This article originally appeared on Forbes
The design staff of a lifestyle company where I used to work posted this sign on their door:
Question: “How many design directors does it take to change a light bulb?”
Answer: “Does it have to be a lightbulb?”
I saw this simple riddle daily for several years and it gradually and subliminally had an enormous impact on my approach to problems – every day and game-changing.
In fact, the wry wisdom expressed by that joke helped change my leadership style. Now, when managers say, “We have a problem,” the first thing I ask is, “Why is that a problem? What if it’s not? How might we make it not a problem?” Often, the key to finding an innovative solution results from re-framing the situation in this way.
We tend to think innovation means generating new ideas, but most often innovative thinking centers around questioning the status quo. Ask yourself, “Why not?” and then knock down those objections. That’s how you move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.
Danger: Icebergs Ahead
Innovative thinking requires employees to be agile, and that means identifying and letting go of their assumptions. It sounds easy, but everyone is susceptible to “iceberg beliefs,” which Dr. Andrew Shatté, Chief Science Officer at meQuilibrium, describes as self-limiting beliefs that are only barely conscious but fuel big emotions and drive behavior. They manifest as should-and-must beliefs about the world, and they are the sworn enemies of innovation.
The iceberg dynamic is insidious. Let’s say you imagine a more efficient way to do your job. Instantly doubt kicks in, saying, “Forget it, nothing changes around here.” That doubt turns into a cascade of subtle, negative feelings like, “I’m powerless…my manager doesn’t like me…I shouldn’t stick my neck out.” The cascade of barely-noticed thoughts stalls innovative thinking.
How do you steer clear of the icebergs? First thing is to try to recognize what is pushing those buttons and causing negative or emotional reactions. Are you scared to fail? Are you used to always being right? Always being finished first? Do you worry about what other people will think of you? Thoughts like these can be recognized because they provoke a larger-than-warranted reaction from us. Or a highly emotional reaction: “If I try something new, I won’t be done first, and I am always done first.” Icebergs – subconscious rules about how you must behave and about how the world works – create barriers to thinking outside the box.
Next, develop the habit of asking, “If this ‘problem’ is hard to solve, how can I re-frame the situation?” When I was a publisher in the health field, common wisdom said, “Stress is a problem and we need to banish it!” But I saw that stress and work were so intertwined, and work was so all-encompassing, that banishing stress in the workplace today is impossible. Work is too uncertain and things change too fast, and we have less and less control over the rate and pace of change. The innovative response to that unchangeable fact was to ask how people might harness stressful situations to their own advantage, using science and data. A whole new outlook on stress and work and a whole new business – my current company – emerged from that re-framing.
Another common misplaced assumption is the “sunk cost fallacy.” Our marketing director works with post-doctoral students trying to commercialize ideas. Their biggest icebergs are built on the investment in time and money they’ve put into an idea (the sunk cost). When they hear something in the marketplace that makes them question the viability of their idea, their attachment to the sunk cost drives them into denial. With resilience skills like emotion control and self-confidence, they instead could approach threatening new information with the question, “How might that not be a problem?”
Learn to Unlearn
Like lots of companies, we hold regular “lunch and learn” sessions. But recently we held a “lunch and unlearn” about how the brain establishes new unconscious associations. In a nutshell: The brain needs to “clear out” embedded neural pathways when it revises perspectives and knowledge. Skills like causal analysis establish the facts leading up to a situation and are key to this “creative unlearning.” That helps the process of innovative thinking.
As leaders, we can promote creative unlearning by insisting on psychological safety in our teams. The symptoms of a fixed mindset in an individual or team are the same: close-mindedness and denial, then blame, defensiveness, and saving face. But you can establish trust and promote a growth mindset by recognizing, rewarding and publicizing moments when people question assumptions. That’s how people unlearn the status quo and clear the way for new perspectives.
Innovative thinking requires more than imagination. The next time someone on your team says they have to change a lightbulb, ask, “What if we don’t need a lightbulb? What if we open the blinders? What if we add a skylight?”