Everyday Matters: Thinking about thinking

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INNOVATION is a very addictive word. It transmits a message that something new and useful is about to be unleashed. When I think of innovation, I think of it as a singular and deceptively simple idea with a huge impact on an unsuspecting world.

Innovation is the current business buzzword. It heralds an edge over the competition. Pure and simple, it marks an increase in efficiency and in its best form, it is the embodiment of the Blue Ocean philosophy. But before we can innovate well and impact the world, I think it is time for us to think about thinking.

We pride ourselves in promoting innovation in Malaysia. We even have agencies doling out grants and sponsoring international events about innovation. But I think we are missing one important ingredient: we are nowhere near producing a lot of people who can think proactively to generate meaningful innovation. By proactive thinking, I mean constructive, generative and creative thinking, not reactive or critical thinking.

Someone once said that thinking is the most difficult of human endeavours, which is why many leave others to do it for them. Following instructions after the thinking is done is easy.

Is thinking really all that difficult? Are we not taught thinking skills in school and college? If so, could we have been taught wrongly by our teachers?

I blame the rise of reactive and critical thinking, taught in our schools, for this phenomenon. In school, it is very practical to put a problem in front of the student and ask for an answer. The student has to react to the problem before him. If you work on a mathematics problem and get the right answer, you stop thinking. You cannot be more right than right. It is a cut-and-dried situation.

But that process propagates reactive thinking. When we are dealing with the future, we need proactive thinking, not reactive, because we can never have perfect information about the future.

Real life involves proactive thinking. All information is not given — you have to find it. It is easy enough to order a meal from a menu in a restaurant, but if you have to hunt or grow your food and cook it, it is a different matter.

Innovation is that — the seeking and hunting, and cooking a fresh new dish. It requires creative, constructive and generative thinking. Critical thinking as is taught in our schools and colleges is not enough.

Now, critical thinking is also reactive. Ego-driven people (and there are many) like to be right. This may mean they spend their time attacking and criticising others, since it is easier to prove others wrong than to create your own thoughts. Our egos become very much tied up with being right.

The best brains become trapped in this sort of thinking and do not develop the constructive and creative thinking skills that are so essential to innovation. The result is that our thinking is both aggressive and defensive, but rarely constructive.

Skills in traditional thinking that are not matched with those in creative and constructive thinking makes it even more difficult for newly needed ideas to emerge, hence the need for proactive, constructive and creative ideas.

You get an answer that seems “right” but you go on thinking. You go on because out there, there is a better idea. Toyota has a word for it: they call it seeking the Elegant Solution. To them, innovation is thinking and trying to figure out a way to do something better than what has been done before.

And an Elegant Solution is one that fits the innovator, fits the times and fits within a larger system. The smartphone you hold in your hand is an example of an Elegant Solution. It replaces the fixed home phone and presents you with a glittering array of apps to entertain and inform.

Be that as it may, many of us think we are intelligent and therefore, thinking for us comes naturally. We believe that a highly intelligent person is automatically a good thinker. Well, I have a view for all you unappreciated geniuses — intelligence is only potential. Thinking is the skill with which we use that potential!

Just like a motorcycle and its rider, intelligence and thinking should go hand in hand. A powerful motorcycle can be ridden badly and cause the rider to fall. The power of the motorcycle is the potential of the motorcycle just as intelligence is the potential of the mind. The skill of the thinker determines how intelligence is used.

If traditionally we have been concerned with reactive thinking, it is time we involved ourselves in getting out and doing things, and making things happen. De Bono calls it operacy. Just as literacy and numeracy is important, operacy, or the “skill of doing”, is equally important.

Doing is not easy. There is a great deal of thinking involved in doing. There are decisions to be made and consequences to be dealt with. There are strategies to be designed and monitored. There are trade-offs and negotiations as there are conflicts and deal-making.

In short, operacy requires creativity and many other aspects not normally covered in traditional thinking. We need to think about our thought processes and how to improve them so that we can use creative thinking deliberately instead of just waiting for inspiration.

In a competitive world, nations that do not pay attention to creative thinking and innovation will be left behind.

Time to think about thinking? You betcha!

Zakie Shariff is CEO of a state-owned GLIC and co-founder of hCap Associates, a talent search company

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 16 - 22, 2014.