Toward Better Decision-Making
How you can increase creative thinking and problem-solving (Thinking Grey, Part 3)
EXPANDING YOUR ABILITY to think in different ways can lead to significant breakthroughs in innovation and creative problem-solving.
Thinking Grey, as opposed to Binary Thinking (viewing all issues as Either-Or), is an alternative way of mentally processing on a subject or problem. Leadership is highly situational, so this ability proves to be a competitive advantage in a world where conventional “wisdom” rules the day.
I first encountered the term in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven B. Sample. In that book he identifies maintaining your intellectual independence and creative freedom as the most important benefits of learning to Think Grey.
Stretching and learning new ways of thinking are a real challenge. Let’s consider some ways you can make progress in this.
Establish a firm foundation
1. Determine to protect your intellectual independence and creative freedom
Thinking well is hard work, and it takes effort to do it well. It is far easier to go with what is accepted as conventional wisdom.
I’ll bet when you were young your parents told you, “Just because everybody’s doing it doesn’t make it right.” That’s something I believe all leaders and managers need to remember as well.
The business world is full of ideas, ways, and means “everybody” assumes are right, but need examination. Only someone who is intellectually independent and creatively free will challenge conventional wisdom.
Leaders need a healthy dose of skepticism. The history of every profession ─ including medicine and the sciences ─ is littered with assumptions and methods once accepted as obvious but later ridiculed as nonsense. The same is true of business theories and practices. Consider what others tell you, yes, but be independent enough to consult and follow your own best judgment. The first step, therefore, is making up your mind that you won’t go blindly with the crowd.
2. Hold to unchanging core principles.
Thinking Grey does not mean that everything is up for grabs. There are surely some right or wrong issues, and your core values should be written in stone. Particular applications might be fuzzy and debatable, but not core principles.
It is your core values, in fact, that make it safe to Think Grey. They give you a rock-solid foundation and moral compass from which to explore possibilities and challenge assumptions.
Suggestions for Thinking Grey
This study is not a substitute for common sense, nor is it a call for indecisiveness in routine decision-making. It is rather the recognition that where Thinking Grey is appropriate, it is a serious drawback to fail to recognize it and stick to binary reasoning.
1. Pause and ask, “What time is it?”
I suggest you write down the following sentences and keep them before you:
There is a time for Binary Thinking and a time for Thinking Grey. Wisdom is to know what time it is.
What time is it now?
When faced with new information or when addressing a problem, ask yourself, “What time is it?” Rather than reacting instinctively, you’ll begin developing the habit of first asking what kind of situation you are facing. That moment of pause and reflection alone can make a great difference in improving your analyzing and problem-solving ability.
This simple practice will help you in multiple ways. One of the biggest is by developing the habit of approaching your work thoughtfully. That may not sound like much, but in a world where most people work in a passive-reactive frame of mind, simply reacting to stimuli all day long, you’ll jump ahead in effectiveness (“doing the right things”). A few examples:
“Is it time to delegate or to do it myself?”
“Is it time to speak or to listen?”
“Is it time to act independently or in concert with my team?”
“Is it time to confront a person or to wait?”
I find in coaching that people usually know the right thing to do once they have stopped to ask the question. Few today stop to ask.
2. Reserve judgment until you’ve heard all the relevant facts
Most of us form opinions too quickly. We are simply too fast in assessing situations and making judgments. Those who are good at quick judgments find it harder to recognize ambiguous situations or where more information is required.
A prime example is handling conflicts between people. You’ve probably been there: The first person comes and presents a completely coherent account of the situation or incident. The answer seems so obvious! That is, until the second person comes and presents the other side of the story. If you make up your mind at the first hearing, you’ll surely regret it.
In many cases you’ll never find the truth or what really happened. But by Thinking Grey and reserving judgment you can maintain the detachment to identify the real issues, the principles at the heart, usually several at once.
Managers sometimes make the mistake of getting wrapped around the axle trying to figure out the facts of a conflict while missing the larger issue: How the parties involved responded to the conflict. A problem and a person’s reaction to a problem are two different things. We are not always responsible for the fact that a problem or conflict exists, but we are always responsible for our behavior in response to it. By reserving judgment, a leader can sort through the matter, focus on the right things, and clarify the course of action.
3. Keep applying your creativity by pressing for multiple options
Thinking well is hard work, and we all sometimes want to take the easy way out. The way to resist that impulse is by forcing yourself or your team to come up with more answers.
When seeking possible actions to address a problem, don’t settle for Either-Or. Think, “Either-Or … Or … Or … Or …”
Insist on more possibilities. Ask, “What else could we do?” Why must you “insist”? Because people will try to bail out of the hard work of thinking through a variety of work-avoidance techniques. Don’t let them.
By making the effort, you find that you can indeed come up with more and better ideas for action than you saw at first glance.
4. When addressing a problem, think “What?” before “How?”
Have you ever noticed how people shoot down some of their own ideas almost as soon as they are out of their mouths? “I could try that, but it would never work.” People get a case of what I call “the yeah-buts.” You throw out an idea and they reply, “Yeah, but …”
That’s why I teach the problem-solving principle, Think “What?” before “How?” First identify what in an ideal world should be done. Separate it from the question of how to pull it off. Only after identifying the right thing to do should you begin applying your creative brain work on how to make progress toward it.
5. Adopt the philosophy that “Incremental improvement is good!”
The perfect solution isn’t always possible. Don’t let that stop you.
I like to use a baseball analogy. In the major leagues a .275 hitter is considered about average. A .325 hitter is an All-Star. If he does that over his entire career, he’ll end up in the Hall of Fame as one of the best of all time.
But do you know the actual difference between a .275 hitter and a .325 hitter? Over the course of a season, it is about one more hit a week! It doesn’t have to be a home run. It can be a bunt single, a blooper, a beat-out grounder. One more of those each week over the course of the six-month baseball season means a rise of 50 points.
When you’re talking about high performers in the business world, quantum leaps of performance are highly unlikely. Significant improvement can be attained, however, through the business equivalent of one more hit a week. That’s why I say, “Incremental improvement is good!”
Think of getting two more hours of discretionary time to use on important objectives … 10% more revenue … 5% reduction in costs … two more hours devoted to cultivating important relationships. You’ll see: Little things really can add up to big results.
Instead of doing nothing because there is no perfect solution, why not shoot for incremental improvement in some challenges facing you?
Try some of these applications and see how they impact your life and work. Li