Our brains are really good at bringing order from chaos, at recognising patterns from random data. But as is often the case, a strength can easily become a weakness. Our need to find patterns can encourage us to see things that aren’t actually there. That’s how optical illusions fool our brains into seeing something that different to what’s actually drawn on the page.
During my mid-life crisis I learnt to draw (I know, most men buy a Harley and have affairs with inappropriately young women, I try to become Picasso) and during the process I came across the idea of negative space. It’s helped me with my drawing but it’s also struck me as a good analogy for solving problems and spotting opportunities in business.
Simply put, there are two ways of drawing something. You can draw a line around it, creating a “positive space” that encloses and defines the subject. Alternatively, you can shade in all the areas on page that aren’t the subject and create a “negative space” that is the shape of the thing you want. It’s the same idea as the sculptor who when asked how she created such beautiful figures from blocks of stone answered “That’s easy. I just chip away anything that’s not the figure.” Drawing complex scenes with many elements, layers and textures, is the same problem and is really hard without using negative space.
When you’re looking at complex business situations, the biggest danger is to jump to conclusions too quickly, to look for the pattern you expect to see the problem and convince yourself that’s the extent of the problem – to draw a hard line around it and ignore everything else. “When you’re a hammer, the world looks like a nail” – our preconceptions trip us up in the same way optical illusions do and convince us that we know where the edges of a problem or opportunity are. Sadly, the real world is rarely that simple.
Take the time to really look at things, understand where the edges are. Understand which bits are related to which – and which aren’t. What are the constraints? What are the gaps and what are they telling you?
Next time you’re helping a customer or struggling with complexity in your business, think about negative space and discover the opportunities hidden in the gaps.