A Thinking System - Mindsets Over Processes, Activities and Tools

A Thinking System - Mindsets Over Processes, Activities and Tools

Lately, it feels like there is a lot of pressure on us to innovate and think creatively. It makes sense. We face growing environmental, social and economic problems and many of us don’t know where to start when trying to work on these issues. We might get a book, attend a course or go see a talk about creativity, problem solving or innovation. Somehow, once we’re done, we don’t seem any closer to being able to use the process we’ve been taught to make a difference in our thinking and our ability to make meaningful change in the world. 

This is likely because, when it comes to creative thinking, there are several false beliefs commonly communicated to us. The first false belief is that one discipline alone can be used to solve all the world’s problems. This is unlikely. History continually suggests that we are at our best when different ways of thinking collide with each other. For example, I like the power of design, but I think it is only one of several crucial mindsets. Whether it is design (thinking), science, engineering, policy, education or other disciplines, I don’t think one mindset will have all the answers. I also don’t think one mindset can encompass or integrate all other disciplines.

The second false belief is that there is a perfect process that we can follow to make change for the better. I think this is also untrue. In the last thirty years or so, we’ve been trained to look for the ‘perfect’ process (and tools) that will lead to the ‘right’ answers. It’s a byproduct of an industrialised educational system that rewards correct answers over creative thinking. It’s the result of business pressure on creative thinking. This sort of rule-following is the antithesis of the energetic and often chaotic way in which impactful new ideas emerge into the world. 

The third and perhaps most damaging belief is that you can innovate without failure. Realistically, we can rarely know for sure whether an idea will work until we try it. Experimentation and failure are crucial to learning. 

A different idea is to develop a thinking system, but it requires us to let go of any isolated, fixed and safe processes. Let’s unpack this a little. In exploring thinking systems, I’m inspired by Lego, the wonderful and creative construction toy, especially by what Lego calls the ‘Lego System.’ 

“…explore a system that combines structure, logic and creativity where all bricks can be combined in countless ways.” (Source: Lego)

Think about how Lego works. It provides a set of common ‘bricks’ which we can use to create endless models. It very nicely balances constraint and freedom. The Lego system restricts how bricks fit together; you can only do what the combinations of studs allow. Even with that restriction, the freedom to innovate is nearly infinite. 

I have a theory that we need an equivalent system for thinking. To do this, we need to look beyond the usual activities, tools and templates. These are too granular. Instead I suggest we need to focus higher, on mindsets. A mindset is a set of beliefs that forms a consistent way of thinking and seeing the world. As an example, we often talk about people having a ‘scientific,' ‘strategic,' ‘critical’ or ‘creative’ mindset. 

At first glance, it seems like there could be dozens of mindsets we could draw from. After years of challenging projects in a wide range of domains, I think the number of common and active mindsets is much smaller. In fact, I think six mindsets is enough to develop a rich thinking system. I’ve labelled these mindsets: Strategising, Exploring, Explaining, Designing, Deploying and Learning. These six mindsets come from a wide range of disciplines, including: Design, Science, Philosophy, Art, Engineering, Economics, Business and many more. 

What do they mean? 

  • With a Strategising mindset, we take a ‘big picture’ philosophical, social and economic perspective, rising above the detail to plan, direct activity and ask the biggest questions.

  • With the Exploring mindset, we observe the world, looking at how people and things interact. 

  • With an Explaining mindset, we look for patterns in what we see. Focusing on the patterns we’ve identified, we create powerful and predictive theories about how and why things behave as they do. 

  • A Design mindset helps us identify the right problems to solve and creatively imagines solutions. We prototype concepts and explore their impact on the world. 

  • We take on the challenge of prioritising and building our concepts with a Deploying mindset. 

  • With a Learning mindset, we test how new or existing theories and solutions work in the real world. 

By focusing on mindsets (rather than processes, activities or tools) we can help different types of thinkers, makers and learners agree on the questions they are asking. After all, a mindset evokes a group of related questions, more than it evokes specific tools. A good question is like a spark, a motivating force that opens up our thinking. Questions are far more consistent over time than activities and tools. Questions are accessible to everyone; a common language for working together. 

By using mindsets, we give ourselves the fundamental thinking components that can be combined in any way to create our own custom processes. These are like our thinking ‘bricks’. After all, following a pre-defined process for all problems is not innovation, it’s operational, like factory work. Creative thinking, making and learning can’t always rely on predictable steps. It’s non-linear, messy and often ill-defined. 

When we are first starting out, we might (like Lego) build what we see ‘on the box,' following a well understood sequence of mindsets. However, once we are comfortable, we can show creativity in building our own custom process for problem solving. Once we deploy a mindset, we ask the questions associated and then carry out the work to answer our questions.

A non-linear thinking system

A non-linear thinking system

Mindsets can be used to look at problems in personal life, work, society or anything in between. This includes big or small problems, well-understood or wicked problems. We can just keep chaining mindsets together into new patterns of understanding, making and learning. Like Lego, we balance structure and creativity in helping people try new ways of thinking. I think this better matches how messy real world problem solving works. It can’t be simplified to a poster. It can take years or even decades.

And by using a handful of mindsets, groups of people can construct their own way of understanding, thinking and learning. With skills being combined from many varied sources, we have a real chance to make changes that matter. 

Having spent a few years developing these ideas, I am currently in the process of building these mindsets into a set of physical assets. The goal is to make them easy to teach and fun to use for building your own approach to creative thinking. I look forward to sharing the outcomes with you. In the meantime, feel free to drop me a line at info@cognitiveink.com if you have any thoughts or questions. 



Sketch of System Flow by Christopher Roosen (2019)

Lego Photo by Rick Mason on Unsplash

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