When working with leaders and managers, I frequently ask the question: "What is in the middle of black and white?" Very quickly and invariably the answer comes back: "Grey."
We are trained to think that grey is the answer. Of course, it's not, but this demonstrates an important point around polarised thinking. Under stress, we tend to polarise our thinking into two options: this or that; either or; black or white.
The default state of the brain is to search for and use well-established, tested decisions and behaviours. But when something new is required it will still try to default back to what it has used before. In our ever and faster changing business world, this is a big and often stressful problem.
The need to adapt
Our brain has an extraordinary ability to remember complex processes from our past experiences and to deliver them to us to use in an instant. We don't hesitate to pick up the phone or push off from the side of the pool - we just turn the process on in our heads and the behaviour happens.
But this amazing system does bring with it a big downside. It is the natural enemy of adaption and change. While it can cope with small changes, like driving a different car from the one you learned in, it does not handle big changes well.
We know we need to respond quickly to new ideas but we keep taking ourselves back to what we know. This is even more exacerbated when we have made mistakes in the past and have become more risk adverse. The bigger we perceive the danger to be, the more we tend to hold off from making risky decisions. Painful experience tells us to not do it again.
Think carefully for a moment of all the things you do every day with very little thought. There are thousands of them, aren't there? Now, imagine a world where you had to relearn each one every time you needed to do them. For instance, you had to relearn how to swim every time you got in the pool – or how to drive every time you got in your car. It would be impossible to function effectively.
The need to be innovative and agile in an increasingly disrupted business world goes against our brain's preferred state. This is why organisations like the army spend so much time training their people, especially officers, to be able to think clearly and come up with more than two options when under huge stress.
Embracing discomfort in a disrupted world
The other big reason why we tend to default to what we know is because it has worked in the past. You remember and use what has worked for you because it reduces risk.
It is easier and safer - two very big motivators.
But in a disruptive environment, we don't have the luxury to rely on past experience. Competition, changes in technology and economics are conspiring against the traditional safe pair of hands thinking that was so useful in the past.
The uncomfortable fact is that experience can be a liability as well as being useful. Our desire to not make mistakes and reduce stress by using what we know is becoming increasingly a problem because it stops us from seeing alternative options when we need them most.
For example, the "think outside of the box" mindset has itself become another box. When I surprise my clients by saying the word "triangle" at the end of the well-known phrase, they are forced to try to work out what that looks like and what that means. This is what the disrupters in your sector are doing to you - and you will be on the back foot unless you are also doing the disrupting.
Business leaders need to be ever more comfortable with balancing their past experience with the willingness to innovate and take risks. This skill has always been prized in business and the name we use for these people is entrepreneur. The interesting thing is that most people in business don't associate themselves with this word. They think of people like Richard Branson and say: "I'm not like him." Don’t worry, you don't need to be. I prefer the word innovator - someone who enjoys creating new ideas and new ways of doing things.
The innovator enjoys creating new solutions more than they default back to past experience.
Innovators are becoming more and more important to business. Natural innovators will be highly prized, but the good news is that you can learn to be more innovative - you can overcome your natural desire to default back to the past and you can overcome the mechanism that reduces the options you can see.
This is what the army does with their officers. They train them to see options under enormous stress because they know with certainty that their battle plans will be disrupted the moment the enemy shows up. Luckily, you don't have to go through army training to learn this.
Real control comes from the ability to see many options and to act on them - the very opposite of our brain's evolutionary training. Innovators with experience, who allow themselves to see beyond what they know, will be the most effective leaders in the future.
Stephen Bates is the founder of Certain Change Ltd - helping business leaders, entrepreneurs and high achievers deal with disruption; to be confident and highly adaptable to make certain change when it is needed most.
Over the last 30 years, Stephen's experiences have led to the innovation of high impact techniques, brought together in programmes that cover a unique combination of mind-set and skill-set development for executives, entrepreneurs and high achievers – for them to play and influence others to operate in their Genius Zone.
His goal is to teach people how to understand how they and others make decisions, how to make better ones and, put simply, to get out of their own way to achieve far better results.