Flexible thinking is the skill that helps us get round thoughts that might be holding us back. Biases can lead to unhelpful assumptions. The hard part is how to avoid those failings when they are unconscious and not deliberate. How can we guard against them?
Flexible thinking is a future skill that helps us break out of familiar thought patterns, and find alternative ways of looking at something. Think of an inflexible boss or co-worker, and the problems that came from that. None of us want to become that figure in someone else’s landscape. We can avoid this fate by developing and practising a strategy of flexible thinking.
Examples of flexible thinking
Well-worn thought patterns, restricting our ability to consider novel alternatives, are collectively known as confirmation bias. This monumental bias, at the very core of the way the human brain does its business, leads to intransigence – a particularly negative trait in the 2020s.
The only constant, people say, is change: new data, new terminology, new platforms, new takes, new normals. Only someone who is ready to adapt and evolve their views will avoid falling behind. So we have to be ready to ‘change up’ frequently and be quick to spot opportunities to do so.
‘Changing up’ might simply involve looking at things from another angle. In a meeting about a forest, a business person might think about the value of the land, an ecologist might consider the variety of trees, an environmentalist may wish to protect its future while a planning official may be mindful of the need for social housing. None of them are wrong, but nor are they focusing on the full potential of the forest.
With a little intellectual humility, each of these people would be able to shift between the various perspectives and develop a more well-rounded understanding, leading to better decisions about managing the forest. However, processes in the brain don’t always make this easy to accomplish in practice.
Flexible thinking tips and strategies
The brain builds a map of the world by accepting information that makes sense and rejecting information that doesn’t. Confirmation bias can make us stick to what we’re comfortable with more readily than sometimes we should. Mental models help to manage this risk, though they require intellectual humility. The Flexible Thinking course at Working Voices explores confirmation bias, mental models and intellectual humility in greater detail, for now let’s take an introductory look at them.
What is confirmation bias?
Confirmation bias encourages us to continue believing what we already believe. Information that confirms what we already believe is readily accepted; information that contradicts what we already believe is rejected or treated with suspicion. You’ve experienced it when you’ve heard something unpleasant about someone you liked and thought ‘that can’t be right!’
Of course, it’s a good job we do have this bias, otherwise our confidence in the world would crumble with any new information: “Oh dear, it’s got dark, I guess the sun has disappeared forever.” However, although this system works brilliantly for the most part, it means that we sometimes cling on to our existing beliefs long after the time has come to abandon them.
Our social and professional surroundings make this tendency worse. We fear losing credibility, status and respect if we are proved wrong or if we back down. When we ‘fight our corner’, ‘back up our position’, ‘make a strong case’ and so on, we seem to be displaying the qualities of a leader. Think of the two meanings of ‘authority’: to be an authority is to be an expert; to have authority is to have control. The two things are connected in English language and the human brain, whether or not they should be.
Confirmation bias is so central to our cognitive functioning there is no way we could just stop doing it. But outsmarting our own confirmation bias is essential in supporting values such as open-mindedness, and diversity and inclusion. Here is a fun list of tips to help us guard against our own biases.
What are mental models?
Mental models are theories, metaphors or just figures of speech, such as ‘opposites attract’ – expressing the belief that couples often have contrasting characteristics which make them more attractive to each other.
Mental models abound in business. One you might have heard of is ‘economies of scale’: the savings we make when a business grows – for example, by buying supplies in bulk, reducing the unit cost.
Mental models are vital for quickly understanding the nature of an unfamiliar situation in familiar terms. There is a difference in the way flexible thinkers use mental models.
- Use them a lot, especially to explain to non-experts.
- Are curious about various topics and build a library of mental models.
- ‘Toggle’ between them, rather than sticking to one.
What do we mean by ‘toggling’? In the case of ‘opposites attract’, the flexible thinker knows this is a useful concept but not always true. In fact, there is another well-known saying that directly contradicts it:
Birds of a feather flock together .
A flexible thinker can see the truth in both of these mental models. They are two ways of looking at something that is complex and difficult to predict: human attraction. This makes the flexible thinker a very practical person. Imagine someone was trying to match you up for a date. Wouldn’t you want that person to be aware that attraction can be caused by both difference and similarity – maybe a special combination of both? Surely, that would be more helpful than someone in the grip of a single model, who might introduce you only to people like you, or only people unlike you.
The same thing applies for our business example. As well as economies of scale, there are diseconomies of scale. These are ways that a business becomes more wasteful and inefficient as it grows, for example: people in one part of a business are less aware what other parts of the business are doing. A good manager would be a flexible thinker, aware that a growing business will become more efficient (in some ways) and less efficient (in other ways) as it grows.
The aim, then, is to acquire a range of mental models, bearing in mind that many will be competing and contradictory. Here’s a great list of mental models to start you off. Don’t expect to remember them all; it’s just a fun place to start. And the list itself is useless unless you make connections between the models. Charlie Munger (the lesser-known business partner of Warren Buffet) talks about a ‘latticework’ of mental models.
So far we’ve talked about the need to escape confirmation bias in order to throw off old beliefs and welcome new ones. And we’ve talked about mental models, which we need in order to hold multiple, alternative points of view rather than looking for one definitive rule. Our third piece of advice is about intellectual humility, which is what we all need if we are going to follow those first two recommendations.
What is intellectual humility?
Intellectual humility means being comfortable to admit that you are mistaken, ignorant, or out of your depth. Most importantly, it means resting your self-esteem on your ability to learn, instead of your ability to know the answer already. This goes against the experience many of us have had in education or our early careers where we might have been made to feel that excellence is the ability to produce correct answers to specific questions.
Of course, understanding and retaining large quantities of facts will be required in life. But being well-briefed on a topic is also about being aware of the unknowns, the ambiguities and the limitations of the knowledge available – especially if we want to be at the cutting edge or our profession. That requires humility.
The trick according to Julia Galef, author of The Scout Mindset is:
‘…define your identity carefully, and pride yourself instead on your ability to admit when you’re wrong, and on your ability to distinguish between different levels of certainty in your beliefs… That kind of identity makes these kinds of habits and tools much easier to pick up and sustain because you’re actually feeling good when you use them instead of feeling bad that you proved yourself wrong.’
Here is a way to ascertain the challenges you yourself will be facing if you want to increase your intellectual humility. First, which of these island groups have you heard of?
- The Taaleb Islands
- The Bowles Islands
- The Austin Islands
Reactions to that question usually fall into one of the following categories:
- “How am I supposed to know that?”
- “Oh dear, I probably should know at least one of these but…”
- “I think I might have heard of one of them…”
Now, the thing is, you can’t have heard of any of them because I just made them up, named them after my favourite football players and did a quick search to make sure they didn’t actually exist! When put in a situation like this, where we don’t know something, we respond by dismissing the information, criticising ourselves, or trying to convince ourselves we knew something we didn’t. All of these reactions are natural. The key thing is to admit those reactions and own them. Your response to this trick of mine will tell you a lot about where your challenge lies in developing intellectual humility, which is the key to flexible thinking.
If you can develop more intellectual humility you will be more intellectually agile. This will help you to get beyond your human tendency towards confirmation bias and make you better at collecting mental models. Flexible thinking, in essence, is constantly striving for new and better ways to understand the world and make decisions. Maybe one day, the key to your success will be sticking to your guns while everyone else is doing U-turns or running for the hills. But when that day comes your resilience should come from having considered the alternatives flexibly, with an open mind, not from ignoring them.
 There are various versions of this proverb in other languages, all meaning that similar things tend to gather and so do similar people.