This is Yoga for the Brain: Multidisciplinary Learning

In Praise of Multidisciplinary Frameworks for Better Thinking You need a broad-based understanding to succeed in today’s increasingly complex world.

Modern scientific and technological advances are increasingly born at the frontiers of more than one science disciplines.

It’s impossible to know everything. However, if you work to understand the basics of the biggest, most important paradigms in the fields of science, humanities, and social sciences, you can progressively expand your decision-making process.

A multidisciplinary methodology entails drawing suitably from multiple disciplines to examine problems outside of their normal boundaries and reach solutions based on an understanding of complex situations.

Multidisciplinarity Leads to Better Internalization of Knowledge

Multidisciplinarity allows you can transform a perspective in one discipline to expand your thought-frameworks in other disciplines. The renowned venture capitalist Paul Graham, author of the bestselling Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, said this best when he once wrote,

Studying things from unrelated subjects (multidisciplinary learning) is a lot like yoga for brain. You don’t actually get anywhere when you do yoga. You stand in one place and bend yourself in various shapes. But it makes you more flexible, so when you go out and do walk around, you can walk better.

“Cross-Training for the Mind” à la Charlie Munger

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) The great investor Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is a big proponent of multidisciplinary thinking. This distinguished beacon of rationality and wisdom coined the term “latticework of mental models” to enable the “cross-training for the mind.” Rather than silo your mind just in the narrow areas you tend to concentrate on at college and work, Munger advocates developing a broad, functional set of interdisciplinary knowledge about the world, which can serve you in all parts of life. According to the anthology Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Munger said at a 1998 talk at the Harvard Law School,

If A is a narrow professional, B consists of the big, extra-useful concepts from other disciplines, then, clearly, the professional possessing A plus B will usually be better off than the poor possessor of A alone. How could it be otherwise? And thus, the only rational excuse for not acquiring B is that it is not practical to do so, given the man’s need to A and the other urgent demands in his life. I will later try to demonstrate that this excuse for unidisciplinarity, at least for our most gifted people, is usually unsound.

Many of the world’s leading companies in science and technology are employing multidisciplinary people for managerial positions. These people understand a range of science principles and methods and can synthesize the works of domain-specific experts to invent creative solutions to problems.

Idea for Impact: Pursue Multidisciplinary Thinking

People who think very broadly and comprehend many different models from many different disciplines make better decisions.

Pursue multidisciplinary thinking. Open your mind to new ideas and new experiences. Make new friends, travel afar, read more, and discover new stories.

Interact with people who work in different disciplines and dabble with the arts and the media. Let the new sights, sounds, smells, languages, tastes, sensations, stories, and perspectives spark your creativity.

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

“Opportunity cost is a huge filter in life. If you’ve got two suitors who are really eager to have you and one is way the hell better than the other, you do not have to spend much time with the other. And that’s the way we filter out buying opportunities.”
Charlie Munger, Investor

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

Doing One Thing Makes You Sacrifice the Opportunity to Do Something Else of Value

In economics, opportunity cost is the cost of not choosing the next best alternative for your money, time, or some other resource.

One of the foundational principles in economics is affirmed by the popular American aphorism, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Resources are scarce. When resources (time, money, mindshare, autonomy, and all that) are scarce, selecting one opportunity necessitates forgoing other opportunities.

Life is all about values and priorities. You face trade-offs. Life requires of you to make choices among mutually exclusive alternatives. Every time you select something, you forfeit other alternatives and the concomitant benefits. The cost of something is what you will give up to get it. This is opportunity cost.

You Can Do Anything but Not Everything … What Will You Sacrifice When You Choose One Option Over the Others?

When mulling over multiple choices, the quality of any option cannot be assessed in isolation from its alternatives. The price you pay (or the sacrifice you make, or the benefits you give up) for doing what you’ve chosen to do instead of doing something else is the opportunity cost.

In sum, an opportunity cost is the cost of passing up the opportunities that a different option would have afforded.

