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THINK BETTERAN INNOVATOR'S GUIDE TO PRODUCTIVE THINKING
By TIM HURSON
McGraw-HillCopyright © 2008 The McGraw-Hill Companies
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhy Think Better
Imagination is the beginning of creation: you imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last you create what you will. George Bernard Shaw
This book is about creating the future. It's about a way to see more clearly, think more creatively, and plan more effectively. It's about thinking better, working better, and doing better in every area of your life. All of us have the potential to think better. The first step is to free ourselves from the unproductive thinking patterns that hold us back.
There's an interesting little insect known as the processionary caterpillar that can teach us a lot about the stifling habits of everyday thinking. Processionaries got their name because of their distinctive behavior. When they leave their nests to forage for food, they travel in a line, like elephants in a circus, head to tail, head to tail. The lead caterpillar spins a fine trail of silk as it crawls along. The next caterpillar in line walks along the silk trail and adds its own. Processionaries can form trains hundreds of creatures long as they march through the forest.
There's nothing particularly distinctive about the lead caterpillar: It just happens to be at the front. It walks along for a while, pausing and raising its head occasionally, trying to sense which way the nearest food source is, and then continues the trek. If you remove the lead caterpillar, the second in line will take up the scouting duties without hesitation. The trailing caterpillars don't seem to care about the change in leadership.
Processionaries fascinated one of the world's great naturalists, Jean Henri Fabre, who is considered by many the father of modern entomology. He spent years studying them, both in his green house and in their natural environment. Fabre was an observer. He took nothing as given, nothing for granted, made no assumptions. He once wrote that his scientific credo was "the method of ignorance. I read very little.... I know nothing. So much the better: my queries will be all the freer, now in this direction, now in the opposite, according to the lights obtained."
Fabre was curious to see how powerful the processionaries' instinct to follow the leader could be. What would happen if he arranged the caterpillars in a circle? Would their instinct to follow force them to keep going round and round in an endless loop? On January 30, 1896, Fabre constructed an experiment in which he coaxed a chain of caterpillars around the rim of a large pot filled with earth. As soon as enough caterpillars had ascended to form a ring, he brushed away the ones at the end of the chain. He then nudged the lead caterpillar behind the trailing caterpillar to close the circle. Instantly, there was no more leader. Each caterpillar in the circle simply followed the threads laid down by those ahead of it, ignoring a cache of the caterpillars' favorite food that Fabre had placed within about 12 inches of the circle.
Six days later, on February 5, the caterpillars were still circling. Only after many started to collapse from exhaustion and starvation did the circle begin to break, allowing a few caterpillars with the strength to do so to escape. According to Fabre's calculations, the caterpillars had made over 500 circuits of the pot and traveled over a quarter of a mile. That's equivalent to a person walking about 90 miles, or completing three and a half marathons, without food, drink, or rest. Fabre concluded his description of the experiment with these words: "The caterpillars in distress, starved, shelterless, chilled with cold at night, cling obstinately to the silk ribbon covered hundreds of times, because they lack the rudimentary glimmers of reason which would advise them to abandon it."
If you've ever had the feeling that you have been in a procession of caterpillars—on your job, in your community, or at home—read on.
At some time in our lives we've all been processionary caterpillars, mindlessly following a trail of silk for no reason except that it's laid out before us. It's all too easy to be a part of the procession and not even realize we're in the parade. It's not the exceptional day that we find ourselves in the procession. It's most days. We go through our lives following the patterns we've grown comfortable with. We do things because that's the way they're done. Our routines seem so natural that it doesn't even occur to us that we're following patterns at all. We overlook opportunities, fail to see warning signs, or just plod along because we've kept our eye, not on the target, but on the routine. It happens to all of us.
As with the caterpillars in Fabre's experiments, sometimes the only thing that saves us is that things go so drastically wrong that we're forced out of our processions. Our pattern has been so counterproductive that the circle we've created can no longer sustain itself. It breaks apart. With no more circle, we're forced to find new ways of doing things. We change only when we're forced to.
How different are we from the processionary caterpillar?
