Rethinking Thinking with Elon Musk

Guest post by Martin Cohen, author of  Rethinking Thinking: Problem Solving from Sun Tzu to Google. See our review of it here.

The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute
for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex
– Elon Musk

Does the self-styled Chief Twit really know what he is doing? To scandalised Tweeps on the site, to outsiders looking on, Elon Musk’s reign as Twitter’s new boss can look a bit like, well, chaos. Yet, according to philosopher Martin Cohen, governing the interplay of Musk and Twitter, just as in many apparently chaotic relationships, there is a hidden logic governing the activity.

Rethinking Thinking with Elon Musk

We should expect this as engineers, like Musk, are practical people, with their expertise rooted in creating systems capable of meeting specific requirements within multiple, often opposed, constraints. Like Archimedes though, who suddenly realised how to calculate the volume of irregularly shaped objects (such
as a statue) while lying in his bath, to find those elusive new solutions we often need to change the way we look at the world and think about things.

It is in this spirit that Cohen offers several specific thinking strategies for Elon – and us! – to get back in the the driving seat and head towards a bright new future!

Thinking Strategy Number 1

Don’t rush to conclude it’s all a mess, instead, try to find the pattern. Biologists and computer programmers alike know that a key part of this task is knowing what information to disregard. 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. Political and ethical debates over content he sees as a distraction.

This strategy of observing and working out which elements to drop and which to major on apply 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 really 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. Think like an artist and pause to look, to observe, before shoehorning what is before you into a preconceived frame.

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’t reliable, may contain unnecessary and ‘distracting’ details or, worst of all, are not ‘true’. But storytelling – like images – 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 Brainstorm.

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. Musk has asked vague things like ‘What is best in life?’ and specific things, like whether Donald Trump should be allowed back. And Musk has apparently respected the brainstorming principle that it’s vital to initially treat all ideas and suggestions with equal weight.

Thinking Strategy No. 4

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 interested they are in other people, as well as in grand things like how fast news goes, or how unsafe it is – as well as stress how little time and energy they put into the site. That is because they will always answer with the part of the brain that deals with logical questions and so, naturally, they come up with logical reasons for their behavior. But they may not be the real ones.

Thinking Strategy Number 5

A great fallback in lieu of having a thought through strategy, is to allow control
to be distributed throughout the structure. Musk once said ‘The factory is the machine that builds the machine’ but the idea here really comes from biology again, where it is appreciated that 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 enough instability to generate novelty.

It’s about complexity and interdependence. Think of a forest. The richest diversity of plants is along the paths and in the clearings because here there is the greatest play of factors, such as sunlight and spreading of seeds. Workplaces and classrooms should be more like these and less geometric like the dark forest 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 the inexperienced. It sounds
perverse, but it is people who are in the process of learning that don’t have preconceptions. Add to which, they are not in a position to curry favour with you by tailoring their answers to what they think you want to hear. Delegating to people without experience 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, many of them fresh out of college. A great gift they brought with them was a habit of looking at problems with fresh eyes. The 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

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 few things in nature even work when broken into pieces and socioeconomic systems are much more like ecosystems than mathematical equations or philosophical arguments. 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.

Martin Cohen is a journalist, editor and author specialising in popular books in philosophy, social science and politics. His books include the bestselling 101 Philosophy Problems and Critical Thinking Skills for Dummies as well as more social scientific books such as I Think Therefore I Eat, on food science, a look at how scientists work called Paradigm Shift – and most recently, Rethinking Thinking: Problem Solving from Sun Tzu to Google. This asks questions like:

How do generals — and business strategists — outwit their opponents?- Where do designers and artists get their inspirations from? And how can all of us ‘pump up the originality’ and steer our thinking off the standard, well-worn tracks? And (best thing), it offers some practical, usable answers too.

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