Mental Flexibility

cognitive intelligence cognitive readiness Feb 21, 2024

This team goes through a lot of shoes.

They had to. The amount of shuffling they do, moping around the office, head down, shoulders hunched, they have to be wearing holes in the soles of every pair of shoes they wear to work.

The energy in the office wasn’t why I was asked to help. I was asked to help with innovation and new product development. This group had customers asking for state-of-the-art, creative, and modern but were delivering run-of-the-mill, bland, and forgettable “updates.”

I sat in a few meetings. The typical project kickoff meetings and design meetings, and also the weekly meeting and some update meetings. If the loafing around the office wasn’t an indication, the meetings sure were.

They had the repeatable predictableness of the sun.

I’ll save you from all the boring details and investigation, but this was by design. Management liked it this way. They gained comfort from predictability. They took pride in the efficiency they worked so hard to obtain. As the company became experts in their products, they entrenched those products and their processes into very ridged, formulated solutions that were repeated and followed day in, day out.

Their customers’ requests were like asking a train to do a U-turn.

Mental flexibility refers to the adaptability and willingness to shift thought patterns to respond to given situations in less regimented ways.

Management was escalating commitment to a losing course of action. Management needed to give up control. But before they had a heart attack, right then and there, they only had to loosen the vice on innovation and problem solving.

Cognitive entrenchment - having a high level of stability in one's cognitive framework.

Embrace uncertainty

When setting out on a new course of action, start out with divergent thinking meaning creative thinking in which you solve a problem or reach a decision using strategies that deviate from commonly used or previously taught strategies.

This type of thinking is about curiosity, being different, and possibilities. Think of yourself as a clumsy student. Make mistakes, question things, and ‘steal like and artist.’

Another way to look at it is through lateral thinking which is creative thinking that deliberately attempts to reexamine basic assumptions and change perspective or direction to provide a fresh approach to solving a problem.

Get back to business

Divergent and lateral thinking can be fun places to be, but don’t spent too much time there. Once you’ve come up with ideas and possibilities, you need to turn them into opportunities with convergent thinking. Convergent thinking is critical thinking in which you use linear, logical steps to analyze a number of already formulated solutions to a problem to determine the correct one or the one that is most likely to be successful.

Here is where this team gets more comfortable, falling back to their expertise, using those meetings and processes to implement the ideas and solutions they came up with.

The world calls for balance. Tip the scales too far to one side and bad things happen. In this company’s case, they needed more mental flexibility to deliver for their customers.

But an interesting side effect arose…

A few months later I checked in. Of course they delivered on a customer request with a new innovation. They even shared the customer feedback which was positive and great to see.

I couldn’t help but notice, as I walked through the office, a spring in everyone’s step. Shoulders were no longer heavy, heads were held high, and I even got a few smiles and nods from those that remembered me. Sure, the spring could have also come from the shoes that were no longer worn thin.

No guessing needed, we discussed how adding in the mental flexibility, through divergent and lateral thinking, brought energy to the team. They got excited to try out new things, took ownership of process improvements, and brought in some other changes to the office. Management commented on how the new work environment felt good. (High praise, let me tell you.)

Habits, patterns, and familiarity can be comfortable and give the illusion of control. But without the willingness to adapt and respond molehills can turn into mountains. Mental flexibility is a helpful concept for problem solving, creativity, and innovation. Don’t get so entrenched as to lose balance.

Happy people nurture their intelligence by embracing their curiosity and inviting unfamiliar learning into their lives. For other ways to build your thinking, venture down the path of cognitive intelligence.

References: [63][65]

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