Many costs are calculated in terms of money. However, just because you don’t have to spend money to do something does not imply that the options you face are without their costs. For example, you don’t have to spend money to go for a hike or watch a sunset, but there is an opportunity cost there too. You could have used that time to do something else you value—visiting a friend or reading a book, perhaps.

  • If you decide to invest two years and some $100,000 getting an MBA at a brand-name business school, there’s an opportunity cost; it costs you lost wages and all the things you could have pursued during that time and with that money. But you anticipate that getting your MBA will pay off by way of a better job in a better company with a better salary.
  • If you spend your weeklong vacation taking your parents to a beach destination in Florida, there’s the opportunity cost of not going to Paris with your spouse.
  • Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices If you decide to wake up twenty minutes earlier in the mornings to leave home sooner to work and beat the horrendous traffic, there’s the opportunity cost of twenty minutes of extra snoozing.
  • When the refrigerator at home breaks down and needs replacement, you will have to give up buying that latest big-screen TV you’ve been coveting.
  • There’s an opportunity cost to even reading this article at this moment. You could have been watching TV, taking a nap, calling up a friend, or moving on to another article in the time you’re devoting to reading this article.

In a nutshell, even decisions that appear to be no-brainers carry the hidden costs of the options you will decline. Thinking about opportunity costs may not change the decision you make, but it will give you a more rational assessment of the full implications of your decision.

Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices—Big and Small

Opportunity cost is a concept of great magnitude. It is one of those apparently simple concepts in social sciences that are difficult to master and tough to put into consistent practice. Tim Harford, the British author of The Undercover Economist offers a particularly instructive example of appreciating opportunity costs in his Financial Times column:

Consider the following puzzle, a variant of which was set by Paul J Ferraro and Laura O Taylor to economists at a major academic conference back in 2005. Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by a staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga—there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b) £10, (c) £40 or (d) £50.

Answer: Going to see Lady Gaga would cost £40 but you’re willing to pay £50 any time to see her; therefore the net benefit of seeing Gaga is £10. If you use your free Radiohead ticket instead, you’re giving up that benefit, so the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead is £10.

Learn to Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs—The Stakes Become Clearer

Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs You live in a world of scarcity and must therefore make choices. You cannot avoid regret since there are opportunity costs for every choice you will make.

Everything in life is about opportunity costs. Every time you say “yes” to a choice, you are also saying “no” to everything else you may have accomplished with your time, money, and resources.

Opportunity cost is a commanding tool that you should be wise to apply to all decision-making. If you integrate this concept into your thought process, you will not only make judicious choices, but also better understand the world in which you live.

Idea for Impact: Whether you’re choosing graduate school, mulling over switching careers, starting a business, investing your money, buying a car, or frittering away your evening watching TV, considering the value of forgone alternatives will help you make better choices. Make the lens of opportunity costs the underpinning of your decision-making processes.

One of the Tests of Leadership is the Ability to Sniff out a Fire Quickly

One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster

I’ve previously stressed the importance of problem-finding as an intellectual skill. I’ve also highlighted why risk analysis and risk reduction should be one of the primary goals of any intellectual process. In this article, I’ll write about being proactive in identifying problems before they evolve into crises.

How Wells Fargo Failed to Recognize a Problem and Address it before it Became a Bigger Problem

As the Wells Fargo accounts scandal unfolded, it was clear that Wells Fargo’s leadership was well aware of the burgeoning problems early on, but failed to act decisively and nip the problem in the bud.

Given impossible sales quotas to reach, Wells Fargo’s “high pressure sales culture” opened as many as two million bank and credit card accounts on behalf of its customers without their consent. Employees were rebuked or even fired for not meeting aggressive cross-selling targets.

Human nature is such that high-pressure demands can deplete the willpower people need to act morally and resist temptations. And such demanding circumstances encourage people to go into defensive mode, engage in self-interested behaviors, and consider only short term benefits and dangers.

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal: “A Stitch in Time Indeed Saves Nine”

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal Wells Fargo’s leadership reportedly had data about ethical breaches, but they ignored or misjudged the impact of the problem. Wells Fargo even held a two-day ethics workshop in 2014 unequivocally telling their employees not to do that. As per an internal review, managers knew that 1% of employees had been fired for “sales integrity” violations.

