The threat of COVID-19 and the resulting social distancing, economic downturns, and societal disruption are producing chaos in the business and entrepreneurial communities. It’s a threat that everyone is grappling with, transcending borders, ideologies, demographics, and socioeconomics.
This crisis is the latest example of how society is shifting to a world of greater uncertainty, complexity, and increasingly fast-paced change. Change is happening so fast that it’s threatening our ability to adapt to it. This won’t be the last challenge society faces. More wicked problems are in our future. We need to be more adaptable, agile, and innovative if we are to survive, let alone thrive, in this increasingly complex and uncertain world.
We all have the ability to adapt. It’s built into our DNA. In order to adapt to the increased complexity in our world we need to adapt how we think. We need to cultivate an ability to think innovatively. We all have the ability to think and be more creative and innovative, to come up with agile and adaptive solutions to challenges in our complex world. It’s there. It’s accessible. We need to unlock and develop our innovative and creative thinking abilities.
Closed Mode and Analytical Thinking
Though we have the ability for innovative thinking, the sobering reality is that as a society we tend to rely too much on the kind of thinking that doesn’t lead to innovative ideas. There are several kinds of thinking, and knowing what type is appropriate for different situations can help us restructure our thinking and adjust how much time we spend on the different types of thinking that we do.
In his book Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change, Leonard Mlodinow outlines three types of thinking; scripted, analytical, and elastic. Scripted thinking is the sort of pre-programmed thinking, either innate or habitual, that is appropriate for routine situations, things we do mindlessly, on auto-pilot, like driving a familiar route, making toast, or washing dishes.
Analytical (or rational, logical) thinking is the kind of thinking that is most valued in society today. It’s taught in schools, quantified through tests and exams like IQ tests, and prized in business. It’s linear, top-down, rules-based, and governed by conscious thinking. It’s a prevalent mode of thinking that we use for activities like developing a project budget, doing our taxes, creating a presentation, etc. In our modern technical, hyper-productive society a lot of our brain’s processing energy gets spent on analytical thinking.
But analytical thinking isn’t well-suited for coming up with new, innovative ideas. Innovative ideas come from elastic thinking. According to Mlodinow, “The associative processes of elastic thinking do not thrive when the conscious mind is in a focused state.” He goes on to add, “Unfortunately, as our default networks [network of brain structures that govern our internal conscious and subconscious dialogues] are sidelined more and more, we have less unfocused time for our extended internal dialogue to proceed. As a result, we have diminished opportunity to string together those random associations that lead to new ideas and realizations.”
In a 1991 lecture on creativity, legendary comedian John Cleese described analytical thinking as a “closed mode” of operating. In his talk, he outlines two modes of operating that are analogous to Mlodinow’s analytical and elastic thinking types — open mode and closed mode. Closed mode is active, anxious, and purposeful. According to Cleese, creativity is not possible when one is operating in closed mode. And yet, a closed mode of operating is where we tend to spend most of our time. In our busy, hyper-productive business society, this alway grinding, always hustling attitude has come to be expected. Operating in this mode won’t get us the innovative ideas that we need to adapt to an uncertain and complex future.
“You physically can’t think “outside the box” when you’re in your inbox. You need downtime — you need to switch “off” — to access the creative part of your brain.” — Spencer Rascoff
The always be hustling attitude is especially prevalent in the tech industry, but even there, people recognize its deleterious effects. Spencer Rascoff, former CEO of Zillow, argues that our ‘busy addiction’ is hurting our ability to be creative. “Our need to be constantly doing something isn’t just stressing us out, it’s also hindering our ability to think creatively. Focus and innovation are two separate networks within our brain. When we focus on well-known tasks like answering emails, the part of our brain that promotes exploration and creativity shuts down. You physically can’t think “outside the box” when you’re in your inbox. You need downtime — you need to switch “off” — to access the creative part of your brain.”
“A stressed brain can’t be creative.” — John Cleese
Open Mode and Elastic Thinking
The path to tapping into our ability to operate in open mode using elastic thinking is simpler than many might think. To do it though, we need to rein in our obsession with busyness and cultivate a slowed down, relaxed, ‘do nothing’ approach to be able to access our more innovative thinking capabilities.
