Slow down, you think too fast

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Traditionally, managers and leaders in the Western world have relied on rational, analytical, logical ways of thinking. We have been pretty sceptical about the kind of tacit knowledge that Eastern cultures prize: the kind of knowledge that results from long experience in a given field. I’m talking about the kind of knowledge that pushes into the conscious mind as ‘just a hunch’, a feeling, an image or metaphor.

Perhaps frightened by the ‘dark’ unconscious (often vilified as “a wild and unruly ‘thing’ that threatens our reason and control, and lives in the dangerous Freudian dungeon of the mind”, Guy Claxton), business brains have studiously avoided this area for many years. Now the tide is turning, and the need for constant creativity and innovation in organisations has led management thinkers to investigate different solutions. In the tightly controlled organisations of the past, rational thinking sufficed. This led to some ‘one-size fits all’ prescriptions, for example in managing organisational change. Because some n-step process worked in one context, it was assumed it would work in another. Not surprising then, that around 70% of change programmes fail. Nowadays, fast-changing, unpredictable, complex, ill-defined situations demand far less rigid approaches to problem-solving.

As Claxton argues in ‘Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind’, a slower, more intuitive mode of thinking is better suited to solving these novel, messy challenges. And the latest research in neuroscience seems to confirm this. Rex Jung and his colleagues at the University of New Mexico (2009) built on recent studies that demonstrated that white matter in the brain links to creativity (as opposed to grey matter, which is the tissue  linked to intellectual power).

White matter is mostly made up of a fatty substance called myelin which coats the neurons to speed the transmission of signals to the brain. In his study, Jung found that in tests of creativity, participants who scored highest had white matter which was less well-coated in myelin in a particular region of the brain, and was therefore slower in transmitting information.

This suggests that ‘slow thinking’ might allow the kinds of connections between very different ideas which are often the hallmark of creative solutions. The results seem counter-intuitive. However, ‘fast thinking’ is controlled in a different part of the brain, where more myelin coating enables rapid transmission of information. The combination of traditional intelligence and creativity is a powerful mix, and nowhere more so than in the task of leading organisations.

Leaders should continue to ‘use their brains’. But using their intuition might yield more creative solutions. For more information on Jung’s study http://www.newscientist.com/gallery/mg20527535-500-slow-thinking

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