Wells Fargo’s leadership didn’t act quickly and decisively to mitigate the effects of the crisis. Warren Buffett, one of the Wells Fargo’s biggest investors, summarized this leadership inaction at the 2017 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting:

There were three very significant mistakes, but there was one that was worse than all the others … The main problem was that they didn’t act when they learned about it … at some point if there’s a major problem, the CEO will get wind of it. And at that moment, that’s the key to everything, because the CEO has to act. It was a huge, huge, huge error if they were getting, and I’m sure they were getting, some communications and they ignored them or they just sent them back down to somebody down below.

Leadership: “Only the Paranoid Survive”

Andy Grove (1936–2016,) the illustrious cofounder and CEO of Intel, was a famous worrier. At Intel, the focal point of Grove’s leadership style was worry and skepticism. He believed that business success contains the seeds of its own destruction, and that in order for an organization to have longevity, it needs to continue to worry about the future.

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) Grove’s principle was immortalized in his famous proclamation, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” He eloquently explained his worrisome mantra in his bestselling corporate memoir, Only the Paranoid Survive (1996.) He wrote in the preface:

The things I tend to be paranoid about vary. I worry about products getting screwed up, and I worry about products getting introduced prematurely. I worry about factories not performing well, and I worry about having too many factories. I worry about hiring the right people, and I worry about morale slacking off. And, of course, I worry about competitors. I worry about other people figuring out how to do what we do better or cheaper, and displacing us with our customers.

At Intel, worrying about the future created a culture of triumph that propelled change and innovation. Grove never let Intel rest on its laurels and led the company to break boundaries in microprocessor innovation. During his tenure as CEO from 1987—98, Intel’s stock price rose 32% a year. Grove also said, “A corporation is a living organism; it has to continue to shed its skin. Methods have to change. Focus has to change. Values have to change. The sum total of those changes is transformation.”

Idea for Impact: Learn to Sniff out a Fire Better than Anyone Does

The principal tasks of leadership are (1) identifying the biggest risks and opportunities, and (2) allocating organizational resources. Therefore, one of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster. If identified and addressed early, nearly any problem can be resolved in a way that is beneficial for everyone involved.

Many leaders tend to be reactionary—they claim, “why fix something that isn’t broken.” Even when they see an impending problem, they may assume that the problem “isn’t that big of a deal” and wish the problem will just go away. Alas, many problems never go away; they only get worse.

To become a good leader, be paranoid—always assume that “there’s no smoke without fire.” If, according to Murphy’s Law, everything that can go wrong will go wrong, the paranoid leader has an advantage.

Whenever you are doing anything, have your eyes on the possibility of potential problems and actively mitigate those risks. Never allow a problem to reach gigantic proportions because you can and must recognize and fix it in its early stages.

As the medieval French philosopher and logician Peter Abelard (1079–1142) wrote, “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.”

Let Go of Sunk Costs

When people put their weight behind an idea or a belief, they become invested in it. They are likely to fight its corner rather than discard that idea or renounce their prior decision.

This tendency to throw good resources after bad, rather than cut losses, is the Sunk Cost Fallacy.

Quitting is Not Always Wrong

'Thinking, Fast and Slow' by Daniel Kahneman (ISBN 0374275637) People frequently become stuck with poor decisions that they keep holding on to in hopes that they will eventually prove their efforts worthwhile. Here’s Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, the bestselling exposition of human irrationality) in an interview with financial journalist Morgan Housel:

When I work I have no sunk costs. I like changing my mind. Some people really don’t like it but for me changing my mind is a thrill. It’s an indication that I’m learning something. So I have no sunk costs in the sense that I can walk away from an idea that I’ve worked on for a year if I can see a better idea. It’s a good attitude for a researcher. The main trap that young researchers fall into is sunk costs. They get to work on a project that doesn’t work and that is not promising but they keep at it. I think too much persistence can be bad for you in the intellectual world.

