Five cognitive distortions: blank-canvas thinking

paint by numbersThis is the fourth in a series of blog posts looking at five cognitive distortions of high achievers. Today, our topic is blank-canvas thinking. A blank canvas offers us infinite possibilities, with minimal constraints. Blank-canvas thinkers are always searching for ideas without precedents; they’re the first to throw the Style Manual out the window. In many ways, this is a positive quality. It enables revolutionary creativity, as opposed to the more incremental approach most people take. It can inspire your employees to achieve something extraordinary; it can lure the early adopters, the ones who will spread the word about your remarkable products or services. But while blank-canvas thinking might offer you a creative edge, it can lead to problems within an organisation.

For starters, blank-canvas thinkers risk falling into the trap of art for art’s sake. If you focus entirely on the canvas, you can lose sight of everything else–the needs of your staff, for example, not to mention the needs of your clients. At one extreme, you may find yourself so focussed on the excitement of creation that you never take your product to market. But if no one ever hears of your product, it does not matter how groundbreaking it may be. It will remain stillborn.

Another risk is the inability to scale your business. If success depends solely on your unique genius, then the business will fail without you. If you simply wish to work as a freelancing genius, that’s OK. But if you want to build an enduring business, it’s better to work with  people who possess complementary skills. Blank-canvas thinking need not be a barrier to this. However, when combined with personal exceptionalism and dichotomous thinking, it’s likely to foster arrogance and intolerance. It’s hard to build a high performing team if you’re unable to encourage and develop your people. People who work for a highly creative but disengaged manager tend to form cliques, competing for their manager’s approval. This is unhealthy, and in the end the culture you create will prove damaging for everyone: your staff, your clients, and even yourself.

The solution, of course, is to bring your people along with you. When people show a flair for design, mentor them. Ideally, develop their skills so they could replace you if necessary. And value those whose skills counterbalance your own: your accountants, your marketers, your call centre staff, your administrative people. You need them all for your business to succeed, and some of them may have their own ideas for improving productivity in their areas of expertise. But unless you work with and listen to them, you’ll never know.

While blank-canvas thinking may present some risks for your organisation, it pales before the fifth and final cognitive distortion: Schumpeterianism, also known as the principle of creative destruction. Which we shall explore in greater depth next week!


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