Thursday, April 15, 2021

What shapes your thinking?

There's a famous saying, attributed to Marshall McLuhan, who is reported to have said - we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.  Supposedly Churchill said something similar, only about buildings.

I think what was attributed to McLuhan is true - we shape our tools, and then they shape us.  From the earliest stone axes that were crafted by hand, to the latest software on the web, we create our tools, and then those tools shape who we become.

If the artifacts around you - like tools (McLuhan) and buildings (Churchill) can shape you, how you live, what you do, who you are - then what does the culture of the organization you are in do?  How does a corporate culture shape you, expand or contract your thinking, constrain or promote your actions?  If tools and buildings can shape us, then certainly corporate culture can shape us - at least at work.

What shapes your thinking?

So, when you think about creating a new product or service to deliver to customers or consumers, are you aware of what is influencing or shaping your thinking?  There are several facets to consider:

  1. Fixedness or anchors - we humans tend to prefer what we are already familiar with or what we already know, so somewhat ingrained in us is the desire to stick with existing capabilities or designs.  This is most famously illustrated in Henry Ford's apocryphal saying - if I gave people what they wanted, it would have been a faster horse.   We have this bias innately, and find it difficult to escape.
  2. What my company or capabilities will support - we are guided by what we believe the company or its capabilities can do.  I cannot tell you the number of times I've worked with a hardware company to discover that a small bit of software will make a big difference in consumer acceptance and the hardware company cannot understand how they'd get the software they need - that's not our business is what they will say.
  3. Risk - how much risk tolerance and acceptance of potential failure the corporation or culture is willing to bear.  Typically, the risk tolerance in most corporations is low, which impedes thinking.
  4. Time - we are often so busy with what is urgent RIGHT NOW that we are constantly falling behind on things that would be easily addressed if we simply planned for them.  Good thinking, creative thinking, requires time, yet we create automatons of our people, chaining them to a rapidly moving treadmill that does not allow them to catch up or to look ahead.
  5. Congestion - most organizations have far too much congestion - they are too busy working on too many products and projects that have too little value, and they reinvest in products that are far past their due dates rather than cull the product line and introduce new products and services.  We could think of this as a crowding out feature - new ideas simply cannot find traction because they are crowded out by all the other stuff that is going on.
  6. Momentum - the previous congestion issue raises a corollary - it is easier to keep something moving that is already fully fleshed out and active than to create something new that has no momentum.

There are other factors, certainly, but you don't have time to read an exhaustive list.

Overcoming thinking obstacles

We are all somewhat aware that these (and certainly other) factors exist, but are we as aware how these factors seep into our thinking?  And, more importantly, are we aware and cognizant about how these factors influence and shape our thinking?

There are several ways to approach this, to become more aware of what is limiting your thinking and to hopefully open up your mind to better thoughts and ideas.

The first is to follow Steve Jobs and others, who pull on themes from Zen Buddhism.  This is the clearing of your mind and using the technique called "beginner's eyes".  In other words, how would an entirely uninformed, uninfluenced person look at an opportunity or problem, a person who does not have the blinders or thinking constraints that you do?  Could you put aside all of your "but what about" statements and simply look at an opportunity or problem with a fresh perspective to get better thinking or ideas?

Edward de Bono created a different approach to this, but it really requires more than one person.  His "thinking hats" approach asks each person to take on one perspective - a financial perspective, a management perspective and so on - to see how different people with different biases would look at a problem.  Frankly, it can be a good approach but it requires a good moderator to hold people accountable to 1) stay in their roles and 2) not bring past barriers or experience to the table.

 Another approach is what I call partial constraints.  It is often difficult for people to release all of their thinking constraints and inhibitions.  What can often work is to have them remove just one or two of these at a time, to think laterally or in adjacent spaces.  For example, we can have people continue with their acknowledged (and unacknowledged) constraints and biases, but then ask them what would happen if we removed all financial constraints or if we removed all concerns about risk.  I've often found this approach helpful but it can be time consuming and it requires people to be flexible and creative.

Revert to childish thinking

It's a truism that all kids are wildly creative, and that our educational system, reward system and other factors limit creativity and freedom of thinking as we grow up.  What we need more than ever are people who are far more creative, far better at the art of thinking, than automatons who process paperwork.

We may not be able to escape all of the constraints we live with, acknowledged and unacknowledged barriers, but if we can recognize them and address them, through techniques like Beginner's Mind or the Six Thinking Hats or the partial release methods, we can definitely help people think better and more creatively.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:42 AM


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