Don’t Become Biased Against Quitting

Sunk cost fallacy, also called the Concorde Effect Sunk cost fallacy is why people who have already wasted money on tickets to an awful movie continue to watch it to the end and waste their time instead of walking out of the cinema hall. It’s the urge to justify previous decisions using the next one—for example, when people force themselves to munch their way through an unsavory meal at a restaurant or when people waste time in dead-end romantic relationships because they’ve already devoted so much time to the relationships and irrationally hope things will improve someway.

Some leaders continue a project once an initial investment is made and found flawed because stopping the project would be tantamount to conceding that previously-allocated resources have been wasted. For this reason, the sunk cost fallacy is also called the ‘Concorde Effect’ after the Anglo-French supersonic jet. In the ’60s, even though there was never a sufficient demand from airlines for the Concorde, the British and French governments continued to subsidize the development and production of the Concorde instead of admitting that they had wasted billions on a non-viable undertaking. The airline industry had long understood that the economics of supersonic transport were dubious, which had forced Americans to abandon their preliminary studies of supersonic jets.

Idea for Impact: Let to Cut Your Losses When Something’s Not Working

Sunk cost fallacy - Know How to Cut Your Losses When Something's Not Working Sunk costs are backward-looking decisions. Don’t become excessively focused on a specific goal or outcome—you’ll become inflexible and unyielding. You’ll narrow your options and make yourself feel more limited and inhibited.

Don’t get attached to ideas and become affected by the sunk cost fallacy as your projects develop. Remain objective, identify the warning signs of losing propositions, and abandon lost causes where sensible. As the American cartoonist Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame once said, “No problem is so formidable that you cannot walk away from it.”

Enabling the Highest Degrees of Understanding: Book Summary of ‘The Unschooled Mind’

Traditional Schooling Fails to Teach Kids to Ask the Right Questions

'The Unschooled Mind' by Howard Gardner (ISBN 0465024386) In The Unschooled Mind (1991,) Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner makes a persuasive case for why even the brightest students often lack a deep understanding of what traditional schooling purports to teach them.

According to Gardner, students (in elementary schools to graduate colleges) may take exams and earn degrees, but their supposed knowledge turns out deficient in situations that are at variance from the “text-to-test” framework in which they learnt it. To some extent, this disconnect is an outcome of teachers’ settling for “correct-answer compromises” whereby students take the rote repetition of facts, formulas, concepts, and theories for a real understanding of fundamental concepts.

Robust Forms of Intuitive Knowledge

Overall, Gardner argues that children tend to acquire well-established models for perceptive learning and intuitive thinking by the time they are five years old. They develop wide-ranging beliefs about the physical world and distinctive models of events and people.

Traditional Schooling Fails to Teach Kids to Ask the Right Questions Subsequently, when children begin their schooling, they are launched into pedagogic methods that often sidestep—even interfere with—the children’s entrenched patterns of learning and understanding. That is to say, children have to put up with a disagreeable dichotomy between their intuitive learning patterns and the academic learning:

In its theoretical resourcefulness and intuitions, [a 5-year old’s mind] is powerful; in its artistic endeavors, it can be creative and imaginative; in its adventurousness, it is exemplary. … Education that takes seriously the ideas and intuitions of the young child is far more likely to achieve success than education that ignores these views, either considering them to be unimportant or assuming that they will disappear on their own.

Experiential Learning, Supplanted by Critical Analysis and Synthesis, Can Enhance Students’ Points of View

The Unschooled Mind contends that far-reaching knowledge and appreciation of education can occur only when students are allowed to integrate their “prescholastic” learning modes with the scholastic and the disciplinary ways of traditional school education. “The problem is less a difficulty in school learning per se and more a problem in integrating the notational and conceptual knowledge featured in school with the robust forms of intuitive knowledge that have evolved spontaneously during the opening years of life.”

Gardner’s solution to this problem is to situate students in educational environments that pique their curiosity about the subject matter and, at the higher levels of education, challenge their preexisting assumptions. Educating children for the utmost degrees of understanding involves designing educational systems that help students synthesize these several patterns of learning.

