Think Better: An Innovator’s Guide to Productive Thinking

An Interview with Tim Hurson, author of Think Better
By Vern Burkhardt
We have the potential to think better, more productively, and more creatively. Thinking better is a skill that we can learn. It’s not what you know but what you think, and there is a lot of room for improvement. Thinking is hard work. The more you practice the better you become at thinking.

According to Tim Hurson productive thinking is the ongoing alternation between creative thinking and critical thinking.

Creative thinking is:
  • Generative - it makes something out of nothingthrough things like daydreaming, blue-skying, what-iffing, making unusual connections, or just wondering. New ideas are ephemeral; they can be forgotten in a moment - just like the brilliant ideas that flash by as we are showering.

  • Non-judgmental.

  • Expansive - it generates more ideas.

Critical thinking is:
  • Analytic, probing, questioning, testing.

  • Judgmental - it determines whether ideas meet criteria for success or further consideration.

  • Selective - it makes choices.

Tim Hurson recently provided me with some very interesting insights about how to think better.

1. Question: How did you create the name of your company: thinkx intellectual capital?

Tim HursonTim Hurson: The name thinkx (pronounced “think-ex”) came from the notion of raising the power of thinking. First, I thought of think squared, then cubed, then to the nth power, and eventually to the xth. Think-ex also made me think of “think exponentially”, which is one of our cut lines (along with “raising the power of people’s thinking”). The “intellectual capital” part of the name was an incorporation of one of our original tag lines (“raising intellectual capital” which was a play on the notion of raising capital). If you can raise one kind of capital, why not another? Since that’s exactly what we do in our training programs, it seemed apt.

2. Question: In your book, Think Better, you capture the reader’s attention by saying in the preface that “success in our business, professional, and personal lives is less a matter of what we know than of how we think”. Could you share with us the best example you have seen that demonstrated the creative power of “how we think”?

Tim Hurson: Here’s one. WL Gore is essentially a science, engineering, and technology company. Yet its biggest commercial breakthrough was based on an innovative idea, their now-famous “GORE-TEX — Guaranteed to Keep You Dry” tags, which catapulted the company into the consumer clothing market. They overcame the challenge of selling their fabrics to other businesses by appealing directly to consumers. This was the first example of the Intel-Inside style of advertising, which is now fairly ubiquitous.

What we know is about the past. How we think is about the future. What we know is what we’ve always done. What we don’t yet know is where the opportunity lies. In order to exploit the realm of what we don’t yet know, we have to be able to think flexibly, tolerate ambiguity, and generate new connections. That’s what productive thinking is all about.

3. Question: You said that the unexpected connection has brought us every innovation we’ve ever created. Could you explain?

Tim Hurson: The Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, who lived in the 6th century BCE, said “The unexpected connection is more powerful than one that is obvious.” My sense is he meant that seeing the new is simply a matter of seeing new connections between old things; in other words, seeing old things in a new way, being open to possibilities.

All of us have had unexpected connection moments. One of my favourite stories is about Thomas Edison who observed ripples on the surface of water in a glass. Of course, this is caused by sound vibrations, and anyone who’s seen Jurassic Park will recognize this phenomenon. Edison made an incredible unexpected connection while daydreaming and seeing these ripples. If sound vibrations could make the surface of the water ripple, what would happen if he could somehow freeze these ripples? Could he reconvert them into sound? He tried it first with tin, capturing the vibration of a needle and allowing it to etch into the soft metal. When he attached a megaphone to the needle that was being vibrated by these etches, he heard the sound! The world’s first recording machine. Amazing. The principles of Edison’s unexpected connection are now an integral part of our work, play, and even spiritual lives.

4. Question: In your book you talk about harnessing monkey mind, taming the gator, and cutting the elephant’s tether. Could you please explain these powerful analogies?

