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may

Interview with Matthew E. May

Brainstorming. Problem Solving. Creative Thinking. These are all characteristics shared by the successful business professionals. However, you would be surprised to know that even the most successful business people hold themselves back creatively because of ingrained patterns and “fatal flaws” in the way that we approach thinking. We asked Matthew to provide some takeaways to help professionals everywhere to be able to get out of their own brain’s way.

When we have a problem to solve, we often jump right into brainstorming- something you call “Leaping”. You say this creates roadblocks. Why, and what’s a better solution?

Leaping to solutions or jumping to conclusions is the most prevalent fatal thinking flaw I see. We’ve been conditioned through formal education to seek the right answer as quickly as possible. All those “why?” questions we incessantly asked when we were much younger lose priority over the years, replaced by a “right answer now!” mindset. So brainstorming has become our go-to creative problem solving process.

The problem is that it doesn’t work. Immediately and instinctively leaping to solutions in a sort of mental knee jerk almost never leads to an elegant solution to an unfamiliar, complex problem, because not enough time is devoted to framing the issue properly.

If I have learned anything from facilitating problem-solving sessions, though, it is that we will be largely unsuccessful in attempting to shut off the now deeply embedded Leaping impulse, and we should not even try. We will make far more progress if we instead redirect and channel the instinct to act into behavior that feels like brainstorming, but involves generating questions instead of answers.

The fix for the Leaping flaw, then, is quickly generating multiple ways to frame the problem. In other words, instead of coming up with answers right away, you come up with questions right away, before you launch into solutioning.

It’s called Framestorming.

 

To have doubt is to be human, and all business people can find themselves in places of doubt along their career journey.  How is self-censoring because of that doubt harmful and what should we as professionals be doing instead?

Well, we don’t come into the world doubters, or self-doubters. Toddlers are fierce when it comes to taking delight from engaging in what we as adults have come to view as silly nonsense. Many of the more popular approaches to business innovation are rooted in the desire to reclaim some of that childlike curiosity and urge to play, experiment, and explore.

Self-censoring is when we field or create a great idea, recognize it as such, but deny or kill it anyway, without due consideration. Then we slap ourselves on the forehead when some- one else “steals” our great idea. I often think of it as “ideacide.”

Whether it’s because we’re too critical or because we recoil at the impending pain of change and disruption of normalcy, Self-Censoring arises out of fear. That fear shrinks us, mentally.

It’s the deadliest of the fatal thinking flaws, because any voluntary shutdown of the imagination is an act of mindlessness, the long-term effects of which eventually kill off our natural curiosity and creativity.

The fix for that mindlessness is the opposite, which is mindfulness. But a word of caution: do not do what many companies are doing right now, which is equating and confusing mindfulness with Eastern-style meditation. Meditation seeks to suspend thinking. Mindfulness as I am using it is the Western approach involving active thinking, centered on achieving a higher order of attention, considering different perspectives, and noticing moment-to-moment changes around you.

I’m horrible at meditation. But I have learned to be more mindful.

 

Talk a little about the concept of “Downgrading” and how that particularly is detrimental for business owners.

Downgrading is my term for when we formally revise our stated ambition in a distinctly downward or backward direction, committing what amounts to preemptive surrender, which in a kind of perverse way enables us to do what we really want to do, which is declare and announce victory. No one likes to lose; we all love to win. But by definition, there’s only one true winner. So in order to feel like a winner, we will back off the original goal and tell ourselves a happy but fictional story of triumph. Politicians are masters of it. And unfortunately, it happens all the time in business, and it can result in wholesale disengagement, which is detrimental to any effort.

Here’s the thing: You can’t reach Mars by settling for the moon.

Downgrading comes naturally and too easily. We unconsciously sell short our capability. We often and automatically impose limits on ourselves that can unnecessarily hold us back, rather than propel us forward. The fact is that you can’t possibly know your true limits until you put your capacity on trial.

Immunity from Downgrading is founded in good old “grit,” as my fellow Wharton author Angela Duckworth terms it.

 

You tell a story about a training session where you gave the correct answers to an exercise to junior team members whose input was ultimately dismissed by people senior to them at every single table. What can business people learn from this and “Not Invented Here” syndrome in general?

I fully admit to playing a dirty trick on some very senior managers in my earlier days of consulting. At an offsite retreat, I sat the most junior or lowest-level person at a table of those more senior and higher-ranking managers, and gave each “ringer” the answers to a group prioritization exercise, along with the job of convincing the table they knew the solution. Not a single group presented the correct solution, even though it was present in the group.

I did it to make the point that some great ideas and suggestions were being rejected out of hand at the supervisor level, simply because the source of those ideas happened to be lower level employees. It was internal “Not Invented Here” syndrome, meaning “if it’s not my idea, it’s not a good one.”

Not Invented Here is actually a hard-wired brain response to the enormous mental energy required to process and absorb the ideas of others. Our brains are lazy and don’t want to work that hard, so the easiest and most effortless thing to do is simply reject those ideas. The result is that we close ourselves off from potentially great ideas and opportunities, and often end up trying to reinvent a wheel someone else already has.

That mindset leads to a tremendous waste of resources and poor ROI – return on innovation. Procter & Gamble’s A.G. Lafley, recognizing that such a syndrome and resulting poor payoff was hurting the business, mandated that fully 50% of all innovation must come from the outside. He called P&G’s outside-in innovation program “Connect and Develop,” and it resulted in an ROI far greater than the former inside-out only approach.

 

What’s the one last piece of advice you would give us about being more effective in our creative problem solving endeavors?

Understand that what appears to be the problem, usually isn’t; what appears to be the solution, then, isn’t; and what appears to be impossible, never is.

Your brain will guide you into comfortable ruts unless you inject a bit of mindful thinking, and rethinking, into your creative process. Always look at things from several perspectives, and take the advice of Harvard’s Ellen Langer (Mindfulness) who gave me a profound bit of wisdom, which I’ll pass on to you: as soon as you realize your issue or problem looks different from a different perspective, take that perspective.