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Being able to think differently is a basic definition of innovation but it's also a definition of how to be smart about your career.
Being able to think differently is a basic definition of innovation but it’s also a definition of how to be smart about your career. How do you do it?
It happens all the time yet it also means changing our minds about something and that we find very difficult. Here’s an example of easy change. Five years ago people did not talk about owned, bought and earned media. Now it is so commonplace that owned, bought and earned are thought of as “traditional” marketing terms. And what about Forbes? From exclusive platform to open platform. Big change in mindset.
So how do people think differently and, in the process, permit themselves to behave differently? How come we sometimes find it so easy to think differently and yet at other times struggle? Dyer and Gregersen point out that a lot of innovation comes back to associative thinking – which is, or can be, a learned skill. That is to say, it happens when we mash up a lot of ideas or sources of information.
I don’t find that so compelling. Seems to me thinking differently has a much wider role than innovation and the skill is more than just popping a new idea, after a lot of hard work. Y Combinator recently announced they would take on businesses that didn’t even have an idea – a sign that we are now looking for a type of person not just the result of a process, which is why thinking differently becomes so important.
In his recent book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman points out that we have two thought process on the go. One is slow burn, expertise-building that allows us to organise and access a body of evidence about our lives and reality. It could be the expertise of a bus driver who takes the same three routes daily and knows, instinctively, every traffic light from A – Z. Or it can be a chess grand master who has burned thousands of move options into his or her memory.
The other style of thinking is the rapid decision making that we might have to do when we’re forced to recognise new patterns or respond to the emotional urges that govern how we treat people around us.
We oscillate between these two modes of course, but in a rapidly changing world, it’s the thinking-fast bit that tends to dominate. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in Outliers, most people with genius at their fingertips have been working at it for at least 10,000 hours. But who has time for that?
In this fast changing world we need to balance how to think differently with how to grow expertise. The reality is to think differently we need to be good at thinking. To think differently you need to be conscious of where your intellectual and emotional energies are invested and when to switch. But to think differently you have to think well. Being smart becomes your platform, your expertise. To do that though we need to change something that is fundamental to how we function. Can we rebalance between thinking fast and slow?
Fifty years ago we tended to have very explicit worldviews. That might mean being a socialist and believing that the future lies with collective ownership, or of course a capitalist with a belief that free markets are the best way to allocate resources, and rewards. Most people have a worldview. They might not be fully conscious of it but it is there. Very few people are comfortable with making their worldview explicit and vulnerable. Let me give you an example.
Like a lot of people I tend to take the side of the underdog. Over the past year I’ve realized it’s been a significant limit on my ability to think clearly. Being part of the Forbes platform I’ve had to think instead about how to celebrate success. I’m not great at it but at least now I can see my old habit of mind for what it was – neither fast nor slow it was an addiction to a singular viewpoint.
#Rule 1. You need to put yourself into situations that expose the singular elements of your thinking, so you can grow multiple perspectives.
A while back I worked with a mathematician, a PhD from Cambridge. The guy was impossible to debate with because he believed his opinions were proofs. A point of view is what I had. Proofs is what he did You might be a history major at University or you might have anor, like him, two degrees in maths. The chances are your academic background will similarly condition how you think about a problem. We also know all is not well in the academy – change is happening too fast, so the chances are, also, that how and what you were taught to think, carry liabilities.
One of the most famous mind-changing events was when one set of medics discovered a bacterium that they thought caused stomach ulcers. It’s a famous case. Gastroenterologists resisted the finding for a decade. What people don’t often point out though is that the doctors with the bacterium were bacteriologists with no category conflict when they found…. a bacterium. Gastroenterologists believed bacteria cannot survive in the gut and so had no history of studying them.
Clearly we need to improve our ability to deal with category conflicts. Before we do that though we need to be more conscious of our category preferences – you have to ask how do I see the world, what is different about how I arrive at explanations from the way my friends do, whose eyes am I looking through? The doctors with the bacterium had to be very astute at how they constructed their concepts and category of explanation (it gained acceptance when they branded it a new class of disease, rather than a mistaken explanation on the part of other doctors). So thinking differently is also about working the permissions, letting people give you some scope to think differently.
