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How To Think Differently (And Why!)

How To Think Differently (And Why!)

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?
1. Knowing your habits of mind

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.
2. Knowing and breaking your category preferences

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 an MBA or, 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.


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