Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Stretch and grow

I remember reading somewhere that Roald Dahl, the brilliant children’s writer who created Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, used to sit down and sharpen about thirty pencils every morning before he began writing. It always sounded to me like he was putting off the evil moment when he would have to stop thinking and actually do something, but what it was, of course, was a habit. Maybe a habit dressed up as a good luck charm, but a habit nonetheless. The truth is that habits get bad press. The label ‘creature of habit’ doesn’t exactly bring to mind the most active or entrepreneurial human being. Yet it is often habit that saves us from danger – checking the traffic before we step out onto the road, for instance. Habits often work under the radar so we don’t get driven crazy by having to make hundreds of routine decisions.

In The Open Mind and at Professional Thinking Partners, Dawna Markova looks at the processes we use in decision making and how we form habits. Anyone who makes decisions as a job knows that what you are really doing is casting aside possibilities, as well as settling on a way forward. I expect that is why some creative people are such terrible decision makers. They just don’t want to give up the potential of different possibilities and make a choice. Nice work if you can get it.

Dawna Markova says we make our decisions in one of four ways: analytical, procedural, collaborative and innovative. But because we have standardized the way we test our ideas before applying them, guess which two have taken a back seat? You’re right. Analytical and procedural dominate; collaborative and innovative take a back seat. How does this happen with almost everyone? Because we tend to repeat what worked in the past. That gives us three zones to operate in: comfort, stretch and stress. Most of us are familiar with comfort and stress but by stretching and learning about new things, getting out of your comfort zone and pumping up the curiosity, you can put your mind into the collaborative and innovative zones, and start creating new habits. Markova also suggests a way to use the stress mode that rings a bell with me - Kaizen, the Japanese commitment to small continuous improvement. It sure worked for Toyota. So try putting a little mental stretch into your life and move toward thinking innovatively and communally. To use a phrase that I have learnt as a grandfather, now incredibly knowledgeable about baby clothes – stretch and grow.