In a world of incessant change and increasing complexity, flexibility is one skill that is rising in importance. With its role in fostering creativity, innovation, and agility, cognitive flexibility is one of the top skills required to excel in today’s workplace.
However, flexible thinking doesn’t always come easy. When we’re feeling anxious, under the gun, or depleted, we can be especially susceptible to falling into narrow and rigid thought patterns. The good news is that anyone can learn how to think more elastically.
Take my client, Kris, a former management consultant who was struggling to adjust to a work environment that was nimbler than his previous role. Since Kris was accustomed to a methodical, structured approach—and tended to see things in black and white—he struggled to think in a divergent manner and crack the problems he was tasked with.
Are you stuck on a problem? Or maybe you notice that you’re second-guessing your decisions? Or maybe you hear words like always, never, or impossible coming up in your thoughts and conversations? If so, it may signal that your thoughts are becoming more and more narrow.
Try the following strategies to encourage more elastic thinking and unleash creative new solutions to the problem you’re facing.
Seek outside inspiration
We each operate with a mental schema constrained by our limited experience and exposure to the world of possibilities. Whether it’s the family and culture in which we were raised, the subjects we’ve studied, or the industries we’ve worked in, we make most of our decisions from a narrow field of the examples and norms around us.
When you come up against a problem that you can’t crack with the usual solutions, take a look outside your industry to pick up on certain radical and unexpected forms of innovation. For instance, 3M developed a breakthrough solution for preventing postsurgical infection after soliciting input from a theatrical makeup specialist. Further, Cirque du Soleil reinvented circus arts by drawing inspiration for its special effects and costumes from diverse fields, including plumbing, aviation, and dentistry.
In a similar approach, you can make a list of friends in other industries and inquire how they might solve your issue. By pooling insights from people who aren’t limited by the same assumptions and mental schemas, you will be more likely to develop the breakthrough thinking necessary for solving your problem.
See things from a different profession
To break out of your ingrained thinking and generate additional ideas, step into the shoes of different professionals. For example, ask yourself: How might a CFO think about and solve this problem? Or, the head of sales or one of your customers? What might a doctor or an architect do?
For a separate variation on this perspective, try to take on the mindset of someone out of the box to who you are. Adopting an alter ego is a good way to do this. Then, ask yourself, How would I solve this if there were no constraints? A great example of this pattern of thinking is Edward de Bono’s “six thinking hats” exercise, which involves adopting a myriad of roles to see from different angles.
Another worthwhile route is to tap into your inner 5-year-old. View the situation afresh without any preconceived notions and ask simple questions like Why? Why not? and How? Adopting a beginner’s mindset opens you up to learning, seeing new possibilities, and achieving greater creativity.
Stepping into others’ shoes and looking at your situation through a different lens will help you get out of typical thought patterns and ideally lead to new possibilities.
Creativity requires exploration and risk-taking. Make a deliberate effort to seek out new ways of doing things. Set an audacious goal of coming up with 10 or more new ideas. There is a correlation between how much time we spend looking for new ideas and how many ideas we come up with, so give yourself ample time.
Most important, give yourself explicit permission to dream up ideas that may be impractical, silly, or unrealistic. The point is to break out of your existing thought patterns. The wacky and impractical ideas you generate may serve as stepping stones to new workable solutions.
Take your mind off of things
To generate the insight we need to solve the complex problems of today, we need to step away occasionally.
When you spend time thinking critically about a problem and then stop working on it, your unconscious mind continues to work in the background and make associations. When you allow your mind time to rest and wander, new connections pop up in your awareness as insights.
Taking breaks is therefore essential to the creative process. For example, Albert Einstein regularly stepped away from his work to pick up his violin, an instrument he loved to play. Returning to his desk, he would connect dots he hadn’t seen before; that’s when he developed some of the most elegant science theories to date. As Einstein once said, “I never came upon any of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.”
And he is just one example. According to one Michigan State University study, Nobel Prize-winning scientists were 2.85 times more likely to have an artistic hobby than the average scientist. The creative evidence shows that in order to fuel insight and creativity, you need a balance of work and rest. So, when you’re feeling stuck with a problem, step away for a while and do something you enjoy.
You can broaden your perspective and lift yourself out of a vexing problem by embracing a flexible mindset. As a result, you may stumble upon an innovative idea that seemed elusive before.
Dina Smith is the owner of Cognitas, a leadership development firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.