Rethinking Thinking with Elon Musk, There’s A Great Need For Rethinking Old Assumptions, By Martin Cohen

GIVEN the tricky environment faced by businesses now: according to philosopher Martin Cohen in his new book (Rethinking Thinking: Problem-Solving from Sun Tzu to Google) published this week, there’s a great need for rethinking old assumptions.

Take Twitter, for example. If you should pop over to Twitter today, you will soon realise that opinion is sharply divided on the new regime of Mr Musk. On the one hand, there are well-padded accounts with millions of followers who seem almost unanimously to applaud him – and on the other there are numerous smaller but still ‘blue tick’ accounts bemoaning the new regime and warning of approaching twitter-armageddon. Put another way, there is a political divide. But a better way to look at it is in terms of different approaches to thinking.

The problem is, most businesses don’t think: they just react. However, according to philosopher Martin Cohen, with Musk and Twitter, as in many apparently chaotic relationships, there is invariably a hidden logic governing the activity. Not least because Engineers, like Musk, are at root, practical people, their expertise lying in creating systems capable of meeting specific requirements within multiple, often opposed, constraints.

How engineers think is important, because the most important thing for them about it is that it is really a means to an end: a mechanism that countless millions of years of evolution has sculpted and shaped to enable us to both make sense of and flourish within our environment.

Unfortunately in business, thinking is often the poor relation to action! Too many bosses, privilege rote learning, repetition and recall – but not originality. They are long on implementing other people’s strategies but short on innovation, and only want employees able to perform pre-ordained rituals and routines. The end result is companies that do not respond in time and fail to adapt to a changing environment.

And so, here, Martin Cohen suggests several specific thinking strategies for Elon – and us! – to get the driving seat heading back towards a bright new future!

Thinking Strategy Number 1, is don’t rush to conclude it’s all a mess, instead, try to find the pattern. At the moment, Musk sees Twitter as essentially a project for software engineering, that runs in real-time and generates weird outputs and he’s essentially trying to reverse engineer it. We can witness this strategy of observing and working out which elements to drop and which to major on every day at Twitter, as Musk reports back to his millions of followers, but we can also apply the technique to complex relationships of all kinds – including, most definitely, our personal ones! The first step is always to work out what makes something tick.

Consider, for example, how do you protect Twitter from the relentless wave of robot tweets ? One way is to try to detect certain kinds of language, or flag certain accounts. But the robots are good at hiding their tracks. Except in one respect: they produce an inordinately high number of tweets. This is their Achilles Heel. Elon Musk took great pleasure in announcing that by simply reducing the max allowed tweets/day to a number below what a speed typist on meth could do, hate speech impressions went down by one third!

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Thinking Strategy No. 2 is Stop being binary. Since arriving at Twitter, Musk has promoted a very focussed, instrumental kind of software engineering and dismantled preexisting, amorphous bodies of “content moderators”, driven by radical notions of political correctness. But, as a general rule, business leaders like Elon should beware performative leadership or implementing pre-conceived ideas and, instead, try to interact with staff and clients in a non-linear, less ‘directive’ way. Another way to put it is that, instead of questions and answers, which are like a series of straight lines, sometimes it is better to go for narratives – which are more like shapes.

Break out of the straitjacket of your starting assumptions. It’s an antidote to businesses, where executives and staff are encouraged, nay obliged, to think in straight lines: to start at the beginning, work their way through the middle and then stop at the end. Thing is, in life, straight-line thinking often leads to blockages, to tunnel vision and missed opportunities.

Avoid ‘yes/no’ language and questions, and encourage, well, story-telling!

This idea goes against many prejudices we have from school—that stories aren’t reliable, may contain unnecessary and ‘distracting’ details or, worst of all, are not ‘true’. But storytelling can actually be a deeper form of communication than exchanges based on the mere exchange of facts, and stories – like images – allow people to draw on their intuition.

A story about a garden equipment firm, is revealing. It describes what happened when, one year, the firm’s bosses asked its engineers to come up with a new kind of lawn mower. What do you think happened next? The answer is ‘not much’. After much head-scratching, all that the engineers managed to come up with were refinements to the existing machines. But then someone suggested that they go back one step – and instead of trying to improve the existing technology, which meant everyone’s thoughts were channelled down the old paths, to think about completely new ways to help maintain lawns. Out of this change of approach came the concept (and eventually the product) of the ‘strimmer’. It’s a rather specific example, but the point is as broad as they come: the answers you find depend on the questions you ask

Thinking Strategy No. 3 is Start Listening During Brainstorming. If your business is in need of a rethink, then start, as many real life design agencies regularly do, with a brainstorm. You can brainstorm on your own, but the real advantages of the technique only work when you’re in a group, because that’s where other people’s ideas can spark new ones among participants. Under Elon Musk, Twitter has become the world’s biggest brainstorm, with Musk himself regularly tweeting ideas and questions to millions of people and summarising the feedback. Elon really seems to be interested in people’s ideas (tweets) too, which is only right as in a brainstorm it’s vital to initially treat all ideas and suggestions with equal weight.

