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You’re not smarter than everyone

Before you think I am insulting our brilliant readership, the title of this blog is actually a statement I like to remind myself of sometimes. Especially when I am getting too deep into my own head or losing the broader perspective on an issue.

But I’ve also observed instances when others need to heed this advice, too. So here are some common scenarios where we may need to take a step back and think differently.

When someone offers a contradictory point-of-view we tend to think, "Obviously this person is wrong and here’s every possible reason that’s true." Instead of thinking, "I still believe in my idea, but what about the alternative idea might be true, useful, or even better?"

An offshoot of the above scenario, when one of our ideas just isn’t working we respond with, "Customers (or clients, or colleagues) just don’t understand the idea, or aren’t applying it correctly." Instead of considering the idea might need to be improved, reworked, or even killed off.

In a new role, we default to thinking, "Well, this worked for me in the past, why not try it here?" Instead of thinking, "There are some great, smart people here. What are they doing and how can I add that to my past approach to make it even better?"

Benchmarking has often come to mean, "Are we better than a competitor (aka, someone we don’t like)?" Instead of its real meaning which is, "What is someone else doing really well that we can use to make our own processes and products even better?"

We sometimes think, "This problem is really difficult. How am I ever going to solve this? I bet no one else has ever faced this." (To be fair, we hardly ever explicitly think that last part, but we sure act like it’s true). Instead of thinking, "This problem is really difficult. I wonder how other people tackled it or thought about it."

It’s hard to think this way. It requires the ability to synthesize other people’s thoughts. To challenge your own thinking. To apply thoughts and solutions from a different context to your specific situation. To think differently. But it’s worth doing.

Here are a few ways to get started:

  • Conduct a literature review. I know it sounds academic or even old-fashioned, but it’s a useful skill to master, especially for business consultants. When you’re considering a company as an investment or M&A opportunity you do a lot of secondary research to see what analysts and others say about it, so why not do the same thing when developing new strategies or solving key problems. Katie Harris from Zebra Research has a nice post on the topic of literature reviews.
  • Talk to others. This does not just mean "experts" on the topic or in the field. The best, most creative solutions often come from the people in the trenches.
  • Engage in social media. This means blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Not my strong suit, but I’m getting better at it, and it is helpful.
  • Think outside your box. It’s a minor twist on an old cliché, but it’s a useful way to think. Actively seek out opinions or facts that differ from your own. Psychology research on this topic suggests the human mind is not predisposed to being open and accepting of opposing views. The best way to be more open-minded is to engage with moderates on an issue as opposed to those on the polar opposite. For instance, a staunch conservative should not try to better understand the liberal ideology by watching Keith Olbermann.
  • Understand where your ideas came from. This is an important companion to the previous point. If we explicitly acknowledge that our thinking and point-of-view has been formed by others, it is easier to critique our own position and harder to take alternative views as personal attacks. It also makes it easier to provide strong, well-reasoned support for your point-of-view. I recently read a summary of remarks made by Prof. Jim Leach where he points out that America was founded by moralists who were also moral philosophers, but nowadays Americans have become moralists without moral philosophy. In other works, we don’t know where our moral sensibilities have come from. As a result "moral" disagreements have become more personal and less principled.

There’s danger in going too far in the other direction – thinking that you have no good, unique ideas or no right to question the brilliant establishment.

Be willing to add your own thoughts and perspectives to those of others. Try to extend those ideas, make them better, apply them to new contexts, push the field forward. To extend the famous analogy referenced in the quote below, don’t just use the giant, sit on his shoulders.

"We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours."
– John of Salisbury

Troy Powell, Ph.D.
Vice President, Statistical Solutions
Walker Information

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