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06.27.18

Unsafe Thinking: How to Get Out of Your Rut

Unsafe Thinking

W
E ALL GET STUCK IN RUTS. Thinking ruts. Bias ruts. Stability ruts. Ego ruts.

“The ability to meet challenges with a willingness to depart from standard operating procedures; to confront anxiety, tolerate criticism, take intelligent risks, and refute conventional wisdom—especially one’s own views—in order to achieve breakthroughs” is what Jonah Sachs calls unsafe thinking.

Feeling anxious is not a bad place to be in. Unsafe thinking means becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.

We’ve all heard the warnings. In changing environments, tried-and-true routines often lead to mediocrity. And we know this is true. Worse still, when we are in the midst of a problem or crisis, we easily revert to the same old thinking with the hopes that we’ll think it through better next time when were under less pressure. But that never happens. So how do we get out of it?

In Unsafe Thinking: How to Be Nimble and Bold When You Need It Most, Jonah Sachs walks us through six key components of unsafe thinking and practices that will help us to overcome our reluctance to use them. First up is courage.

1. Courage

In 2015, shortly before Amazon bought Whole Foods, co-CEO John Mackey is faced with a plummeting stock price and is under fire. He told an audience that, “Staying open, knowing something new is trying to birth itself is hard when everyone’s screaming at you.” It’s hard to stay open to new ideas and expand your thinking when the stakes are so high. He added, “You want to run to safety, but there’s no safety in business these days.” Sachs says we need to accept anxiety as part of the journey and reimagine fear as fuel for creativity. “When you feel fear, remind yourself that it might indicate that you’re on the edge of a creative breakthrough.”

2. Motivation

How do you motivate yourself and others to stay on the edge? The motivation must come from within. Intrinsic motivation is more powerful than extrinsic motivation. In fact, if we focus too much on extrinsic motivation, it can kill our creativity and performance. “Research shows that when we’re in the creative phase of seeking out problems to solve or brainstorming solutions, the phases that call for the open mode, it’s best not to distract ourselves from intrinsic enjoyment with extrinsic rewards.” Getting ourselves in the right frame of mind means knowing what success looks like, getting regular feedback to see that we are on track, and having the skills necessary to complete the task.

3. Learning

Do we rely on or question our expertise? How can we build our expertise without getting trapped by it? Sigmund Freud wrote, “The conceptions I have summarized here I first put forward only tentatively, but in the course of time they have won such a hold over me that I can no longer think in any other way.” And so it goes.

We must become explorers. “The more we project an air f expertise, the more often we’re wrong and the slower we are to learn. And though we may fear nobody will follow us if we admit to fallibility, research indicates that people prefer humble leaders.” The more urgent the problem the more likely we are to seize upon an answer and stick with it without considering that we are on the wrong track. When faced with a deadline, John Cleese “would do all the selection and finalization of ideas at the latest possible hour, leaving as much time for exploration up front as possible. It would give him a creative edge and he would almost always come up with something more original.

4. Flexibility

“Breakthroughs often come from pursuing ideas that seem counterintuitive to most people and therefore crackpot.” Our intuitions should not be ignored, but they aren’t truths. As Robin Hogarth says, “Emotions are data that need to be explained.” Sachs comments on Hogarth’s wicked learning environment that gives slow, ambiguous, or misleading feedback versus a kind learning environment that gives us plenty of timely, clear, and accurate feedback. “Spend a lot of time in a single environment, be it kind or wicked, and we’re likely to grow and more confident in our intuition. But if our learning environments are wicked, our intuitions are likely to get further and further off base, even as they grow stronger.”

5. Morality

When do you break the rules? Writer Wallace Stegner put it this way: “It is the beginning of wisdom when you recognize that the best you can do is choose which rules you want to live by. It’s persistent and aggravated imbecility to pretend you can live without any.” The idea is to disobey wisely or intelligent disobedience.

Sachs says there two things to keep in mind. “First, be open about dissatisfaction with creativity-killing rules. Colleagues and managers are more likely to see the quiet latent dissenter as disloyal and, surprisingly, as more verbally aggressive and argumentative. Next, it’s important to articulate the pro-social value of breaking a rule rather than the personal reason for doing so.”

We reward sheep-like behavior so we have to teach the unacceptability of blind obedience. What problem does this rule exist to solve? “While having a few rules that are meant to be broken can actually spur creativity, organizations should thoughtfully prune policies built up over time to address problems that may or may not still be relevant.” Again, this is not an argument against rules.

Professor Scott Page noted that we easily get stuck when the group thinks the same way. “But if we have people with diverse tools, they’ll get stuck in different places. On person can do their best, and then someone else can come in and improve on it.”

6. Leadership

The presence of other people can depress creativity. “Groups tend to enforce all the attitudes of safe thinking: they rush too quickly to consensus, rally around expert leaders, punish dissenters, quickly harden their shared sense of right and wrong, and unless directed otherwise, squash risky and unfamiliar ideas in the name of efficiency and practicality.” It’s up to the leadership to make sure people have a safe place to think in unsafe ways. Ask people what holds them back.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 08:46 PM
| Comments (0) | Creativity & Innovation , Thinking



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