Sun Tzu’s made the same point all those centuries ago when he wrote: ‘He who makes full assessment of the station at the pre-war council meeting in the temple is more likely to win. He who makes insufficient assessment is less likely. This being the case, what chance has he of winning if he makes no assessment at all?’

Thinking Strategy No. 4 is Understand what really drives people. What is really going on may be something often quite different from the surface appearance. For example, the hidden code of why most people post on Twitter is… ‘look at me’. (The same is true of the reasoning driving why people buy cars.) And yet, if you ask people questions about their use and choice of social media, they will talk about how fast news goes, how unsafe it is – or how little mental fuel activity on their uses. That is because they will always answer with the ‘cortex’, the part of the brain that deals with logical questions and so, naturally, they come up with logical reasons. But they may not be the real ones.

Sometimes Musk’s new Twitter seems to lurch from idea to idea, wheeze to wheeze. One day everyone can buy the fabulous “blue ticks”… and the next day only carefully checked accounts can. But even there, Musk may be following a sound principle from systems thinking. Thinking Strategy Number 5, in lieu of having a thought through strategy, is to allow control to be distributed throughout the structure. Our bodies are complex adaptive systems in which there is no central command structure; rather, control is spread throughout the system, allowing it to react and adapt better. CEOs need to avoid falling into the error of just reacting and instead make sure that there is enough structure to preserve the stability of the system – and enough instability to generate novelty. Think of a forest. The richest diversity of plants is along the paths and in the clearings. Workplaces and classrooms should be more like these and less geometric like the plantations. It’s an that idea with resonance for organisations of all kinds, from schools to companies—and even governments.

Here’s a timeless tip from Sun Tzu, whose book called The Art of War, is thousands of years old! The book is a regular feature in management circles, and yet Sun Tzu’s wisdom often gets rather lost in translation. Take one of his favourite metaphors about the leader being the ‘hub at the centre of the wheel’. Today’s business gurus habitually contrast this to the Western view of leadership, where leaders are at the top of the organisation with the workforce serving them in ever more remote ‘layers’. They insist instead that Sun Tzu’s idea is that leaders position themselves at the centre and actively control the whole organisation. The conventional thinking is that these active CEOs are like the centre of a wheel in that they connect to everything just as all of the spokes meet at the hub.

But there’s a big problem with this: if the hub is not strong enough the wheel will inevitably collapse! Plenty of one-man-band firms are testament to that: as are firms who end up being held back by their leaders’ limitations.

No, you see, it is the empty quality of the centre that matters, not its ‘strength’, far less any notion of directing the spokes. The Art of War is also a work of Taoist philosophy and there is an old Taoist idea that we watch the spokes in the wheel but it is ‘the empty centre that lets the wheel move’.  Disciples of Taoism will know that this is a school that just loves ’emptiness’, indeed the whole philosophy compares itself to the space contained by an empty bowl.

The real message is that rather than having strong leaders directing everything, Sun Tzu’s recommends invisible leaders who quietly coordinate.

Thinking Strategy No. 6, epitomised by the Apollo programme, is delegate to people who are still learning the ropes. Because these juniors don’t have preconceptions or want to curry favour with you by tailoring their answers to what they think you want to hear. This strategy means delegating to people without experience, which may seem counter-intuitive, not to say risky, but it was something Apollo actively encouraged. In fact, the average age of the entire ‘Operations’ team for reaching the Moon was just 26, most fresh out of college. Perhaps the most valuable great gift that they brought with them was the habit of thinking without preconceptions. One result was that, on its way to the moon, the space programme spurred advances in medicine, food, geology, manned spaceflight, avionics, telecommunications, computing, math, astronomy, physics, and bioscience.

And finally, Thinking Strategy No. 7 is Relax. Philosophers always urge us to analyse the world, to break it down into parts, with the assumption that once you do that you can then reassemble all your tiny insights into a theory that will explain and predict everything. Yet, socioeconomic systems are like ecosystems. In fact, they are ecosystems. Multiple factors are at work, often with ‘feedback’ effects. This makes their behaviour not just hard to predict – but completely unpredictable, even chaotic. Embracing complexity requires stopping trying to understand it all and work out how it operates, but instead, to become an observer, to step back and watch for the ’emergent properties’ that arise as a system organises itself. This is exactly what Musk has said several times he is doing on Twitter. Yes, it looks like chaos sometimes. Yet there is method here.

Martin Cohen is a journalist, editor and author specialising in popular books in philosophy, social science and politics. His books include the bestselling 101 Philosophy Problems and Critical Thinking Skills for Dummies as well as more social scientific books such as I Think Therefore I Eat, on food science, and a look at how scientists work called Paradigm Shift. His latest book is Rethinking Thinking: Problem Solving from Sun Tzu to Google. 

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