How To Augment Your Lens To Understand How Others Think

The art of understanding diverse thought processes in collaborative environments

Let me state a few facts I believe in:

1. The best way to get a good idea is to get lots of different ideas.
2. The best ideas happen at intersections.
3. Big problems require big teams.
4. The best teams are diverse teams.

How can we bring coherence to teams that span a range of backgrounds, expertise, ethnicity, and genders but, most crucially, modes of thought? And how can we, as either participants or leaders, add value to the team?

As individuals, we are obviously more complex than Lego bricks. But many people might only see us as one, a special brick that can connect only with other very specific pieces. And consciously or not, we may be making the same mistake.

A big problem is that we often see others only in terms of the products or outcomes they produce—a writer with writing, a biomedical engineer with biodevices, mathematician with equations and numbers, a finance director with budgets.

I have seen this tendency in collaborative entrepreneurship courses at Northwestern University that bring together students from across disciplines. Teams could include, for example, two students each from engineering, medicine, business, and law. Often, when it’s time to write a patent, everybody looks to the law student. If prototyping is needed, the group looks to the engineering student.

This is limiting. We need to think of people in broader terms and not immediately place them in a box connected with their training. The writer, the biomedical engineer, the law student, and the finance director may have an appetite to work outside of their realm, with imperfectly shaped ideas, and evolve them in the course of time. It is in these differences of variabilities within disciplines that allows us to connect with others in a profitable way.

Why does all this matter? Skills and education are only rough descriptors of how someone may think. To be effective leaders and team members, we need to understand more deeply how others think. And, at the same time, we want to make it easier for others to see us beyond our surface view.

Putting people into boxes according to discipline

To be sure, placing people in boxes is a useful shortcut. Classifying things, organizing things; this is how we learn.

But the idea of “disciplines” may exacerbate this problem. For example, the categories for the Nobel Prizes that were clear in 1901—physics, chemistry, and medicine—have long been blurred.

But to make an impact in those fields, one must become part of the educational practices that exacerbate this problem. This was pointed out by the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead when he moved from England to Harvard exactly 100 years ago: A system where the brightest students are selected for specialized graduate degrees and which ending up working for less smart people. In 1962, Buckminster Fuller (of geodesic dome fame) termed this “Whitehead’s Dilemma” and lamented the tendency of people being trained as specialists rather than comprehensivists.

There will always be a need for specialists, but Whitehead and Fuller have a point. Most doctoral students in engineering and science are paid to go to school, their salaries generally funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and other agencies. These grants support specific research proposed by professors and executed mainly by paid PhD students. Effort reporting and compliance is part of the deal. That makes exploration hard.

This situation contrasts sharply with the undergraduate experience at top universities, where students may customize their education, perhaps by engaging in social entrepreneurship, studying global health in Africa, competing in solar car of e-races, working on sustainability in Central America, or collaborating with an art or music major. Undergraduate exploration, creativity, and social entrepreneurship are actively encouraged. Not so at the graduate level.

The demand for (often narrowly defined) research results, the need for myriad compliance mechanisms, and the gravitational pull toward meeting (narrow) program goals that will, if successful, yield follow-on funding, act together to create a closed system within which there is little time or attention for ancillary pursuits, especially idle exploration. This process can yield excellent researchers but does nothing to actively foster tolerance for ambiguity and exploration. This contributes to the placing-people-in-boxes problem.

Boxes exist everywhere

Even if we go beyond skills, there may be a temptation to think in terms of metrics which may be used to put people in boxes, such as the Myers–Briggs categories or Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences.

It’s even easy to put people into boxes who are supposed to exist outside of boxes. Nexus thinkers are those able to bridge different modes of thinking. The idea is best captured by the stereotype of bridging two camps. The first is the analytical, logical, methodical, sequential, and convergent camp, the kind of thinking normally associated with the sciences. The second is the creative, holistic, exploratory, metaphorical, and divergent camp, typically associated with the arts.

But those divisions are boxes, as well. How many people are willing to identify as 100% right-brain or 100% left-brain?

