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Winning The Brain Game

Guest post by Matthew E. May, author of Winning the Brain Game.

What do most people do when handed a tricky problem to solve, one that requires a wee bit of the Apple tagline (think different)? I’m fairly confident that I know the answer. I’m confident because for over ten years now I’ve been giving business professionals the world over a thought challenge based on a real-world business problem, one that on the face of it looks simple to solve, and is certainly not as difficult or complex as the problems they likely face in their job. I’m confident because the number of people I’ve observed over those ten years is now over 100,000.

Subconsciously Engaging in the Brain Game

They do one or more of several specific things, but they all do one thing in general: subconsciously engage in a game of mind over matter that I call the “brain game,” defined as the struggle between the biological brain and the conscious mind. Neuroscience has for decades confirmed a distinction.

Likened to a computer, the brain is the passive hardware constantly storing experience, while the mind is the active software, directing our attention and thought. But the mind is not just any software—it’s intelligent software capable of rewiring the hardware, which, if left unchecked, reverts to stored patterns that can prevent us from solving tough and unfamiliar problems creatively, resourcefully, and elegantly.

7 Fatal Thinking Flaws

Those stored patterns manifest themselves as observable human behavior, and there are seven of them that I have catalogued over the years of watching folks wrestle with the thought challenges. What is amazing is how consistently they fall victim to the same thinking traps and exhibit these seven behaviors:

  1. Leaping: brainstorming solutions before they understand the problem
  2. Fixation: getting stuck in mental ruts that prevent them from thinking differently
  3. Overthinking: complicating matters and creating problems that weren’t even there
  4. Satisficing: glomming on to easy, obvious, mediocre and thus inferior solutions
  5. Downgrading: formally revising the goal simply to declare victory
  6. Not Invented Here (NIH): automatically dismissing the ideas of others
  7. Self-Censoring: mindlessly rejecting their own ideas so others won’t

The scientific community has a host of labels for these behaviors. Let me simplify things: they are fatal thinking flaws. Fatal in the sense that they prevent people from seeing the best of all possible outcomes: an elegant solution, which I define as one that achieves the maximum effect with the minimum means.

The good news is that there are seven time-tested “fixes” that neutralize, if not defeat entirely, those fatal flaws:

  1. Framestorming: instead of brainstorming solutions, brainstorm framing questions that produce better solutions.
  2. Inversion: completely reversing the status quo to take our thinking off-road, and escape the gravitational pull of experience.
  3. Prototesting: running simple, fast, frugal tests of prototype concepts and mockup solutions that are roughly right.
  4. Synthesizing: merging the best parts of two opposing but satisficing solutions in a mashup that solves the problem elegantly.
  5. Jumpstarting: effectively rebooting and redoubling our focus on both your will and your way in order to push past the stall point.
  6. Proudly Found Elsewhere (PFE): coined by Procter & Gamble, PFE is an open embrace of others’ innovative thinking.
  7. Self-Distancing: attuning our attention in a mindful way that produces an unbiased perspective.

These seven fixes represent a super-curated set of tools and techniques that I as well as others have developed, and which through my work I have found to be among the most effective and practical ways to not only neutralize the fatal flaws of thinking, but also forge new neural connections in the brain.

Finally, if you keep a simple mantra in mind at all times, you will indeed become a master at winning the brain game:

What appears to be the problem, isn’’t.

What appears to be the solution, isn’’t.

What appears to impossible, isn’’t.

Matthew E. May is an award-winning author and noted thought leader on strategy and innovation. A popular speaker facilitator and coach he works with individuals and organizations all over the world.


Matthew E. May is an award-winning author and noted thought leader on strategy and innovation. A popular speaker facilitator and coach he works with individuals and organizations all over the world.