* * *
At its heart productive thinking is about freedom. It's a way of escaping from the tyranny of the silken track. Sometimes, of course, there's real value in following the procession. It can be useful and efficient to do things the way they've always been done. Clearly, social conventions, thinking conventions, and best practices have very important and powerful places in our lives. They represent a type of thinking I call reproductive thinking, which I'll discuss in more detail in Chapter 3. In many areas of our lives there is nothing wrong with reproductive thinking. After all, the behavior of the processionary caterpillar has been a successful survival mechanism for millions of years.
Nevertheless, as Fabre observed, there are times when reproductive thinking can be counterproductive and even disastrous. As I will try to demonstrate throughout this book, all of us have the potential to think better, more productively, and more creatively. What we need is the incentive. The silken track is alluring: It's safe, it's easy, and in many cases it works just fine. Rarely will you be criticized for sticking to it. No wonder most people are content to play follow the leader. Thinking better is hard work. It can be risky. And it can certainly make you unpopular. So why bother?
I think there are three good reasons.
There's Plenty of Room for Improvement
Nothing is perfect. The word is full of things we can do better.
I once heard the systems thinker Dr. George Ainsworth-Land tell a story that changed my life. Land worked as a consulting psychologist to school systems throughout the country. In preparation for one assignment, he was given a tour of an Arizona high school by its principal. On their walk through the halls, they saw two boys fighting in front of their lockers. One of the boys was the aggressor, pounding furiously on the other boy, who was trying to defend himself. The principal grabbed both boys by the collar, marched them into his office, sat them down, calmed them down, then turned to the aggressor, and asked, "Why were you hitting Brian like that?"
The boy looked up and said, "Because I couldn't think of anything else to do."
I couldn't think of anything else to do. What a statement! How much misery do we cause and endure in our personal lives, our business lives, our community lives, and our geopolitical lives because we can't think of anything else to do, because we can't find better options, because we act and react according to our timeworn limited—and limiting—patterns? How much better would our lives, our businesses, our world be if only we could think of better things to do, if only we could increase our options, if only we could truly think productively?
Wouldn't it be great if we could avoid the processionary caterpillar syndrome in which we do things just because we can't think of better things to do? As you'll see later in the book, the productive thinking process uses a series of trigger questions to stimulate thinking about issues. One of the "stems" we use to construct those questions is "Wouldn't it be great if ...?" I've listed six challenges in each of three areas: global challenges, business challenges, and personal challenges. Read through them and count how many you think it would be great to answer yes to:
Wouldn't it be great if ... we could find a cure for AIDS? we could produce clean, reliable, renewable energy? we could eliminate famine? we could preserve freshwater supplies? we could reduce air pollution? we could end war?
Wouldn't it be great if ... my company could be quicker to market with new ideas? I got more recognition for my ideas and contributions? I could take the guesswork out of hiring good people? my company could learn more about our markets and competitors? I could have more time to be productive and creative? my company could develop a breakthrough product or service?
Wouldn't it be great if ... I could make more time for myself? my family could settle differences better?
I could find a way to earn what I need by doing something that gives me satisfaction?
my family could communicate better? my family could make the most of the time we spend together? I could find ways to be of greater service to my community?
If you answered yes to just one of these questions, you have a good reason to learn how to think better.
The Indian philosopher Nisargadatta Maharaj once said, "Everything is perfect just as it is—and there's plenty of room for improvement." I don't know anyone who doesn't believe that his or her life or the lives of others couldn't be improved. Wouldn't it be great if we could think of ways to do so?
The good news is that every one of these questions and countless thousands more can be addressed by thinking better: more clearly, more creatively, more productively.
We can all do better. The first step is to start thinking better.
It's Not What You Know but How You Think
In 1969 Peter Drucker coined the term knowledge economy in his book The Age of Discontinuity. His thesis was that modern society had transformed from a reliance on manual workers to a reliance on knowledge workers. By the early 1990s many large global companies had begun to transform themselves into knowledge-based organizations. Corporate boardrooms and corridors were abuzz with people talking about the information age and intellectual capital. Drucker, as usual, was right.
Today a high school student in Albania can access essentially the same base of information as a chief executive officer in Atlanta. It has become increasingly difficult for the creators of information to husband it. In many industries protecting intellectual property has become a practical impossibility. Within hours of their release and sometimes even before their release, major movies are available as free downloads on the Internet. Music industry executives are apoplectic about piracy. Social security numbers and personal bank records seem to slip effortlessly from the confines of the information fortresses designed to protect them.
