How to think outside the box

People are confronted with ‘headscratchers’ on a daily basis – budgets, cost reductions, product improvements, assessing risks and having to make go or no-go decisions.

The time to find solutions and make the right decisions is becoming shorter. Life is spinning faster. Many people fear headscratchers because they feel stuck. 

“We become stuck in our thinking when we repeat the same narratives and roles without critically evaluating them,” says Bev Hancock, MD at Kamva Leadership Institute. 

We are trapped in patterns of thinking and behaviour, which cause blind spots.

However, it takes a while for people to realise they have been soul-sucked and are merely operating in “automatic mode”. Realising it causes vulnerability and discomfort – the brain has become used to not exerting too much energy, says Juanita Vorster, communication strategist at At That Point.

Habits drive our thinking and behaviour. We seldom question why we are doing what we are, she says. To awaken the critical mind, you need to leave automatic mode. 

In his book Think Smarter: Critical Thinking to Improve Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills author Michael Kallet says critical thinking is a process and a “purposeful method of enhancing your thoughts beyond your automatic everyday way of thinking”. 

The process means clarity on what the headscratcher really is, coming to a conclusion and making a decision. It is done within a framework of individual critical thinking techniques to guide manual thinking, as opposed to automatic thinking.

Finding clarity

The single most important reason why headscratchers (projects, initiatives, problem-solving, decisions, or strategy) go awry is that the headscratcher itself is not clear in the first place, says Kallet. 

The focus should not be on finding a solution, but on defining the problem. Ask questions such as “Why are we having this conversation? And what landed us in this situation?”, says Vorster. 

The context of the problem offers greater clarity and moves the mind away from the problem, enabling it to creatively connect seemingly unrelated dots. If you define the problem better, some solutions start presenting themselves.

Spending time on getting clarity helps one to not only do things faster, but also better and differently. “If we want to think outside the box, we need to know and understand the box. Define the box before you want to extend beyond,” advises Vorster. 

A handy tool to assist with clarity is to “empty your bucket”, which contains memories of your experiences such as past projects, interactions with other people or previous attempts at solving problems, says Kallet. 

“There is no room in a filled bucket for critical thinking and creativity . . . If you empty your bucket, forget about the past, and take a closer look at what this issue is; you will get a better idea about what is different this time.”

Brainstorm questions rather than answers, says Hancock. When we explore different questions, we engage in a process of enquiry. Move from questions that are familiar to riskier territory where no one has been before.  

A critical thinking tool is to ask: “So what?” The question makes people think about what they have to achieve. “It gets them to the relevance, importance, value and the impact of the headscratcher,” says Kallet.

Towards solutions

Justin Cohen, author and leadership trainer, says there has to be a strong sense that there is a solution to the problem. If that is absent, people tend to focus on the problem.

Kallet agrees: “Innovative solutions require open minds, empty buckets, and a tenacious belief that a satisfactory solution exists.”

Again, asking questions is vital. Answers close off attention, whereas questions open up attention, making them more powerful than answers, says Cohen.

People must be encouraged to write down their solutions – the crazier the better. Many solutions considered “stupid” or “impossible” turned out to be ground-breaking.

That is what innovation is all about. A barrier to innovation is the “social sense” of what is possible and what is not. “There should be no self-censorship. The way to get good solutions is to start with lots of solutions,” says Cohen. 

The prefrontal cortex is involved in managing complex processes like reason, logic, problem-solving, planning, and memory. 

“That part of the brain is generally not activated when you are feeling stressed and adrenalised,” says Cohen.

The conditions you create for people to come up with solutions is important. Make sure people are relaxed, ask for input after lunch when their blood sugar levels are lifted and refrain from judgement. 

Kallet says getting solutions requires considering facts (of which there are not so many) and observations (which are abundant).

People tend to make assumptions based on their beliefs and experiences. Critical thinking requires that one questions assumptions.

When the solution ideas are running low, set a seemingly impossible goal. “Impossible conversations are fun. Everything goes, and some ideas are so whacky they are laughable. Others are so ingenious you will chuckle at why it took an impossible conversation to expose them,” says Kallet. 

Making the decisions

The thinking process differs when finding solutions to making decisions. You need a list of criteria when deciding on the right solution. 

One of these criteria is risk factors. Once the criteria have been met, it is time for action. 

If you make a conscious effort to evaluate the risks, you will understand what makes you and others uncomfortable, says Kallet. It may send you back to your solutions. 

Decisions move the ball forward. “Although there is no guarantee you will never backtrack, critical thinking will maximise the probability that you will make decisive, quality decisions that will yield successful results,” he says. 

Hancock remarks that critical thinking is considered to be one of the top skills in the future of work leading up to 2020. By undergoing new experiences or doing old things differently, we build new neural pathways in the brain. 

“The more conscious and intentional your thinking, the more your critical skills will improve,” she says. 

This article originally appeared in the 13 September edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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