If you are asked the question, “are you goofing off at work?” what would your answer be? Most or all of us might reply to it as, “no, of course not!” with a certain amount of righteous vehemence. That answer by the way is the wrong one at two levels to say the least. The first one is that, we are trying to be politically correct. And let me challenge us to find any significant innovation in any walk of life when being politically correct. The second level at which the answer is not right is that, Innovation demands thinking and we cannot think while we are focused on our current job duties that consume our entire day and often nights and even challenge us from spending quality time with our family. So if our organization claims that they are innovative and we are also not goofing off and spending “I time” that will allow us to smell the coffee, then something doesn’t add up in this equation.
Did you read the line “we are not thinking” in the previous paragraph and pause before reading further? It might have helped understanding the context of the rest of this article. Nevertheless, let me quickly cover the ground about thinking itself. We all think and perhaps too much and there lies the main problem; we are perhaps not doing the right kind of thinking enough. May be, this article can set that anomaly right.
Have you heard the fable of “The Monkey and the Crocodile” from the Panchatantra? Well, the Monkey perched on a blue berry tree and a crocodile in the river that flowed by the tree became friends. Conversations between the friends happened everyday and the monkey shook the tree to drop some fruit that the crocodile would eat during those sessions. One day, the conversation came up about families and the crocodile announced that he had a wife at home on the other side of the riverbank. The monkey responded with surprise and from that day shook more of the tree to send a generous package of the blueberry home for his friend’s wife. The wife after enjoying the blueberries for a few days scolded her husband for being foolish. She said we should eat the monkey. They plotted and the crocodile invited the monkey at the instance of his wife; home for lunch. The monkey went with the crocodile but halfway down the river found out to his dismay that he was going to be the lunch for his friend’s family. Quickly, the thought of saving himself gave him an idea and he said that he was happy to offer himself but the best part of his offering would be his heart, which was left behind on the tree. The foolish crocodile thought that he would take advantage of this situation. So he ferried his monkey friend back to the shore to fetch his heart. The crocodile’s thinking was that he would impress his wife with his cleverness for once. And so the monkey saved his life by clambering back on top of the tree to safety and the crocodile was left with nothing; neither the friendship, nor the sweet berries he had come to love or the anticipated reward and gratitude from his wife.
If we were to draw meaning of just the perspective on thinking of these two creatures, we will find similarities with our thinking in everyday life as follows:
- The monkey’s thinking was reactionary and responded to a danger.
- The crocodile’s thinking was proactive and responded to an opportunity but with poor intelligence.
Thinking essentially falls into three distinct categories and each has a specific characteristic and outcome. The aim here is not to advocate any one thinking against the other or as mutually exclusive. Rather, it is important to be aware of the distinction of the three levels and practice them depending upon the context, mutually inclusively. Please refer to the illustration below:
Abstract Thinking: This is the thinking that Leaders should adapt to most often. This is often confused with the next level of thinking, which is Lateral Thinking. Abstract Thinking should relate to the mission of an enterprise (in the case of a business enterprise) or the purpose of life (in the case of an individual) and the origins of a nation state (in the case of society). Abstract Thinking is about unfettered thinking keeping the context of the current relevant without being affected by practices that have come into being consciously or unconsciously; blocking transformation and change in the name of traditions rather than just being recognized for the behavioral habits they really are. This thinking will lead individuals / organizations / Societies to New Markets, Segments and Customers creating New Offerings and New Capabilities. The emphasis here is Creativity and Design interplaying the development of renewal that makes Individuals, Enterprises and Societies relevant to their current contexts. This type of thinking responds to the call of a Transforming Outlier.
Lateral Thinking: This is the thinking that Leaders and Managers must often engage in to stretch imagination out of the box for solutions that can extend returns without a significant addition of assets and investments. Here the emphasis is to do more with less and find effective ways of extending offerings that have already been created. Even though this demands creativity, it is not on the creation of something new out of nothing but how to extend what is already available on offer with a better process of distribution and reach. It could be features and functionality in a product or a new skill / degree in an individual or a new arsenal of weaponry in the case of a nation. This thinking demands intelligence and Knowledge to develop Competitive Advantage Continuously.
Smart Thinking: This is the thinking that is adopted by associates most of the time in an enterprise and by all of us at most times. This thinking is more reactive and is formed from the presentation of facts and data or unforeseen events. In other words, we also call this ‘Thinking on the feet’. This thinking is most useful to deal with exceptions rather than the rule. It is very transactional in nature and the gains are also minimal but it is critical that this thinking is never forsaken. Because planning can always go wrong and for situations and circumstances that could not be anticipated. Therefore, the response that comes from this thinking is more reactionary and averts a catastrophe on the ground and also alerts the above two levels of thinking to reflect on the potential of such occurrence in the future.
The most relevant part on thinking is to understand that abstract thinking includes lateral and smart thinking but not vice-versa. If individuals, enterprises and nations were to engage more in abstract thinking, then the conditions where lateral and smart thinking need to be employed would be dramatically reduced. However that being an ideal state and as we all have grown to believe that idealism doesn’t work, the next best thing to do would be to at least increase the numbers upwards from Smart to Lateral to Abstract Thinking. This would dramatically improve the chances of an Innovative Enterprise and Society utilizing the available resources with wisdom. The adage that the “Future is Now” should be understood from the relevance of design and predicating the future from the present rather than taking the onerous responsibility of predicting it without accountability and responsibility.
Understanding the three levels of thinking and connecting them to the everyday existence can bridge Potential with Performance. As human beings, we are blessed with the ability to interpret; what in other words is essentially intelligence. Such interpretation should be at the level of sensing rather than at the level of reacting. In today’s technology terms, in the absence of the ability to interpret data and information continuously in a coherent and cohesive manner, Information Technology tools are stepping in. But these tools will never be able to mimic the human experience that will drive cognitive intelligence, which is foundational for renewal of Individuals, Enterprises and Societies. It is therefore critical to understand how we find our energy for sensing that was naturally gifted by nature to us and we successfully managed to lose it from our lives and struggle with the complexity of Information Security in the process.