Let's Embrace Open-Mindedness

How an open-mind can help us make the world better.

This is not my content. I couldn't get the page at http://johnnyholland.org/2009/06/lets-embrace-open-mindedness to load, so this is a copy of the HTML cache from Google, the post sans pictures. This is not my content, it is a best-attempt mirror of the other page.

Being open-minded when conducting user research is almost the definition of the activity. In reality many people find it difficult to fully conceal their hypotheses, and the way they both ask questions and listen to answers ultimately limits what they’re able to learn from the research. Recently we interviewed a young man who had moved back to the US from working overseas and was now back in school. My colleague asked a question that was based on the framework of “old Alex” and “new Alex.” But of course Alex (not his real name) hadn’t told us that he viewed his transition in those terms. And Alex didn’t dissuade us from that framework until I explicitly asked him if he thought of himself as having a new and old version. A lack of open-mindedness can also impact how research data is analyzed.

In the design process, there’s a tremendous need for open-mindedness when considering solutions.

For example, a few years ago we worked with a technology company that had done their own ethnographic research into how enterprise customers were purchasing technology. They organized their results according to their pre-existing purchase decision model, rather than allowing the findings themselves to shape the model. In both cases, the learning is skewed by these presumptions, and the ability to act in a new way is limited by them.

In the design process, there’s a tremendous need for open-mindedness when considering solutions. Although design projects invariably have constraints, we’ve found real power in suspending those constraints when ideating. Even if a team is developing a new website, rapidly brainstorming concepts that impact hardware, branding, marketing, and beyond is not a waste of time. If those concepts are outside the brief, they may better illustrate the qualities of an excellent solution that can then be brought back into the (say) website. And there’s always the possibility that a great idea will expand the brief. It’s always exciting to encourage a team to brainstorm beyond their nominal solution area and see an organization rally to support them: we’ve helped hardware teams identify software opportunities, and Internet services teams identify retail opportunities. And there’s typically someone in the meeting who’s empowered to run with these “extra” opportunities and see if they can’t be developed further.

Living With An Open Mind

Chatting over dinner with some colleagues recently, at one point I bought up The Hipster PDA. One of the younger people at the table hadn’t heard about this, and once we explained the concept (essentially a binder clip and a stack of Post-It notes) she shook her head in gentle disgust and said “People have too much time on their hands.” I felt stung, stymied, and frustrated. Reflecting later, my frustration was not in the dismissal of the idea (because there’s a lot of crappy ideas out there) but in the dismissal of the people who had come up with the idea; essentially, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

I’m sure that we can each recall ideas (and the people that created them) that we’ve dismissed out of hand. Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink [Kitt's note: hate that book, dislike Gladwell's style of conjecture with the voice of authority, without actual facts or scientific support] has led to the inappropriate fetishization of rapid assessments (take to heart Peter Merholz’s summary of the book: “Snap judgments are valuable. Except when they are not.”). In “Living In the Overlap” (interactions, September/October 2008) I argued for more a considered approach to how we dismiss what doesn’t appeal: “Here’s a bunch of stuff I haven’t tried: Project Runway, High School Musical, American Pie movies, robot wars, molecular gastronomy, Halo 3, Dancing With the Stars, Frisky Dingo, sudoku, biopics, House, Desperate Housewives, Portishead, Fifty Cent, Dane Cook, The Da Vinci Code, The Life of Pi, Marley & Me, The Lovely Bones, Augusten Burroughs, and Mitch Albom. I’m mildly curious in some; intensely disinterested in others. A lot of it might make a “sophisticated” individual uncomfortable. But my profession is identifying and establishing the connections between people, culture, brands, stories and products, and that means it’s absolutely crucial that I know of, and a little about, all sorts of stuff that I may personally regard as crap.”

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink has led to the inappropriate fetishization of rapid assessments

Of course, open-mindedness and curiosity are essential for innovators: designers, researchers, people-who-make-stuff-for-others. But an open-minded discussion about our own open-mindedness may be hampered by two factors. First, we tend to frame open-mindedness and curiosity as character traits, something that’s baked into who we are and won’t significantly change (at least once we hit our mid-twenties and are less prone to self-redefinition). Second, who would acknowledge to themselves, or others, that they aren’t open-minded? No one thinks they are closed-minded, just like no one thinks they are racist. We place a cultural premium on our personal qualities and that can blind us from taking too close of a look at ourselves. While I’ll try not to get too therapy-y here, one way we can improve is to learn to hear those moments in ourselves when we aren’t open-minded.

