Break the Rules: How Thinking Flexibly Leads to Innovation


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In his book, physicist Leonard Mlodinow describes how elastic thinking lets people unleash their inherent creativity.

picThe one constant in life is change. But rigid ways of thinking can sabotage our efforts to thrive in a changing environment. Theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow believes human beings have the unique ability to think flexibly in ways that would unleash an inherent creativity — a skill he calls elastic thinking. “Analytical thinking might be how you figure out the best drive from home to work, but it’s elastic thinking that gave us the invention of the car,” he said. Mlodinow wrote a book on this topic called Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change, which he discussed on the Knowledge@Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111.  

The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Knowledge@Wharton: What does it mean to have an elastic mind or elastic thinking?

Leonard Mlodinow: I talk about two ways that humans think. One is rational, logical thought where we follow rules. We get from A to B using our logic and analytical thinking. That’s the kind of thinking they test on the SAT and that most companies look for when they interview you. That works fine when you’re dealing with situations that are pretty standard.

But there’s another kind of thinking that we do, and that’s the elastic thinking where you don’t follow rules. You make the rules, or you break the rules. You figure out what the rules should be. You try to find new ways of looking at things when the old ways don’t work or when you’re confronted with a new situation, which happens to us all the time now. Analytical thinking might be how you figure out the best drive from home to work, but it’s elastic thinking that gave us the invention of the car.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are all people capable of elastic thinking?

Mlodinow: Our species is. Even though we might think of ourselves as being good physical specimens amongst primates, we’re pretty much on the lower end of the physical scale. A chimpanzee could just tear us apart. Others of our related species are much stronger than we are. What we’ve really had to survive by are our wits and our inventiveness. About 130,000 years ago, there was a great climatic catastrophe that dwindled our numbers. Those individuals who liked to explore and had an appreciation for new things were able to adapt and find new places to go. That’s what allowed our species to survive. After that, we’ve had a genetic makeup that really encourages us to look for new things and to enjoy exploration and new challenges.

“The more hierarchical a company is, the more it’s an innovation-killer.”

Knowledge@Wharton: What is it about our culture now that requires flexibility to be a top priority?

Mlodinow: If you look at civilization over the last thousands or hundreds of years, it was for most people a pretty routine, mundane existence. You might work in a factory. You might be hoeing fields all day. You didn’t have a lot of contact with other people, with other cultures. There was no media. Over the last century, that started to change, especially over the last 10 to 20 years. Since the internet was invented and social media rose, the rate of change and the number of new things that we have to face in our lives has been growing exponentially. Whereas elastic thinking may have been nice for artists, scientists, innovators a hundred years ago, now it’s really important for everybody in everyday life just to thrive and to survive.

Think about what happens if you change computers. You have to learn a whole new system. If you update your Excel, now the old one doesn’t work. We get emails from people who are trying to sabotage us or break into our system and who are always finding new tricks. If you want a vacation, on average people use 26 websites. If you want to get the right price, it’s constantly changing. You’re in kind of a sword fight with the provider. Everywhere we turn, things are different. They’re new. We have to find new skills. We have to adapt.

Knowledge@Wharton: Historically, people have been resistant to change. In your research, is that still the case?

Mlodinow: That’s something that’s talked about a lot in the business literature. I found this big gap between what they were talking about and what the research psychologists were talking about. The research psychologists were talking about some of the events that I’ve just mentioned — how the human species likes change and is attracted to change. In fact, they call it neophilia, the love of the new.

But business literature was talking about how we can overcome people’s change aversion. When you look at it, what they’re talking about is trying to get over people’s resistance to negative change. They take out the word negative, or they call it restructuring or give it some euphemism. But what it means is asking people to do more work for the same money, or there’s a change that will make their job riskier. People are change-resistant because it’s causing them effort or financial harm.

If I were to tell you, “I want you to do 20% more work for the same money,” you’d resist the change. If I tell you, “I’m going to keep paying you the same money, but I’m going to give you 20% less work,” I don’t think you’d resist that change. It has to do with the valence of the change, and they’re mixing up “change” with “negative change.” But as a species, we tend to like change. If you do the same job all the time, you get bored. Squirrels don’t get bored if they do the same thing all the time. They just keep doing it. But humans do.

“Corporations need more of this bottom-up thinking.”

Knowledge@Wharton: You say one way to think elastically is to let your guard down and relax the mind. Can you explain that?

