Elastic Thinking: How It Can Help You Solve Your Biggest Challenges
In 1967, a young American executive named David Wallerstein was tasked with a mission: increase popcorn sales in his company’s cinemas.
Wallerstein tried all sorts of marketing tricks: buy one get a one-half price, morning specials, and so forth. Yet profits remained flat. Then one day, he got an idea: “What if we offer people more popcorn without them having to buy a second bag?” It was easy; just offer a larger bag. Shortly after, the jumbo size was introduced, and the company’s popcorn sales skyrocketed.
Wallerstein’s idea seems obvious, yet no one else thought of it before. That’s because marketers always believed that “if people wanted to eat more popcorn, they would simply buy more of it.” This long-held belief about customer behaviour, Wallerstein realised, was false.
The reason behind moviegoers’ reluctance to buy more popcorn wasn’t clear — maybe they feared looking gluttonous, or there was too much friction. Still, the moment Wallerstein became aware of this reluctance, the answer to his problem became obvious. Needless to say: the supersize menu spread like wildfire in the fast-food industry.
The way Wallerstein solved his problem is known as elastic thinking — a decision-making technique that physicist and bestselling author, Leonard Mlodinow, talks about in his book Elastic. A hallmark of elastic thinking, argues Mlodinow, is to closely examine your beliefs about the problem you face. Whether it’s a business venture, scientific research, making art, the world’s greatest innovations have been the product of elastic thinking one way or another.
Are you trying to disrupt an industry or simply want to improve your decision-making as a leader, parent, partner, or team member? In this case, elastic thinking is perfect for you. Here are three ways to get good at it.
Approach Your Problems like a Riddle
Consider the following puzzle. Marie and Marta were born on the same day, year, month, and from the same parents. But they’re not twins. How is that possible? Pause for a moment and think about the answer.
The reason riddles are difficult is because they make the wrong conclusion automatically jump to mind. Notice how you instantly assumed that Marie and Marta are a pair. Have you thought they could belong to a triplet or even a quadruplet?
Many challenges you’ll face, in some aspects, are similar to solving riddles: automatic conclusions can create a prison for your thoughts. And within that prison, you can only think of a limited number of possibilities. As long as you believe twins are always a pair, or people can easily buy more popcorn, the problem seems impossible to solve.
It’s critical to overcome this tendency of having automatic conclusions. When facing a situation, pause and examine all the assumptions you have about it. Make a list and carefully look at it. What beliefs are you taking for granted? Are some of your assumptions plainly wrong?
“Problems are not difficult because of what we don’t know, but because of what we do know — or think we know — which turns out to be wrong.” — Leonard Mlodinow.
Reframe Your Problem
In his Pulitzer-winning book, Gödel Escher Bach, cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter talks about a fascinating problem known as dog-and-bone. “Imagine you’re a dog, and someone tosses you a bone, but it lands in the neighbour’s yard behind a very tall fence. At your far side is an open gate that gets you out of your yard and into the neighbour’s yard. But a few feet in front of you, behind the tall fence, is a tasty snack. How will you get the bone?”
Unless they’ve faced this problem before, most dogs will look at the issue in a strictly geographic sense. From where they’re sitting, the bone is closer. All they have to do is to shrink the distance. But as the dog moves forward, it will slam against the tall fence. Whatever few steps remain, they are impossible to take. Some dogs will then bark in frustration or give up. Others will try to dig underneath the fence or climb it.
But the brightest dogs will reframe the way they see the problem. They will understand that their physical distance from the bone is not the same as their distance from their goal. If the dog moves closer to the bone, it will get further from its goal. But if it makes a side turn, moves away from the bone, and exits through the open gate, it will get closer to its goal. Yes, the dog will take more steps. Yes, it needs to do many turns and back and forth. But the distance to the goal is much shorter than walking a few steps only to spend hours or even days trying to overcome an impossible fence.
The dog-and-bone problem illustrates yet another hallmark of elastic thinking: reframing. Big projects and complex problems often have a hidden dog-and-bone component that needs reframing. If you fail to spot it, you risk spending time, money, and mental power optimising the wrong metrics. Similar to how reframing from distance-to-bone to distance-to-goal solved the dog’s problem, solving your problem becomes easier if you reframe it properly.
“The way you frame an issue has a profound influence on the way you solve it.” — Leonard Mlodinow
Overcome Functional Fixedness
In 1945, psychologist Karl Duncker published a study that became a classic in behavioural psychology. Known as the “candle experiment,” this is how it goes: “You are given a box of pins, a candle, and matches. With these tools, find a way to stick the candle to a wall, so it burns properly.”
Most people will try to pin the candle itself to the wall. Others will try to light the candle and stick it with melted wax. Both ways are futile since the pins are too short, and the melted wax is hard to bind. The correct way — which few people can spot — is to use the pin box as a candle holder. You empty the box, pin it to the wall, and stand the candle inside it.
75 % of adults fail to do that. That’s because most people cannot think of the box outside the context of a pin’s container. Psychologists call this short-sightedness “functional fixedness.” We fixate so much on how we use an object that we have a hard time seeing it any other way. People often fall prey to this error whenever they’re dealing with unfamiliar situations. And it constrains the breadth of their creativity.
When researchers showed the candle problem to children under five and isolated Amazon tribes, they scored much better than regular adults. That’s because children and hunter-gatherers are less familiar with the tools presented to them. Such ignorance is a blessing because their functional fixedness is weak, and a more vivid imagination helps them solve the problem.
Overcoming functional fixedness is yet another way of engaging in elastic thinking. To do so, look at the tools you have at your disposal with fresh eyes. Are you constraining objects, people, and settings to limited functions? What hidden potential are you neglecting?
“Sometimes the difficulty lies, not in having new ideas, but in escaping old ones.” — John Milton Keynes.
Whether you’re running a business, drafting a government policy, or leading a research project, the way you think plays a critical role in your success. That’s when elastic thinking comes in handy. It can help you make the right decisions. Smarter decisions.
To effectively engage in elastic thinking, follow these steps:
Closely examine your beliefs. What are the wrong assumptions that are holding you back?
Reframe your problem to find the right metric that brings you faster to your goal.
Think deeply about the tools around you. Overcome functional fixedness and use the familiar in unique ways.
Follow these tips, and you might achieve, or even create, things no one thought possible.