Thinking Wrong: How to Trick our Brains into Being More Innovative

Rita McGrath
6 min readJul 13, 2023

Once we’ve learned how to do something, we become “unconsciously competent” at it. In order to break with the predictable path and move forward, what my good friend and colleague, Greg Galle, suggests is that we need to “think wrong.” That means opening our minds to new possibilities. In a recent session he led for Columbia Executive Education for Genentech, he elaborates.

Leaving the predictable path

As Greg pointed out to the class, there are synaptic connections that are forged when we learn something. It creates a neural pathway that is quite functional. It allows our brains to conserve energy and thinking power once something has become a routine. For instance, consider the experience of arriving at home after a routine drive without consciously remembering the journey! This is often called “unconscious competence” and is the final destination of a learning journey. This is functional from the point of view of conserving energy for what we might need to pay attention to — threats in the environment, for instance.

The problem, however, is when we need to come up with a novel solution or an innovation, we need to leave the predictable path and journey on to what Greg calls the “bold path.” That means we need to trick our brains into sparking a novel reaction. We need to spark our imaginations (as my friend, BCG’s Martin Reeves, points out, this is almost always the result of encountering something unexpected- a link to our Fireside Chat is here).

There is also a cultural dimension to all this. As humans interact over time, we develop a set of shared beliefs about what is acceptable. This comes to represent what has been dubbed the “Overton Window.” The Overton window represents the range of policies and ideas that are widely accepted by a relevant population. If you come up with an idea that is outside the Overton window, it will be a struggle to get it widely accepted. That much being said, it is possible to shift the Overton window, expanding and shifting the policies that a given population will accept. Recent examples include the widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana, policies that not too long ago would have been a political third rail. See also my conversation with

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Rita McGrath

Columbia Business School Professor. Thinkers50 top 10 & #1 in strategy. Bestselling author of The End of Competitive Advantage & Seeing Around Corners.