Unsafe Thinking: A book review by Bob Morris

Unsafe Thinking: How to be Nimble and Bold When You Need It Most
Jonah Sachs
De Capo Lifelong Books/Hachette Book Group (April 2014)

How and why “if you’re nervous, that’s a good spot to be in.”  Jason Klein

Long ago, I realized that safe thinking can be the most unsafe thinking if it is hostage to what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes (in Leading Change) as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” That is why Jason Klein’s observation caught my eye.

So, who is he? He is what Jonah Sachs refers to as an “unsafe thinker.” That is, Klein takes “a flexible,, nimble approach to unfamiliar challenges while the rest of us hold on to outdated or incremental [i.e. safe] solutions.”

In this context, I am reminded of two situations years ago when business executives faced great challenges and responded with bad thinking that won the day. First, this is the tagline that Jerry Della Femina came up with when his advertising agency pitched the Panasonic account: “From those wonderful folks who gave you Pearl Harbor.”  Later, the editors at National Lampoon magazine wanted to increase circulation so they created a cover with a photo of a beagle with a pistol barrel pressed against his head. The tagline: “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll shoot the dog.”

No sane person questions the importance of safety in situations that have life-and-death issues. That’s not what Sachs is talking about. He wrote this book in order to help as many people as possible to develop the ability “to meet challenges with a willingness to depart from standard operating procedures: to confront anxiety, tolerate, criticism, take intelligent risks, and refute conventional wisdom — especially one’s own views — in order to achieve breakthroughs.”

More specifically, these are the objectives that Sachs identifies and each has the same prefix: HOW to….

o Embrace anxiety and break the safe thinking cycle
o Energize yourself and others to stay on the edge
o Pursue expertise without falling into the expert’s trap
o Tame the urges that keep us from exploring
o Recognize faulty intuition and hone your instincts
o Tackle difficult problems with unexpected solutions
o Break consensus and infect others with the confidence to take risks
o Use the right incentives to fuel breakthrough creative teams

Sachs has identified six key components of unsafe thinking and practices “that help us overcome the impediments to its use.” Here’s how to gain or regain a creatIve edge and unlock the creativity of those around you. Briefly:

Courage: Explore “the role discomfort, and sometimes outright fear, plays in trapping us in safe thinking.”

Motivation: Determine the energy we need to sustain experimentation with new and uncomfortable approaches to our work, even in the face of setbacks.”

Flexibility: Untangle the seeming paradox “that while we need expertise to do successful creative work, we often suffer a decline in learning and performance once we become experts.”

Morality: Carefully consider “insights into the power and limits of intuition and the advantages of generating ideas that seem counterintuitive, even ridiculous, to most but in fact contain genius.”

Leadership: Focus on effectively working with others to “break through the social pressures that work against creativity.”

These are widely recognized as the WHAT of creative thinking and, indeed, of creative living. The great value of the material that Sachs provides is an extended explanation of the HOW.

Whenever I encounter someone with a “great idea,” I share Albert Einstein’s suggestion: “If you can’t explain it to a six-year old, you really don’t understand it.” If they fear that someone will steal it from them, I share Howard Aiken’s observation: “Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If its an original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”

I am deeply grateful to Jonah Sachs for the abundance of information, insights, and counsel that he provides. It remains for each of us who read the book to determine which of the material is of greatest potential value, then apply it effectively.  Of course, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, today’s unsafe idea will be safe tomorrow and sacred (albeit obsolete) the day after tomorrow.


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