Beginner’s Mind

Closed Mind

In a classic Zen story, a learned visitor meets with a Zen master, asking probing questions about Zen practice. The visitor talks at length, expressing his opinions. The master pours tea. The cup slowly fills. The master keeps pouring. Tea runs over the rim of the cup and onto the table. The master keeps pouring. Surprised, the visitor cries out that the cup is full. Your mind is like this cup, the master says. There is no room for understanding. I can’t show you Zen unless you first empty your cup.

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a collection of talks given at the Zen center in Los Altos, California, in the 1960s, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki said this differently. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Group Mind

We live in a culture that has a low tolerance for ambiguity. When presented with a problem, we become impatient and feel pressured to find a solution. It is often considered a weakness to express any doubts. We feel compelled to be assertive about what we know. We confront, resist, and oppose. We become fixated on information that confirms our point of view, and ignore other evidence that is not supportive.

This is hazardous for intelligence organizations that have to discern threats in ambiguous situations, using incomplete and often conflicting information. The CIA handbook Psychology of Intelligence Analysis describes the challenge. “Major intelligence failures,” it says, “are usually caused by failures of analysis, not failures of collection. Relevant information is discounted, misinterpreted, ignored, rejected, or overlooked because it fails to fit a prevailing mental model or mind-set. The ‘signals’ are lost in the ‘noise.’”

Psychologist Gary Klein described research on this challenge in his book Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights. Seven four-person teams of military and intelligence officers were each presented with scenarios where details were added over time. Weak signals contradicting the surface narrative were embedded in the scenarios and amplified at every stage. The researchers aimed to find out how long it would take the teams to discover the true story. None of them ever did.

“Then the results took an even more unexpected turn,” Klein said. “We had asked each team member to keep a digital diary of his impressions during the scenario. When we subsequently examined these diaries, we learned that in every team at least one person, sometimes two or three team members, noted the weak signals. The individuals on the team had noticed the anomaly, but they rarely brought it to the attention of the leader. In the few cases in which a team member did voice a concern, it got ignored. … The insights of the individual members never made it to the team level.” When the results were presented later, Klein said, junior analysts confirmed they were “reluctant to voice speculations that went against the company line.”

This is not unique to the intelligence community. For the same reason, many organizations are blind to seeing vital signals of change.

Open Mind

Keeping an open mind is liberating. We are receptive to new ideas and are more likely to say ‘I don’t know.’ We set aside firmly-held beliefs and listen. We take time to reflect. We are curious. We see the world with fresh eyes.

With an open mind we become more aware of weak signals of change, and are able to respond more creatively. This is essential when organizations need to innovate constantly. When IBM published a summary of interviews with 1,500 CEOs and public sector leaders in 60 countries and 33 industries in the report Capitalizing on Complexity (2010), 60% of these leaders ranked creativity as the most important quality for success, ahead of integrity (52%) and global thinking (35%).

Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen conducted a six-year study of innovators and entrepreneurs, and described five key behaviors that generate creative ideas, in their book The Innovators DNA:

  • Questioning —asking questions that challenge common wisdom
  • Observing — scrutinizing the behavior of others to gain new insights
  • Networking — meeting and learning from people with different perspectives
  • Experimenting – actively experimenting to see what insights emerge
  • Associating — connecting seemingly unrelated questions, problems, and ideas

Innovators constantly test hypotheses, and are unique in their ability to synthesize diverse inputs and make novel connections.

“Disruptive innovators force themselves to cross borders (technical, functional, geographical, social, disciplinary) as they engage in the other discovery skills,” Christensen and his co-authors said. They are an example for all of us. “If we do the same, placing ourselves in midst of bustling intersections of diverse ideas and experiences, exciting associations will naturally happen. The discovery skills of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting will trigger associations as we exercise them, over and over.”

When we embrace life with an open, curious, and creative mind, we are more able to make a difference — in whatever we choose to do. Changing the organizations where we work, changing the communities where we live, even changing the world.

This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on collaboration and transformative change. It was first posted on December 26, 2017, on LinkedIn.

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David Forrest

David is the founder of the Integral Strategy Network. He is a writer, futurist, strategist, and facilitator of systemic change.

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