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The Rules of Genius #7: Think whole thoughts

The human mind loves either/or choices. We prefer a choice of A or B. Yes or no. Chicken or beef. Simple choices give us a feeling of control, while open-ended choices give us a feeling of unease. Therefore we’d rather choose between than among.

By the same token, we prefer to break complex problems into separate parts. It’s easier to focus on a single part than to hold a complex problem in our brains. Yet without a good view of the whole problem, we won’t be able to see how the parts fit together.

To complicate matters further, we’re easily fooled by our emotions and intuition—the very instruments we rely on to guide us through the thickets of innovation.

The fact is, the human mind is a mass of biases. Beginners are fooled by what they believe; experts are fooled by what they know. And the biggest bias of all is believing you’re not biased.

The counterweight to bias is thinking in whole thoughts instead of fragments. Squint your mind to blur the details. Look for how the parts of the problem fit together. View a complex situation from a variety of angles so you can see the hidden connections and surprising possibilities. Start by examining it from three basic positions:

First position, or the view from your own vantage point. Easy, but not always trustworthy.

Second position, or views from the vantage points of other relevant players. More difficult, requiring empathy and observation.

Metaposition, or the view from outside the system. The most difficult of all, requiring objectivity and critical thinking, which don’t come naturally to most of us.

The term for this “unnatural” style of thinking is systems thinking. It’s a method of understanding complex problems by studying the relationships of the parts to the whole. It’s a way to see the big picture and how it changes over time, more like watching a movie than viewing a snapshot.

Systems thinking lets you solve problems by respecting their context. For example, when designing a chair, consider the room it will reside in. When planning a room, think about the house it’s part of. When conceiving a house, respect the community it belongs to. When managing a community, consider the environment it’s supported by.

When you think whole thoughts instead of fragments, you create solutions, products, or experiences that resonate with the larger world, and thereby create broad, sustained value.

Next week: Stay in the dragon pit.
Close the gap between what is and what could be.

The Rules of Genius is now a book with a bonus section called “How can I matter?” that includes 10 essential rules.  Buy here.

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