Winning the Brain Game

Published on
June 27, 2016
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What would you do if someone handed you a difficult problem to solve right now? Would you don your thinking cap, look up to the right, touch your chin, knit your brow, shrug your shoulders, then throw your hands up in the air after a few minutes, declaring the problem to be impossible to solve? Would you search your memory banks for how you or someone solved a similar problem in the past and, coming up empty-handed, search Google to see if and how others might have solved it? Would you immediately and instinctively launch into a concerted effort to brainstorm top-of-mind solutions in a shotgun fashion, hoping that some mental spaghetti might stick to the wall? Would you smile, surrender, confess to having no clue, ask for the solution, then upon hearing it, slap your forehead and cry, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” Would you experience a sudden creative insight, see the solution immediately, but then second guess yourself, unconsciously judging your solution to be too simplistic and too obvious to be a good one, and voluntarily kill a great idea?

While it’s hard for me to know exactly what you would do, I’m fairly confident that you would engage in something very similar to one or more of these behaviors.

The reason I’m so confident is because for over ten years now I’ve been giving business professionals the world over a thought challenge based on a real-world business problem, one that on the face of it looks simple to solve, and is certainly not as difficult or complex as the problems they likely face in their job. I’m confident because the number of people I’ve observed over those ten years is now over 100,000.

They do one or more of several specific things, but they all do one thing in general: subconsciously engage in a game of mind over matter that I call the “brain game,” defined as the struggle between the biological brain and the conscious mind. Neuroscience has for decades confirmed a distinction.

Likened to a computer, the brain is the passive hardware constantly storing experience, while the mind is the active software, directing our attention and thought. But the mind is not just any software—it’s intelligent software capable of rewiring the hardware, which, if left unchecked, reverts to stored patterns that can prevent us from solving tough and unfamiliar problems creatively, resourcefully, and elegantly.

Those stored patterns manifest themselves as observable human behavior, and there are seven of them that I have catalogued over the years of watching folks wrestle with the thought challenges. What is amazing is how consistently they fall victim to the same thinking traps and exhibit these seven behaviors:

  1. Leaping: brainstorming solutions before they understand the problem.
  2. Fixation: getting stuck in mental ruts that prevent them from thinking differently.
  3. Overthinking: complicating matters and creating problems that weren’t even there.
  4. Satisficing: glomming on to easy, obvious, mediocre and thus inferior solutions.
  5. Downgrading: formally revising the goal simply to declare victory.
  6. Not Invented Here (NIH): automatically dismissing the ideas of others.
  7. Self-Censoring: mindlessly rejecting their own ideas so others won’t.

The scientific community has a host of labels for these behaviors. Let me simplify things: they are fatal thinking flaws. Fatal in the sense that they prevent people from seeing the best of all possible outcomes: an elegant solution, which I define as one that achieves the maximum effect with the minimum means.

The good news is that there are seven time-tested “fixes” that neutralize, if not defeat entirely, those fatal flaws:

This is the fix for Leaping. Instead of brainstorming solutions, brainstorm framing questions that produce better solutions.

This is the fix for Fixation. Inversion is completely reversing the status quo to take your thinking off-road, and escape the gravitational pull of experience.

This is the fix for Overthinking. Protesting is running simple, fast, frugal tests of prototype concepts and mockup solutions that are roughly right.

This is the fix for Satisficing. Synthesizing is merging the best parts of two opposing but satisficing solutions in a mashup that solves the problem elegantly.

This is the fix for Downgrading. Jumpstarting is effectively rebooting and redoubling your focus on both your will and your way in order to push past the stall point.

Proudly Found Elsewhere (PFE)
This is the fix for Not Invented Here (NIH). Coined by Procter & Gamble, PFE is an open embrace of others’ innovative thinking.

This is the fix for Self-Censoring. Self-distancing is attuning our attention in a mindful way that produces an unbiased perspective.

These seven fixes represent a super-curated set of tools and techniques that I as well as others have developed, and which through my work I have found to be among the most effective and practical ways to not only neutralize the fatal flaws of thinking, but also forge new neural connections in the brain.

Finally, if you keep a simple mantra in mind at all times, you will indeed become a master at winning the brain game:

What appears to be the problem, isn’t.
What appears to be the solution, isn’t.
What appears to impossible, isn’t.

Matthew E. May is an innovation strategist and the author of five books, the latest being Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking. He writes the bimonthly Brain Game column for INC magazine, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, AMEX Open Forum, Strategy+Business, Rotman Magazine, Fast Company, and the Harvard Business Review blogs. Matt holds an MBA from the Wharton School and a BA from Johns Hopkins University, but he counts winning the New Yorker cartoon caption contest as one of his most creative achievements.