Mlodinow: Our brain is constantly generating ideas. You have parts of your brain called association cortices that are taking ideas or concepts from one area and another, putting them together and coming up with new ideas. This is constantly bubbling away in your unconscious mind. If you were to become consciously aware of all that, you would drown in ideas, as some people who are mentally ill do. But a normal, healthy person has filters that don’t let most of those ideas into your conscious mind. They censor them.

The problem is that sometimes the ideas that are allowed into your conscious mind are the more conventional ones or the ones that are more promising or more ordinary. Sometimes these censors keep the more creative, original ideas out. One of the ways to access your creativity is to find ways to relax those filters so that more starts to get through.

Knowledge@Wharton: People at the lower end of the corporate totem pole may have these unbelievable ideas that could positively affect the company, but they may not have the ability to bring them forward.

Mlodinow: The more hierarchical a company is, the more it’s an innovation-killer. There are two ways of approaching a problem or task. One is the top-down way, and that’s the way of most corporations. That’s the way of the military, where the general at the top gives the orders and they get passed down and maybe adjusted along the way. Everyone is very obedient and follows authority. Your brain works that way when you’re doing analytical thinking. The neurons in your brain work in a top-down fashion. You have certain structures in your brain that order the other structures around and organize things. It’s the executive part of your brain.

“Most people think that they’re always right. … That’s very bad for elastic thinking.”

But the other way, which is where elastic thinking comes from, is bottom up. That means all the individuals somehow work together in a way where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In mathematics, they call that emergent phenomena. Ants are a good example. Each individual ant has very simple programming, but ants as a colony can do amazing things.

Corporations need more of this bottom-up thinking. If they want to be innovative, they have to give the freedom to the people below and the respect to listen to them and let them interact with each other and come up with ideas, not just have everything dictated from the CEO down.

Knowledge@Wharton: You say we’re in a time when we should do a better job of listening to opposing points of view, whether in the office or in politics, and not shut down any idea before the conversation takes place.

Mlodinow: The term that many people use for that is “frozen thinking.” Most people think that they’re always right. If they are shown to be wrong, they put that in the back of their mind and keep focusing on confirming what they already believe. That’s very bad for elastic thinking. It’s very important, when you’re approaching a new situation or a novel challenge, to be open to new ways of thinking and to let go of those assumptions.

That shows itself in politics, where we all have our beliefs and feel very strongly to the extent that we think people who don’t share that are dumb or nuts or evil. But that’s really not the case. There are reasons that people come to different conclusions, and that has to do with the unconscious calculations in your mind.

It’s called motivated reasoning, which is that people have different philosophies and different needs and desires, and they reason backwards. They automatically reason backwards from the conclusion that’s desirable to them. Their minds look at the evidence and sort it out in a way to lead them to the conclusion that unconsciously they really desire. But they believe sincerely in what they’re talking about.

If you want to open up your elastic mind and see things in new ways and be more innovative, a very good exercise is to question your own beliefs. Look at what other people are saying in areas that are very important to you, and try and understand how someone who is intelligent and not evil could come to that conclusion and why they might not accept the things that you do. Also, look back at times where you were wrong about something. Realize that the way you think might not be the only way to think, and soon you might discover something.

“Face the change and go with it, not resist it.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Have you seen companies that are embracing this idea of giving employees the time to engage in elastic thinking?

Mlodinow: I gave a talk at Google, and they are one of the leaders in providing an atmosphere that encourages that. They’re a very creative company. It’s important to realize that when someone is lying on the couch and staring into space, that could be working. That doesn’t mean you’re taking a break.

It’s very important to interrupt your times of analytical, focused thought with times of unfocused thought, where you let your mind just go. That’s when the elastic part of your brain really operates more. It’s called the default mode of brain operation. It’s when you’re not focused on something and you don’t have sensory stimulation. After you’ve focused on a hard problem and thought about it and hit a barrier, it’s that default mode operation that allows the unconscious mind to throw those crazy ideas out that can be the answer.

At Google, they have nap rooms. It’s dark and you can take a nap or lie and look into space. They have a gym where you can go. It’s good sometimes to take a little physical effort to keep you from focusing mentally on something and relax your mind, and then things pop into your mind when you’re on the treadmill.  A company that says, “Leonard, get off the couch and get back to your desk,” is bad. A company that constrains you and is too focused on traditional ways of operating can discourage that kind of thinking.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think more companies should embrace elastic thinking?

Mlodinow: The companies that don’t change the way of doing things are not going to be efficient enough or even have a product that people want because we’re in a time of complete disruptive change, which is why this new thinking is demanded. You have to have some analytical thinking to guide your elastic thinking, but you really need to be able to face the change and go with it, not resist it.

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