“The biggest threat to an economy is lack of creativity It’s really a question of innovate—or die” (Bingham 2001)

BEGINNER”S MIND AND DESIGN THINKING

“We know about our customers. This is what they need. You just skin it” – Most of the times, we have incorrect perceptions and myths about our consumers and users. Many entrepreneurs/marketers chose a problem to solve due to their personal experience and assume other users are like them. They fail to recognize that the “fact” in their mind is just an assumption.

As a designer, the first mindset taught to us is “Beginner’s Mind”. When a client approaches us with a brief – Activate beginner’s mind, learn to convert the familiar to an unfamiliar environment, so that we could listen fully to their views without interrupting with words, “Ya, I know it”.

When we prepare for user research – We activate “Beginner’s mind” – we throw all assumptions about the user, avoid any bias – Keep a blank mind, so that we can observe in detail, listen to every word, collect the right insights.

Idea generation phase – Keeping a beginner’s mind, helps us to generate radical ideas(Not incremental ideas) to solve the problem.

“Beginners Mind” used in many stages of “Design Thinking” process is one of the essential tools in a designer’s life.

BEGINNER”S MIND and BUSINESS CHALLENGES

Every business has many challenges and creative solutions needed to overcome those challenges. When someone is labeled as an expert, it signifies that he knew more than others, and he strives to fulfill that expectation by providing answers to those challenges by referring to his past experiences. Whatever has worked in the past, the expert repeats. Sometimes, we would feel stuck in coming out with an innovative solution.

A particular pattern of thinking gets deeply ingrained in our subconscious mind(becomes a habit) when we work for a longer period in a particular field. Breakthrough solutions for challenges are possible only when we break away from past experiences.

Past experiences force us to “Think Inside the Box” than “Think outside the box”.

A couple of weeks back, I attended a conference. When the speaker began the speech – I became restless, as I was familiar with the topic and the examples, which he was providing. The thoughts of “Why did I sign up for this conference?” “I’m wasting my time, I should have done something else” was running in my mind. I realized that my Ego Mind “I already know this” is influencing me. My rational mind told me to force my subconscious mind to have “Beginner’s mind”.

I closed my eyes for few seconds, and told myself that I would like to improve my “Listening Skills”, and it would be a wonderful utilization of time, even if I earn 10% extra knowledge. Moreover, I should not be judging the speaker based on few minutes of speech. As the speaker’s learning circumstances are different from mine, there would be something to learn. Even If I could not learn anything new, it will improve my confidence level and encourage to move further in my path. Thus I kept a “Beginner’s Mind”, put away my experience, knowledge aside and started listening to the speaker.

To my surprise, I could see the some of the known examples in a different perspective. He also used examples from his own company culture to a couple of topics – Those examples were wonderfully relevant – which you could not get it in any books/the internet.

  • A Dubai TV Station was struggling to create a new soap opera because their ideas were predictable and dull. They approached Rod Judkins(An author and a painter) to help them create a new soap based in Dubai. He told a team of scriptwriters, cameraman, production staff, soundmen, set designers, costume designers to scrap their ideas and start fresh. He swapped their roles – cameraman to write scripts, costume designers to write up characters, the soundmen to think of locations and so on. They no longer had a reputation to protect because they were doing differently from their fields. They had fun. New original ideas poured out. The soap went on air – it was unique and a success.
  • Alexander Flemming accidentally discovered the Penicillium – How? – In 1920s scientists generally threw away the contaminated culture dish. In September 1928, after Fleming came back from vacation, he was looking for cultures which are not spoiled. Before throwing the contaminated cultures, though he was aware of the contamination status from his past experiences, he keenly observed the spoiled culture and was surprised to know that colonies of staphylococci immediately surrounding the fungus had been destroyed. Thus Penicillium was discovered.

ASSUMPTIONS

Isac Newton – Everyone before and after Newton were aware of falling objects – What is there in it? Why stars, the sun are not falling? Why is the sky blue? Do we question everyday things? He asked a question which everybody thought was a stupid question. But his stupid question discovered gravity and laws of motion? – Unless we keep a beginner’s mind, we cannot question assumptions residing in our sub-conscious mind.

Unilever observed that low-income consumers in Brazil could not afford Unilever’s premium Omo brand and they were not buying their low-end Campiero brand. Through research, Unilever discovered that these consumers were not looking for a low price, but a good value for their (limited) money. Unilever threw out their previously held assumption of “Lower the cost people will buy”. They developed a new brand, Ala, that was very focused on just getting clothes clean and came at a price lower than Omo and slightly higher than Ala, with a new packaging and innovative promotions.

The first step in being creative to solve any problem means challenging assumptions about how things have always been done in order to address either a new problem/need or an old problem/need in a new way.

