We all like to think we’re instinctively creative thinkers but we’re not. Overcoming the constraints our existing mental maps impose and the unconscious pattern-matching that filters our senses and thoughts makes the process of thinking of and assessing new ideas hard cognitive work.
So we avoid or are deflected from doing it. When it comes to creative thinking our brains often are not our best allies.
When you feel you’re stuck in a rut, succumbing to groupthink or simply at an impasse with respect to generating options try looking at the flip side.
This is a straightforward technique called “reversal”. Consciously thinking about the opposite position or situation – however contrived – can be a powerful catalyst for new ideas and insight. If you’re trying to change: How can you guarantee the status quo? If you’re trying to improve: What can be done to make things worse?
Sounds too easy? Here are two short videos (~5 minutes total) that drive the point home and provide visual and emotional hooks to hang the idea on.
The first is an award-winning video from UK publishers Dorling Kindersley called the Future of Publishing. It addresses the view that physical books will become less relevant in a digital world populated by a cynical new generation of digital natives. In a stunning (and literal) reversal of the opening argument we may think otherwise (Be sure to watch past the midpoint!)
The second offering comes from Derek Sivers in a presentation made at TED India. He introduces thought-provoking examples from his travels that illustrate viable options exist as opposites to aspects of the world we take for granted in urban western society. His advice: ask the question “Could the opposite be true?”
So the next time you feel blocked in your thinking, whether alone or in a group, try asking: Could the opposite be true? Even if the answer isn’t useful the process certainly will be.
Have you ever encountered a group meeting; brainstorming, retrospective or other variety that was simply dominated by an outspoken minority? This often happens despite the best intentions and efforts of the meeting chairperson or facilitator. The result can be a fairly predictable set of proposals that rarely stretch any boundaries. In his book “Think Better” Tim Thurson calls this unfortunate result “braindrizzle”.
The likelihood of this dilemma is higher self-organizing teams where a facilitator role is absent. And the risk of skewed participation in a mixed group of introverts and extroverts in this case is even greater. Recently, project management consultant Johanna Rothman said, “It only takes one extrovert to kill a team of introverts.” How then to ensure the best thoughts of all team members are aired?
Not everyone is comfortable with the open outcry methods of traditional brainstorming techniques – least of all, those of us who prefer some time for reflection. “Brainwriting” – the silent cousin to “brainstorming” – is an important and useful technique that gives everyone equal opportunity to contribute their thoughts. It overcomes the “social disadvantage” on the part of introverts by ensuring the loudest (or most glib) voices don’t prevail in a group discussion. The added time to reflect on suggestions is a boon to introverts without stifling extroverted inclinations to be heard. We can easily adopt this process without cost or strain.
The number one killer of great outcomes is being stuck between “saying” and “doing.” Because I’ve been prone to this particular dysfunction, I’ve collected a vast assortment of observations that addresses the painfully obvious gap between intention and outcome. There are many reasons for the gap. Most have their roots in some degree of fear: failure, ridicule, scorn, criticism…name your pet fear. Many introverts, who have advanced skills in negative self-talk (not a good thing), are adept at getting stuck. If talking yourself out of doing thing things is a common experience for you, I highly recommend reading Dr. Rick Carlson’s classic “Taming Your Gremlin” which offers pithy and useful advice on this front.
Seth Godin writes frequently and fiercely on the subject of getting out of your own way. His recent post, “The Myth of Preparation” is a call to action for all of us who hesitate to put our ideas into the world until they are perfect. And his short but powerful book “The Dip” focuses on the inevitable challenges in pursuing new ventures to completion.
There are useful lessons to be learned from Agile methods of software development: Chunk work into manageable portions, strive for the minimum value proposition, ship (i.e., get it out there) and repeat. Iteration and accumulation of usefulness goes a long way to overcoming the delays imposed by attempting to design the perfect complete thing before acting.
If design is not your issue but mastery (and it’s sidekick, credibility) I suggest we listen to Seth and get over it. Here’s an idea worth repeating frequently to calm your misgivings :
“Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly–until you can learn to do it well.” — Zig Ziglar
Ideas only have value when acted upon. Commitments to yourself and, especially, others without action are beyond unhelpful. Being stuck in inaction furthers no one’s cause. So do something about whatever is on your mind, however small. It would be a start, bridge that gap and get you closer to the outcome you desire.
Attention, focused and conscious thought, is a scarce resource. It requires effort and consumes energy – something our brains strive to minimize.
It’s further constrained by the number of waking hours we have. We only have so much time in which to express ourselves and do things that matter. Yet, without fail, a multitude of things manage to distract us from the things we really want to achieve.
In today’s “always on” environment these distractions seem to multiply and the opportunity to dilute our attention is usually only a click away. There are so many sources of practical advice on how to focus, from time management practices to “Getting Things Done” frameworks, that it seems we have no excuse to be distracted – but it happens.
How then to decide what to do? Here’s an interesting question to ask yourself before (or while) you disappear down a rabbit hole following a unplanned thread of activity: “Is this interesting or is this useful?”
I happen to be interested in many things and love to explore ideas and connections between them. My wife and business partner calls me an “info lush.” This is highly entertaining (for me) and sometimes yields useful discoveries or insights, yet it’s often dysfunctional in the broader context of life.
What, then, is worthy of our attention? Or, more to the point, the attention of folks you want to help. Clearly the intersection of these two sets, the interesting and the useful, is where we should focus.
I know it’s difficult at times to place ourselves on the “interesting versus useful” scale, but simply being mindful of the distinction and and asking the question can us help decide where to spend our most precious resource – our attention.
If we take this economic view, we can decide to spend our limited attention resource where it will have the greatest return. Isn’t that a worthy goal?
Have you ever tried to win someone over with a clear, fact-based proposal only to have them become even more fixed in their current (in your view, misguided) position?
Earlier I wrote about the resistance to give up ideas being as difficult for us as giving up more tangible things we own.
A useful variation of this notion is examined in an essay called How Facts Backfire. by Joe Keohane in the Boston Globe. A key insight: “In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts.”
The essay looks at the findings of political scientist Brendon Nyhan, who studied the puzzling behaviour of people who become more entrenched in their beliefs when confronted by contradictory facts. Unfortunately, this behaviour is as common in the workplace as it is in the political arena that Nyhan examined. Our default position in the “rational” business world is to make fact-based decisions based on clear evidence. When we propose change based on the facts of a given situation we’re often puzzled when met with “irrational” resistance.