Here’s my category preference. I prefer to look at every problem historically. I look for time sequences and categorisation (I studied history and sociology). Recently I’ve been working with an economist who draws me into his fascination with the information implicit in all transactions. And I work with a cog psych specialist who reminds me that personal constructs are also a part of any explanation. Both give me pause to think.
Steven Johnson in his book Where Do Good Ideas Come From suggested that one good place was from a literal cross-fertilisation as time moved disciplines into each other’s space. I’m sure that’s true but I think it also comes from being able to withhold judgment – slowing down the fast instinctive parts. That is another way of saying, being able to break down one’s own category preferences in order to take other people’s perspectives seriously.
# Rule 2. You have to frame your differentness in terms of what people can absorb – or become a radical artist!
# Rule 3. Associative thinking is fine but what makes it work is being able to withhold judgment.
A few years ago I had the enormous privilege of working inside theecosystem. It was at the time the launched. Nokia was trying to respond at an executive level. But it was struggling to change anything at the engineering level. Nokia phone engineers were the best in the world and the conversations I heard continually reiterated that.
Here is an example. The iPhone was beautiful but most people had to cover it because one false move and the wonderfully curve body would slip out of your hand. The iPhone was also far too fragile for a mobile device. People typically drop mobile phones and that’s why Nokia’s used to be so well engineered. You could drop them and they would still work. If you bought an iPhone you have to cover it up. Surely this was a slam dunk for Nokia?
But Nokia’s engineering features suddenly became a lot less relevant in affluent markets. Nokia didn’t suddenly become bad at engineering or design but it was nonetheless wasted by the change in market preferences.
Nokia and its engineers were heavily invested in great attributes. They found it very difficult to change their minds as a collective group, just like the gastroenterologists who refused to see bacteria.
This is a fault of diagnostics. People have a framework for how they diagnose problems but it’s the most faulty part of how humans function because it tends to be built around their expertise or their category preferences. Diagnostic frameworks have to be very flexible, open and choice-based rather than prescriptive but most people go into a problematic situation with a prescription in mind – knowing how to fix it – or a category preference or a dependence on expert knowledge.
A good diagnostic framework is comfortable with dissonance, welcomes contrary opinion, and is good with strong egos. You can only get to that if you realize where your biases lie and what damage they are doing. Funnily enough, one way to do that is to role play everyone else’s opinion. Walk a few yards in their shoes and live a different response.
# Rule 4: You need a framework for how you diagnose problems and the levels of tolerance you are prepared to offer.
4. Understanding proof
We’re in the middle of a significant redrawing of the way we see society, business, education, ourselves even. It’s understandable during that time that we’ve lost respect for proof, for real evidence. We manufacture statistics on a startling scale but I don’t think we wait around much for proof.
An example of that comes from an area I work in – social business. There is precious little proof that social business platforms can deliver what companies most want from them – culture change or growth. We assume that a more social workplace will be different but we don’t discuss in any detail what those differences will be.
I think that leaves us in a shaky position with respect to how we look at evidence. Over the past few years, going back to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s first book Fooled By Randomness we’ve been fighting of the sense of how random life has become. Taleb’s view is that much of what we witness as success is actually random, and demonstrably so. Black Swan of course suggested that a lot of the circumstances around us are a result of freak chance. People feel uncomfortable with those ideas. But I think they are where we are at.
In the middle of extreme change all we can rely on is our ability to construct frameworks of explanation that are useful and somewhat satisfying, for a period of time. To think differently you need to situate yourself in this flux, exercise Mr Slow and learn how to create new categories of explanation.
# Rule 5. It is more random than we want to believe and your explanatory frameworks are weaker than they seem, anyway. We have to think differently.
Right now we are actively creating a new information layer around things like social business, big data, scientific agility within enterprises, and innovation methods. As we create that layer, I read a lot of articles that are really reacting against a vanishing reality. For example here on Forbes there are regularly articles that rail against the performance of CEOs. They judge the CEO against yesterday’s criteria. To be perfectly fair, the old criteria of stock market performance is still active and relevant but it cannot survive. A lot of writers are wrestling with how we might judge performance in new ways – See Steve Denning’s pieces on shareholder value, for example.
To know the information layer is to be conscious about where you invest your energy and beliefs. And thinking differently is all about that – being conscious of why you think the way you do, bringing slow out of the closet.
# Final rule. Your different thinking is a product of what goes on in a changing information layer. Understand that and new ideas will open up to you.
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