Tim Hurson: All of us have experienced monkey mind, our thoughts flitting about like monkeys swinging from tree to tree. Often when we are drifting off to sleep, or driving, or exercising, monkey mind is the only kind of mental activity we perform. It’s interesting, but it’s very fleeting. Often we have our “best” ideas when in a monkey mind state, but the ideas are so ephemeral that we lose them. Wouldn’t it be great to harness the power of monkey mind and capture those hundreds and hundreds of great ideas, and at least allow them to be examined to see if they are worth pursuing? Think Better offers various ways to harvest monkey mind ideas.

All of us have also had gator brain experiences. The gator brain is that primitive part of our brain that can only fight or flee. When someone offers a new idea to us, we almost always react with gator brain. Either we flee from it or we fight it off. We can’t help it. We’re hard-wired to respond first from our gator brain. But if we always do that, we will reject ideas that can be useful. So we have to simply recognize when gator brain happens so we can use our wills to rise above it. Think Better offers a wide variety of tools and perspectives to recognize and then counteract gator brain reactions.

Finally the elephant’s tether. We are all trapped by our patterns of thought, patterns that are so deeply ingrained that we don’t even recognize them as patterns. Think Better is about breaking those patterns using a deliberate, repeatable process.

5. Question: Your description of the limitations of kaizen, which is characterized by incremental change, was very informative. You coined the term “tenkaizen” and you clarified that the value of productive thinking is that it leads to new ideas and breakthrough change. You also said the overarching principle of this type of thinking is that critical thinking and creative thinking have to be separated. Could you explain this important distinction and why it is so important to productive thinking, especially in a highly competitive and rapidly changing world?

Tim Hurson: Tenkaizen or good revolution is a deliberate way of looking for breakthrough change. One of the easiest ways of accomplishing tenkaizen thinking, by which I mean productive thinking, is to separate creative from critical thinking. In creative thinking we are essentially generating ideas, often wild, crazy, half-formed ideas; often the kind of ideas that monkey mind produces. If we try to judge these ideas with critical thinking too soon, we will kill them. But if we simply record these ideas, in other words make lists of them, without judging, assessing, or even discussing them, then we have the opportunity to revisit our ideas, after having generated a long, long list, to evaluate them.

This simple division of thought, does a couple of things. It allows monkey mind to do what it does best, swing from idea branch to idea branch completely unencumbered. It encourages one idea to build on another, and it eliminates or at least drastically reduces idea ownership. By the time you’ve generated a long list, who knows who’s responsible for which? And that’s great, because it begins to take ego out of the equation.

Now when you revisit the ideas to evaluate them, you can begin to look at them usefully. Think Better offers a particularly powerful tool, which allows people to extract the core practical ideas from what at first appear to be wild and crazy, even insane ideas. This tool is called “What’s UP” and often produces the very best ideas in productive thinking sessions. In order to use What’s UP, however, an idea - even a crazy one - has to stay alive long enough so the tool can be applied. By deliberately separating creative and critical thinking, this can happen.

6. Question: You made an interesting play on words: ‘More often than not, people who “know” are also people who “no”’. Could you talk a bit about how this is an obstacle to productive thinking?

Tim Hurson: What I mean by this is that so often new thinking is squelched because we know or think we know already. By adopting what Shunryu Suzuki once called “Beginners Mind”, we can be accepting of new ideas. We don’t have to approach everything as though we are experts. As Suzuki said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In expert’s mind there are few.” We need to practice what I call staying in the question, as opposed to jumping to the answer, so we can keep our minds open to these possibilities. (Vern’s note: Shunryu Suzuki was a Soto Zen priest in Japan. He lived from 1904 to 1971).

7. Question: Related to the notion that “uncertainty is pain” you introduce the concept of “satisficing”. What does it mean?

Tim Hurson: Satisficing is a term coined by the economist Herbert Simon to describe the human tendency to feel so uncomfortable with unresolved situations that they jump to the first solution that takes us out of our misery. We often do that in brainstorming sessions. The first right idea is such a relief that we stop thinking about other possible solutions. We satisfice on the first right idea. But this cuts out the possibility of the second, third, tenth or hundredth “right” idea, which are in all likelihood much better ideas!

