Productive Thinking
Whereas reproductive thinking is focused on repeating what has already been done or thought before, productive thinking focuses on creating new ways to do things. This lesson examines productive thinking and the two types of thinking skills that productive thinkers use on a regular basis to generate and test new ideas.

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

Productive thinking is radically different. It's the kind of thinking that leads to new ideas and breakthrough change. It's insightful thinking rather than historical thinking. Productive thinking is important for meeting the challenges of changing environments and marketplaces, for differentiating products or services, for envisioning and developing new insights and processes, and for achieving growth.

We've labeled reproductive thinking at its best as kaizen thinking, meaning "good change" in Japanese. Let's extend this metaphor to productive thinking and label it tenkaizen thinking. Tenkaizen is a composite word deriving from ten, meaning "law" or "tradition," kai, meaning "change," and zen, meaning "good." In other words, you can interpret tenkaizen as "good revolution." Tenkaizen turns things upside down. Rather than reproducing the old, it produces the new. It changes not only what we do but how we see the world. It's a way of both coping with and creating change.

In 1997, Reed Hastings founded Netflix with the idea that he could provide a DVD rental service through the Internet: get people to order their movies at the Netflix Web site and deliver them by mail. The original Netflix business model was virtually identical to the prevailing retail model of the video rental business except that he didn't have any physical stores. Hastings charged his clients $4 per rental plus $2 postage and applied late fees when DVDs were overdue. The only substantial difference between the online Netflix and the in-mall Blockbuster was the delivery channel.

Then, in 1999, Hastings had a tenkaizen idea. What if instead of renting movies he rented the capacity to view movies?

Customers would no longer rent individual disks but instead would subscribe to varying levels of service, allowing them to keep movies for as long as they like. As soon as a subscriber returned a disk, Netflix would ship another DVD from a list of titles the customer had pre-selected. There would be no individual rental fees, no postage fees, no late fees. This was not an incremental change but a whole new way to view a relationship with customers. Within three years Netflix was mailing nearly 200,000 DVDs per day to nearly a million subscribers. By 2007 Netflix had become one of the most successful dot-com companies, shipping 1.5 million titles a day to over 6.5 million subscribers. Its success has spawned dozens of imitators around the world and changed the way competitors such as Blockbuster and Hollywood Video do business.

Productive thinking consists of two distinct skills: creative and critical thinking. The overarching principle of productive thinking is that creative and critical thinking have to be separate. Our normal approach is not to separate these two skills; instead, we tend to overlap them.

Recall the last time you tried to solve a problem or come up with a new approach. Your thought train probably went something like this: "Hmm, I know. I'll... No, too expensive. Okay, what if I tried... Nah, I'd never get it done in time. Well, how about... Nope, too risky. I could always... Forget it. The guys would punch a hole in that in two seconds. Oh, well, maybe there really isn't a better way..."

By trying simultaneously to think creatively to generate ideas and think critically to judge ideas, you end up sabotaging any chance of success. It's like trying to drive with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake: You won't get anywhere, and you'll probably burn something out in the process.

Creative thinking has three essential characteristics. First, it's generative; in other words, its primary function is to make something out of nothing. Idea generation takes many different forms: daydreaming, blue-skying, what-iffing, making unusual connections, or just wondering. Regardless of how you go about generating them, new ideas are only partially formed. It takes only a moment to forget you even had them. Think about the last time you were in the shower and came up with the world's greatest idea, only to have it disappear moments later.

These fragile new ideas come into being because of the second characteristic of the creative thinking mode: It's nonjudgmental. You cannot generate and judge at the same time. Your half-formed notions can't survive the onslaught of your intellect. How often have you judged your ideas out of existence?

The third characteristic of creative thinking springs directly from the first two: It's expansive. By generating ideas and letting them live by deferring judgment, you tend to get more ideas.

Creative thinking, then, is generative, nonjudgmental, and expansive. In effect, when you're thinking creatively, you're making lists. Long lists.

Critical thinking is the yang to creative thinking's yin. Like creative thinking, critical thinking has three essential characteristics, each one a counterpoint. First, critical thinking is analytic: It probes, questions, and tests. When you think critically, you look at things deeply, penetrate below the surface, and unwrap nuance. You seek to understand, look for order, and discover meaning.

Second, critical thinking is judgmental. Its job is to help you determine whether ideas meet or do not meet criteria for success or even further consideration. Critical thinking allows you to compare ideas with predetermined standards.

Third, critical thinking is selective. It narrows down the long lists of ideas generated by creative thinking, sifting and filtering them to produce a more manageable few. You use critical thinking to identify the best ideas for further development, to converge on those with the greatest potential for success.

Critical thinking, then, is analytic, judgmental, and selective. In effect, when you are thinking critically, you are making choices.

Productive thinking separates creative thinking and critical thinking. It is a process of suspending judgment to generate long lists of ideas and then returning to those lists to make choices by judging the ideas against pre-established success criteria: making lists and making choices.

The full productive thinking process involves six discrete phases, from exploring the need for new thinking to developing a plan for action. Each of these phases involves both creative and critical thinking steps.

The productive thinking dynamic is the ongoing alternation between creative thinking and critical thinking.

Imagine a kayak paddle. One side stands for creative thinking, the other for critical thinking. If you always used the creative paddle, you'd go around in circles. If you always used the critical paddle, you'd go around in circles the other way. The key is to alternate between the two: creative, critical, creative, critical. That way you develop enormous forward momentum. That way you can achieve tenkaizen.

Productive thinking doesn't have to take years to generate ideas worth exploring. Some of them may be just around the corner. Productive thinking that fine alternating balance of creative thinking and critical thinking can change the world. Imagine a thaumatrope. One face is painted like the sun: yellow, bright, creative; the other is like the sea: blue, deep, thoughtful. Sun and sea remain separate, one on each side of the disk. But when you spin the disk, you create something completely new, neither sun nor sea, neither yellow nor blue but green.

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