Is It Possible To Unthink?

In a conversation with colleagues recently we were talking about thinking. We are in the process of doing some writing on a topic that is, we think, an uncommon way to understand how change takes place in organizations. It has the potential to be a leapfrog or breakthrough theory of leading and managing the strategic and tactical process of organizations moving into the future they want.

One of us expressed the desire to know more about how people in the field are thinking about organizational change at present. When I inquired about how such information would be used, he expressed the desire to make a connection to current thinking as leverage for engaging people in reading and thinking about a breakthrough way of thinking.

I experienced a feeling and a thought. The feeling was a bit of unease. This feeling always signals to me that something inside of me has yet to be unpacked, or that my personality (which favors things be exactly the way they should be) was asserting itself in an unhealthy way. The thought was, the more time we spend thinking about the present, the more it will influence our thinking about our breakthrough theory. And that drew me to the question, can we ever unthink what we know?

On Breakthrough, Leapfrog Thinking

I told my colleagues that I was interested in spending every bit of my time, energy, and thinking on that uncommon, breakthrough, leapfrog future, and had no interest in doing any thinking about the present for three reasons. One, simple math says that if we hope to produce this breakthrough thinking by some certain date, total available time is a constant, and the greater the fraction we spend on the present, the lesser the fraction we spend on the future. Two, I opined that every time we made any rigorous inquiry into the present we would be diluting the possibility of achieving breakthrough future thinking. Three, the more we think about the present, the more we anchor the present in our brains. All the energy that goes into thinking about the present becomes a tether to the present (which quickly becomes the past).

So, is it possible to unthink what we have already thought to clear our thinking for the future?

It strikes me that the question can be answered in (at least) two parts. The first is a brain-based answer and the second is a “thinking as a process” answer.

Is It Possible to Unthink: A Brain-Based Answer

Thinking, for me, falls into two large buckets. The first is thinking about what we already know. This is “sitting in a dark room with the thoughts I already have piecing them together in possibly new ways or at least going over them in some order”. The second is thinking that is a response to learning or discovery. This is when what we did not know becomes known. That does not mean it is entirely new knowledge; it may be an expansion of what we know or a new perspective on what we know. Nevertheless, it is some addition to what we already knew.

(I am neither a neurologist nor a neuroscientist. For now, I will rely on my understanding of the work of Lila Davachi, PhD of New York University and her research on memory. What follows is an extremely brief summation of how memory works (so brief that it is sure to have gaping holes but should suffice for the purpose of this article) and is limited to encoding memories, the role of the hippocampus, and generating (retrieving) memories.)

The brain records what we learn as memories. Long-term memories are encoded into the brain and from that moment forward sit around waiting to be retrieved (which, depending on the circumstances of their encoding, could be a lonely life). In between we retain them to various degrees.

Memory encoding is enhanced by several things: paying attention, working with information, organizing and generating information, distribution of practice (intervals of repetition), and context. In general, the greater the activation of the hippocampus, the more successful the memory formation. In general, the greater the emotion connected to an event, the greater the activation of the hippocampus. Memory retrieval actually plays a role in strengthening existing memory (by rewriting the memory in the brain). So, taken as a whole, the more you work with what you already know, the more the memory is strengthened.

All of this, it strikes me, suggests that the time we spend in animated thinking about what we already know (or expanding what we already know) has an inverse effect on encoding new memories that will be the stuff of breakthrough ideas for the future. So, in terms of leapfrogging into the future, the brain can be your friend at the same time it is your enemy. While retention of memory can fade with inattention and lack of retrieval, the physical brain cannot unthink what we already know (i.e., memories already encoded).

Is It Possible To Unthink: A Thinking as a Process Answer

Retention, then, may be a lever for unthinking insofar as the ability to retrieve a memory decreases as the time between retrievals of a memory increases. The brain is decently efficient in that regard. Davachi notes that as the time between attempts to retrieve a memory increase, the more the brain is inclined to send the memory to the “no need to keep this one on hand” bucket, giving the impression that the memory no longer exists.

What might favor such a “loss of memory”? Exciting the hippocampus and generating powerful new memories that create deep grooves in the brain will in time command more of the brain’s attention than memories that receive decreasing attention. Holding on to those new memories through frequent and emotional retrieval can create what Jeffrey Schwartz and Henry Stapp describe as “attention density”. And what favors such new powerful new memories? Conversations that draw our attention to future possibilities through powerful questions that create a deep shift in the way the brain works to answer the questions.

Powerful questions have three attributes. They are personal, ambiguous, and anxiety provoking. (See the article on Powerful Questions for more on this.) Taken together they make it difficult for the brain to quickly download easily accessible memories and serve them up as quick answers to the questions. Powerful questions make us pause and think again for the first time.

If the heart of the question says that problem solving the past is not on the table as a viable topic, what is left but to begin a deeper inquiry into the “Why?” of things, and in so doing discover the non-obvious and the uncommon. If the heart of the question rules out a better understanding of current ways of thinking around organizational change, what is left but to shift to ask “What if?”. Such is the stuff of breakthrough thinking and leapfrogging into the future.

Future Possibilities

It is neurophysiologically naive of course to think that even powerful questions and engaging conversations do not draw on already formed memories. The brain is quick to call a bluff. Through powerful questions we can access those memories as springboards for imagining how current mental models might give way to future possibilities – uncommon insights into new ways of understanding change in organizations. Such is the stuff of newly formed memories that combined with chosen accountability and ownership may open way into futures different from the past.

So, is it possible to unthink what we already know? The answer is mixed. The brain may say “yes” or it may say “request denied”. But as a matter of intention we can always choose to focus on breakthrough thinking and leapfrogging. As a matter of choice we can put our attention on that intention. We are continuously rewriting our memories based on what we give our attention to. And we always give our attention to our intentions, whether those intentions are actively articulated or passively allowed to frame our actions.