Elastic thinking happens mostly in the unconscious mind. It’s non-linear, bottom-up, and multi-threaded. It integrates diverse information. Elastic thinking is where we get our great new, innovative and creative ideas. Mlodinow states, “Lacking the strict top-down direction of analytical thought, and being more emotion-driven, elastic thinking is tailored to integrating diverse information, solving riddles, and finding new approaches to challenging problems. It also allows the consideration of ideas that are unusual or even bizarre, fueling our creativity.”
Most people probably have personal experiences with elastic thinking — moments when insights pop into their brain seemingly out of nowhere. Random associations suddenly collide and spark new ideas. You’ve probably noticed how these random associations tend to happen most often when you’re operating in a more open and relaxed mode than typical analytical thinking.
If we want to have more innovative and adaptive ideas we need to cultivate an open mode and use elastic thinking. It is operating in this open mode of thinking when we’re most likely to come up with innovative insights. Mlodinow writes, “The result of our addiction to constant activity is a dearth of time in which the brain is in its default mode. And though some may consider ‘doing nothing’ unproductive, a lack of downtime is bad for our well-being, because idle time allows our default network to make sense of what we’ve recently experienced or learned. It allows our integrative thinking processes to reconcile diverse ideas without censorship from the executive brain.”
It’s important to note that both analytical and elastic thinking are necessary and desired in the appropriate contexts. Cleese is quick to point out that we need to be able to operate in both modes. “We need to be in open mode when we’re pondering a problem. But, when we come up with a solution, we must switch to closed mode to implement it.”
How We Can Cultivate an Innovative and Creative Mode of Thinking
So, how do we get into that open mode, to tap into our elastic thinking abilities, be more innovative and creative? According to Mlodinow, Cleese, and neuroscientists, we need to slow down. We have to be relaxed, and not focused. We need to ‘do nothing.’
Slowing down gives our brains some time to do some background processing and make associations that our analytically-focused brains won’t let us make. According to Mlodinow, the internal conversations that we have when we take time to ‘do nothing’ “allow us to connect divergent information to form new associations, and to step back from our issues and problems to change the way we frame them, or to generate new ideas. That gives our bottom-up elastic thinking networks the opportunity to search for creative, unexpected solutions to tough problems.” Mlodinow goes on to add, “A relaxed mind explores novel ideas; an occupied mind searches for the most familiar ideas, which are usually the least interesting.”
Cleese echoes this, saying, “The brain is often at its most creative when it’s not working on a specific problem, which is why people tend to have their best new ideas while driving, performing routine tasks, or even in the shower. When you need a fresh approach to an issue, try focusing on it briefly to get the situation clearly defined, then put it aside. He goes on to add, “A stressed brain can’t be creative, so set aside time for yourself or team to get away from your desks and meditate or exercise.”
In 1965, James Webb Young, an ad man, published his 5 step creative process in A Technique for Producing Ideas. His first two steps involve gathering materials and looking for relationships. Young’s third and fourth steps align with recommendations from Mlodinow and Cleese. In step three, Young says to drop the problem and go do something else. “So when you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.” Step four of Young’s process is the ‘Eureka’ moment. “Out of nowhere the idea will appear. It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning.”
Over the years I’ve watched myself and others hunt for elusive ideas while in an analytical mode of thinking. Chasing ideas like this always reminds me of a famous quote attributed to Henry David Thoreau: “Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulders.” The chasing butterflies metaphor is as apt for chasing innovative ideas as it is for chasing happiness. Like happiness, if we chase after the innovative idea butterfly while in the wrong mode of thinking, it tends to elude us. But when we relax into open mode, the butterfly comes to us.
“… if we are to exercise elastic thinking that is demanded by our fast-paced times, we have to fight the constant intrusions and find islands of time during which we can unplug.” ~ Leonard Mlodinow
Faced with more uncertainty, complexity, and faster change than ever before, we desperately need to adapt our thinking to be able to generate innovative ideas. We need to slow down and build some down time into our daily grind. We need to stop and allow the butterflies to come to us.
If we do as Mlodinow, Cleese, Young, and others recommend, individually taking the time and space to unplug and do nothing, in the short term we’ll begin to see more clarity around the issues and challenges that concern us. It will allow our integrative thinking processes to work in the background to make sense of what we have experienced and learned, reconcile ideas, and make associations between disparate ideas that our analytical brains typically filter out.
If as a society more of us take the time to slow down and tap into our innate abilities for innovative thinking, we’ll be better equipped to adapt to the inevitable challenges that complexity throws at us.