How to Be a Better Leader with Elastic Thinking

Where do good ideas come from?

And why do some leaders seem to have them in abundance, while others struggle to generate one?

The answer is elastic thinking, which Leonard Mlodinow’s Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World argues.

Elastic thinking is defined as a bottom-up cognitive style that frees the mind to generate and integrate novel ideas.

While logical analytical thinking is useful for solving problems we have encountered before, elastic thinking allows us to successfully understand and respond to change.

By developing our elastic thinking skills, we also learn to reframe our own questions and experiment, accept failure, ambiguity, and contradiction, let go of conventional ideas and preexisting assumptions, and leverage imagination to generate and integrate more ideas.

But, do we need to think elastically to be good leaders?

Why Elastic Thinking Matters

Elastic thinking is the root of innovation.

To stay relevant in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment, become and remain market leaders, and continue to produce the ideas to power positive impacts in our environments, we need to innovate.

Emily Truelove, Greg Brandeau, Kent Lineback, and Linda A. Hill studied organizations at the bleeding edge of their industries, the innovation leaders. What they found in Collective Genius suggests that elastic thinking is necessary for new methods, ideas, products, and more.

The most innovative organizations cultivated and supported cognitive diversity — individuals with different thinking patterns and perspectives — and leveraged that diversity through a repeatable three-phase process.

Specifically, the organizations started by fostering creative abrasion: creating a marketplace of ideas and evolving the multitude of options surfaced through discourse, debate, and conflict.

In the next phase, creative agility, the organizations tested and refined ideas through quick experiments, reflection, and adjustment.

Finally, creative resolution phase allowed them to make integrative decisions, which merged seemingly disparate ideas together into one new solution.

This model relies on elastic thinking because it demands exposure to competing or conflicting ideas, drawing from different sources, and accepting experimentation as the primary means of discovery.

While building cognitively diverse teams is essential for fostering elastic thinking and innovation, as leaders, it’s our responsibility to shape our own minds to adopt this style of thought.

If we cannot think elastically, we cannot support the teams we manage in their pursuit of innovation, nor can we see them innovating. Our minds become mired in what’s been done before, limiting our ability to see the future for what it could be.

Mlodinow offers a few guiding examples to thinking elastically, including daydreaming, talking to strangers, viewing unfamiliar art, and listening openly to opinions we disagree without initial judgments.

In my own bottom-up approach, I looked at these examples and built them into bigger categories: cultivating new experiences, collecting unfamiliar ideas, and practicing synthesis.

How to Become an Elastic Thinker

“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” –Anais Nin
To become elastic thinkers, we must first acknowledge the fact of our own subjectivity. 

In the 1990s, Lee Ross coined the term naïve realism to explain why individuals believe they see the world objectively, but others around them don’t.

It’s like the George Carlin joke:

“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

The problem, of course, is that there are always multiple perceived realities apart from our own. Not only do we have to accept that we are not objective, but we must actively expose ourselves to more of the world to access other perspectives.

That’s why the first step in becoming an elastic thinker is cultivating new experiences.

Cultivate New Experiences

My husband and I are both idea-obsessed. We spend most of our time talking about and sharing knowledge, usually on subjects that wouldn’t be interesting to the other if it wasn’t for our mutual desire to constantly learn.

That’s why our conversations often go like this one from a few months ago.

Alida: “The reason I’m home so late is that my networking event turned into a shamanistic ritual, and I was learning how to use my breath to ascend to astral planes — which from my Tibetan Seven-Point Mind Training shouldn’t even be possible in ninety minutes — and then there was a whole thing with me and some bongos. I can’t even get into it.”
Isaac: “I’m growing a teddy bear out of fungus in our oven, and I spent ten minutes today being questioned by an FBI agent on my biohacking activities.”
Alida: “I’ll give it to you. Weirder day.”

What’s important about that conversation is not just what we encountered in our days, but that by sharing them with one another, we could vicariously experience them.

Cultivating new experiences doesn’t have to be extreme.

I count my weekend afternoon strolling through a botanic garden on the same level as the time I inexplicably became a volunteer A/V tech at a major comics conference. What mattered in both cases was the change of environment, the change of types of people who come with that environment, and my awareness that there was much to be seen and learned.

Cultivating new experiences doesn’t even have to take place in the world of the physical.

Daydreaming not only allows for a recovery phase after a period of performance, but also allows the mind to open to new possibilities. Similarly, having conversations with others about their unique experiences, especially from a non-judgmental vantage point, can offer up major opportunities to think elastically.

