Sunday, April 29, 2007

The White Light of Cognition

We’re all creative and innovative even if we think we’re not. Some of us get a thrill out of re-designing an existing process, program or product to make it a little better. Others find continuous improvement not enough and go for the home run---inventing something entirely new. Both are equally important ways of trying to change the world. Both are fundamental to the mind set of a strong leader. The status quo is not an option. But the status quo wins out more often than not because it’s hard to let in the “white light of cognition”.

It’s the “aha” moment when you see a problem in a new light. Sometimes, that moment arrives serendipitously, in a flash without warning. Other times, it has to be coaxed by being deliberate in the pursuit of the new and better. It is at this nexus of puzzlement and will to dig deeper that leaders have an opportunity to move the situation forward.

Simple stories I read in the newspaper remind me of this creative power that we exploit too little. Take the example of a young woman suffering from what appears to be anorexia, as described in How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman. Despite multiple attempts by the health care providers to help her, they failed and concluded repeatedly that she was “mentally unstable”. However, a Boston gastroenterologist solved the mystery. He took a different tact. First, he suspended his judgment. That is, he decided to believe her when she emphatically said that she was eating. Then, he asked her lots of questions. That led to the diagnosis of celiac disease, an inability of her body to digest wheat gluten. In comes the white light overriding the “errors of cognition” of all who had treated her beforehand.

Leaders anywhere are faced with similar dilemmas. Accept the prevailing “wisdom” (group think) or push more because some facts, opinions or experiences don’t quite fit?

Here’s another example. Imagine the umbrella and a windy, rainy day. We’re in for many of those days over the few months. By the time the snow flakes fly, many thousands of umbrellas will have “bitten the dust”. Turned inside out and never to return to their former symmetrical shapes. But, what if the umbrella was shaped like an airplane wing and re-directed itself to the best position to fit the wind? Yes, there is one---“The Senz”---designed by a young Dutchman who got tired of throwing out umbrellas. When this innovative umbrella comes to North America, I’ll be one of the first ones in line.

Innovation is top of mind in all organizations. In a recent survey we undertook for a client on leadership development practices, that was the most desired and the weakest capability. It can be learned, as we know from creativity experts such as Edward de Bono and others. It can also be as simple as each of us committing to letting the “white light of cognition” in. That means not putting up with the status quo when it’s not working, suspending judgment, being interested rather than interesting (asking lots of questions) and accepting that what you know might be wrong.

It’s a tall order when the obstacles to change are many and the time to sit back and think is in short supply. The reward, however, will be the satisfaction of creating and inventing a better way. The excitement and joy are worth the flak necessary to get beyond the “errors of cognition”. The obstacles and the time constraints will seem a little less onerous in the midst of such an accomplishment!

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