The World Economic Forum (WEF) declared cognitive flexibility as one of the top skills needed to excel in a 2020 workplace. But what does cognitive flexibility actually mean? And how can we best adopt and nurture it to optimize our own learning, lifestyle, and work?
There are various definitions of the term and it is often thrown around loosely. Some researchers emphasize the effectiveness of the brain’s ‘switching’ ability between different cognitive skills. Others focus on radical shifts in mindsets, behaviors, and perspectives according to changing situations or circumstances.
Perhaps the most apt and nuanced interpretation of cognitive flexibility (CF), however, comes from the originator of Cognitive Flexibility Theory himself—professor Rand Spiro. He describes it as “the ability to spontaneously restructure one’s knowledge, in many ways, in adaptive response to radically changing situational demands.” That is, it produces the versatility needed to effectively address novelty.
Whatever the variations, CF is clearly a skill with tremendous practical as well as professional benefits.
CF can be seen in action with linguists who must switch frequently between multiple languages, with actors who move in and out of various characters, or with individuals who have multiple social and cultural identities and must adjust their mode of thinking and being according to where they are and with whom they communicate.
In business, it might be demonstrated when a consultant switches effectively between work on various clients in markedly different sectors; or perhaps a serial entrepreneur moving seamlessly from one startup in one sector to another, and then another. Such switching might be simultaneous or sequential, or both. As such, it is also critical for portfolio careerists who seek to monetize multiple talents and expertise by alternating work on various projects.
The optimal path to creativity
What is less understood—and yet most intriguing—is CF’s connection with heightened creativity and imagination. In fact, Spiro insists that the highest form of cognitive flexibility fosters creativity. This is because it clearly “requires ideas, analogies, patterns, and perspectives from outside the domain you are working on.”
We now know that many creative breakthroughs that are traditionally associated with micro-specialization have actually been influenced by a CF-enabled versatility. Take the case of Nobel Prize-winning scientists who—surprisingly to some— are some of the most versatile minds in the world.
According to Bernice Eiduson’s seminal study covering multiple decades, these Nobel laureates were 25 times as likely as the average scientist to sing, dance, or act; 17 times as likely to be a visual artist; 12 times more likely to write poetry and literature; eight times more likely to do woodwork or some other craft; four times as likely to be a musician; and twice as likely to be a photographer. Moreover, many attributed their scientific breakthroughs to avocational pursuits. Such regular shifting between seemingly different domains creates novel pathways, which in turn allow for fresh insight into a particular field or discipline.
In extreme cases, we see such creative ingenuity when the cognitive shift is induced by major ‘events’: neurological conditions, spiritual experiences, psychedelic drugs, or cognitive enhancers–think Sudden Savant Syndrome or Ayahuascan art.
The brain’s ability to shift effectively between different spheres of knowing and being, as well as its capacity to navigate the complexity and variety of life, has been explored directly or indirectly through various psychological—and to some extent—neuroscientific models.
Short-term (frequent) cognitive shifting required for multitasking has been identified as an emergent property of the brain’s executive function, associated with the lateral and medial sections of the prefrontal cortex. The thalamus and hippocampus regions are also identified as key contributing regions to the process.
The brain’s remarkable tendency to evolve and transform over longer periods of time is the domain of neuroplasticity and connectomics. The brain’s ability to momentarily unify various (even seemingly unrelated) strands of knowledge in order to optimize performance in a particular task (achieving a ‘flow state’) is explained in terms of transient hypofrontality. Also relevant is hemispheric synchronicity and its impact on multidimensional thinking as set out by psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist.
Whilst CF encompasses all of the above, a systematic review of the neural correlates is yet to be done. This is something that could eventually provide more insight into how the process might be reverse engineered and employed to optimize performance.
As we strive to have a more scientific understanding of CF, we could start with a radical reform of the education system. Currently, students are conditioned to view knowledge as fragmented, disjointed school subjects, and so struggle when real-world problems that are inherently complex and multidisciplinary demand a response. As such, Spiro stresses an urgent need for learning systems that foster “advanced knowledge acquisition in complex, ill-structured domains.”