Powerful Questions

I came to know about powerful questions from Bill Brewer, a colleague of Peter Block. Bill had come to our institution to present a workshop on Block’s Six Conversations. He described powerful questions as having three attributes.

They are personal. This is not to say they are personally invasive, only that when the question is posed, it is unmistakably clear that the question must be considered on a personal level.

They are ambiguous. The ambiguity removes the option to download past thoughts or opinions or theories. The answer is not obvious. The question causes a stop in the normal flow of self-talk. With no obvious quick response available, something inside has to be unpacked in order to frame, or begin to frame, a response.

They are anxiety provoking. Not in the sense of putting one in harm’s way, but to the extent that the answer is not obvious one has to navigate the waters of uncertainty and ambiguity in order to begin to make meaning of the question. There is risk.

Taken together, the three attributes are, in the words of Henry Real Bird, the poet-laureate of Montana, an invitation to think, to move along in thought.

These attributes draw us into asking what experience we expect from considering the question that has been posed, what we expect to learn from the question, how much risk we are willing to take in the course of moving along in thought, and how much the experience of those around us matters.

Powerful questions can be philosophical and complex. They can also be simple in and of themselves, and derive their power from the duration of reflection we give them. Some pull us down paths already traveled but look at the landscape from a different point of view.

Powerful Questions for Individuals

My coach, Katherine Jackson, asked me, “What brought you to now?” “What do you mean by ‘now’” I asked. “Whatever you take it to mean” she replied. She was not being coy.

I realized she was not asking me to simply recount the factual details of a journey. The more I thought about the question the more it brought me to the realization that I was being asked to consider the culmination of all the thoughts and experiences I had ever had, the manner in which they had intertwined with each other, and how and why they had produced the me that was here right now.

Was the now of my life the only possible result of this train of thoughts and experiences? Could I have interpreted them differently? Worked from different deep assumptions? Responded differently? Grown into a different person?

I struggled with the meaning of “now”? Caught between the past and future, is now just a point of transition? A forward reflection of the past and a requirement for the future? Blissfully disconnected from both the past and the future?

The past is fixed but the future is whatever possibility we imagine it to be. Can a reflective journey through the past that delivered me into the now paradoxically free me from reliving the past and open way into future possibilities? Can the totality of all the neuronal activity of my brain be leveraged into new insights and understandings, be burned into my brain as new pathways, and become the hardwiring we tap into without conscious awareness?

Powerful Questions for Organizations

What can powerful question do for organizations, if anything? “What brought us to now?” Can the possibilities for creating shift in individuals be adapted for organizations?

The answers, I think, are no and yes respectively. “No” insofar as organizations have no ability think and reflect separate from the people who populate them. “Yes” insofar as the ability and willingness of persons to each engage in the heavy lifting of inner work and choose to place the fruits of that labor in the community’s awareness. There is, I think, a prerequisite for using powerful questions in organizations.

Making Time to Think

Nancy Kline’s marvelous book, “Time to Think” makes the observation that the common complaint that people ought to do better thinking is rarely met with the intentional practice of making time and place for thinking, actively encouraging people to think, and placing a high value on thinking. In all to many organizations thinking is something one is expected to do in copious amounts so long as it does not interrupt work. Thinking at the expense of productivity is frowned upon in lean continuous improvement circles.

Communities of Learning, Thinking, and Practice

Some years ago I sent an invitation to all the managers and leaders who had attended a week-long course on leadership that I taught. It was a real invitation. I described taking the time to think by considering a question. I let people know that there was a price for attending;  people would have to give up problem solving and negotiating self interest; they may find themselves feeling vulnerable; they should be willing to take some risks (even as the risks were unnamed). I told them I would honor their option to say no and pass. Finally, I let them know I really hoped they would attend.

Of the 120 invitations I sent, close to 90 people responded, 75 said they wanted to attend, 45 said they would attend. Thirty-five people showed up on a Friday afternoon at 4 PM.

I asked one question: “What question inspires engagement in you?” I emphasized that the answer to the question was itself a question. They were not to iterate what inspired engagement but to identify the question that inspired engagement.

We began with personal reflection. Five minutes of silence. People then broke into small groups of three (very difficult to hide in a group of three). They could leave the room, wander the halls, remain at their table, anything of their choosing. They were to share their thoughts in the manner that worked for their group of three.

We reconvened about 25 minutes later. I posed a four part question: “What struck you about the question I asked, what struck you about your experience thinking about the question, what struck you about your small group conversation, and what struck you about the question that, for you, inspires you?”


I was not really interested in the actual questions that inspired them. They would be personal, and to place an expectation in the room that they had to give voice to them was not the work I had hoped the original question would provoke.

I finished (about 45 minutes late, almost everyone still there) with an invitation to offer a closing thought. It was an invitation, telling each person s/he could say no and pass. In one way or another, to greater or lesser degrees, people said they felt different. The afternoon had been hard work, and many said they had to unpack some inner parts of themselves to see the original question through to the end.

A decently large group of people returned to work on Monday with a different view of their own leadership. They now had a group of colleagues with whom they could share their thinking. They understood the people who looked to them for leadership differently. They were, by their own accounts, different people, willing and able to have different conversations in the workplace, willing to ask a few questions of their own, curious to explore leadership while they did their jobs of moving the business of the business forward.

Powerful Questions

I am not known for having original thoughts or ideas. I tell people I fully expect to die without ever having one. So, I do not feel the burden to compose powerful questions myself. I keep a journal, and write down any I hear. Then I plagiarize them to no end to adapt them to the circumstances in which I find myself.

If you know of any powerful questions, or have a gift for thinking of powerful questions, leave a comment and share.