The late Tibor Kalman, a well-known American graphic designer, had always shunned the notion of becoming an expert at anything. He felt that once people become experts, they quickly lose their creative spark.
This reasoning led him not to do the same thing twice. If someone approached him to design a brochure for a museum exhibition, but he’d done one of those already, he’d politely decline and say, "No, I want to design the exhibition," even though he’d never designed an exhibition before.
After he designed the animated Nothing But Flowers video for the popular music group Talking Heads, he received a lot of calls from television directors. "Hey, Tibor, could you do that typography thing on my commercial?" He would refuse. Didn’t people get it? He hated repeating himself just because someone admired his work and would pay him well for it. If he succumbed to that flattery and the chance at an easy payday, he’d end up taking the shortcuts artists take when they routinely practice the same skill day in and day out. Hello rut, goodbye creativity.
Most people don’t think that way. They work their tails off gaining in-depth knowledge through constant repetition, honing their skills until they become recognized experts. Author Malcolm Gladwell emphasized the value of this approach in his book The Outliers, where he claims it takes someone 10,000 repetitions to master a skill.
In a team setting, this sort of expert often wields power over the rest of the group, setting an example for junior teammates to follow. Ironically, these same experts often lose their ability to think up and weigh the wildly creative solutions that can lead to team breakthroughs. Smart beginners resent them for that. Those feelings can lead to team-damaging competition, with the newbies learning fewer conventional skills than they should and the wise old dogs never getting out of their same old rut.
So-called beginner’s mind refers to the propensity to approach each situation with openness and few preconceptions, no matter how many times you’ve encountered it before. When veteran employees approach their work with this mind-set, they can think and act as creatively as the newbies. When they do, they earn everyone’s respect. Fortunately, you can take some sure steps to help your people tackle situations with a beginner’s mind.
People with the most in-depth knowledge and experience typically prefer the methods that have made them successful in the past and dismiss newfangled approaches they have not tried before. As noted by John Maynard Keynes, the British economist whose ideas fundamentally shaped the theory and practice of modern economics, "The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify… into every corner of our mind."
Richard Chi and Allan Snyder, both from the Center for the Mind, University of Sydney, published an article in 2011 in Public Library of Science One, an open access, peer-reviewed scientific journal, that agrees with Keynes. They suggest people get stuck in mental ruts because the human mind is hypothesis driven. We tend to see the world in a preconceived fashion (according to our accepted hypothesis about reality), accepting at face value the information that coincides with our expectations or mental templates and discounting any evidence to the contrary, at least on a conscious level. Even though our hypothesis-driven mind can help us efficiently deal with familiar situations, it can also prevent us from finding the novel solutions that can occur when we look at a situation in an unfamiliar way.
Chi and Snyder conducted experiments to see whether they could temporarily induce in test subjects a state of mind less prone to the influence of mental templates or preconceptions. To do this, they activated or inhibited certain areas of the subjects’ brains with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a safe, noninvasive technique for stimulating brain activity. They decreased excitability of the left anterior temporal lobe (the part of the brain associated with maintaining existing hypotheses) and increased the excitability of the right anterior temporal lobe (the part of the brain associated with insight and novel meaning). The researchers asked subjects connected to the stimulation device and a control group who received no brain stimulation to solve a series of insight problems. When the test concluded, Chi and Snyder found that subjects who had received the brain stimulation successfully solved the problems three times more often than the control group.
Now, you can’t go around implanting electrodes in people’s heads, but you can facilitate a beginner’s mind in everyone on the team by decreasing the influence of experts. When you endow certain people with the power of the expert, you effectively inhibit team creativity. Doing so sets the expectation for everyone involved that the experts know all the answers.
Naturally, the experts will fulfill that expectation by providing answers based on their past experience. The other team members, who may have thought up more creative answers, become less inclined to offer their ideas, leading to dampened team emotions and leaving little room for creativity and innovation.
When you help people let go of the idea that so-called experts know it all, you open up the team to fresh ideas, help them forge stronger bonds, and generate better results.
This article is excerpted from Primal Teams: Harnessing the Power of Emotions to Fuel Extraordinary Performance by Jackie Barretta, published by AMACOM.
—Jackie Barretta has led large organizations through major transformations as a successful Fortune 500 C-level executive and consultant. Her book, Primal Teams, shows leaders how to harness the optimal emotions that fuel extraordinary performance.