Every day at the Alliance Rubber Company’s factory in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a lot of pinging takes place.
The family-owned company has known for years that elastic is big business. In 1923, founder William H. Spencer realised he’d hit upon a novel commercial idea when he created rubber bands by cutting up the inner tubes of Goodyear tyres before using them to wrap up newspaper bundles. Since then, the company has diversified what it produces and now services industries including healthcare, shipping, fitness and the military.
Hot crustacean band
The company’s rubber products also play a role in the lucrative global lobster market. Jason Risner, Alliance’s director of business strategy, explains: “Traditionally when lobsters and crabs were caught for consumption purposes, their claws were secured with wooden pegs. This was because as soon as the creatures were harvested, they would go into holding tanks underneath fishing boats and fight each other. The wooden pegs also damaged the lobster meat and caused infections. This meant some innovative thinking was needed.” The rubber band has now replaced the pegs to keep lobsters from nipping lumps out of each other.
But these humble loops of elastic are saving far more than ill-tempered crustaceans from harm – they help to keep daredevil humans alive too. Rubber bands are used in the packing and deployment systems of parachutes so the canopy can deploy easily. Yet this elastic is very similar to that found in office stationery cupboards or in the hairbands used to tie up hair.
This constant reinvention of their simple product is essential if Alliance wants to continue to succeed, especially as they face rising competition from Thailand and China. The company needs to hire people who are willing to experiment and come up with new innovations in the rubber field, generating ideas that have never been seen before. By default, that means a lot of brain activity from these workers – hence all the pinging at the company’s headquarters. It isn’t just the snap of rubber, but also of minds coming up with with creative ways to make their company stand out. For Alliance, hiring people who think in a flexible way is integral to their business model.
Unlike analytical thinkers who are driven by logic and sequence, flexible thinkers thrive in situations which involve breaking boundaries and trying new things. The idea of flexible thinking has, of course, been around for aeons but for author, physicist and screenwriter Leonard Mlodinow, it’s now prime time for people to harness the power of ‘elastic thinking’ to navigate an unstable world.
Stretch your mind
Mlodinow’s book, Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World, focuses on the tools required to take advantage of processes that he believes we can all access. Elastic thinking is about stretching your mind and using ‘bottom up’ processing in the brain rather than the top down executive functions that drive analytical thinking. It encompasses a range of processes including, but not confined to, neophilia (an enthusiasm for novelty), schizotypy, imagination, idea generation and divergent thinking.
Against the backdrop of the Royal Society of Arts in London on a spring day, Mlodinow explains elastic thinking is not just for artists and writers but for those in all professions. It is also an asset that can be finely honed. “We all have to be trouble-shooters if we want to survive or thrive in today’s changing world,” he says. “Fortunately it’s a skill that’s built into the human brain.”
He says human thinking can be set out on a spectrum. “Logical analytical thinking is really good when you are trying to solve a problem you’ve seen before. You can use known methods and techniques to approach whatever issue you are dealing with. Elastic thinking is what you need when the circumstances change and you are dealing with something new. It’s not about following rules.”
He describes Uber and Google as strong examples where elastic thinking underpins their creation and adaptability. And what do Leonardo da Vinci and the inventors of Pokemon Go have in common? They are also credited as elastic thinkers. It’s all about connecting the unconnected, trying new things and not being afraid of failure.
Much to the chagrin of those overseeing him, renowned polymath da Vinci would deliberately take long breaks away from painting The Last Supper in a bid to give his creative juices time to process. Mlodinow also observes in his book that the Pokemon Go developers ignored widely held beliefs that all gamers wanted to do was “sit and play” and instead, by “leveraging existing technologies in a novel way, they changed the way games developers think."
“You’ll see the new companies – often tech start-ups – that have couches for people to lay around and stare up at the ceiling,” adds Mlodinow. “The workers don’t have managers who are going to come and berate them for that as they know that incubation time is very useful for coming up with and processing ideas.”
