Breakthrough Thinking

Nadler, Gerald - Breakthrough thinking

Dr. Relly Nadler:
This week are we sharing this interview from November of 2008, with Dr. Gerald Nadler, my uncle. He worked a long time at USC and at his Breakthrough Thinking Center.

He was IBM Chair Emeritus in Engineering Management and Professor Emeritus of Industrial and Systems Engineering at USC, where he was the Chairman of the ISE Department from 1983 until 1993. He also directed USC’s Center of Management of Engineering Research and Innovation in Technology. He consults and he presented seminars and workshops in all parts of the world. He was the President of the Center of Breakthrough Thinking, which is going to be our focus for today. It’s an international firm of consulting affiliates promoting breakthrough thinking and smart questions, planning and solution creation approaches.

He wrote over 225 published articles and 15 books, several of which are translated into eight other languages. He delivered over 800 invited lectures at many universities, companies and national and international conferences and has been an invited visiting professor at five universities worldwide.

Some of his books go way back to the planning design approach. Then he has the Breakthrough Thinking: The Seven Principles of Creative Problem Solving. We’ll talk with him about the new edition of that. That book itself was a Fast Track Best Business Book, it was on Computer World’s Best Business Book. He also had some take-offs of that: Breakthrough Thinking In Total Quality Management. Creative Solution Finding: The Triumph of Breakthrough Thinking Over Conventional Problem Solving. On all of these books he has co-authors.

Then he also has Ask The Right Questions: Creating the Answers that Work, and Smart Questions: Learn to Ask the Right Question for Powerful Results. One of the things we want to ask him is why questions; why the value of question.

Aside from the academic side, Dr. Nadler has been a VP of General Operations for 400 employee manufacturer for two years and 16 years as a member of the Board of Directors of a $300 million manufacturing company. Also, 15 years as a member of the Board of Directors of the 300 million USC Credit Union. 11 years as the commissioner of Los Angeles County quality and productivity committee and he is the past president of a worldwide 47,000 member Professional Industrial Engineers Institute.

Aside from being an academic, he had some real world practical experience taking ideas and concepts and applying them in the business world. Gerry, welcome to the call.

Dr. Gerald Nadler: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Gerry, I’m very interested in understanding what you can tell us about maybe some of the key leaders who have influenced you in your life. As you know, you’ve obviously had great influence on Relly, I can see that right away from the subject matter, but tell us a little bit about how you came to be in this field of breakthrough thinking and whose influenced you.

Dr. Gerald Nadler: It started very early because I had been educated, like most people, with what I will not be calling reductionism in the current conventional approaches. Observing early on in my industrial career that there are certain people who did things a lot differently than what I had been taught. It turns out that quite a few of my colleagues at the university, which is in St. Louis, Washington University, had the same kind of thinking that gee, some of these people do things a lot differently than the rest of the “professionals” and therefore we ought to study and find out what they do and how they do it, but more on that later.

There are some people that have influenced me. George Hadi, who as the President and CEO of Universal Motors and Michigan and became chairman of the company of which I served on the board of directors for 16 years; he somehow intuitively asked all the right questions. The Dean of Engineering at Wisconsin, where I was after St. Louis, would always ask when I came in because it was it was a State university; Gerry, what is it that you need to get accomplished. He never asked why, he always wanted to know where we wanted to go.

Warren Bennis, here at USC, has been a very prominent leader that I talked to and worked with, and who endorsed the first edition with a very generous statement.

The president of the University here, Steve Sample, wrote a book called The Contrarians Guide to Leadership. He’s been a very outstanding leader. Fortunately I’ve had the opportunity to work with him, talk with him, interact with him. He also supplied an endorsement for one our books.

Lastly, Ed Rechtin who was president of Aerospace Corporation and became a professor here at USC after he retired from Aerospace and in affect developed a whole field of systems architecting, which is something we won’t get into too much, but he and I have worked very diligently at the time in bringing together the breakthrough thinking and system architecting ideas.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Gerry, it’s funny, you know, we always talk about six degrees of separation, and I know you and Relly are related, but interestingly enough, Steve Sample’s daughter Elizabeth worked with me at Accenture and I actually was invited out USC to do a panel with some women executives by Steve Sample and Warren Bennis. Isn’t it funny no matter how detached we are we always have a degree of connectedness.

Dr. Gerald Nadler: A lot less than six.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Right. Also, I didn’t realize your connection with Aerospace, we’ll have to talk about this later, but that’s one my current clients I’m just starting to work with down in your area in LA.

So can you give us some examples, Gerry, about breakthrough thinking. How is that different than plain thinking and also, given this is Leadership Development News, how is this important for leaders today?

Dr. Gerald Nadler: Well, what I mean by plain thinking is what we have been indoctrinated with in our education and methods of working in organizations. Just as one of the examples; people talk about critical thinking in organizations and leaders need to have critical thinking, and then there are many references about what the parts of critical thinking are:

  • Purpose
  • Questions
  • Points of View
  • Information
  • Assumptions
  • Concepts
  • Conclusions
  • Consequences

These are all very important aspects of critical thinking but the question really makes breakthrough thinking different is how you do those various parts. If you don’t think about how you ask questions about purposes or questions or points of view, etc., you’ll be using conventional approaches; the reductionist approach that I talked about.

My colleague in Japan and I have prepared and gone through quite a bit of literature and identified a 2,500 year history of how people go about solving problems, developing solutions, creating systems and so on. In effect, the last 300 years or so we have been embedded with what we now call conventional thinking, or reductionism. That is everything that we see now is based on the education that we get that says the way to solve all problems is get all the facts, identify and break it down into smaller parts, etc., etc.

When one even looks at the issue, as we were talking about before concerning the parts of critical thinking, the approach tends to be to look at points of view for example and break them down because that is what reductionism does.

So, what we have discovered from our studies over the last 40 years or so, is that there are roughly 8% of the population who intuitively think differently than what we have all been taught. This is a very critical matter because what we find is that these leaders of leading creators of system solutions, of the ways of development, have told us over and over again they had to throw away what they had been taught.

Well, we don’t recommend throwing away what you have been taught because there are places where reductionism is valuable. But, in effect, the idea is simply that breakthrough thinking is a synthesis of what these intuitives, we call them, do to develop their great solutions.

I hope you click on the interview link above and listen to this information talk with Dr. Gerald Nalder.



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