Real Education Opens the Way to Thinking, Knowing, and Deeper Understanding

Real Education Opens the Way to Thinking, Knowing, and Deeper Understanding For real learning to occur, Gardner argues, students must have an opportunity to realize their own ignorance, and then ask and explore their own questions. Teachers must regularly expose students to “Christopherian encounters”—compelling personal discoveries of the inconsistencies between their various frames of reference—by approaching any subject matter through at least five instructive channels:

Gardner claims that traditional schooling should incorporate more apprenticing—apprenticeship programs build most effectively on the ways children learn—and schools should become more like children’s museums.

Recommendation: Read The Unschooled Mind by Howard Gardner, especially if you have a child in school. The key takeaway: to enable the highest degrees of understanding, any skills instruction must be systematically reinforced by instruction in which the deployment of the skills makes holistic sense.

Rapoport’s Rules to Criticize Someone Constructively

'Intuition Pumps' by Daniel Dennett (ISBN 0393082067) In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, philosopher Daniel Dennett lists Anatol Rapoport‘s rules of constructive argument and debate:

Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent’s case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view—and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harboring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack. But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody’s time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament).

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said).

This comports with the following sage advice gentle art of criticizing people effectively:

  • “If you disagree with somebody, you want to be able to state their case better than they can. And at that point you’ve earned the right to disagree with them. Otherwise you should keep quiet.”
    Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner (see this article)
  • “The man who can hold forth on every matter under debate in two contradictory ways of pleading, or can argue for and against every proposition that can be laid down—such a man is the true, the complete, and the only orator.”
    —Roman Orator Cicero (see this article)
  • “I have yet to find a more efficient and reliable way to probe the depths of a person’s knowledge and seriousness about an issue than asking them to explain the other side’s perspective.”
    —Entrepreneur Ben Casnocha (see this article)
  • “If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet.”
    —Philosopher Anthony Weston in Rulebook for Arguments (see this article)
  • “When you think you can nail someone with your argument, take a breath & see if you can phrase it as a face-saving question.”
    —Career Coach Marty Nemko

Bad Customers Are Bad for Your Business

Herb Kelleher: “Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you.”

Herb Kelleher of Southwest AirlinesSouthwest Airlines is a paragon of superlative customer service. Southwest’s happy and engaged employees routinely go out of their way to delight their customers. In spite of such remarkable devotion to customer satisfaction, there have been times when Southwest had to decide that some customers were just wrong for their business.

In the very entertaining and enlightening Nuts!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, authors Kevin and Jackie Freiberg narrate how Southwest had to let go of a customer who couldn’t be less satisfied with her travel experience. This customer relations-story is best appreciated in light of the fun-loving and gregarious nature of Southwest’s legendary founder and ex-Chairman/CEO Herb Kelleher.

'Nuts- Southwest Airlines' by Kevin and Jackie Freiberg (ISBN 0767901843) A woman who frequently flew on Southwest, was constantly disappointed with every aspect of the company’s operation. In fact, she became known as the “Pen Pal” because after every flight she wrote in with a complaint.

She didn’t like the fact that the company didn’t assign seats; she didn’t like the absence of a first-class section; she didn’t like not having a meal in flight; she didn’t like Southwest’s boarding procedure; she didn’t like the flight attendants’ sporty uniforms and the casual atmosphere.

Her last letter, reciting a litany of complaints, momentarily stumped Southwest’s customer relations people. They bumped it up to Herb’s desk, with a note: ‘This one’s yours.’

In sixty seconds, Kelleher wrote back and said, ‘Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.’

Bad Customers: Wrong for Your Business, Wrong for Your Employees

Bad Customers: Wrong for Your Business, Wrong for Your Employees

Customers are the lifeblood of any business. Customer satisfaction begets loyalty, and loyalty begets revenues and profits. Businesses can therefore never place too much emphasis on their customers.

However, with slogans like “the customer is always right,” many businesses fall into the trap—and the slippery slope—of trying to satisfy every customer’s every wish.