For those wishing to tap into elastic thinking, Mlodinow suggests carving out time for daydreaming, talking to strangers who are not in your usual social circles, absorbing art out of your comfort zone, and listening to ideas or concepts that you actively disagree with before considering the arguments of the supporters of those ideas and what motivated them.
Ollie Cummings, chief operating officer of Nurole, a global online recruitment platform for board and senior executive positions, says there is big demand for flexible thinkers. “We are seeing two trends. One is around cognitive diversity. People want to bring in those who think differently to the board and so avoid ‘group think’. The other is for those who are ‘digitally savvy’.”
Order from chaos
These desirable traits are something that Lucy Piper, the global head of creative at Intrepid Travel, is very familiar with. She has had a varied career path so far, encompassing film, advertising agencies, copy writing – and much more.
“I feel like elastic thinking is key to everything at the moment,” she says. “I’m doing big creative brand work right now and leading projects. It’s about creating processes from scratch and creating order from chaos.”
When Piper moved to Australia from the UK in her twenties, she says she realised she would have to make significant changes to her lifestyle and career ambitions, requiring a lot of calculated risks and pivoting between industries. Elastic thinking helped her to be resilient and adapt.
“I’m constantly pushing myself out of my comfort zone,” she explains. “I have a personal motto – it’s become a bit of a joke within my team but I’ve seen them apply it too. It’s all about ‘the relentless pursuit of excellence’. I’m trying to achieve high levels of achievement and make it a habit. But it’s about trying different things. We all have it in us.
“I will go off on whims though. I took up musical instruments again recently – picked up a guitar and played the piano and tried to flex muscles I hadn’t used in a while.”
She adds that she tries to find time in her day for ‘negative space goals’ – deliberate pauses in the day that allow for things like unfocused thinking. The name comes from art: negative space describes the space around the main object of the image at hand. Piper says: “I read about the value of applying negative space to your work so started using it. I’ll make the gaps in my daily life to allow me the time to daydream.”
But with the potential to make connections out of almost anything, does this mean life is more difficult because it’s harder to make decisions? Neuroscientist Stacey Bedwell, of Birmingham City University, says: “These individuals may find making certain decisions easier. For instance, being able to imagine various outcomes, without having prior experience or current stimuli, could make certain life decisions or risky decisions easier to make, as the possible consequences can be envisaged.”
She says that elastic thinking has helped her in her own career. “As a research scientist, abstract thought and being adaptable is vital to success. To generate new ideas and theories and offer explanations for previously unexplained phenomena, I need the ability to think beyond the present and outside my known environment.”
Adapting to change
But Leonard Mlodinow warns that elastic thinking can’t just be carried out in isolation and that humans need to be aware of the power of both analytical and elastic thinking in the circumstances that arise in their lives.
“If you are 100% on the elastic side, and you have no executive function of your brain ordering your thoughts, you will end up non-functional. The ideas will come so fast and so disconnected you can never get anything done.”
Back in Arkansas in the US, Jason Risner from Alliance Rubber Company believes elastic thinkers have helped his business to make technical breakthroughs. “Creative thinking drives our company forward. It’s really crazy what we’ve been able to do and all the markets we’ve been able to penetrate with rubber bands. But we’ve had to look for engineers and people with technical expertise to help with our equipment.
“All of the manufacturing equipment we use is retrofitted to our needs. We’ve had to take things that are meant for bagging potato chips and then retrofit them for our needs.” He believes the company’s success has had a lot to do with its ability to adapt and try new things in the elastic world.
And those lobsters mentioned earlier? Risner says there’s a lot of imagination at play at his company right now regarding the connections between the lobster and rubber market. “Billions of lobsters are banded together by hand every year. However, this causes carpal tunnel issues [a wrist injury] for workers, compensation issues for companies and high employee turnover. Year after year, we would see companies fail as they tried to launch a machine to band the lobsters. We’d partner with them and supply the rubber bands for the machines.
“Now we’re trying to invent our own machines to fix the problem.”