Innovation Hack: Flip the Story

Pay very close attention. Ready?

Three hikers finish a long hard day on the Appalachian Trail. They trudge into a small inexpensive hotel and ask for a room. The clerk at the counter tells them it’s $30. Great, they each pay $10 and walk down to their room.

The manager wanders in later and asks if there have been any guests. The clerk reports the three hikers and the manager inquires what they paid for the room. The clerk tells him $30, and the manager reminds him they are having a $25 special this evening. The manager instructs the clerk to provide a $5 refund.

The clerk asks the bellhop to return $5 to the hikers. While the bellhop is walking to the room with the refund, he thinks to himself, “I’ve been hauling bags all night and I haven’t had any tips! What are they going to do with $5? I’ll take $2 for myself!”

The bellhop arrives at the room, knocks on the door and returns $1 to each of the three hikers. Each hiker originally paid $10, then had $1 returned. So, they each paid what? Correct, $9.

9 x 3 = 27. 27 + 2 in the bellhop’s pocket = 29. What happened to the other dollar?

One step at a time. Yes, each hiker paid $9. Multiplied by 3 equals 27. 27 plus 2 for the bellhop equals 29. Brain freeze. How is this possible?

The solution often turns out to be more beautiful than the puzzle.
– Richard Dawkins

It’s a fun riddle because the more you persist in one direction in the story, the more it becomes unsolvable. It’s in the telling. If you fixate on each hiker paid $9, then add $2 for the bellhop it’s impossible. It’s really fun to tell this story to kids.

As my friend Jay explains the solution: tell the story in another direction. The three hikers paid $30, got 5 back, and gave 2 to the bellhop, which equals 27. So yes, including the tip they did each pay $9.

We can get wrapped up in the persistent narratives of our work and life every day. At work, at home, at school we build up a narrative bias in which we tell ourselves stories about how things are.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
– Albert Einstein

To break the narrative bias, try telling stories in a different way. For example, when you have to pitch an idea to your colleagues or your boss, first tell it one way, then try it again using completely different words and phrases. Then a third time, with completely different language again. Or when attempting to solve a problem in a group, ask each member to propose a different approach.

We have tried this in many different settings, trying to solve different types of problems, or pitch different ideas. I’ve discovered that not only do the ideas get better with each telling, but people hear them differently. Varying language will land differently on people. They will hear the story in novel ways when you change the language you use. And when you populate the team with people from different expertise and backgrounds, each will naturally have a unique interpretation to contribute.

After all, remember the story of the six blind men describing an elephant? The first one touches the elephant’s side and says, “It’s solid and tall like a WALL!” The second blind man feels the elephant’s trunk and declares, “Not at all. It’s much more like a giant SNAKE!” The third blind man reaches out to the elephant’s knee and states, “You are both wrong, this is much like a TREE!”

And each was partly right, and each was partly wrong.


Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.