By Tim Hurson
McGraw Hill, $31.95
Look at you, having a VIP business lunch with your new best friends.
After months of courtship and three rounds of interviews, you’re breaking bread with the big kahunas from corporate head office.
If all goes well, lunch will end with your boss-to-be making an offer you can’t refuse.
So far so good. You look sharp in an outfit and haircut that cost as much as your monthly mortgage payment. You’re minding your manners.
You’re charming and engaging. Laughter and smiles all around. You can feel the love.
But then disaster strikes.
For whatever reason, you order pasta and now a speck of red sauce has just landed on your blindingly white and ridiculously expensive dress shirt.
You panic. What to do? If you’re like me, you discreetly dip the edge of your napkin into your water glass and dab the stain. Now, that’s a stupid move. The speck becomes a splotch. You keep dabbing until the splotch looks like a bleeding knife wound to the chest. And then the conversation around the table stops. All eyes turn to you and your impromptu wet dress shirt competition. It’s job applicants gone wild.
Your face is now as red as the stain on your shirt.
What happened? "All of us have had the experience of coming up with a solution to a problem that hasn’t done anything to solve the problem or that’s made the problem worse," says author Tim Hurson.
He claims we all pretty much take the same imperfect approach to problem-solving. We perceive a problem. We pick a solution. And then we do something. Fast. "That’s it," says Hurson. " Three steps. Simple but not often very effective. We don’t give ourselves the time or the tools to do any of the steps well."
When was the last time your boss stuck his head in your office and said, "We have a really big mess on our hands and I need you to go away and get your head around what’s really the problem and then think through some options"?
More likely, your frantic boss says, "The sky’s falling, here’s the solution I just came up with, now drop everything and make it happen."
Efficient problem-solving is the hallmark of reproductive thinking.
"Reproductive thinking is essentially a matter of repeating the past: doing what you’ve done before and thinking what you’ve thunk before," says Hurson. Anyone who nixes your new idea or suggestion to get a handle on the real problem with the "this is the way we’ve always done things around here" or "we don’t have any time to think" or "this solution worked before" is a reproductive thinker.
Reproductive thinking has its place. You don’t want to hear a pilot or surgeon say "let’s try something new and completely different today" while your plane’s coming in for a landing or you’re laid out on the operating table. But an organization that’s overstocked with reproductive thinkers won’t exactly be a hotbed of creativity or innovation. Breakthrough change will be a long time coming if reproductive thinkers hold the keys to strategic planning.
"Reproductive thinking can fashion the perfect buggy whip but only productive thinking can imagine a car," says Hurson. "To create the future, you have to be able to imagine it. Productive thinking is a way to help you do that."
Productive thinking bolts together creative thinking and critical thinking. Most of us overlap the two, simultaneously generating and judging ideas. "It’s like trying to drive with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake. You won’t get anywhere, and you’ll probably burn something out in the process." Creative thinking is generative, non-judgmental and expansive. Critical thinking is analytic, judgmental and selective.
You need both for productive thinking but just not at the same time. "Critical thinking is the yang to creative thinking’s ying. The key is to alternate between the two: creative, critical, creative, critical.
"That way you develop enormous forward momentum."
Drawing on more than 50 years of cognitive research, Hurson’s created a six-step productive thinking model that unlocks the yin and yang of creative and critical thinking.
The good news is anyone can master the model, think better and come up with smarter solutions. When faced with a challenge or opportunity, resist the urge to jump to conclusions and instead :
1. Ask what’s going on? Figure out what’s the real problem.
2. Ask what’s success? Where do you want to end up?
3. Ask what’s the question? In the immortal words of Peter Drucker, "the most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong question."
4. Generate a lot of potential answers.
5. Forge the solution — take the most promising ideas from Step 4, apply critical thinking and create robust, stress-tested solutions.
6. Align resources so you have enough rubber to meet the road. "With productive thinking, you can train yourself to generate more options, better options, more of the time in almost any situation, from dealing with a spaghetti spot to creating full-blown business strategies," says Hurson.
So what about that speck on your shirt? Instead of dipping and dabbing, how about ignoring it? Adjusting your tie or jacket. Making a joke and moving on. Asking the waiter if they have any stain remover you could borrow.
Or how about this solution, courtesy of a friend of Hurson’s who had the same real-life experience:
"Time sure flies when you’re having fun," said the friend to her potential future employer. "It looks like spaghetti sauce does too.
Excuse me for a sec, I’m going to see if I can’t perform some quick magic." She slipped away to the restroom where she put her crewneck sweater on backwards, slipped on her jacket and returned to the table in under two minutes.
"Success," she said. "I hope I don’t have to do that again. They say a magician should never repeat a trick." The boss was impressed and she got the job.