How to… think differently to solve problems and capture opportunity


Lessons shared from serial innovator Evan Thornley @ACBC12

Did you know that the first 6 years of a child’s life are fundamental to its social outcomes and achievements in life? Have you heard of the politics of the radical centre?  How can you and your business look at problems differently and think differently to solve problems and capture opportunity?  These are some of the lessons shared from serial innovator and entrepreneur Evan Thornley at the Australian Chambers Business Congress 2012.


Evan Thornley was appointed Chief Executive of Better Place Australia in January 2009.  Evan is a successful technology entrepreneur who has also served in public office.  Prior to that, Evan co-founded and served as chairman and CEO of Look Smart Ltd. (NASD: LOOK), an Internet search advertising company that remains one of the few Australian technology companies to be taken public on the NASDAQ Stock Market and to have delivered a 100x return to venture capital investors.  Evan was also the founding Chair of the Board of Per Capita, a public policy think tank and served on the board of the Brotherhood of St. Laurence, and was a Founding Director of GetUp!, an online activist network with 400,000 members.

There is now an overwhelming amount of evidence that the first 6 years of a child’s life are by far the most important to his/her adult success.  Medical professionals and economists agree that an investment in early childhood health, education and development have an overwhelmingly positive influence on a nation and provide a very healthy return on investment.  This seems like general knowledge to us all but what may not be so general knowledge is that Australia’s investment in early childhood is one of the lowest levels in the OECD.  While debates raged on private vs. public funding of education and the decline of tertiary education, Eddy Groves and ABC Learning borrowed billions to roll up a host of child care centres with less than optimum outcomes for the children and staff in those centres that resulted in a collapse into voluntary liquidation in the midst of the GFC.

Good Start

What may be less well known is what happened to those child care centres after the liquidation and how a consortium on Not-For-Profit businesses, The Benevolent Society, Mission Australia, The Brotherhood of St Lawrence and Social Ventures Australia rallied together to resurrect the business from the ashes paying two times earnings and beating off private equity for a vital piece of Australia’s human capital economy and have been doing a vastly better job of giving Australian children the Good Start they deserve investing all of the earnings back into early learning initiatives, for the benefit of every child.

Why should this matter to you and your business?  For two simple reasons; firstly, if your business is not set up right from the start similar to a young child you will not overcome the inevitable challenges and grow sustainably.  Secondly, it is an excellent example of how to solve problems, by looking at them differently and coming up with creative solutions to uncommon challenges.  Thornley, calls it ‘the politics of the radical centre’ or using an ‘AND’ thinking approach, to overcome challenges or capture opportunity.

No Thinking

So what is the ‘politics of the radical centre’ or how do we think differently to solve problems and capture opportunity?  To understand how… you need to understand the different thinking styles used and the pitfalls of some of the most common used in business today.  The simplest and most common thinking style all too often encountered in the business context or boardroom is the “NO” thinking style.   ‘Thanks for your idea, but we tried that one before,’ or ‘NO thanks as great as your idea or opportunity is for our business it simply will not work for these reasons….’  NO thinking is a common all too easy default style of thinking to fall into and it comes out very early in a group setting as it’s a common human behaviour to see risks, cautions, red flags before it is to naturally build on a person’s input or seek clarification to understand why they have suggested a change in the way we do business around here.

Or Thinking

The second thinking style is “OR” thinking.  This is binary thinking or two-dimensional thinking.  It’s better than “NO” thinking but it’s very black or white and as we know the world and the challenges and opportunities we face are never black or white.  An example, shared by Thornley of classical binary “OR” thinking is the traditional view of Industrial Relations in Australia of ‘bosses’ v workers’.  Another classic example of “OR” thinking is ‘profits’ vs. ‘the planet’.  OR thinking dictates it is EITHER profit OR environmental protection when in fact the two are not mutually exclusive and Better Place is a good example of a business pursing both profits AND an environmental benefit.

When Thinking

The third thinking style is “WHEN” thinking.  It is better than “OR” thinking in that it requires knowledge, wisdom and intelligent judgement to come up with a conditioned response to a problem or opportunity.  For example, “WHEN” worker X does ABC, boss Y responds with actions DEF.  This type of thinking presupposes some knowledge and experience by those taking the action ‘WHEN’ the problem or opportunity arises.  It also presupposes that what worked last time will work again.  WHEN thinking has some pitfalls in that we are constantly confronted with new and different problems than previously experienced and it can be dangerous to expect that past solutions work for today’s problems.

Grameen Bank

The forth thinking style is “AND” thinking.  This is the most powerful type of thinking to solve problems and capture opportunity because it is inclusive in creating innovative solutions to problems.  Why choose between ‘profit’ and the ‘planet’ or ‘public’ vs. ‘private’ business models, when you can have both.  Some of the organisations that Evan has been involved with like Better Place and Good Start are good examples of organisations that have used ‘AND” thinking to solve a problem and capture an opportunity.  Likewise, Grameen Bank , founded in Bangladesh used ‘AND’ thinking to come up with creative solutions to systemic issues and problems, using unconventional and highly effective social business models.  Thornley would describe the Grameen Bank as an example of the ‘politics of the radical centre’.

There was no radical ideology, “OR” thinking or “NO” thinking.  There was “AND” thinking and “How can we…” questioning to come up with creative solutions to making microcredit available to the people who needed it most to start their own businesses and lift their standard of living.  An example closer to home that Thornley sited was the Australian road toll which used to be one of the world’s worst 30 years ago and is not one of the world’s best.  There were no protests, radical rules and regulations but a concerted “How can we….” approach across the public, private and community sectors to bring the road toll carnage down.

Whilst, Thornley opened his talk with the profound need to ‘confess’ why he has taken the turns in life he has that seemed ‘unconventional’ or strange to others around him at the time but completely natural to him in his professional career he shared with the audience a simple and effective way to approach problems and capture opportunities.  There was NO ‘radical ideology’ AND there was some ‘politics of the radical centre’ AND there were demonstrable examples of businesses starting and growing sustainably that are achieving great commercial and social outcomes.


You can see a short video summary of these thinking styles here…

Dermott Dowling is founding Director @Creatovate Innovation & International Business Consultancy.  He is passionate about building great businesses, brands and teams with extensive experience across cultures, countries and companies.

About Creatovate

Founding Director Creatovate Pty Ltd Innovation & International Business Consultancy, Melbourne, Australia Create Innovate Grow View all posts by Creatovate

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