“The best way to predict the future is to create it”

— Peter Drucker

There is a global consensus amongst leaders and experts that we need new ways of thinking to go beyond the very approaches that got us where we are today.

There are simple questions on change leaders’ minds:

  • We know that to enable us to innovate we need to change the way we think. But how do we actually change our thinking and have evidence that it changed?
  • Why is it that, even when we attend special creativity and innovation programs, or learn new knowledge, we still gravitate to our fixed thinking when under pressure?
  • Why is it that, despite our best intentions, our leadership cultures continue to fall back to the very approaches that we are trying to change?”

Why achieving breakthrough thinking is difficult

“Current leadership  development practice relies heavily on the use of models and theories, and the development of self‐awareness. Findings from neurosciences suggest that use of models and theories do not impact the regions of the brain required for behavioural change. They also suggest that self‐awareness, while an essential starting point, may not be enough. ” (Peter  Hamill: Embodied leadership: towards a new way of developing leaders”, Strategic HR Review, Vol. 10 Iss: 5, pp.5 – 10)

Changing our minds is not easy.  Even the great Steve Jobs had some fixed ideas that resulted in failures.

Canadian neuroscientist Donald  Hebb, the father of neuropsychology, famously explained the dilemma with what is now known as the Hebbian theory:

“Neurons (cells) that fire together wire together.”   In layman’s terms this means that when brain cells are simultaneously activated, it results in increases in the synaptic strength between those cells. This creates a strong connection between these cells which eventually become neuro-pathways.  As a consequence, this results in loss of connection between other cells.

This ability to create neuropaths is important as it helps us make sense of the more than 4 billion bits of information that we have to filter every second so that we only pay attention to what is important to us.

The downside of this however, is that, over time, this becomes what we would call a “mindset”, resulting in unconsciously ignoring information that does not fit into our neuropaths or in other words, our paradigms.

How do you overcome the “fixed thinking” dilemma so that you can achieve new thinking?

It is actually possible to develop new neuropaths. The brain is “plastic”. That means when you start paying attention to new ideas and things and act on them, you will eventually develop new neuro-pathways, and therefore new ways of thinking.

A simple example will describe how this works.

Most of us have gone through the process of buying a car or helping someone else buy a car. Say you are thinking of buying a red all-wheel drive car that is big enough for your family.  Have you noticed that you suddenly start spotting lot more red all-wheel drive cars wherever you travel?

The reason for this is very simple.  It is not as if there was a sudden and dramatic increase in sales for red all-wheel vehicles.  They have always been there, but because you are now starting to think about it and do research about it, you see more of them.  In other words, you are now paying more attention and also with more quality of attention due to the new focus and information you are gathering.  In this way you started creating a new neuropath.

Similarly, you need to start seeing new possibilities by shifting your attention away from what you currently preoccupied with towards new unknown ideas and objects. This does not require too much time or effort.

Simple actions to achieve breakthrough thinking

Connect with different communities outside your normal networks

The best source of new information and ideas come from people who think completely differently to you.  By connecting with these communities you will be exposed to new paradigms and thinking while you make new friends and business partners.

An example is  Social Innovation. Here new business models and economic values are developed by a community of passionate inventors and innovators who are unafraid to challenge the status quo.

Stop reading mainstream literature on business and leadership

Give your mind a rest from the business and leadership literature. Start reading up on digital futures, fuzzy logic, neurosciences, philosophy or anthropology.  Have conversations with experts in these fields and attend lectures. Participate actively in learning about new topics you find interesting, such as music or surfing.

If you continue such neuro-changing intention activities for a period of about six months, you will realize how you are building a new paradigm for yourself. And from this new emerging paradigm, your thinking will change. You will see more possibilities, generate more choices, and develop improved solutions.

(Note, this article was originally published by Presidents of Enterprising Organizations during 2012 as part of an insight series for executes which was authored by MaRi Eagar.)