The ability to think for yourself is an essential skill for any entrepreneur. That’s why Professor Virginia Cha, who teaches one of the most popular entrepreneurship courses in Asia at the National University of Singapore, spends so much time teaching her students how their brains work — and how to make them work more effectively.
“My theory is that we have three interlocking gears in our brain that we can turn on as we process information, assess opportunities, and deal with situations as entrepreneurs: a computing gear, a knowledge gear, and a connection gear,” says Cha, the has helped found a number of successful companies in addition to his teaching activities.
“Gear” every entrepreneur needs to be successful.getty
The computing equipment is the central processing unit or CPU. It thinks fast, zooms in on gaps, performs quantitative reasoning and other mathematical calculations.
“It’s the problem solver in you,” explains Cha.
It compares knowledge gear to random access memory, or RAM, which stores everything you’ve learned and understood about the world. More importantly, it indexes this information and can efficiently and effectively extract the relevant data when needed.
“That’s the librarian in your head,” she says.
The connecting gear is the software. It recognizes patterns, draws boundaries between related concepts, people and experiences, and generates useful insights from them.
“It’s the inventor, the innovator in you,” says Cha.
Make up for what you lack
Her study of what she calls “entrepreneurial logic” has led Cha to the conclusion that each of us has a dominant gait — and it’s important for us to recognize which one, because each gait brings with it both pros and cons also disadvantages.
“We all have limited cognitive capacity. If your dominant gear is computers, you tend to have lower capacity in either knowledge gear or connectivity gear,” she explains. “What does that mean? Well, if you watch a lot of geeks — super freaks who can actually code — they often aren’t socially savvy. They have a hard time relating with people and tend to look at situations in ones and zeros. “They tend to speak very quickly and very abruptly. They lack empathy.”
Similarly, those whose dominant gear is knowledge tend to think deeply but move slowly and spend more time considering and processing information.
“They tend to be very methodical because they go through their vast body of knowledge, make connections, and then share that information,” she says.
Those with dominant connection gears tend to be innovative, creative, and adept at making connections between people and ideas. They are able to synthesize their knowledge and experience and come up with something completely new.
“These are the people who invent new things, but I wouldn’t ask them to do an actuarial spreadsheet!” says Cha. “There is a dominant gait. So the other two are smaller.”
Recognize your strengths and weaknesses
Recognizing your strengths and limitations is the key to success for any leader. If you know your connection gear is really strong, but realize that your computing and knowledge gear is weaker, you can build a team that includes people with subject matter expertise and excellent problem-solving skills to overcome your deficiencies in these areas. If you know you have top-notch problem-solving skills but lack weak connection gear, you can work with a Rainmaker to create the business connections you need.
Cha says you can also work on improving your weaker gaits — at least in some cases.
“The good news is that you can train yourself to have better gears, to have bigger gears. For example, you can train yourself in knowledge by doing lots of reading and memory exercises so you have the ability to index and recall information quickly. There are definitely training programs around knowledge,” she says. “The other good news is that connection gear can improve with age and experience – by living life and learning from it. Of course, you can go through specific training programs on pattern recognition, community building and so on.”
The bad news, at least for those of us without strong computing gear, is that this is the one area that’s hard to improve on.
“It’s very hard to teach people who don’t think in numbers to think in numbers, and even if you have that ability, you can lose it over time,” says Cha.
“Some people can do arithmetic in their heads. I used to be one of them. My first job was an operating system programmer for Burroughs Corporation in the 1980’s. If you had a bug in your code, the whole system wouldn’t even boot up. Back then, the only way to debug your system was to push a button, and it was rendered in hexadecimal in this giant printout – and I used to be able to read that raw dump and know what was going on. But over the years I’ve explicitly expanded my knowledge kit. I got my Ph.D., binged on lots of books, and specifically made myself more empathetic by learning how to connect with people. Because of this, my computer gear had to compromise, which I think is fine, because to be a true leader, to really make a difference on this earth, you have to build people. You can’t do that if you only know how to deal with numbers.”
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I’m a bestselling author, public speaker, and President of Red Team Thinking LLC. I teach organizations and individuals around the world to see the truth, speak the truth and act on the truth – because I believe it’s the lies we tell ourselves that hold us back. My books include Red Teaming: How Your Business Can Conquer the Competition by Challenging Everything and American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company. I also teach at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
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