8 Ways in Which Geniuses Think and How You Can Apply This to Your Team

I love reading articles from the people that are really, really, smart – the people that are spending the time doing incredible amount of documentation and research about how we interact and the whys and hows of what we do.

Michael Michalko, the author of Creative Tinkering, has done an incredible amount of work studying creatives and geniuses and how they engage problem solving. His book is definitely one to pick up if you have time but I wanted to distill a few key points that he lays out about how strategically geniuses encounter problems, as opposed to normal thinkers.

Here they are, which his key point and some of his thoughts, as well as my additional thoughts on how it can be applied to your team and organization:

1. Geniuses look at problems many different ways

In order to creatively solve a problem, the thinker must abandon the initial approach that stems from past experience and re-conceptualize the problem. By not settling with one perspective, geniuses do not merely solve existing problems, like inventing an environmentally-friendly fuel.

They identify new ones. It does not take a genius to analyze dreams; it required Freud to ask in the first place what meaning dreams carry from our psyche.

The team must agree that their initial approach is not (and may never) working and that they need to re-conceptualize the problem. Sometimes it is more about them, and their perspective, rather than just a new tool or method.

2. Geniuses make their thoughts visible

Once geniuses obtain a certain minimal verbal facility, they seem to develop a skill in visual and spatial abilities which give them the flexibility to display information in different ways. When Einstein had thought through a problem, he always found it necessary to formulate his subject in as many different ways as possible, including diagrammatically.

He had a very visual mind. He thought in terms of visual and spatial forms, rather than thinking along purely mathematical or verbal lines of reasoning.

One of the best things about the solutions that you use are that many of them are presented in an easy-to-understand form, and most likely they are visual in nature. The rise of infographics has proven this to be true!

What you need for your organization and team is a way to make those genius ideas more visible – use instruments that can help showcase results without explanation. Information radiators anyone!?

3. Geniuses produce

A distinguishing characteristic of genius is immense productivity. Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents, still the record. He guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. His own personal quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months.

Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he was sick or exhausted. Mozart produced more than six hundred pieces of music.

Einstein is best known for his paper on relativity, but he published 248 other papers.

T. S. Elliot’s numerous drafts of “The Waste Land” constitute a jumble of good and bad passages that eventually was turned into a masterpiece.

In a study of 2,036 scientists throughout history, Dean Kean Simonton of the University of California, Davis found that the most respected produced not only great works, but also more “bad” ones. Out of their massive quantity of work came quality.

Geniuses produce. Period.

You know this to be true and you need to be the one that’s going to produce results. It’s time to become the genius that you and your team need you to be! It takes one to introduce change and that’s all!

4. Geniuses make novel combinations

Dean Keith Simonton, in his 1989 book Scientific Genius suggests that geniuses are geniuses because they form more novel combinations than the merely talented. His theory has etymology behind it: cogito — “I think — originally connoted “shake together”: intelligo the root of “intelligence” means to “select among.”

This is a clear early intuition about the utility of permitting ideas and thoughts to randomly combine with each other and the utility of selecting from the many the few to retain.

Like the highly playful child with a pailful of Legos, a genius is constantly combining and recombining ideas, images and thoughts into different combinations in their conscious and subconscious minds.

Life isn’t about putting all the right pieces together just like the manual said you should, it’s about combining multiple pieces from different boxes to come out with an even better result. You (or someone one your team) is like that and they’ve been able to see that it’s not always about replicating the same solution over, and over, and over again.

Teams are like that – there is no manual for constructing the best team and even our instrument can’t tell you that. But, having the right instruments in place and the right tools to leverage against your companies culture, mission, goals, and vision can do incredible good.

This assumes, though, that you’ve got the right tools to begin with.

5. Geniuses force relationships

If one particular style of thought stands out about creative genius, it is the ability to make juxtapositions between dissimilar subjects. Call it a facility to connect the unconnected that enables them to see things to which others are blind.

