Matthew E. May on “winning the brain game”: An interview by Bob Morris

May, MatthewMatt May is author of Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking (May 2016), as well as four previous award-winning books: The Laws of Subtraction (2012), The Shibumi Strategy (2010), In Pursuit of Elegance (2009), and The Elegant Solution (2006).

A popular speaker, executive coach, and close advisor on strategy, innovation, and lean to companies such as ADP, Edmunds, Intuit, and Toyota, Matt’s articles have appeared in national publications such as INC. magazine, The New York Times, Harvard Business Review blogs, 99U, The Rotman Magazine, Fast Company, Design Mind, MIT/Sloan Management Review, USA Today, Strategy+Business, and Quality Progress. He has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and on National Public Radio. A graduate of the Wharton School of Business and Johns Hopkins University, he lives in Southern California. A published songwriter, Matt considers winning the New Yorker magazine cartoon caption contest among his most creative achievements.

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Morris: Before discussing Winning the Brain Game, a few general questions. First, although I am a non-scientist and have received no formal training in neuroscience, I have reached some conclusions to which I ask you to respond. The brain resembles a computer whose software is the mind.

May: Yes, but that software is intelligent, because it is capable of reshaping the physical hardware of the computer. It’s called neuroplasticity. We now know that by thinking differently, we can rewire the connections in the brain — the gray matter, if you will — to form new neural pathways.

Morris: The brain is a muscle that can be strengthened over time by what Anders Ericsson characterizes as “deep practice.”

May: That too. And that does not strengthen the brain, it will at least help maintain the brain’s capabilities.

Morris: Here’s another layman’s opinion. Emotion often has more influence on human decisions than does reason.

May: What you’re really saying is that one part of our brain can dominate the other. That’s true, but only if we let the faster but lazier part governing emotions win out over the slower but more rational and deeper thinking part.

Morris: I have admired your work for many years. With all due respect to what you have accomplished thus far, I am curious to know if any especially important question or serious problem (if any) has thus far eluded your efforts to answer or resolve it?

May: First of all, thank you! Truth be told, I have far more questions and problems than answers and solutions. I’ve learned that just when I think I know, I discover I don’t. And it’s at that point that my mindlessness — the certainty of knowing — leads me to a more mindful state. I’m probably strange, in that I tend to view every challenge as a problem or puzzle. Whether one is more important than another depends on context, situation, and timing. Having said all that, the important question I keep coming back to is: have I made the most of what I have to offer the world?

Morris: Of all the books you have read since our last conversation in December, 2012, which have you found to be most valuable to your own personal growth and professional development? Please explain.

May: As you know, I interviewed authors for several years for the American Express OPEN Forum, so I read a lot of books. I still read voraciously. Most of my day job revolves around helping people think differently, and the book that has helped propel me to a higher, more strategic stance is Roger Martin’s Playing to Win. Roger is a mentor, a friend, and I was able to internalize that book, its wisdom and framework, into a practical tool for working with senior management teams on strategy. Ellen Langer’s books, Mindfulness and On Becoming An Artist, are right up there as well, from a more personal development standpoint.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Winning the Brain Game. When and why did you decide to write it?

May: I wrote it in six weeks from mid-September to November 1, 2015! I actually was subjecting myself to one the seven fatal thinking flaws: Self-censoring. I had all sorts of reasons lined up to defeat myself, and declare my authorship over. Luckily, I have a couple key advisors who shed a little objectivity into my thinking. For over ten years I had been conducting innovation workshops and seminars and delivering interactive speeches using a few thought challenges to get the creative juices flowing, and it suddenly dawned on me that all of my observations over that period encompassed well over 100,000 people, and that I was sitting on a research gold mine. Why in the world wouldn’t I write about it? So I did!

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

May: I definitely had some revelatory moments in spending time Ellen Langer. She told me a story she had never told anyone else, about a horse and hotdog…I won’t give away more than that. And she gave me a wonderful technique for moving from mindlessness to mindfulness without meditation…a current management fad.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ [begin italics] significantly [end italics] from what you originally envisioned?