  • How to remove or suspend assumptions about a problem in our mind? I’ll discuss a couple of options. One of the ways is “Talking it Out”. Whenever I could not figure out a proper solution for a problem, I explain the problem and a proposed solution to my colleagues from the other department. The less familiar the person with my problem and the subject, I need to explain more – it brings out all those subconscious assumptions from the mind, which I could take note of. Many times, I had got a good solution while conversing with them about the concept. Once, I could not understand a business concept tool – Next day, I tried to explain them – Wah! Things just fell in place, I could connect each and every element of the tool, and the reasons behind the connection, how it helps to solve the problem, and what kind of problem it solves. Yes! A good way to learn something is to teach somebody!
  • “First Principle Thinking” – The idea is to seek fundamental truths that will always remain true after you remove all the things that don’t necessarily have to remain true -by Osama A.Hashmi
  • Elon Musk on “First Principle Thinking”
  • “I think it is important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy….First principles are kind of a physics way of looking at the world. You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “What are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there.
  • Somebody could say, “Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be… Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”
  • With first principles, you say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?”

RELAXATION AND HAPPY MIND

How do you feel after watching a funny, hilarious movie? Energetic? How do you feel after watching a tragedy movie? Sadness with energy sucked out? When you are depressed, your thoughts are quite different than when you are happy. Research shows that people are more creative after watching funny movies than watching movies with negative emotions. Funny movies relax your mind – energizes you – makes you forget momentarily some of your past experiences. A relaxed mind is open to fresh possibilities, unconventional ideas.

Alexander Fleming liked to play very often and had dedicated time slots for sports and games. He changed rules of games at times to make the game interesting. He believed that play is most crucial to get creative solutions.

A substantial amount of psychological research suggests that positive affect improves creative output among individuals.

The emotion of joy has been shown to create “the urge to play, push the limits, and be creative” (Ellsworth and Smith 1988, Frijda 1986)

The emotion of interest creates “the urge to explore, take in new information and experiences, and expand the self in the process” (Csikszentmihalhyi 1990, Izard 1977, Ryan and Deci 2000, Tomkins 1962)

Instead of trying harder, getting agitated and desperate in trying to solve a problem – learn to relax for some time and then come back to solve the problem. If you have too much knowledge and takes everything seriously in life, it is tough to be creative and come out with radical solutions. Learn to be silly, naive, playful at times.

Have fun with friends often. Spend time with Kids – They are an inspiring source for having “Beginner’s Mind”.

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. – Sir Isaac Newton

This is the mind of a child inside the discoverer of gravity.

Go for a walk – Walking is like an everyday habit – Your visceral and behavioral levels in the brain will take care of the walking habit and your reflective mind will be free to think about the problem without any pressure. Pressure or Anxiety increases focus on the problem leading to a tunnel vision, blocking generation of alternate ideas.

Have unusual working environments – Hanging cycles, airplanes Similar to IDEO workplace, toys, gadgets, puzzles all around to stimulate and relax the mind.

EMPATHY

Being in other’s shoes – Think like them. Can you think a solution to the problem from your kid’s perspective? Once you understand what knowledge they have – you may throw out many assumptions from your mind- leading to interesting solutions.

I agree we need to focus on business results, but in focusing and remaining in shoes of other people, helps us to take inspiration and influence from things outside of business context. Empathy is a good tool to help us have “Beginner’s Mind”.

MINDLESS AND MINDFUL

Being busy, we get lost in our everyday activities and move away from creativity. Our activities have become automatic and mindless.

When a process becomes automatic, like using a checklist to get things done, we’re not being mindful about our work. We’re going through the motions, and doing what’s most efficient. While this can be the right approach, there are many ways to solve common work problems. By being mindful, we’re much more likely to find a new, innovative approach, rather than repeating the same old processes – Langer, Harvard Professor in Forbes magazine.

We need to create an environment for helping people to switch from Mindless to Mindful to foster creativity

  • Autonomy or freedom in taking decisions
  • Fewer work interruptions
  • Less work pressure
  • Encourage mistakes
  • Scheduling unstructured “free time” every day into the work schedule
  • Designing efficient rewards
  • Creativity an environment to provide positive psychological effect
  • Proper feedback system
  • Providing expertise
  • A natural environment or a playful environment to help them relax and restore their cognitive capacity

Though we need to be mindful, small doses of mindless work in our workdays, provide critical opportunities for reflection and rejuvenation of our mind. Our working memory is limited(Cognitive load) and these small parts of mindless work help us to release the cognitive load.

Rather than resting the brain, doing small mindless tasks that require no working memory or no cognitive thinking stimulate more brain function. For example, researchers have found out tasks, such as chewing gum, increase cognitive performance (Wilkinson et al. 2002). Engaging in a simple task allows the mind to free itself from continuous thinking of a difficult problem, thus opening new and more fruitful lines of thinking.

Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher, periodically scheduled the time to help load baggage for an hour(Freiberg and Freiberg 1998). These tasks could be quickly mastered, they do not tax one’s cognitive capacities when performed on a periodic basis.

Switching jobs for sometime creates an environment that encourages creativity by enabling a “Beginner’s Mind”.

CONCLUSION – Remain a beginner, forever.

References – The Art of Creative Thinking by Rod Judkins, Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko, Innovation Thinking Methods by Osama A.Hashmi, Breakthrough by Mark Stefik, Validating product ideas by Tomer Sharon, Enhancing creativity through Mindless Work by Kimberly D.Elsbach, Andrew B.Hargadon, Corporate creativity by Thomas Lockwood, INK talk by Saba Ghole, Beginner’s Mind-article by Jackie Barretta, Article from Association of Psychological Science, Beginner’s Mind article from Forbes.com

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