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When is a toothbrush not a toothbrush?

By Stephen Sutcliffe, Director of Finance & Accounting

Stephen Sutcliffe

Indulge me for a moment, if you will.

Read this sentence.

I saw the star on the hill with a telescope.

Ambigious, certainly.

How many different meanings does it have? Go on; list them. I'll wait.

Firstly, there's the meaning of the word star. Are we talking Julia Roberts, or an astrological body? Or something else - a firework or a sculpture, perhaps?

Putting that aside, you have:

  • There's a star on a hill, and I'm watching using a telescope.
  • There's a star on a hill, who or which I'm seeing, and it or they have a telescope.
  • There's a star, on a hill that also has a telescope on it.


If you thought of all the above, well done. But don't get smug. There's a fourth meaning.

  • I saw the star on the hill with a telescope.


Still confused? Try this: I am using a telescope to saw a star on a hill.

To most people, this fourth meaning doesn't come easily, because it doesn't match our view of the world. We can understand watching things or people with telescopes, but why would we even consider using a telescope as a saw

Kind of fun, but let's take things a step further. Here's a game you can try. (It also makes a brilliant ice-breaker for meetings, by the way).

Equip your group with a pencil and paper each. Ask one member of the group to privately think of a simple everyday object. Then, they need to tell the others how to draw this object without referring to any component parts. So, for example, if you're thinking of a bicycle, don't refer to wheels - instead, ask people to draw two equally-sized circles on their paper.

Some colleagues did this recently.

The instructions were:

  1. Draw two equidistant parallel lines.
  2. Join each end of the parallel lines with a curve.
  3. At one end of the shape you have drawn, draw lots of short lines, at a 90 degree angle to the main shape.

Here are the results.

Picture A

Picture B

Toothbrush A

Toothbrush B

Hopefully, you can guess from picture A that the everyday object was a toothbrush. I haven't got the foggiest what picture B could be. But - here's the thing  - picture B is just as valid an interpretation of the instructions given.

Because we all live inside our heads, our perspective and our way of thinking is normal to us. The fact that other people have a completely different mental landscape doesn't even occur.  How could people not realise I was describing a toothbrush?!

The point is not academic. The 'star on the hill' sentence is often used in robotics and programming as an example of ambiguity to be avoided. Robots don't do ambiguity! But moving away from IT, there's a real point to be made here about communicating with people, too. Why is it that some people just seem to "get it" when you're speaking to them, and others don't - even if they think they do? Possibly you're not describing your toothbrush - your vision, ideas or requirements - in a way they genuinely understand. They think differently.

Our differences can be a source of deep frustration. But they can also be the secret to achieving great things - or at least, stopping a disaster. Imagine that the 'star on a hill' sentence had been the crux of a new product or service. You might have felt that you'd covered all bases, explaining definitions and meanings. But suppose you hadn't thought of that fourth, unusual, meaning? When your product or service goes wrong as a result, you might wish you'd had that different thinker around.

Different thinkers come in various flavours. Some just have a way of looking at the world that's not like our own - possibly because they're older, younger, richer, poorer or from a different culture.  Or there might be other reasons - perhaps they're on the autistic spectrum or with something like Asperger's.

I've worked with a lot of different thinkers in my life, and it's to them I'd like to dedicate this blog. They are the people who have truly educated me - who have challenged me and made me learn. Different thinkers are at the root of change, development and progress. For me, they are the true stars on the hill.

Stephen tweets @sasutty and can be emailed by clicking here.


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