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Thinking Differently is Harder Than It Sounds

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” While it’s easy to see that he’s right, the challenge comes in our ability to think differently. Our schools, cultures, and society in general all demand that we conform, not only in our behavior and manner of speaking, but in our thinking too. A significant portion of our brain is dedicated to handling our social interactions. Our social missteps trigger pain in an overlapping portion of the brain that’s activated by physical pain. From childhood, we learn the agony of being an alienated misfit.

In short, thinking differently doesn’t come naturally. Our world nudges us to find a way to fit in or find a different tribe. This is a serious problem for our future readiness. Our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world demands that we break the mental chains that bind us to think differently. Like the fish that are completely unaware of the water they live in, we are unaware of the many ways our brain is operating on automatic pilot. Between our deeply ingrained beliefs that we take to be facts of life, our cognitive biases of countless varieties, and heuristics or mental shortcuts that happen so quickly and naturally that we’re oblivious to their existence, we operate in our own bubble never fully seeing the world as it is, only as we believe it to be.

There are there things every organization can do to stimulate thinking differently:

  1. Speak Up
  2. See Different Perspectives
  3. Systems Thinking (inside and out)

Speak Up

Getting people to speak up at work may be more difficult than you realize. There are so many built in silencers that folks on the front lines seldom feel heard even when they’re brave enough to say something to a person with power. By the way, having a “Suggestion Box” doesn’t do the job, the assumption being that it’s a dressed-up waste basket. Given that disruption can blindside any business, giving everyone in the organization a safe way to challenge the status quo, recommend “stupid rules” for termination, and report destructive practices is an essential first step.

Plus, the critical need for new ideas that can come from anywhere in the organization has never been more urgent. Too often however, these insights are discounted or discredited teaching the entire workforce putting mental energy into innovation isn’t worth their effort. Providing the workforce with an anonymous reporting platform that empowers them to speak up and speak out is one way to get a realistic view of how your organization is seen by the people that keep it running day-in and day-out, not just the rose colored view from the top floor.

See Different Perspectives

One of the biggest mindset changes that is needed today is a transition away from having a product centric mentality to becoming customer centric. This approach is a dramatically different from the traditional approaches that still drive most professions and businesses. The twentieth century capitalized and maximized all the value that it could from this mechanistic mindset. Now we’re overrun with so many product options in any given category that it’s virtually impossible to distinguish one from another. Competition has become fierce, yet customers are seeing little benefit.

By narrowing our focus to beating the competition, the real value in the market is being lost. Having too narrow a focus isn’t our only problem. As it turns out, having the mental capacity to see another’s perspective is a huge challenge for us too. According to Harvard University professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, less than 1% of adults reach the highest level of adult mental complexity, which they have identified as Self-Transforming. At this level a person can see multiple layers of every issue and can hold very different perspectives simultaneously. This ability to see multiple perspectives is critical in navigating complex issues and creating genuine customer value. The levels of mental complexity they’ve identified are:

Being product centric is one way of staying self-focused. Organizations can no longer direct all their attention and efforts internally. It’s time to start looking at the bigger picture.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking isn’t new. It’s another way to see the world and think differently. The linear mechanistic view has its place. Unfortunately, organizations have been using the mechanistic perspective like a hammer and seeing everything as a nail, often failing to resolve the problems it as inadvertently created. Systems thinking emphasizes watching for patterns, looking for the root causes of problems (including reinforcing and balances loops), and thinking holistically in problem resolution to minimize creating new problems in the process, which is desperately needed in situations where different variations of the same problem keep cropping up over and over. It’s a way to address challenges inside and outside the organization.

Systems thinking is one way to explore a broader perspective of the entire customer experience as they navigate through their world. It can open up new opportunities, spark creative ideas, and foster new relationships that satisfy unmet customer needs and potentially broaden your customer base. Technology isn’t the only innovation avenue for organizations. Imagine the difference of seeing the Grand Canyon through the lens of a telescope compared to an aerial view. The opportunities are exponentially higher when you can see the big picture and understand how the world works.

Breaking New Mental Ground

If you’ve ever tried to break a habit, you have a sense of the difficulty there is in changing our thinking to combat the problems that we/organizations/society have created. It’s easy to say we’re going to switch our thinking like turning a dial, but our habits are deeply ingrained. We need to change policies, procedures, processes, incentive and operating structures and working environments if we’re really serious about getting future fit. Otherwise, regardless of your profession or industry, you can expect to be blindsided sooner or later. No one is exempt.

It’s what motivated me to develop the Adaptive Human System™. It a holistic approach that incorporates several different scientific disciplines in a way to channel the best in the human spirit to accomplish the seemingly impossible. The creativity and ingenuity of humanity is capable of far more than what we see today. It means directing our attention and resources to things that really matter. Things that make our world a better place. Doing meaningful work.

What’s the biggest mental shift you’ve made? What was your aha moment?

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