More than any other commodity, information is everywhere. Not only can almost anyone access almost anything at almost no cost, but unlike corn and wheat, information doesn't have to be consumed to be used. Quite the opposite: The more it's used, the more it grows. Access to information is no longer the great differentiator. In the transformation economy what matters is how you think. Today the only significant economic differentiator for organizations is how well they can use that exponentially growing bank of information: how effectively they can sift through it, evaluate it, transform it into new knowledge, and maximize its economic potential. If it isn't already, the ability to think better will soon become the most significant competitive advantage companies and individuals can claim. Thinking better is what it's all about. And unlike manufacturing, accounting, or telemarketing, the thinking capacity of an organization can't be effectively outsourced.
Clearly, as innovation becomes the watchword for business leaders, those who think better will win. Companies that have paid lip service to the value of their intellectual capital will have to put their money where their heads are. But that won't be easy. Intellectual capital is slippery. Its value lies in its potential, but it's difficult to measure, sometimes even difficult to see.
Creative intellectual capital is also unpredictable. You don't know what it's going to produce. That can be uncomfortable for corporate leaders who've grown up believing that spreadsheets and systems can define reality. The old axiom "what's not measurable is not manageable" may not apply anymore.
One of my clients is a large U.S.-based food manufacturer. In the belief that innovation has to be an organizational priority, the company recently allocated several million dollars in plant, equipment, and people to launch its Imaginarium Innovation Center. Several months before the scheduled opening, the budget was cut, the launch was downplayed, and a directive was released to all the people involved in the center stating that its initial activities were to be "understated and conservative." Somebody got cold feet.
Yes, thinking better can be scary. But not nearly as scary as the alternative.
Thinking Better Is a Skill
The third reason to think better is because you can. Productive thinking is a skill anyone can learn. In describing public speakers, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, "All great speakers were bad speakers first." None of us starts out in life knowing how to think. It's a skill we learn. Some of us, through good fortune, encounter mentors and circumstances that teach us well. Some of us don't. But regardless of your basic equipment or the training you've encountered, you can learn to think better.
The Productive Thinking Model is a disciplined, repeatable process for thinking better, thinking more creatively, thinking more innovatively. It is based on over 50 years of cognitive research. And it can be learned. When I started exploring the Internet in the late 1980s, I joined a Usenet forum that focused on creative thinking. I remember thinking at the time that it was miraculous that I could exchange views with people all over the world. One of the threads of our conversation was about whether creativity is innate or can be taught. The debate was hot. Many of the people in the forum were convinced that either you had it or you didn't. I was equally sure that there must be ways to enhance whatever natural abilities people have. The debate in the forum was never resolved, but something clicked for me over those several weeks of exchanges. I discovered that consciously or not, people in all walks of life believe that thinking is innate: You don't learn how to think, you just do it, and some people are simply better at it than others. I couldn't buy that. It seemed to me that if athletes can be trained to run faster and musicians can be taught to play better, surely people can be taught to think better.
I'm happy to tell you that I was right. Over the years evidence has mounted that thinking, and specifically creative thinking, is a skill like any other. It can be taught, it can be developed, and it can be nurtured. Every brain, regardless of its intelligence quotient (IQ) or creative quotient (CQ), can be taught to think better: to understand more clearly, think more creatively, and plan more effectively. I know. I've seen it happen thousands of times.
I'm passionate about productive thinking because I know it can work. I know it can change lives. I know it can transform organizations. I know it can create a better world.
Finding the Unexpected Connection
Heraclitus, the sixth-century BCE philosopher, wrote, "The unexpected connection is more powerful than one that is obvious." The unexpected connection is the heart of the productive thinking process. Seeing old things in new ways—seeing the initially strange but later obvious connections between familiar things—is what AHA! is all about. The unexpected connection has brought us every innovation we've ever created, from early hominids' discovery that a bone could be a weapon to Apple's creation of the iPhone.
Archimedes made an unexpected connection as he sat in his bath and watched the water rise and fall with his movements. Suddenly, it occurred to him that he could use the concept of displacement to ascertain the purity of gold in King Hieron's crown. Myth has it that he was so excited by his insight that he jumped out of the tub and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse yelling, "Eureka!" which means "I've found it!"
Excerpted from THINK BETTER by TIM HURSON Copyright © 2008 by The McGraw-Hill Companies. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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