The World Economic Forum (WEF) declared cognitive flexibility as one of the top skills needed to excel in a 2020 workplace. But what does cognitive flexibility actually mean? And how can we best adopt and nurture it to optimize our own learning, lifestyle, and work?
There are various definitions of the term and it is often thrown around loosely. Some researchers emphasize the effectiveness of the brain’s ‘switching’ ability between different cognitive skills. Others focus on radical shifts in mindsets, behaviors, and perspectives according to changing situations or circumstances.
Perhaps the most apt and nuanced interpretation of cognitive flexibility (CF), however, comes from the originator of Cognitive Flexibility Theory himself—professor Rand Spiro. He describes it as “the ability to spontaneously restructure one’s knowledge, in many ways, in adaptive response to radically changing situational demands.” That is, it produces the versatility needed to effectively address novelty.
Whatever the variations, CF is clearly a skill with tremendous practical as well as professional benefits.
CF can be seen in action with linguists who must switch frequently between multiple languages, with actors who move in and out of various characters, or with individuals who have multiple social and cultural identities and must adjust their mode of thinking and being according to where they are and with whom they communicate.
In business, it might be demonstrated when a consultant switches effectively between work on various clients in markedly different sectors; or perhaps a serial entrepreneur moving seamlessly from one startup in one sector to another, and then another. Such switching might be simultaneous or sequential, or both. As such, it is also critical for portfolio careerists who seek to monetize multiple talents and expertise by alternating work on various projects.
THE OPTIMAL PATH TO CREATIVITY
What is less understood—and yet most intriguing—is CF’s connection with heightened creativity and imagination. In fact, Spiro insists that the highest form of cognitive flexibility fosters creativity. This is because it clearly “requires ideas, analogies, patterns, and perspectives from outside the domain you are working on.”
We now know that many creative breakthroughs that are traditionally associated with micro-specialization have actually been influenced by a CF-enabled versatility. Take the case of Nobel Prize-winning scientists who—surprisingly to some— are some of the most versatile minds in the world.