Schools and programs that foster diversity of knowledge and methods, as well as interdisciplinarity such as liberal arts degrees, play an important part in developing CF. These are popular in the U.S., but less so elsewhere. In the UK you have some exceptions: UCL has a BASc, The Open University has the flexible Open Degree, and a new startup university London Interdisciplinary School (LIS) was launched recently with the precise purpose of providing complex problem-based higher education.
Executive education that addresses the need for professionals to develop CF later in life—after having been conditioned to be rigid ‘specialists’ their entire lives—is more important now than ever before. How best to execute integrative management and cross-sectoral innovation, for example? Or how best to manage multiple stakeholders who each come from significantly different perspectives?
Until business schools develop such programs, it would be wise for us to draw insights from those who have evidently mastered the skill.
Cognitive flexibility is most often associated with “polymaths”–humans of exceptional versatility who excel in multiple seemingly unrelated fields. Think Leonardo da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin; or today perhaps the likes of Nathan Myhrvold, Story Musgrave, or Mae Jemison. Such polymaths demonstrate exceptional cognitive flexibility in a manner that allows them to draw on multiple bodies of knowledge from different disciplines in order to make a creative contribution to a particular field or to address a multifaceted, complex problem.
What can we learn from the approach of such polymaths?
Thinking methods such as parallel thinking, perspective-taking, systems thinking, and openness—supplemented by tools like critical thinking which allow for the effective application of first principles to different problems—are crucial to be able to cultivate a flexible brain.
For example, Edward de Bono’s Parallel Thinking method (popularized through his bestselling book Six Thinking Hats) encourages a group of people to collectively inhabit multiple perspectives, switching ‘hats’ together as a group. “If you have a creative mind” he insists, “you can seek to develop ideas in almost any field.”
This would certainly be aided by an open mind. The more areas of knowledge and experience we can accumulate and add to our repertoire, the more perspectives we can unveil and synthesize to form (or at least inform) our own more rounded, richer perspective of the world. Openness is a personality trait (one of the “Big Five”), but even without such a disposition, one can nurture what zoologist Desmond Morris refers to as the neophilic (knowledge-loving) tendency (or one’s innate curiosity) through exposure to new experiences and constant reflection and critique of the status quo.
Making novel connections is also important. The systems approach, which sees the world as a network of connections rather than as segregated pockets of knowledge, is a common worldview of the polymath. It enhances CF because the switch between domains comes naturally and seamlessly. In fact, it ceases to be a switch in the mind and more of a process through which one situation or field flows organically into the other.
The future of work
CF is not merely a high-performance fad, but an indispensable skill needed to navigate two fundamental realities of the 21st century: change and complexity.
The dynamic changes set to hit the world of work in the coming decades make it clear that some forms of expertise will have a shorter shelf-life than others. This may be due to exponential growth of automation and computerization, or perhaps because the given job simply ceases to be relevant to the market or to society.
As a result, serial career changes in the early-mid 21st century will not be uncommon. Historian and futurist Yuval Noah Harari concluded in his 21 lessons for the 21st century that “in order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products—you will above all need to reinvent yourself again and again.” This makes cognitive flexibility—the cerebral key to reinvention—an essential trait to nurture in the years ahead.
CF is perhaps most important to leaders faced with complex challenges. In fact, there appears to be an increasing consensus among leading futurists about the need for cognitively flexible polymaths as leaders. Anders Sandberg, neuroscientist and philosopher at the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute, insists that “At least for the next few decades until machines become smarter than humans, the human polymath will be very important to society.” According to technologist and futurist Ray Kurzweil, this is because “increasingly, the solutions to problems are found at the intersection of multiple fields… experts in highly specialized fields can be part of a team, but the team leader needs to bridge multiple fields.”
It is no longer surprising that the notions of flexible thinking, versatility, and interdisciplinarity—all fundamentally enabled by cognitive flexibility—are together forming a burgeoning zeitgeist in the management and business discourse. Recent popular books such as Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed, Elastic by Leonard Mlodinow, and Range by David Epstein, together with countless articles and blogs to this effect, testify to this. If that wasn’t enough, influential entrepreneur and best-selling author of Zero to One Peter Thiel is explicitly stating that “A lot of the world-class entrepreneurs…they’re not specialists, they’re something close to polymaths.” When considering the likes of Richard Branson and Elon Musk, it’s difficult to argue.
Waqās Ahmed is the founder and CEO of the DaVinci Network and author of the internationally acclaimed book The Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Open University Business School.