As NK Guy puts it in The Art of Burning Man:

“Despite today’s age of well-practiced cynicism, a healthy dose of art and community can elevate even a party into something genuinely transformative.”

Breaking the routine and going out into the world with an eye for the different is enough to open the mind and encourage elastic thinking.

Collect Unfamiliar Ideas

One of the major advantages of cultivating new experiences is that the process inevitably opens the door for unfamiliar ideas. Exposure to these ideas expands our thinking and breeds possibilities we wouldn’t encounter otherwise.

But to ensure this exposure creates lasting impact, it’s important to engage in several open-mind-amplifying practices.

1. Active Listening: Active listening, as opposed to passive listening, means going beyond just hearing what is being said. Instead, active listeners hear what is said and watch non-verbal cues, store the content of what was said, repeat it back in their own words, and ask probing questions. To effectively engage new ideas, you have to hone your active listening skills, which promote greater understanding.

2. Seeking Out Opposing Opinions: Elastic thinking involves seeking out and interacting with ideas that run counter to what you may already believe. It’s critical to hear opposing opinions from the standpoint of simply trying to process information to engage in mind-opening, even if you end up disagreeing with them later. By immediately shutting down opposing opinions, you fail to collect ideas and end up cementing your belief in your preexisting ones.

3. Read Widely: The fastest way to generate new ideas is to mine existing bodies of work for more. Don’t just read books on effective corporate executive leadership techniques if you’re trying to be a better corporate leader — instead, keep your eyes open across genres and categories. The answer to your question about team dynamics may come more readily from a children’s fable or investigation of evolution. 
 
 What’s more, engaging with these ideas will open your mind to new strategies for communicating with your teams. To this day, the most effective tool in my management toolkit comes from being able to identify another person’s area of interest outside of job function and leverage examples of it for better mutual understanding. I wouldn’t be able to do this without reading widely all the time.

4. Take Notes: Collecting unfamiliar ideas in one place, especially a research journal, accelerates the learning process by engraving those ideas in your mind more deeply while also storing them in a place you can return back to and use. As a bonus, those presumably disparate ideas will now physically be close together, creating more opportunities for cross-pollination.

5. Don’t Be a Spectator: The key to collecting new ideas — and cultivating new experiences — is to be an active participant. Merely consuming is not enough and in fact can be counterproductive by creating remove between you and the new ideas. Build up elastic thinking by engaging deeply, whether having a lively discourse on a subject you disagree with your interlocutor on, trying the new activity you’re watching, or even writing a reflection on the book you’ve read or the art you’ve seen.

Practice Synthesis

The simplest step in the elastic thinking process to describe can be the hardest to put in practice. Synthesis literally means the combination of ideas.

Once you’ve cultivated new experiences and collected new ideas, review what you’ve learned and look for connections.

To more easily spot connections, ask these questions:

· Where do these ideas come from?
· How do their origins compare?
· What central problem do these ideas try to resolve?
· What type of questions do these ideas answer?
· Are they “why,” “how,” or “what” questions?
· Are these ideas concerned with process or outcome?
· Can these ideas come into conversation with one another? What would that sound like?
· How do these ideas relate to each other?
· How does one idea make the other true?
· How does on idea challenge the other?

After going through this questioning exercise, you’ll find it’s harder not to synthesize ideas.

Parting Words

“Especially in our fast-paced, efficiency-oriented society, it is natural for us to want the best and fastest practices leading to enlightenment. This attitude incites many people to look for shortcuts, or ways to speed up the process and make it easier. The reality is that practice is situated in life.” 
–B. Alan Wallace, Buddhism with an Attitude.

I spend much of my professional life looking for connections between different types of seemingly unrelated information.

I may be up late one Saturday night trying to make a Mission, Vision, and Values workshop more resonant for a client by poring over my research journals for examples from 13th century Christianity, Blues singer Ray LaMontagne’s rise to fame, and the daily rituals of famous scientists.

The next day, I may be trying to find the answer to a leadership question by asking leaders, people who report to leaders, and people who’ve never even interacted with leaders about their experiences.

This can be a painful process, and there are many days when I’d like to throw up my hands and say, “This worked before. Let’s go with this.” Some days, I do.

But most days, I remember that learning is a daily, incremental practice and the struggle is where good ideas come from most of the time.

Elastic thinking is a living process that requires active attention and awareness; otherwise inertia creeps in and upsets its whole development.

So, I learn to love the daily integration. Especially when I get an email from my client days later saying that the evolutionary biologist I referenced inspired her to transform her approach to management for the better.