We need to learn to think around corners. We need to be diligent to avoid what is commonly referred to as the “sucker’s choice.” The problems we face are seldom “this or that.” We aren’t hemmed in that tightly, nor are the problems we face that neatly packaged. We need to learn to look at a problem and find the third, fourth, fifth and so on solutions.
What might it look like to explore different solutions to problems and to live with different consequences (because there are always consequences)? How do we escape either or sort of thinking? What will it take to discipline ourselves to fundamentally reconsider how we might arrange ourselves to create new problems with our new solutions (sorry…I don’t believe in utopia outside of the New Creation)?
I’ll offer five strategies, or mental disciplines, that I’ve used to think differently.
- Embrace truths…especially truths that contradict– None of us have life figured out 100%. Whatever story we tell to make sense of the world has its holes. Even as a Bible believing Christian, I don’t believe that the Bible tells the whole story (it doesn’t answer every question). It is the final authority, but not the sole authority. It is the authority to which other authorities are subject, but it isn’t (nor is it intended to be) some sort of universal reference anytime I have a question (that’s what Google is for:). So, when we run across contradictory information, we have the opportunity to rethink the way we view the world. It is a moment when we can challenge our assumptions and think creatively about a particular state of things (I’ve written more on this here).
- Don’t just form an opinion on an issue…question the whole discourse– This strategy might sound difficult, but it’s actually pretty simple…don’t assume that the question being asked is the right question or that somehow the question allows for the full range of possible solutions to a bigger problem. For example, if I asked you whether you want Italian or Chinese for dinner, you would want to recognize that we could also have burgers, Mexican, Mongolian barbecue, etc. We don’t even have to eat! We could opt to go to breakfast the next day. There can be a limit to the effectiveness of this approach, but, in general, considering how the manner in which an issue or decision is framed (which sets artificial limits on the acceptable solutions) impacts the range of answers possible is a helpful way to think more creatively.
- Look at the problem from the perspective of people with different advantages and disadvantages than you– This strategy is probably the most challenging since you can never really get out of your head and into someone else’s. That said, I’ve still found it helpful in this respect: sometimes looking at an issue from the perspective of a different group helps you to realize that the world is less right than you previously thought (or not right in different ways than you might have thought). One way to get into this mindset is to take a step back and recognize that your achievements aren’t a product of your own self-discipline alone. I’ve addressed this issue further here.
- Be wary of sensational claims, conspiracy theories, and stories that might drive traffic to a bloggers site– This strategy is similar to #2 above as it does deal with the manner in which an issue is framed. It differs, however, in that this strategy assumes that the way a situation is described or a question is asked is not without agenda or perspective. It is far less sensational to question a company’s performance management practices over the past decade as an explanation for a current crisis than it is to conjure up issues of integrity and mission drift. Framing questions about organizations in this manner keeps you from really digging deep into the issues contributing to a given situation. You lose nuance and run the risk of solving the wrong problems (and, thus, effectively not solving any problems at all).
- Remember that you don’t have all the information– Often stating problems becomes an exercise in making accusations. Because we don’t know everything that is going on, we suffer from what is referred to as “availability bias.” In other words, it is easy for us to understand how hard we are working or what issues impact us most on a daily basis…it’s harder for us to understand how hard others are working and what issues they are facing. When we don’t approach conversations with the intention to articulate and expand our perspective (speaking and listening), we will likely be left with a less-than full understanding of the problems and, thus, less-than adequate solutions.
- I’m sure there are more strategies and mental disciplines that would help us to think differently. As we continue our public discourse in cyber-space, work to help the organizations of which we are a part, or look to solve the problems we face in our daily lives, we will need to think differently.
- We face challenging problems…problems that are coded into our own personal lives and into the DNA of our organizational, ecclesial, and national cultures. We are also facing what I believe to be a largely unnoticed problem…shallow discourse and discussion driven by personalities that have less substance than bravado.
- Part of that problem can be solved by thinking differently (for those who follow Christ this means thinking theologically) and starting to interrogate the stories and questions that are framing our discussions. Think deeply and differently…don’t just accept the stories or questions of others.