Thinking Wrong: How to Trick our Brains into Being More Innovative

think wrong Jul 13, 2023

Once we’ve learned how to do something, we become “unconsciously competent” at it. In order to break with the predictable path and move forward, what my good friend and colleague, Greg Galle, suggests is that we need to “think wrong.” That means opening our minds to new possibilities. In a recent session he led for Columbia Executive Education for Genentech, he elaborates.

Leaving the predictable path


As Greg pointed out to the class, there are synaptic connections that are forged when we learn something.  It creates a neural pathway that is quite functional.  It allows our brains to conserve energy and thinking power once something has become a routine.  For instance, consider the experience of arriving at home after a routine drive without consciously remembering the journey!  This is often called “unconscious competence” and is the final destination of a learning journey.  This is functional from the point of view of conserving energy for what we might need to pay attention to – threats in the environment, for instance.  


The problem, however, is when we need to come up with a novel solution or an innovation, we need to leave the predictable path and journey on to what Greg calls the “bold path.”  That means we need to trick our brains into sparking a novel reaction.  We need to spark our imaginations (as my friend, BCG’s Martin Reeves, points out, this is almost always the result of encountering something unexpected- a link to our Fireside Chat is here).  


There is also a cultural dimension to all this.  As humans interact over time, we develop a set of shared beliefs about what is acceptable.  This comes to represent what has been dubbed the “Overton Window.”  The Overton window represents the range of policies and ideas that are widely accepted by a relevant population.  If you come up with an idea that is outside the Overton window, it will be a struggle to get it widely accepted.  That much being said, it is possible to shift the Overton window, expanding and shifting the policies that a given population will accept.  Recent examples include the widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana, policies that not too long ago would have been a political third rail.  See also my conversation with Leslie Crutchfield on how social changes such as these happen.  


The idea behind “think wrong” is to conquer biology and culture to change things from how they are to how they might be.  It’s the ability to trick our brains into thinking of new possibilities and get a group of people to consider something their culture would normally resist.  


The Six Core “Think Wrong” practices


There are six core practices in the ThinkWrong system, which are also described in a book of the same name, that goes into a lot of depth on them.  




As Greg describes, these are all specific practices that we can learn and apply and work at improving.  His company, SolveNext, runs workshops and has a seemingly infinite library of drills and practices that they use to help organizations and teams go through these.  


Here is a rundown on the techniques:


  1. Be Bold.  These are practices you can use when the reason for doing what you are thinking of doing is unclear.  This encourages you to consider how bold we are going to be.  Are we trying to do something incremental, or something that is more of a departure?  It answers the question, how ambitious we are going to be about what we are trying to create.  This is very similar to the process of spelling out what success means in discovery driven planning.  
  2. Get Out.  When you need fresh inspiration.  This practice encourages us to escape from the environment which is reinforcing the existing culture, and reinforcing its biases. It’s interesting how much we simply ignore about our existing environment once it is familiar to us - we’re not even aware of the stimulus.  Think about doing something or going to an event you would not normally visit.  Think about Fashion Week.  Think about visiting conferences in another industry. 
  3. Let Go.  When you want to create options.  This involves giving yourself the space and time to imagine alternative possibilities.  In design thinking, this is called flaring, or encouraging divergence.  What you are trying to do here is generate a large number of possibilities.  This is one of the reasons that diversity is so important because it is vital to generating new ideas.    
  4. Make stuff.  This gets to the essence of how an idea might work or operate in the world.  It’s a shift from just talking and text to pictures, images and acting things out.  You might make a storyboard or a physical model.  You begin to understand the problem more deeply.  You can use what you’ve made to get reactions, to test assumptions with those models.  Pixar, for instance, can produce 120,000 storyboards per movie. The company shows frames of scenes to develop their stories. They show storyboards to each other and get feedback.  Iterate each concept through visual story building.  This is also a key idea in Bent Flyvjberg’s work on how to test concepts before investing in big expensive mega projects.  
  5. Bet small.  This is very consistent with Discovery Driven planning.  What you want to do is test as many assumptions as possible with as little investment as possible.  You want to create the most amount of knowledge while putting the least amount of capital at risk.  Over time we want to decrease our assumptions and increase our knowledge.    
  6. Move fast.  The faster you can experiment, the higher your rate of experimental velocity, the greater your learning.  You want to share what we are learning to accelerate our progress toward an outcome.  Being open and sharing.  You want to go from operating in a way that rewards knowledge hoarding to being proactive about sharing knowledge.  


Distinguishing between the performance system and the innovation system


A big theme for Greg’s session is that you need two systems, working together. Your performance system delivers results in the here and now.  Your innovation system represents the “next” for your organization – it’s the future that doesn’t exist yet.  Greg has been developing curriculum for what he calls the “masters of next” to help organizations implement the right rules and processes for that next organization.    


After the introduction of these core concepts, our Genentech participants spent an energizing couple of hours working in project teams around big, meaty, challenges the company is facing, using the SolveNext methods to better define their challenges.  One of my favorite exercises is one Greg calls “anchors and rockets.”  After defining some kind of positive future state that’s a departure from the predictable path, participants consider what aspects of their situation might be accelerants to get there (the rockets) and what might need to change because it’s a drag on progress (the anchors).  


It was a fun and energizing morning at Genentech’s California learning center.  


If this sounds like something your organization might benefit from, reach out!


Greg is part of our network at Valize, and we can design terrific workshops and interactions that can help you spark more creative thinking and create options.  Reach out to connect with us here and we’ll set something up.  

*Content originally published by Thought Sparks