8. Question: Why is the word “else” one of the most powerful words in the productive thinking vocabulary?

Tim Hurson: “Else” is a way of exploring more options. What else, who else, why else, how else, when else, where else…and so on. All of these give new perspectives on ideas. Else simply means try again! And by trying again, we give ourselves the opportunity not only to come up with new ideas, but to understand them better once we do.

9. Question: The six step process that you outline in the Productive Thinking Model, beginning with “what’s the itch”, provides a systematic approach to solving a problem. You use the term “entraining” to encourage the reader to engage in behavioral change — to actually use the model. What did you mean when you said that training, as practiced in corporate America, is an astonishing waste of resources?

Tim Hurson: Well, in most organizations, I’ve noticed that training looks something like this: send people away for a couple of days, pour some good ideas into them, then send them back to work in the same environment, with the same people and with the same tools and with the same problems they left a few days before. Do we actually expect people to behave differently under those conditions? Isn’t it obvious that even if they try the new ways for a little while they will rapidly fall back into doing what they’ve always done? Without specific and sustained reinforcement of new skills, the new skills quickly dissipate.

What I call entraining is a way to approach skill development in a meaningful, effective, and long-lasting way. Entraining involves the creation of organizational structures; the use of new language to describe the new attitudes, skills, and behaviors; quick wins to reinforce the value of the new skills; and practice to embed the skills into habits.

10. Question: You indicated that occasionally you have seen use of the Productive Thinking Model fail. What were some of the reasons for failure, and how might failure have been avoided?

Tim Hurson: Most often the model fails when people don’t use the “I3” test to determine if productive thinking is appropriate. “I3” stands for Interest, Influence and Imagination. If there isn’t sufficient interest in tackling the challenge at hand, then no amount of productive thinking will change anything. If the people trying to solve a problem have no influence over it, in other words it’s under someone else’s control, there’s little chance they can affect change. And if the solution doesn’t require imagination, in other words if there’s a perfectly good “off the shelf” solution available, why not take it?

11. Question: And you can help organizations develop the necessary skills to engage in productive thinking?

Tim Hurson: My company, thinkx intellectual capital, provides toe-in-the-water seminars and workshops to begin the process of awareness of new ways of thinking. We also provide more intensive programs to help people understand and develop the skills they need to think more productively. We also teach people how to facilitate the productive thinking process. Finally, we have a suite of entraining programs designed to help organizations make the cultural changes necessary to maximize their productive thinking capacity so that they can become truly innovative organizations.

Think Better provides a guide to train oneself to think more productively, more creatively, and more successfully:

  1. Think about “what’s going on” - understand the issue, its impact, what you know, what you need to know about its causes and dynamics, who influences the issue, who it may affect, and the likely future if the issue is resolved.

  2. What is success - imagine an ideal future in which your issue is resolved, and establish clear, observable success criteria to evaluate potential solutions. Some quotations from Think Better are instructive:

    • “Unless a potential future incorporates a powerful emotional pull, it will have great difficulty overcoming the gravitational inertia of the past.”

    • “Giving ourselves permission to imagine allows us to access a huge resource of cognitive capacity that we often ignore.”

    • “How will you know you’ve arrived at your destination if you don’t know what it looks like?”

  3. What’s the question - Tim Hurson wrote “In my experience, one of the most common reasons that programs, products, and change initiatives don’t work is that the wrong question has been asked.

  4. Generate answers - cull, cluster, combine, clarify, and choose.

  5. Forge the solution - compare your three or four most interesting ideas with your success criteria, choose the most promising ones, then analyze, improve, and refine them into a “robust” solution.

  6. Align resources - “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” (Sun Tzu, The Art of War).

Tim Hurson states that the ability to think better will become the most significant competitive advantage for companies and individuals. After reading his book one can only conclude that we need to learn these skills.

Think Better can be purchased from Amazon, and thinkX intellectual capital’s [website].

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