We have seen the all-too-common habit of placing people in boxes or not being able to see beyond current practices. This became apparent to us when we saw comments, from people praising our Nexus book, along the lines of “author Julio Ottino and visual collaborator Bruce Mau,” as if this book had been put together using clean division of labor. We recognize that many books are assembled this way, but we wanted our book to scream, “This is the product of a Nexus collaboration.” 

The Nexus has a chapter in lessons. Though the “Do not put people in boxes” lesson is never stated explicitly, it is probably the lesson that the entire book is trying to convey. We say in the introduction that our centers of gravity do not overlap but that every component of the book was the product of a discussion—the result itself being the embodiment of the concept of the Nexus.

This we say explicitly: “The key to succeeding in reaching the Nexus, the place where modes of thinking converge and synergize, is having the right mental framework: to be open to new ideas and to seek inspiration from domains outside our own. This may not suit those who prefer sanitized ideas, have little tolerance for ambiguity, and to tend to discard ideas that do not precisely fit in their existing mental libraries.” And we expand this warning in a subtitle in one of the sections of its last chapter: “There is danger in single-lens thinking.”

Many of us go through life looking at things through one pair of glasses, often very successfully. But having the possibility of adding another pair, understanding how others view questions and problems that may be quite different from our own, enriches our thinking. And, in turn, that increases our value on how we may contribute to teams or even run teams.

One more crucial point. We value people who can think clearly. We may want them in our teams. We want a lawyer with a top legal mind, or a finance director who is a master with budgets and projections. Having a clear-thinking framework is good. But there are two cases when it isn’t. First, if the thinking is used outside its normal environment, for example, seeing everything with the lens of economics, and two, and more crucially, if the clear-thinking precludes the incorporation of new ideas.

How to stop putting people in boxes: Augmenting our lenses to see the world

One could argue that the essence of education is to provide us with a pair of glasses to see the world and people in a new way. The glasses of an economist are different than an anthropologist. A historian looks at the world with a different pair of glasses than an environmental engineer. Liberal education provides us with a good pair of glasses, but it would be hard to argue that it contains all possible pairs of glasses. It is more like a gateway to get other pairs of glasses. But the default option is to put people in boxes based on education or practice.

How can we prevent this? A brain-library analogy may help (with apologies to professional librarians everywhere). The New York Times Book Review section often asks writers how they order books in their library. Answers vary considerably; some say they abhor disorder and order books thematically, by subject, by authors. Yet others let books pile up by desks, night tables, or floors and thrive in chaos.

The analogy here is that we have constructed shelves in our brains to file information, especially new information. There is a danger, however, in having a too well-organized mental space library. This would mean that any incoming book can be shelved immediately, in a precise location.

We want to argue that having a pile of unshelved books is good, that some books need not be shelved immediately and could in fact at some point be discarded. It may be good if others could be placed in a “waiting space” until a decision is made as to where they need to be shelved or even re-shelved as more books come along.

There could also be space for the most exciting possibility of all: books that prompt us to open entirely new sections in our brain library. Many of us are anxiously awaiting such books.

How can we drop this rapid shelving/discarding mentality? Tolerance for ambiguity for one. Or just being curious, for curiosity is the ability to transcend details and not to filter everything based on past knowledge. Curiosity is what frees us to see connections. Having a new book sort of floating in our mental space before docking it in a specific book location allows us to see possibilities. Could it best connect here or there? Resistance to quick filing is not laziness, for resist-to-file requires effort; it involves, consciously or unconsciously, probing for different fittings and connections.

Once we taste the ability to explore and see connections, we can see them everywhere, even in unexpected places. And once we leave space for ambiguity in our minds, we can leave space for when we classify people, as well. And that opens the door to listening and learning without preconceptions to learn how others think.

The problems we face now require large teams with arrays of expertise and people who can bridge domains, who can become the connective tissue of the team. We call these people Nexus Thinkers. The single most important first step towards becoming a Nexus Thinker is to understand how others think. Read broadly, listen without preconceptions, and expand your circle of advisors and friends.

Incredible opportunities await those who widen their lenses.

Discover the world of nexus thinking

In this provocative and visually striking book, Julio Mario Ottino and Bruce Mau offer a guide for navigating the intersections of art, technology, and science.