Thinking Flexibly

You hear a lot these days about the need for businesses to pivot quickly and be agile. Use agile techniques to develop software, or run projects. Be lean. Be observant. Watch for opportunity. Be bold and creative. The same applies in sports, to win the game.

There is a lot of online coverage relating to physical flexibility. Aerobics classes, yoga, pilates, tai chi, martial arts. The Olympics. World Cup football and rugby. Golf and tennis events. Fitness trials. Marathons, Iron man and other endurance events. But what about the mental side?

Creating personal and business flexibility both involve thinking flexibly and practising mental agility (MA). But what’s the difference?

Thinking flexibly is heavy on design – creating more avenues and pathways. Can we tunnel or fly instead? Rather than continue the journey, can we influence the other party to come to us instead? Can we send someone in our place? In a progress review, how do we solve or redefine the problem we’ve encountered? 

Mental agility is about process and style – having regular progress reviews. Jumping pathways well and picking when to jump (timing). Calculating, applying, comparing, prioritising. How do I verify the information? What needs more testing? Can I inspire the team to reach for their best? Will some humour lighten the mood? Should I change my communication style for the audience.

One timely illustration of the difference is the Brexit debate in the UK at present. If more ‘thinking flexibly’ had occurred at prior to the voter referendum back in 2016, the process and style aspects (mental agility needed to avoid a ‘hard Brexit’ outcome), wouldn’t be so terrible now.

Thinking flexibly includes:

  • radiating outwards from one concept to multiple applications.
  • oscillating between possibility and feasibility.
  • blending logic and emotion (head and heart).
  • selecting amongst personal life experiences (the ‘school of hard knocks’), advice we received and taught concepts.

Thinking flexibly also includes self-challenge (making new paths). Because often, fresh thinking is needed to solve tired problems.

  • thinking of a first solution, then continuing to think of other solutions, before selecting the best one.
  • thinking laterally (de Bono style).
  • seeking out analogies that might help.
  • reasoning in new situations, where reliable data isn’t yet available.
  • deliberately looking beyond the herd (established patterns), to search for the interesting outliers and anomalies.

For someone facing a situation of conflicting views, or multiple versions of the truth, other than staying in denial, what options are there:

  • Gather more facts. Parents do this when two of their children have opposite stories. A real-life business problem faced by this blogger involved a new computer system creating phantom financial entries. Initially it wasn’t clear whether this was a staff-training problem. Or a software system bug. Or both. What to do? Talk to the (software) experts. Survey a range of people (users or witnesses) who have encountered the problem before. Do some testing (simulations, role-play or trials) to gather more information. Independently verify the data.  Perhaps coax the experts to develop new theories, if their existing explanations don’t ring true.
  • Develop new theories or new approaches yourself. These may put apparent conflict into a cohesive setting. An example of this was used in science to explain the behaviour of light.  To elaborate, scientists created two concurrent models – a particle model and a wave model of light that together explained what they observed. Another science example is how atomic theory explains two apparently opposing behaviours – physical material expansion when heat is applied (e.g. water into steam say).  But how the physical volume that ice occupies, contracts when heated from zero to four degrees Celsius at sea level atmospheric pressure.
  • Become comfortable and skilled at juggling multiple, concurrent things. For example, apply your existing skills (as an board member, volunteer, mentor or parent say), while learning new things in real time, as a novice. Achieve relationship compromises (if there are clashes in values, varying levels of enthusiasm, or different priorities arising between the team members). But set limits and practice ‘tough love’ as well. Take a rational approach.  But also trust your instincts. Choose to remain the student, even when you think you have become the master. On the later, keep asking ‘why’ questions, including about any anomalies & exceptions discovered. Keep asking yourself ‘is it still relevant’, since theory and practice seldom stand still. Arguably, the only way to be a true master is by permanently remaining a student – committing to constant improvement.  Even while practicing as a relative master. Some areas where this is particularly true are parenthood, leadership & management.  Each is a lifelong challenge to master!

Are there any interesting examples of physical flexibility partnered up with mental agility? Jazz improvisation amongst a group of accomplished musicians is probably one good example of this. Where the music is going is unpredictable and changing at a rapid rate. Instrument flexibility and concentration is needed to create a harmonious but creative result. Fighter pilots staying in flying formation at speed are another example.

Are there any interesting examples of thinking flexibly, partnered up with physical agility? Emergency services workers encountered a mass-casualty situation with a series of challenging environmental constraints are an example.

How does thinking flexibly related to personal flexibility (PFL) more generally?

Part of mastering PFL includes thinking flexibly (building options). Other aspects include managing existing risks. And building spare capacity ‘for a rainy day’.

Perhaps the definition of a FL student is the person who knows about flexibility.  But doesn’t practice it. The FL convert is someone who links established options to situations and then decides & acts. In contrast, the FL master is someone who manufactures options (ideas and real options) for situations, generating more as required. FL masters who are financial budget holders are one example. They are encouraged to form one view and outcome.  Yet use FL as a tool to secure the best outcome, regardless of the budget that was set and approved.

Some people seek out variety, perhaps to fulfil a basic human need. Food lovers, party goers and veteran travellers all seek exciting new places and sensory experiences. They probably wonder if there is a better experience just around the corner.  Slightly out of view.  Meanwhile, fashionistas, artists and performers chase more sublime forms of human expression & recognition. Each group seems willing to embrace personal flexibility as a means to an end. However, although being open to opportunity is a great example of PFL (Jim Carey’s character in the movie ‘Yes Man’), using personal FL well is the thing that builds confidence.

What are some other personal flexibility approaches?

  • Remain flexible by changing the angle of view. Some famous drawings exhibit 2 images, simply by re-looking at the image outlines differently. The Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher was a case in point.
  • Reframe the problem, emphasising options and choices. For example, looking for another job while simultaneously doing your best in the current role.
  • Reward ingenuity and audacity – ‘yes we can!’
  • Grab opportunities as they arise. For example, a new employee could strive to set a new high standard of work. With the aim of changing internal roles to become an internal trainer. Likewise, someone arriving at a social gathering and realising there is no suitable food for young children, or no soft drinks for the designated driver, could use one of the relatively new food delivery services such as Uber Eats, to order a fast delivery directly to that event venue.
  • Accept that the experience gathered on a journey, may be as important as the destination reached. Frank Sinatra apparently once said ‘I’d rather show you my scars, than my medals.’
  • Don’t remind yourself to think outside the box. Tell yourself there is no box!
  • Zoom in and stand back from a problem, for perspective and to see wider patterns. For example, a motion-sensor, high-speed strobe camera, a drone-mounted video-camera and a wall-mounted CCTV-camera can each record the same events. But in very different ways.

If you find these blogs useful, please spread the word for others to read them and comment too.

Simon

Published by

myflex1

I have strong interest in flexibility the subject and in promoting its use more widely. Professionally, am a science graduate, chartered accountant and MBA-holding business adviser. Over three decades of work experience, I've worked in three countries, parented three genders, become involved in three lots of people rescues and quite like three course meals...

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