May: It has a far better cover than I thought it would have. Joking aside, the honest answer is this little book flowed miraculously from vision to end product rather seamlessly. Sometimes elements just come together like that, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps because I knew the material so well, having steeped myself in it for over a decade. Perhaps because the initial constraint we envisioned — a small footprint, a 35,000-word book that blends science and business in an engaging, enlightening but ultimately practical way — was so clear to begin with, and it helped propel the project forward elegantly.

Morris: The word “game” has several quite different meanings and applications. For example, people play the game of chess or game the IRS or being game to take on a daunting challenge. What does it mean in your book?

May: It’s a metaphor for the interplay between the biological brain and the conscious mind.

Morris: Of all that you learned about the brain and mind during the past ten years, what has proven to be most valuable to you? Please explain

May: It wasn’t too long ago that the scientific and medical world believed almost unanimously that the brain controlled all thought…once it was wired, it was hardwired and immutable. Neuroplasticity and the notion that our thinking can change the physical makeup of the brain…that the brain is malleable under the right conditions, like plastic…reverses generations of dogma.

Morris: You identify and discuss “seven flaws of fatal thinking.” Please explain them, and how to repair each.

May: The first and most prevalent flaw is Leaping, which means brainstorming solutions before you truly understand the problem. The fix is what I call Framestorming: instead of brainstorming solutions, brainstorm framing questions that produce better solutions.

The second flaw is Fixation, meaning getting stuck in mental ruts that prevent us from thinking differently. The fix is what I call Inversion: completely reversing the status quo to take our thinking off-road, and escape the gravitational pull of experience.

The third flaw is Overthinking, which is the art of complicating matters and creating problems that aren’t even there. The fix is what I call Prototesting: running simple, fast, frugal tests of prototype concepts and mockup solutions that are roughly right.

The fourth flaw is Satisficing, or glomming on to easy, obvious, mediocre and thus inferior solutions. The fix is what I call Synthesizing: merging the best parts of two opposing but satisficing solutions in a mashup that solves the problem elegantly.

The fifth flaw is Downgrading, which means formally revising your original goal simply to declare victory. The fix is what I call Jumpstarting: effectively rebooting and redoubling our focus on both your will and your way in order to push past the stall point.

The sixth flaw is Not Invented Here (NIH), which is automatically dismissing the ideas of others. The fix is Proudly Found Elsewhere (PFE): coined by Procter & Gamble, PFE is an open embrace of others’ innovative thinking.

The seventh and most fatal flaw is Self-Censoring, which means mindlessly rejecting your own ideas so others won’t. The fix is what psychologists call Self-Distancing: attuning our attention in a mindful way that produces an unbiased perspective.

Morris: You include this mantra from The Elegant Solution:

“What appears to be the problem, isn’t.
What appears to be the solution, isn’t.
What appears to be impossible, isn’t.”

Why should that mantra be kept in mind when making a decision or solving a problem?

May: Because there is always another way to look at the situation. Always. And if you don’t consider other perspectives, you will suboptimize your decision or solution.

Morris: You also include a number of observations by Albert Einstein. Here’s one of my favorites:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Please explain its relevance to “winning the brain game.”

May: It’s the wisdom behind repairing the first and most frequently occurring fatal thinking flaw, Leaping. Leaping is the antithesis of Einstein’s insight…spending no time on determining the proper question to ask, and all your time on solutions…which inevitably won’t work because you didn’t address the real problem in the first place.

Morris: For more than 30 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Winning the Brain Game, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

May: The size and format of an organization are mostly irrelevant, at least in my experience, because organizations don’t think, people do. Having said that, I would tell small businesses and entrepreneurs not to forget what brought them initial success: finding a need or seeing an unsolved problem, trying several ways to solve before finding a solution with the potential to add value, tweaking and improving it through cycles of iteration. So, be careful of Overthinking, and don’t abandon the Prototesting approach that brought you to the party in the first place.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

May: Which of the fatal flaws are you most susceptible to, personally and/or professionally? As I hinted at earlier in the context of deciding to write this book, it is Self-Censoring!

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Matt cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Homepage link

INC. Brain Game column link

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