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Rethinking Thinking: Problem-Solving from Sun Tzu to Google 

Rethinking Thinking: To outsiders looking on, Elon Musk’s reign as Twitter’s new boss looks like, well, chaos. Yet, according to philosopher Martin Cohen, with Musk and Twitter, as in many apparently chaotic relationships, there is invariably a hidden logic governing the activity. 

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Engineers, like Musk, are practical people, their expertise in creating systems capable of meeting specific requirements within multiple, often opposed, constraints. To find those elusive new solutions though, we need to change the way we look at and think about things.

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

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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. This strategy of observing and working out which elements to drop and which to major on not only to Musk and Twitter, but to complex relationships of all kinds – including, most definitely, our personal ones! The first step is always to work out what makes something tick.

Thinking Strategy No. 2 is Stop being binary. 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. Facilitate this is by avoiding yes/no language and questions, and encourage story-telling. This goes against many prejudices we have from school—that stories aren’tt reliable, may contain unnecessary and distracting details or, worst of all, are not true. But storytelling can be a deeper form of communication than exchanges based on the mere exchange of facts, and allows people to draw on their intuition.

Thinking Strategy No. 3 is Start Listening During Brainstorming. If your business is in need of a rethink, as Elon believes Twitter is, 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. And it’s vital to initially treat all ideas and suggestions with equal weight.

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’. 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.

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 enoughinstability 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.

Thinking Strategy No. 6, epitomised by the Apollo programme, is delegate to people who don’t have preconceptions or want to curry favour with you by tailoring their answers to what they think you want to hear. This 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 was just 26, most fresh out of college. A great gift they brought with them was a 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.

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Rethinking Thinking – About the Author
Martin Cohen is a British philosopher who specialises in philosophy of science and political philosophy.

He studied philosophy and social science at Sussex University under some of the early group of philosophers who launched the University’s pioneering language and values programme. After teaching and research posts in Britain and Australia, he moved to France to concentrate on his writing, which typically blends ‘psychological and social studies with philosophical theory… eschewing technical jargon and using easily understood scenarios to demonstrate the theme’, as one reviewer put it. His most popular book, 101 Philosophy Problems has been published in a dozen languages, sold nearly a quarter of a million copies, and is now in its fourth English edition. A book on thought experiments, Wittgenstein’s Beetle and Other Classic Thought Experiments was selected by The Guardian as one of its ‘books of the week’, while Mind Games was selected by France Culture as one of new philosophy books for dissection in the program essai du jour. His book Critical Thinking Skills for Dummies (2015) is popular with educators in the US.

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