Although your business may need all its customers—even the irksome ones—the reality is that some customers can actually be bad for your business. You can’t sustainably run a business without trying to satisfy every customer—particularly those cranky, annoying, or unreasonable ones.

Be wary of customers that fall into these categories:

  • Customers who require high maintenance but cannot be charged more
  • Customers whose demand for price destroys your profitability
  • Customers who want a lot more (better product, better service, better schedule) but are tightfisted
  • Customers who require supplementary services or products (especially those that are not part of your business’s core competencies) and tailored solutions that you don’t provide and can’t profitably offer to the rest of your customer base
  • Customers who don’t subscribe into the future vision of your business or your industry, which they’ll need to strategically commit to as some point in the future
  • Customers who tend to be aggressive and hostile, and disrespectful to your employees, regardless of how well they serve the customers

Strategic Customer Management Involves Being Tough Minded with Some Customers

Strategic Customer ManagementConsidering your long-term business goals, sifting through who should and who shouldn’t be your customers is an important element of strategic leadership.

With every product or service you offer, focus on who you want your customer to be, what expectations they have of you, and what you can profitably provide to them. Once you have figured that out, customers who don’t fit well need to be managed judiciously and decisively.

Without strategic customer management, you run a risk of disrupting your ability to converge around the needs of your principal customer base.

Remember the notion of opportunity costevery ‘no’ is a ‘yes’ to something important.

Idea for Impact: Let Go of Some of Your Troublesome Customers

Sometimes, it may be better to lose certain customers by turning them down than to dilute your ability to serve other valuable customers profitably. Stop trying to delight every customer. Take a hard look at the past, current, and future of every customer and prioritize whom you can going to serve better and more successfully.

Good Questions Encourage Creative Thinking


Thought-provoking questions: potential game changers that are not asked nearly enough

Asking Questions to Encourage Creativity “To think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted,” wrote George F. Kneller (1909–1999), the American academic and pioneer in the field of philosophy of education, in Art and Science of Creativity (1965.) Many people don’t know how to probe their thought processes with questions that encourage creativity.

Consider a brainstorming meeting where a new idea was received with comments and judgments like, “this won’t work,” “we’ve never done it this way,” “the customer won’t like it,” or, “if this is such a great idea, why hasn’t it been done before?” Immediately, a dysfunctional pattern ensues. Defensiveness sets in and the meeting’s participants will resist making any more suggestions and will fail to explore those ideas that were previously made. (One of the key principles of “divergent thinking” for idea-generation is to defer judgment. Neuroscience has suggested that the human prefrontal cortex—the self-monitoring element of the brain—is less active when we’re most creative.)

Creative thinkers ask open-ended, accommodating, and exploratory lead-in questions such as,

  • “I wonder if/why/whether … “
  • “Perhaps we could … “
  • “That would work if/when … “
  • “In what ways can we … .” This favorite of mine was introduced by Edward de Bono, the lateral thinking pioneer and creator of the “Six Thinking Hats” method for group creativity. De Bono called this lead-in question the ‘IWW.’

Instead of declaring “we could never do this,” ask “IWW (in what ways) may people start to do this?” In practical terms, this rephrasing may seem a small thing, but it embodies a leap in unhindered, open-minded thinking. The former seems a categorical rejection; but the latter invites an exploration of possibilities and signals the beginning of the search for solutions to constraints.

Idea for Impact: The ability to pose meaningful—and often deceptively simple questions is the hallmark of creativity

Good Questions Encourage Creative Thinking Often, what leads a creative person to get fresh insight is the quality of questions he/she asks. Questions such as “I wonder if …” and “In what ways can we … ” ignite dialogues in your mind that can lead to creative insights and new discoveries.

The prospect for creative thinking expands when you can reframe restraining statements into creative questions. Consider the following examples:

  • Restraining statement: “We can’t possibly do that.”
    Creative question: “If it were possible, how would you do it?”
  • Restraining statement: “It’ll take too long.”
    Creative question: “If it’s time-consuming, how can I make it short?”
  • Restraining statement: “I can’t talk to her.”
    Creative question: “If you could talk to her, what would you say?”
  • Restraining statement: “I’m too busy to do this.”
    Creative question: “In what ways can we free up some time for you?”

