According to management guru and author, Peter Drucker, leaders have to be able to do the right things (effectiveness) as well as to do things right (efficiency). But in an era of hyper-competition and increasing customer expectations leaders also have to do things differently (innovation).
I would argue that business schools often teach leaders and managers to think in the same way. How do managers break out of the business-as-usual, incremental cycle and think differently?
1. Set yourself a goal of being able to think differently – on demand
A basic requirement of leadership is the ability to think through the problems facing the business: if you are not thinking about your business, market, customers or the competition, someone else is. Thinking is a skill so the more your practise it the better you will become.
Most leaders are goal-motivated, in my experience. So, to become a better thinker who is able to generate new ideas, solutions and possibilities at will, set a goal. It could be a subjective measure, such as ‘Am I better able to think differently than this time last year?’ It could be an objective measure such as asking your peers to rate your ability to thinking differently on a 10-point scale.
2. Go against the crowd
It is very tempting to follow the crowd, the consensus or the mainstream. As the former Labor prime minister Paul Keating once said, leadership takes imagination and courage. As a thought exercise, (at the very least) I would encourage every current and potential leader to adopt the least popular position from time-to-time.
This forces you to look at situation from a different angle and can sharpen up the reasons why you may consider an alternative action. I sometimes watch Fox News in the US for this reason. I am politically opposed to most of what the network’s commentators say but I enjoy thinking about the way they see the world.
3. Put yourself in another leader’s position and ask what would you do?
I once heard that to improve your golf game it is a useful idea to imagine how you might play the next shot of your playing partners. I believe that you can apply a similar logic to leadership. Often leaders become obsessed with their areas of responsibility. One way to grow is to consider the decisions that others make. Ask yourself would I have answered that question in that tone of voice, for example? If marketing is your responsibility, ask yourself what big initiative you might consider if you were given the financial portfolio.
4. The power of three
This is one of my favourite tools. In any situation, leaders think of three solutions: the usual one, a different one, and a radical one. It’s amazing how powerful it can be to consider a broader range of options and give yourself and others permission to express a left-field or radical idea.
5. Seek diverse perspectives
It is hard to think differently if you are surrounded by people who see the world the same as you. You may like them, but you will rarely receive a truly different suggestion. Talk to people outside of your industry or category. Talk to partners, suppliers or employees who have just joined your business. These people may challenge and stretch your mindset, giving you greater scope to think differently. My two PhD supervisors, for example, were a chaos mathematician and an environmentalist – they constantly challenged my traditional MBA frame of reference.
6. Be open to different points of view
If you want to think differently, be open to this ability in others. Encourage it. Recognise and highlight examples of people thinking differently in your team, even if you do not always agree with them. I once worked with a senior partner of a legal firm who confided in me that his worst fear was that a client might ask him a question that he could not answer; after all, he was the expert. My reaction was the complete opposite. I love receiving questions that challenge me, presenting me with an opportunity to learn and grow so that I am better prepared next time.
7. Ask original questions
You cannot think differently if you ask the same questions, or questions to which you already know the answer. To create and innovate is to ask fresh, insightful questions that open up new areas of opportunity.
8. Use thinking tools
There are tools designed to enhance your ability to think differently. Mind mapping is a tool that can help you to visualise and link solutions. Our new Blitz tool is a way to speed up the process of solving problems and generating new ideas.
In summary, being able to think differently is a skill that you can acquire and become better at. It is a worthwhile, rewarding journey in itself and increasingly is one of the key attributes of an outstanding 21st century leader.