Leonardo daVinci forced a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water. This enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.

In 1865, F. A. Kekule’ intuited the shape of the ring-like benzene molecule by forcing a relationship with a dream of a snake biting its tail.

Samuel Morse was stumped trying to figure out how to produce a telegraphic signal b enough to be received coast to coast. One day he saw tied horses being exchanged at a relay station and forced a connection between relay stations for horses and b signals. The solution was to give the traveling signal periodic boosts of power.

Nickla Tesla forced a connection between the setting sun and a motor that made the AC motor possible by having the motor’s magnetic field rotate inside the motor just as the sun (from our perspective) rotates.

Creating teams and organizations that hum is both an art and a science and requires the fine delicate touch of the artist’s brush as well as the calloused hand of an experienced carpenter, knowing what works and what does not, what is taught and what is caught over time.

Geniuses seem to have a good intuition about them when they begin to do what they do and they do not see the typical boundaries that most people place nice in. We see that with human capital and with people at large – there are incredible gems in your organization that aren’t seeing the light of day because they are in a role and have responsibilities which naturally limit their ability to execute.

We need to let those guys free to do incredible work without disrupting the whole.

6. Geniuses think opposite

Thomas Edison’s invention of a practical system of lighting involved combining wiring in parallel circuits with high resistance filaments in his bulbs, two things that were not considered possible by conventional thinkers, in fact were not considered at all because of an assumed incompatibility.

Because Edison could tolerate the ambivalence between two incompatible things, he could see the relationship that led to his breakthrough.

One of the challenges that we naturally face are critiques and questions about psychometric testing and the “validity” that they have in the individual and the organizations that use them. To a certain degree we can provide “evidence” and “proof” but there are few things that will convince a skeptic, especially one that fundamentally opposes these types of things.

That’s too bad because they might be the thing that’s stopping their own business or team from moving forward. Geniuses enable themselves to be open to the possibility of another way, another universe, and another application for things that were once thought impossible (or “stupid”).

They see the other side, the opposite perhaps, and can leverage them well. Or, they’ll at least give it a fair chance before dismissing it entirely.

7. Geniuses think metaphorically

Aristotle considered metaphor a sign of genius, believing that the individual who had the capacity to perceive resemblances between two separate areas of existence and link them together was a person of special gifts. If unlike things are really alike in some ways, perhaps, they are so in others.

Alexander Graham Bell observed the comparison between the inner workings of the ear and the movement of a stout piece of membrane to move steel and conceived the telephone.

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, in one day, after developing an analogy between a toy funnel and the motions of a paper man and sound vibrations.

The things that your organization require of you are immense and they hired you to do great work, not to necessarily follow a rule book. Get to it!

8. Geniuses prepare themselves for chance

Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else. As simplistic as this statement may seem, it is the first principle of creative accident. We may ask ourselves why we have failed to do what we intended, and this is the reasonable, expected thing to do.

But the creative accident provokes a different question: What have we done? Answering that question in a novel, unexpected way is the essential creative act. It is not luck, but creative insight of the highest order.

Alexander Fleming was not the first physician to notice the mold formed on an exposed culture while studying deadly bacteria. A less gifted physician would have trashed this seemingly irrelevant event but Fleming noted it as “interesting” and wondered if it had potential.

This “interesting” observation led to penicillin which has saved millions of lives.

Sure, you may not be in the business of saving lives every single day (or you might be) but the point is that chance is a huge component of what happens for creative geniuses and their inventions and insights that change the world.

In our digital times this can be as innocuous as tweet via Twitter or a Facebook “Like” that your friend shared that could be the spark that you need.

Heck, if you’ve read all the way to the bottom of this blog post you could have been inspired to engage your team and organization differently – a breath of fresh air that’s exactly what you need to move on to the next level.

And if you ever need our help with it we’re here to serve you and be a part of that genius process. We’ll bring the tools as long as you provide the inspiration!

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