the power of learning to think independently
Culture | July 6, 2015
We’ve all come to accept, and even expect, the notion that leaders think independently. Their examples reign through history: Pythagoras, Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk.
Closer to home, every organization and team has come to depend on its members with the ability to “think outside of the box.” This is in contrast to the dominating leaders who portray themselves as “having all of the answers.” (We’ve all known at least a few who’ve “never been wrong” and march about barking orders with the attitude of being the only smart voice in the room. If the program fails, it’s because someone else has supplied them with wrong information, of course.)
But on the positive front, there are those within the organization who are perpetually able to see all sides of a challenge, coupled with a few relationships and alternatives no one has considered before. They find new avenues for fulfillment—new ways of looking at the challenge—or may even come to a realization that the problem you’re viewing isn’t the actual problem at all.
How do they do it?
Yes, some people’s brains are wired to think independently. And others are fostered from childhood to nurture their curiosity. But here’s the good news: regardless of how your thinking is “wired,” with practice most everyone can strengthen their ability to think independently, and will achieve greater things when they do.
Here are the skills to develop:
1. Consider the relationships and dependencies of the people and process involved. Here’s a test a business strategist administered last week. She laid down three oblong cards on a table, one on the bottom, with the two others evenly spaced at the top. “What do you see?” she queried. The two individuals next to me saw the shape of a triangle. Conversely, I had stated that the bottom card was a foundation that held the other two up. “Bingo,” she said. While some people observe the shape or the symmetry of an arrangement of objects, independent thinkers see the relationships and interactions among them. Independent thinkers are inherently observing the ways to influence the dynamics or the arrangements of a situation to bring about a different or a better result.
2. Learn to welcome obstacles. The most difficult problem for an independent thinker to solve is an open-ended problem. The more constraints that appear, the greater the opportunity to take the limitations into consideration, and drive to a productive result. This vantage point can serve as a gift to independent thinking. Every obstacle that emerges brings you closer to arriving at only the ideas that can actually work.
3. Combine ideas in new ways. Here’s a valuable question to ask at every opportunity: “So what did that just open up for you?” A case in point: Product designers came forward with idea after idea to address the teen and millennial market, entirely forgetting that mature consumers—those 50 years of age or older—command a far greater amount of disposable income. Furthermore, there are far fewer new product ideas flowing their way. Here’s an example: when product designers brought forward yet another toddler spoon, or another great handheld device for the Wii, an astute investor pointed out that these products could be easily modified to address the aging population, as well. A spoon that was easier to grip. A device to fit comfortably in the hand of an older person that could encourage greater mobility and fitness. A new market served, with very few modifications, by making use of existing ideas in additional ways.
4. Learn to love collaborative thinking. Autocratic leaders will often resist collaboration, as it feels like a questioning of their power. But independent thinkers welcome the creative ideas of everyone present, recognizing that the best ideas may come from the youngest or newest participant on the company’s team. In your own progression as a leader and as a team member, you will obtain better results when you learn to welcome the creative thinking of all.
Not every manager or leader is destined to invent the next great theorem or the next product that changes history. But by learning to think “out of the box,” to welcome challenges, to find and align resources in new ways, and to maximize collaborative thinking, you are well on your way to a greater degree of success.