Exercises to Open the Mind

Let’s instead consider open-mindedness and curiosity as skills that can be developed. One way to increase our openness to new ideas is through improv training, which emphasizes accepting offers. Many people are now familiar with improv’s “Yes, and…” philosophy. It’s become an icon for successful brainstorming, where the reaction to a new idea (an offer) is always yes (an acceptance). In improv training, there are a range drills to build a natural facility for acceptance. In one example, actors line up beside the stage. The first actor takes the stage, and the next actor enters the stage, states who they are, and pretends to give an object to the first actor. The first actor accepts this gift, and uses it to explain their exit. The next actor comes onstage and the drill proceeds. The drill might look something like this:

Actor 2 enters
Actor 2: Hi, I’m a baker. Here’s a loaf of bread.
Actor 1: Thanks, I’m going to go put this in the cupboard.
Actor 1 exits
Actor 3 enters

Actor 3: Hi, I’m a spaceman and I’ve brought you this moon rock.
Actor 2: Thanks, I’ll take this over to the Smithsonian.
Actor 2 exits

It’s not funny, but the goal is not entertainment; it’s to reinforce a crucial principal. The training builds from there, with more complex games that develop a broader set of skills, but the fundamental driver is being comfortable accepting any offer.

Getting Out of the Comfort Zone

A corollary to open-mindedness is our comfort zones. It’s important to learn to feel the edges of our own comfort zones. Only then are we empowered to make explicit choices about whether or not to venture outside that zone. In Amsterdam recently I walked into a cheese shop, stocked with an array of huge wheels of cheese, and I became overwhelmed, and felt unsure how to proceed. I just wanted to sample Dutch cheese, not do my weekly cheese shopping (as I imagined was the typical scenario). Suddenly this was too much to navigate, and as an introvert, I wasn’t up for asking for help if I didn’t even know what to ask, so I walked out. As I left, I realized that I was letting the opportunity pass by and I returned to buy some cheese [You'll either recognize exactly the small intimidation I'm describing, or else think I'm crazy, in which case I suggest you read about introverted travel here.]

I asked for a recommendation. The cheese-man asked me one or two questions, then handed me a piece of Old cheese. The cheese, of course, was delicious, and so was the empowerment of overcoming discomfort. The awkwardness I felt was about the complexity of trying to perform a familiar task in an unfamiliar context, and with the myriad options that introduces. Once I realized that and chose to ask for help, I was able to stretch my comfort zone just that much more. And a few days later in Leuven, Belgium, I reused this new script and once again bought cheese (a Bruggian version of Gouda).

A few months earlier, however, I gazed at the edge of my comfort zone and decided not to cross: walking through Santa Monica we came upon the Independent Spirit Awards ceremony. Crowds of people were gathered, waiting for a glimpse of the stars. We found the serious autograph hounds who were there with portable plastic bins stuffed with headshots for signing (and reselling on eBay). It was a definite subculture: people filled each other in about the unspoken rules: what happens when a celeb approaches, when to use your Sharpie, how to hand it to them, and so on. I was fascinated but my obvious outsider/passerby status felt like a barrier.

While I’m disappointed with the result, I have to acknowledge my own human limitations, and point out that both were deliberate choices about how to deal with the edges of my comfort zone. Looking at both situations, I can see how the presence of a familiar “script” where each “actor” knew their role (i.e., man enters a cheese shop) made all the difference to me.

Being open-minded and curious is a journey, not a destination. There are always new opportunities to grow and develop our abilities in the course of everyday life and our work. And on that journey is a bounty of new adventures, new stories, and new ideas. I believe that developing skills in building and managing our own open-mindedness and curiosity in everyday life is the first place to start in our development.

Steve Portigal

Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting, a bite-sized firm that helps clients to discover and act on new insights about themselves and their customers.