3 Tips for Developing Mental Agility

Do you think of yourself as open-minded?

Are you willing to consider new ideas for solving problems?

Do you catch yourself saying, “What if … ” at least two times a week?

Does the phrase, “We’ve always done it this way” make you want to poke your eyes out?

Thinking Happy Kid In Glasses With Idea Bulb Above The HeadIf you can respond with a resounding “YES” to these questions, then I’d say you probably have strong Mental Agility. Mental agility refers to individuals who are comfortable with complexity, examine problems carefully, can make fresh connections between different things as well as explain them in a simple way so others can understand.

Mental agility is one of the five components that make up Learning Agility and is such a valuable attribute in a world that is getting more and more complex.

In my work with clients, it’s quite clear that there is no shortage of complexity and ambiguity in today’s business environment. Leaders are challenged to make decisions on less than perfect information about situations that are constantly changing. One of the trickier aspects of complexity is communication. I’m often asked, “How can I help others understand why we need to make a change in a simple way that they can grasp and support?”

People who offer truly simple explanations and solutions to a complex problem must first have a clear understanding of its complexity. 

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough?” – Einstein

Understanding complexity requires being curious and inquisitive. Searching for the meaning below the surface and enjoying the exploration of something new.

If you are not naturally curious and inquisitive, what can you do? Is there a way to develop your mental agility?

Good news — there is!

Check out the book, Becoming an Agile Leader by Victoria Swisher, which is a great resource. Here are a few suggestions in cliff-note version:

  • Fight Sameness – Expose yourself to the unfamiliar and go places you don’t normally go; read books and see movies that wouldn’t traditionally appear on your list. Stimulate your brain by operating outside your routine.
  • Embrace the Unknown – Visualize the problem through a story-board or pro/con list. Ask questions to tease out the problem – What’s missing? What else could be true? Why does that work? Treat mistakes and failures as learning lessons and don’t curl up in a ball if it doesn’t work the first time!
  • Think it Through – Are you confusing facts with assumptions? Challenge yourself to only consider something a fact if it can be proven in a court of law. Look for parallels – what is common in each success? What was present in each failure? Are there some underlying principles that can be applied in this situation? Look for patterns in data, don’t just collect information.

Success in business depends on figuring out the best solution to difficult, complex issues when there’s rarely one clear correct answer. The more mental agility you can offer, the easier it will be to define the problem and then communicate more simply.

Communicating a message simply is magical because it’s the first step to enable action that can move us from Point A to Point B.

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect via email at mduesterhoft@people-results.com