around the plan.

Framing the schedule for half-time or quarter-time highlights the riskiest spaces and those with the highest potential return. Thinking in 10x time makes me consider longevity and the type of foundation a project might need.

Questions for rethinking existence in time

Go beyond artificial time measurements (weeks, months, quarters) and “twiddle the knobs” of thought (2) to explore alternatives:

  • What if we had an infinite amount of time?
  • What if it were already too late?
  • What if this program were twice as big?
  • What if it were half as big?

Turning the knobs on the problem helps you see where your thinking about it falls apart.

Parallel Universes

Mathias Verraes proposed a heuristic for comparing new ideas or technological solutions that involves imagining a parallel universe in which the new idea is already in existence:

Put this into practice in the space where I work (Healthcare AI, product development) and I get a question like: What if doctors already had AI assistance? What are the risks and benefits of removing it?

Caveats

These tools assume you already have a problem space where you’re working – a solution set that you want to re-examine. This means they won’t help you innovate toward something new, but they will help you expand your thinking about a current space. That’s okay. Sometimes a little time distortion is just what you need.

End notes

  1. “Distort time” is an oblique strategy, part of a deck of cards developed by Brian Eno Peter Schmidt as a way to think laterally around creative blocks. Oblique strategies can be inspiring and productive when you have the will and skill to make use of them, but if you don’t have the right mental space or toolkit for that alignment, then the cards are just another thing taking up space on your desk. I admit that when I first starting thinking about this heuristic, I assumed that there would be an oblique strategy to match🤞. And there was. It’s a bit of a cheat on my part.
  2. No, I haven’t read Dennett’s Intuition Pumps (intro video). It’s on my list.
  3. Thanks to Ruth Malan for getting me to put this idea into words and for frequently expanding my mind with new mental models, including introducing me to Mathias Verraes, whose thread on swapping new and old concepts provided additional perspective on this concept.

By Abi Jones

Abi Jones is the UX Manager for Imaging & Diagnostics in Google Health. She leads an interdisciplinary team of researchers and designers focused on using artificial intelligence to assist in diagnosing cancer and preventing blindness.

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