Escape from convention: How to think differently, embrace change & deliver improvements.

For many of the most respected thinkers and inventors of our time, the idea that convention should be challenged is as commonplace as a new Instagram post on a Sunday morning. From tech leaders like Elon Musk to social-economic analysts like Steven Levitt, the benefits of thinking differently about all aspects of life is now accessible and often right in front of us. Our daily life is teeming with products, designs and technology that emerged from unconventional thinking. The most useful of which are likely to have come not from unconventional thinking alone, but thinking that put an emphasis on data, observation and disruptive improvement.

Given how widely innovation, creative thinking and disruption play a large part in our lives, it is surprising that many people still see new ideas as provocative and uncomfortable. When an idea challenges a common belief or disrupts the fundamental way people go about their lives, a mental barrier is quickly raised. More often than not, the first response to a new idea is likely to be a fault or reason for why it can not work. What is even more perplexing is the basis on which people respond. It is more common to see a response based on a hunch or personal view, instead of data, broad experience and informed insights.

In this article, we give context to our thinking at Greyspace and aim to remove some of the barriers that can block us from embracing new ways of thinking.


From black and white to something altogether more grey

Over the years, many of the Greyspace team observed the same phenomena; a tendency for people to view business as black and white. To take an either/or approach to many common business activities. Traditional marketing vs digital marketing. Innovation vs short-term priorities. Venture capital vs traditional business growth. This black and white perspective had a big downside. It did not produce the most productive, creative or successful strategies. It fact, it often caused wastage, missed opportunities and a barrier to progress. From governments and corporates to start-ups and entrepreneurs, the world we live in demands a different way of thinking. We called our company Greyspace to promote a more productive way of thinking. One that results from a blended perspective, not a ‘black and white’ mindset. To help everyone who works with us benefit from an approach to thinking that combines creativity with data and improvement with disruption.


See disruption as progress, not provocation

When presenting a view that breaks away from the status quo, there is a high chance that it is seen as derogatory to the beliefs that people hold close. There can be times when people treat a difference in view as provocative. As a statement to cause resentment and irritation. This can appear in social circles as much as in business.

At times, taking a skeptical view on new ideas is well founded. We will have all experienced disruptive thinking that comes from strongly held beliefs and bias. We will also come across situations when ideas are enforced because of personal financial or political gains. Even the smartest people in the most respected positions are not immune to thinking in this way. This doesn’t mean that every idea comes from a negative place. This is certainly not why we discuss new ideas at Greyspace and is not why we promote unconventional thinking.

Like many of the great thinkers who inspire us, the ideas born at Greyspace come from a different place. We focus on disruption for the purpose of progress, to increase the chances of success for people we work with and to help avoid the risk of getting stuck in a hole that may be hard to climb out from in today’s constantly changing world. We derive our thinking from what we have directly observed, from what we have seen work and fail, and from the data we have analysed. We promote common sense, not dogma. We come with a passion for change but not intellectual arrogance.

If an unconventional idea seemingly destroys a common way of doing things, it does not to take anything away from how it was previously done. It helps us do things better. It can help us succeed in our careers, our industries and our new world. This does not mean that the concepts coming from Greyspace are the only way to do something, it is just that the approach to thinking is based on an informed, data-driven view of how to make it better going forward. We should always be encouraged to embrace progressive ways of thinking and improve them further.


Understand why it is easy for us reject new ideas

Some might say it is ‘narrow-mindedness’ but in phycology, there is a distinctly more technical term called cognitive dissonance. This is the term used to describe the discomfort experienced by a person who is confronted with new information that contradicts existing beliefs or when a person performs an activity that contradicts existing beliefs.  The human mind is always trying to simplify our lives, making assumptions and predictions without us even consciously controlling them. Taking a narrow view of the world is the one way the brain helps us to feel more comfortable and at ease. Inspirational neuroscientists like Dr. Ramachandran help unearth the science behind how we think and behave, so we can all understand a bit more about who we are and how we think. It will be no surprise to anyone that it is a proven trait that our own bias colours the view of our world and that the people we surround ourselves with, influence our views of how things should be done. Evidence shows that it is human nature to put self-interest before more logical choices that benefit the group. Evidence also suggests that all too often we incorrectly attribute correlation to the cause (e.g. A TV ad goes out and there was an increase in sales, this means the TV ad must have caused the jump in sales)

Understanding how our mind works opens up a huge opportunity to acknowledge why we can be dismissive. It also helps make the idea of embracing change more comfortable because we know where it comes from. It is not a negative trait to follow the herd and accept what we currently know, it is simply being human. The challenge is to think in a different way to how we may have been conditioned to think.


Reward yourself and others for passion, risk and progress

Whether you are looking to be a disruptive thinker or you are listening to other disruptive thinkers, changing how you reward yourself and others is critical for positive progress. You may already know you have a stubborn side, you may have a team to inspire or you may want to help instil change in other social or business situations. Whatever the situation, we must attribute value and reward to a new set of principles in order to embrace change with less discomfort and more importantly, execute informed and rational disruption ourselves.

It is common to attribute reward and positivity only once success has been achieved. Praise is often only given after success (i.e. After someone wins the gold medal), but many shy away from praise before that success happens. It is common to want to avoid personal risk by keeping quiet until success is reached. It is also common to feel personal pride in work that makes us feel good even if we have had no involvement (Again, someone wins a gold medal). To give praise for something that is simply completed instead of something that is improved. This happens all the time. You may yourself seek praise for working for a certain company because of a name, for taking personal pride because an advertising design looks beautiful irrespective of its result, for holding onto a patriotic or personal view based on where you were born despite you having played no part in deciding where you were born. These are all common situations where we attribute pride and reward.

Instead, if praise and reward is given when risks are taken to try something new. When ‘good’ failure happens even if something doesn’t work out. To praise yourself for value and results, not self-indulgence that changes nothing. Reward yourself for making improvements and not for conventional deliverables. Don’t feel pride because of the fancy business cards your company provides, feel pride because you re-allocated that money to achieve real revenue growth. Don’t feel pride in your national dish, feel pride when you create your own dish that puts your town or country on the map.

This does not mean we remove respect and admiration for others achieving great things. It means we should think about how we praise and reward ourselves and others for being bold and brave enough to challenge what everyone else is doing. To praise ourselves when you make a step improvement, not simply produce something. If we reward risk-taking that is based on rational thinking, deeper insights and observations, the chances of making improvements increases for individuals and companies alike.


Be brave enough to challenge convention despite the downsides

To approach new ways of thinking based on facts and broad experience, instead of opinions or convention is likely to result in more effective ideas and solutions. Respecting the background of others who have a broad base of experience and knowledge of the facts, not simply a fancy job title, is a great way to collectively improve innovation in a group. Opinions get in the way of effective thinking, yet they are often strongly supported. This is one reason why thinking differently can cause friction. It can go against the crowd and common opinion.  It will also not always be of personal benefit, and this is a trait of human nature that is hard to shake.

Thinking differently means people may not see eye to eye with you. It may cause personal fustration when your logic and reasoning is disregarded in favour of popular opinion. But it those who are brave, open and informed that accept the potential personal downsides because of the huge upsides. Challenging convention and thinking in new ways solves problems and makes improvements. The more that we focus on rational yet disruptive thinking, the more we make step-change improvements through new insights into how things can be done. The more we change our reward structures for unconventional thinking, the more it will be accepted in the social fabric of life and business.


We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.

Richard P. Feynman

Stephen Barling. MD and Chief Creative @ Greyspace
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