During brainstorming, asking questions in a way that opens participants’ minds to newer possibilities can have a transformative shift in the creative atmosphere. When participants suspend their judgments, everyone in the brainstorming session will feel comfortable enough to explore creative solutions to constraints.

Intel’s Andy Grove on Looking at Problems from an Outsider’s Perspective

Look at Problems from an Outsider's Perspective

Fixation Hinders Creative Thinking

In two previous articles (this and this,) I’ve addressed the psychological concept of a “fixed mental set” or “fixation:” assessing a problem from a habituated perspective can prevent you from seeing the obvious and from breaking away from an entrenched pattern of thinking.

A period of rest, entertainment, or exposure to an alternative environment can usually dissipate fixation. The resulting shift in perspective can alter your point of view in a literal and sensory way, or it may change the way you think about or define the problem at hand.

A particularly instructive example of the beneficial effects of altering thought perspectives comes from Andy Grove’s autobiography / management primer Only the Paranoid Survive (1996.) Grove, the former Chairman and CEO of Intel who passed away earlier this year, was one of the most influential tech executives Silicon Valley has ever seen.

Japanese Onslaught on Intel’s Memory Business

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) Memory chips dominated Intel’s revenue, since the company was founded in 1968. In fact, Intel had a near monopoly in the memory business. However, by the late ’70s, a few Japanese competitors emerged. Grove reflected, “The quality levels attributed to Japanese memories were beyond what we thought possible. … Our first reaction was denial. We vigorously attacked the data.” In due course, Intel recognized the threat to its competitive position. (Between 1978 and 1988, the Japanese companies grew their market share in the memory business from 30% to 60%.)

At the same time, a small entrepreneurial team of engineers had developed Intel’s first microprocessor. In 1981, Intel persuaded IBM to choose this microprocessor to run their personal computers.

By 1985, when Grove was President, Intel’s executives engaged in an intense debate on how to respond to the onslaught of Japanese competitors in the memory business. One faction of engineers wanted to leapfrog the Japanese and build better memory chips. Another faction was in favor of disposing the lucrative memory business and betting Intel’s future on its promising microprocessor technology—something they believed the Japanese couldn’t match.

The “Revolving Door Test:” Getting an Outsider’s Perspective

In the middle of this intense debate, Grove was at a meeting with Intel’s CEO, Gordon Moore (of the Moore’s Law fame.) Grove had an idea for Moore; he recalled this episode in Only the Paranoid Survive,

I remember a time in the middle of 1985, after this aimless wandering had been going on for almost a year. I was in my office with Intel’s chairman and CEO, Gordon Moore, and we were discussing our quandary. Our mood was downbeat. I looked out the window at the Ferris Wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I turned back to Gordon and asked, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” I stared at him, numb, then said, “Why don’t you and I walk out the door, come back in and do it ourselves?”

Andy Grove's Revolving Door Test: Getting an Outsider's Perspective The switch in perspective—i.e. asking “What would our successors do?”—provided a moment of clarity for Moore and Grove. By contemplating Intel’s strategic challenges from an outsider’s perspective, shutting down the memory business was the discernible choice. Even Intel’s customers were supportive:

In fact, when we informed them of the decision, some of them reacted with the comment, “It sure took you a long time.” People who have no emotional stake in a decision can see what needs to be done sooner.

From the time Intel made the important decision to kill its memory chips business, it has dominated the microprocessor market.

If existing management want to keep their jobs when the basics of the business are undergoing profound change, they must adopt an outsider’s intellectual objectivity. They must do what they need to do to get through the strategic inflection point unfettered by any emotional attachment to the past. That’s what Gordon and I had to do when we figuratively went out the door, stomped out our cigarettes and returned to the job.

People in the trenches are usually in touch with pending changes early. Salespeople understand shifting customer demand before management does; financial analysts are the earliest to know when the fundamentals of a business change. While management was kept from responding by beliefs that were shaped by out earlier successes, our production planners and financial analysts dealt with allocations and numbers in an objective world.

