In his latest bestseller, Range, David Epstein devotes an entire chapter to a concept with which many people are not familiar: “lateral thinking with withered technology.” This is how Gunpei Yokoi explained his success creating electronic games for Nintendo.
As Epstein explains, “Lateral thinking is a term coined in the 1960s for the reimagining of information in new contexts, including the drawing together of seemingly disparate concepts or domains that can give old ideas new uses. By ‘withered technology,’ Yokoi meant tech that was old enough to be extremely well understood and easily available so it didn’t require a specialist’s knowledge. The heart of his philosophy was putting cheap, simple technology to use in ways no one else considered. If he could not think more deeply about ne w technologies, he decided, he would think more broadly about old ones. He intentionally retreated from the cutting edge, and set to monozukuri [i.e. literally ‘thing making’].”
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Time Out: There are hundreds of other examples of “lateral thinking with withered technology.” Here are five.
o Mark Kay Ash added a fragrance to leather softener to eliminate wrinkles in her skin. It worked so well she used it on which to build a multi-billion dollar cosmetics company.
o Frank Epperson (age 11 in 1905) left a stirring stick in his cup of soda outside on a very cold day, it froze, and the next day he realized that he had what he then called an “Epsicle.” We now call it a popsicle.
o Alexander Fleming accidentally contaminated a Staphylococcus culture plate, and discovered it produced a substance that killed a number of disease-causing bacteria. For a while, he called it “mold juice,” and the name was later changed to penicillin.
o In the 1800s, Katie Crum was helping her brother make a batch of crullers. She accidentally dropped a thin slice of potato into hot oil. That was probably the first potato chip.
o Finally, Spencer Silver, a scientist at Minnesota’s 3M Corporation, accidentally created an adhesive that stuck temporarily, but could be easily peeled off. Another 3M scientist, Art Fry, was frustrated because his paper bookmarks kept falling out of his church hymnal. When the two came together, they invented the Post-it Note, a piece of paper with adhesive that could be stuck lightly to surfaces, yet easily removed.
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Later in Chapter 9, Epstein discusses the role that Yokio’s played during Nintendo’s struggles with the Game Boy console, what became eventually — in his words — Yokoi’s “magnum opus.” With simple technology, Yokoi and his team sidestepped the hardware arms race and drew the game programming community onto its team.
“The Game Boy became the Sony Walkman of videogaming, forgoing top-of-the-line tech for portability and affordability. It sold 118.7 million units, far and away the best selling console of the twentieth century. Not bad for the little company that was allowed to sell hanafuda.”
Note: Hanafuda (i.e. “flower cards”) were banned in Japan for two centuries because they were associated with gambling and unwanted Western cultural influence. The ban was finally lifted and in 1889, a tiny shop was opened in Kyoto, selling hanafuda. The name of that shop? Nintendo.
There are at least hundreds (probably thousands) of breakthrough products yet to be revealed by “lateral thinking with withered technology.” Someone will eventually discover them. Why not you? Read this brilliant book and learn how to increase the scope and depth of your innovative thinking while sharpening the focus of the skills you must also develop.