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Stretching the Mind: Developing an Adaptive Lens to Deal With Complexity

By Mihnea Moldoveanu and Roger Martin

‘Stretching’ the mind to achieve both breadth and depth is a skill that will be of increasing value in our complex environment.

In today’s complex environment, the most successful thinkers can quickly and effectively abstract the best qualities of radically different ways of seeing from others and apply them to the situation at hand. In doing so, these thinkers develop an ‘adaptive lens’ on the bewildering phenomenon we call the world. We call these individuals integrative thinkers.

Integrative thinkers see their way clear to successful action in situations where others see only a choice between poor or mediocre outcomes. Integrative thinkers possess a dialectical mind, or a ‘diamind’ for short. A diamond mind beholds at least two contradictory ways of seeing in any critical situation, gives each its full due, and instead of fearing and fleeing the resulting tension, embraces it and comes up with a third and better way that obliterates neither of the original ways of seeing but improves upon both.

We believe that achieving a diamind is within the reach of anyone who is willing to think deeply about his or her own thinking and thereby ‘stretch’ their mind.

Old Habits Die Hard

Like much of human behaviour, our thinking is habitual, consisting largely of ‘automatisms’ – repetitive units of mental activity that occur on very short time scales. Sadly, most of the mental habits we develop to deal with our complex world close off opportunities for further thought and perception.

 ‘If you see a lion, run’ is a useful mental routine when you are alone in the wilds of the Savannah, but not at the local zoo. Aware of this difference, we can ask: in what situations is more thinking better than more foraging or more asking, given that one can only think (or forage) more if one forages (or thinks) less?

Expanding Your Mind’s Window

Whether you are a marketer, an engineer or a baker, your mind has a ‘window’ through which it experiences the world. However, the edges of this window are hidden in such a way that you can see through it but cannot – without some training – see the window itself.

More often than not, we have been trained to simplify and specialize; but at the same time we are often rewarded as ‘people of action’ in the world of business for being closely connected to ‘the facts’ – however messy, complicated and contradictory they may be.

This tension is hard to deal with. One often feels like asking, ‘OK, do you want me to know a lot or to think a lot?’ – the implication being that there is a one-for-one trade-off between the two. But is there? The question is not as rhetorical as it seems.

Achieving Depth and Breadth Together

We can build a diamind by ‘squaring the mind’ – that is, by stretching it to enlarge its depth and breadth at the same time. This is the distinguishing characteristic of the diamind: the willingness to resist making trade-offs.

How long does it take for $1 million to double in value at a compound interest rate of 25 per cent?

Finance  students will get out their calculators or laptops (pre-programmed, of course), but the two minutes and 35 seconds it takes for the laptop  to boot is way too long in the midst of a final negotiation for buying 10 per cent of ‘FastFlyer.com’.

Seasoned investment bankers have a simple rule that optimally combines remembering with calculating. If you want to know how many years it takes for an investment to double in value at a compound rate of Y per cent, just divide 71 by Y. So, 2.8 for a Y of 25.

The diamind can think ‘on its feet’ so that it can afford to behold a large number of emerging facts without feeling overwhelmed – and in this sense it is mile-wide. It can switch between thinking deeply and thinking broadly, and it can integrate between the two. A quick examination of our ‘mind’s window’ metaphor will reveal that typical IQ, MQ, EQ and other-Q tests are not likely to reliably pick up diaminds from a population of random individuals. And, since these tests are the foundation of most other standardized tests, their blindness is likely to translate into the blindness of the traditional ways for selecting for quality in human capital.

What is needed is a new set of skills, and a new development program for nurturing them. Specifically, we need to develop ways of building better ‘on-one’s-feet thinkers’, which we can only do by precisely articulating the kinds of thinking needed for business problems. These skills are varied, but they rest on an ability to think about thinking while thinking. That is, to think about what you are thinking about – about the complexity of the problem you are trying to solve, while at the same time, thinking through various solutions to the problem. Diaminds do this naturally, and because the skill is precisely articulable, it can be transferred.

In Closing

At stake in figuring out how mind stretching works is no less than achieving a better mind – one that can remain connected to ‘reality’ while retaining the ability to think its way past the immediate pull of various elements of that reality. The development of a tight, precise language for representing what your mind is doing while it is doing it goes a long way towards providing a pedagogical solution to the development of diaminds.

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Mihnea Moldoveanu is the Marcel Desautels Professor of Integrative Thinking and Vice Dean, Learning and Innovation at the Rotman School of Management. Roger Martin is Academic Director, Martin Prosperity Institute. Rotman Executive Programs offers a one-day workshop, Integrative Thinking for Leaders, which teaches leaders at all levels how to train their brains to think integratively. This article was excerpted from the Fall 2010 issue of Rotman Management. To subscribe: www.rotmanmagazine.ca.

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