Idea for Impact: If You’re Stuck on a Problem, Shift Your Perspective

Often, you can find the solutions to difficult problems merely by defining or formulating them in a new, more productive way.

Consider employing Andy Grove’s “Revolving Door Test” and examining your problems through an outsider’s lens. This shift in perspective may not only engender intellectual objectivity but also muffle the emotion and anxiety that comes with momentous decision-making.

Everything Takes Longer Than Anticipated: Hofstadter’s Law [Mental Models]

Think of your weekend days. You typically wake up and think of all the free time at hand. You plan a day of leisure. You intend to run some errands and get a few things done around the house. Yet, at the end of the day, you’ve done barely half of what you originally set out to do.

People Habitually Underestimate the Time Tasks Take

Almost everything that humankind has ever wished for—from renewing a driver’s license to achieving peace between countries at war—seems to have not completed within the time originally planned.

As the following case studies will illustrate, interruptions, deferrals, and delays characteristically result in cost overruns, benefit shortfalls, and disputes.

  • Sydney’s Opera House was originally forecast in 1957 to be completed in 1963. The magnificent performing arts complex formally opened only in 1973 and cost 15 times the original budget.
  • Hofstadter's Law: Boeing 787 Dreamliner Delays and LossesWhen Boeing first launched its 787 Dreamliner aircraft in 2004, it ambitiously planned for first flight in September 2007. After six delays in the design and prototype phases, the 787 first flew only in December 2009. First aircraft delivery was scheduled for 2008, but didn’t happen until September 2011, more than three years behind schedule. Then, after a series of early in-service technical and operational problems, Boeing embarked on serious drawn-out repairs on 787s. Following yet more production delays, the 787 started flying full-fledged only in 2013. The innumerable delays and cost overruns associated with the 787 program became a financial nightmare for Boeing’s investors. Boeing took nine years to get the Dreamliner off the drawing board and into mature service at a total development cost of $32 billion—twice as long as the company’s original estimation and more than five times more expensive.
  • Less than 50 days before the start of last year’s Summer Olympic Games in Brazil, the state of Rio de Janeiro declared a “state of public calamity” citing severe delays and acute cost overruns. The New York Times reported, “The city is a huge construction site. Bricks and pipes are piled everywhere; a few workers lazily push wheelbarrows as if the Games were scheduled for 2017.”

Hofstadter’s Law: We Chronically Underestimate the Time Things Take

Hofstadter's Law: We Chronically Underestimate the Time Things TakeThe American cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter conceived an ironic and recursive rule to characterize the observation that everything takes longer than planned.

Hofstadter’s Law states, “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law”

Hofstadter first discussed this law in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a book popular among American computer programmers.

Underestimating Task-Time Means Constantly Rushing to Finish Things

According to planning fallacy, when people predict the time it takes to complete a task, they make their estimations by considering the various steps they have to take, but fail to imagine the pessimistic conditions where things could go wrong.

Project Delays: Hofstadter's Law, Planning Fallacy and Optimism BiasIn other words, thanks to optimism bias, people are generally too optimistic about the time it takes for them to complete a task, even when they are explicitly asked to think about potential obstacles.

Hofstadter’s Law also alludes to,

  • Superiority Bias where people overrate their own positive qualities and abilities—and underrate their negative qualities—when compared with others. “This takes three hours for the average Joe, but I am smarter, and I can do it in two hours.”
  • Beneffectance Bias where people perceive themselves as selectively accountable for the desired—but not the undesired—outcomes. “Last week, this took me 45 minutes, but the delay was because of conditions beyond my control. Today, I have full control; so I should take just 20 minutes.”

Idea for Impact: The problem with unforeseen delays is that you can’t foresee them, no matter how comprehensively you plan

Though somewhat silly in its recursive character, Hofstadter’s Law observes that, irrespective of how carefully you plan, every project will be prone to something unanticipated that will hinder its timely completion. The law’s recursiveness affirms that, even if you know a project may overrun and build that expectation into your planning, the project will overrun even your new estimated finish time.