Gihan Perera is a futurist, conference speaker, author and consultant who gives business leaders a glimpse into what's ahead - and how they can become fit for the future.
The secret to sharp thinking is the combination of clear focus and diverse thinking, which leads to innovation and greater business success.
For over 10 years, I’ve been hosting a monthly business book club for a group of 10-15 people. Each month, we choose a business book – the most recent was Daniel Coyle’s book ‘The Talent Code’ – and discuss it, accompanied by catered food and a few bottles of red wine.
It works extremely well, for two reasons (apart from the wine).
First, we start with a clear focus: the book of the month. Our conversation always extends beyond the book itself, but it’s a common starting point for everybody.
Second, we have people from diverse professional backgrounds – including mining, aged care, education, the arts, marketing, financial planning, accounting and IT. We also have diversity in other areas: both men and women, different ages and generations, and from different ethnic backgrounds. We didn’t design it that way, but it’s a big advantage.
The group always generates a variety of interesting insights and new ideas. I always walk away with something new I can apply to my professional life, and other participants feel the same way.
I facilitate the meeting, and we capture our thinking in different ways – for example, with sticky notes on a whiteboard. Even if you can’t read the details, you can see the variety and breadth of ideas.
This is the core secret to sharp thinking
Our recipe for success has two ingredients: a clear focus and diverse thinking. That’s the ideal combination for sharp thinking, which leads to innovation.
Combining diversity and focus in this way gives us four options (Chart 1):
All of them have their purpose and use, so let’s explore them in turn …
1. Similar Backgrounds + Vague Goal = Fixed Thinking
This is the default mode in most businesses, where people mostly do routine work (and – if you’re lucky – with occasional flashes of brilliance). It would be harsh to say they are ‘plodding along’, but they are definitely not innovative. They bond through their similarities, and might not have specific goals, so there’s no need to stretch or think differently.
That doesn’t sound very inspiring (and it’s not!), but most people aren’t doing inspiring work all the time. Fixed thinking and routine work are important, especially when dealing with financial plans, compliance and constructing statements of advice.
Fixed thinking only becomes a problem if it’s the only kind of thinking you have.
2. Similar Backgrounds + Clear Focus = Narrow Thinking
You might try to break people out of fixed thinking by giving them a clear focus – at an individual or team level. That narrows their thinking in a specific direction, and this often creates positive results. In fact, that’s the way most projects work: you set a goal, share that goal, and then work towards it.
Narrow thinking is useful for project work. But it’s not so good for innovation, because it can lead to ‘groupthink’, where you end up with bad ideas, just because everybody agrees. Innovation is not a popularity contest!
3. Diverse Backgrounds + Vague Goal = Wide Thinking
Alternatively, instead of narrowing their focus, you might try breaking out of fixed thinking by increasing the diversity of thinking in your team. You can do this from natural sources (diversity in age, gender, culture and so on) or by artificial means (creativity exercises, off-site retreats, flexible workplaces and the like).
This widens the thinking of the group, and can be extremely useful for generating new ideas. But it runs the risk of just creating a talkfest, where you generate lots of ideas but not many results.
4. Diverse Backgrounds + Clear Focus = Sharp Thinking
Finally, we get to the best option for innovation, which combines the previous two areas. To get the best ideas, take a diverse group of thinkers and give them a clear focus. That’s sharp thinking: the diversity generates more ideas, and the focus means you narrow them and sharpen them towards specific goals.
How diverse is your team?
As a financial planner, you might be encouraging your clients to diversify their investments. But are you diversifying yours? Your biggest investment is your team – so how diverse is yours?
In 2011, Harvard Business Review published research indicating that teams with more women in them are ‘smarter’ than all-male teams. That wasn’t because the women were more intelligent (in fact, the researchers found that individual intelligence did not correlate with the team’s collective intelligence), but because they brought other skills to the table – such as social sensitivity and more collaboration.
Janet Wilson, CEO of Brisbane law firm Cooper Grace Ward, adds diversity through ‘reverse mentoring’. She asks younger members of her firm to mentor her every month. She says: “The conversations are inspirational, sometimes worrying, and always refreshing! I make them as casual and friendly as possible. We have fun and lots of laughs… at each other’s expense!”
And research from the business school INSEAD (published in Organization Science in 2016) found that the presence of multicultural members in a team significantly enhanced its creative performance.
Are you thinking ahead?
It isn’t easy to embrace diversity, especially in a financial planning practice. Much of the day-to-day work is routine, repetitive and predictable – and that’s a good thing. But if that’s the only work you do, you’re only looking at short-term results.
The businesses that achieve long-term success invest in that success now. And that means promoting, nurturing and rewarding diversity – even when it challenges your thinking and your team’s short-term goals.
The future is diverse, connected, and global – and you already have futurists in your office, lunch room and meeting room. Are you criticising them because they’re not behaving the way they ‘should’? Or are you taking advantage of their skills – so you can all be fit for the future?
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