Thinking Sideways

We’ve been reading about the Extended Mind Theory, first introduced by philosopher Andy Clark and cognitive scientist David Chalmers. According to the theory, a person’s mind, and cognitive processing, are not limited to their head or even their body. The Extended Mind extends into the person’s world. For instance, Clark and Chalmer suggest the mind extends to objects. They provide, as a simple example, the use of to-do lists to augment one’s memory as a simple way of way of extending the mind. Of course, we also use other, much more sophisticated, storage and retrieval devices like computers and the internet to extend our minds.

In their book The Knowledge Illusion, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach build on the extended mind theory noting that one’s mind extends to the people and things around them; and that we’re constantly drawing on information and expertise stored outside our heads: in our environment, our possessions, and the community with which we interact.

The Purdue Agile Strategy Lab’s approach to designing and guiding complex collaborations begins by asking people to identify “assets” they have that could contribute to potential solutions – knowledge assets, physical assets, capital assets, network assets. When we do this, we are essentially mapping our extended mind, and when we do this in groups and teams working together on designing a solution, we end up with a rich collection of assets. The team can then draw on these varied assets to design an array of possible solutions.

Say a group of 6-8 individuals has been tasked with designing a strategy to address a complex issue. If they each identify ten assets they then have 60-80 assets in their collective asset inventory. Next, as they consider how they could mix and match different combinations of these assets to form potential solutions, the possibilities are nearly endless.

This approach is a simple but effective way to achieve the requisite variety needed to deal with complex challenges. All these extended-mind assets are largely hidden. We can’t see them. And if we can’t see them, we can’t connect them. Connecting them allows us to literally think together.

Thinking Sideways is a skill that can be learned and it is a skill we teach at the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab. Solutions to today’s complex challenges will not be developed in hierarchies. They will be designed in extended-mind networks. They will be designed collectively, by thinking sideways.

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