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Leadership Now

5 Ways To Reframe Your Thinking To Be More Like Elon Musk

How do innovative minds like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs come up with their groundbreaking ideas? Here's five ways they think differently.

[Image: Flickr user OnInnovation]

Drawing parallels between Elon Musk and Steve Jobs is irresistible, but how do big thinkers like them come up with their innovative ideas and how can we reframe our thinking to do the same?

In "The Shared Genius of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs" by the TED Talk curator Chris Anderson we get a bit closer to a dissection what their unique attributes actually are. But I think we can dig one layer deeper.

I have been thinking about this a lot recently, because my firm, Outthinker, is attempting to translate our strategic thinking process into a class for 5th graders. Our idea is, if we could begin instilling the kind of thinking in our young children that helps must-solve problems like global warming or human space travel, then those children may grow up and solve the big challenges the human race will face. We have begun working with an expert in child creativity from Columbia University’s Teachers College. And we initially think there are five modes of thinking that are important to begin developing:

  1. Visionary thinking
  2. Systems thinking
  3. Creative thinking
  4. Critical/analytical thinking
  5. Influential thinking

These are very similar to a framework we use to train executives and help them solve important strategic problems: Imagine, Dissect, Expand, Analyze, Sell (or the IDEAS framework). Here are the key pieces from Anderson’s article to illustrate these five forms of thinking.

Visionary thinking
Anderson writes that "One of the most exciting things about human beings is our ability to imagine alternative futures." He also gives us a peek at Musk’s thinking by writing that "A full seven years ago, he posted an article titled ‘The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan,’ which outlined the basics: three generations of cars, first the super-high-end sports car, then a sporty four-door family car, then a mass-market car. And underpinning it all, the conviction that the cars wouldn't just work, but be lusted after. No doubt at the time many in the auto industry chuckled at his naiveté. They're not laughing now."

Systems thinking
The idea here is that often an opportunity reveals itself to you because you see the interconnection of two things, the interdependence of things, that others cannot see. For example, Anderson tells us that Musk has potentially historic insights every week and describes one: Musk realizing they could build a rocket to run on methane (CH4).

He writes, "Okay, it doesn't sound particularly historic. Until you realize that a rocket of that spec has adequate range to escape Earth's upper atmosphere and travel to Mars. And that it so happens that Mars has plenty of carbon dioxide (CO2) and permafrost (H2O), which could be neatly converted into the aforementioned methane (CH4) and liquid oxygen (O2). Which means you could create the fuel for the journey home right there on Mars itself. And that transforms the long-term economics of space travel between Earth and Mars because it means that you could send manned spacecraft to Mars without having to carry rocket fuel with you."

Creative thinking
If you think using analogies from the discipline, or domain, that others are also trying to solve the problem, you will not see a new solution. You need to reach outside of the existing vocabulary. You do this by looking for patterns, or truths, that are fundamental building blocks and then applying them to your problem.

Anderson quotes Musk as saying: "Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations. And you have to do that. Otherwise, mentally, you wouldn't be able to get through the day. But when you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach. Physics is really figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive."

Analytical or critical thinking
After we have come up with a potential solution, there is a strong pull for us to return to attempting the solutions that have already been tried, even though we knew that we know these don’t work. This pull is not a logical one; it is a social one. Humans have a desire to fit in, and not be viewed as different. Strong analytical or critical thinking can give us the confidence to fight against this pull.

Anderson writes that Musk kept pushing his engineers to focus on building reusable rockets, an idea that cut against conventional wisdom at the time. But Musk saw that reusability, if done properly, would dramatically reduce the costs of a space program and so was a critical piece for solving a larger puzzle.

Influential thinking
Finally, all innovators run into the problem that innovative ideas are always inconsistent with prevailing logic and beliefs. This is why the ability to influence others to see your view, and reconsider their logic and beliefs, is critical. Anderson highlights this skill as central to their success: "Jobs's reputation for ‘reality distortion’ is well-documented. In his own way, Musk is equally persuasive, trusting his own internal logic and instincts in the face of intense pushback."

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