Intellectual flexibility is the ability to assess and adapt to changing circumstances rapidly, draw inferences and conclusions, and to utilize multiple creative solutions. Intellectual flexibility, sometimes called cognitive flexibility, is not a skill often named as critical for accomplished, innovative practitioners.
Intellectual flexibility, sometimes called cognitive flexibility, is not a skill often named as critical for accomplished, innovative practitioners. Perhaps more of an emerging skill than an established one, it nevertheless cannot be dismissed. The ability to think quickly and in multiple paradigms and venues is an invaluable tool when confronted with changing situations or environments. Thus, intellectual flexibility may be a hallmark of human intelligence that deserves further consideration.
Intellectual flexibility is similar to the ability to “think outside-‐of-‐the-‐box,” to imagine novel concepts and practices that break free of rigid molds. In business, an unyielding viewpoint has been represented through the image of silos. Silos are independent, rigid structures that hold only one type of grain. When individuals think and act as silos, they take a narrow approach to the world and what they may encounter. Intellectual flexibility is the search for a reality grounded in multiple points of view and perspective.
To be intellectually flexible, one must strive to be creative, innovative, and independent in thought. An individual must be able to constantly mix, change, emerge, and reemerge within changing times and conditions. This elasticity of mind allows conceptualization of ideas and theories that then can be verbalized, shared, and implemented. Adopting intellectual flexibility as a core skill in a professional repertoire would mean embracing inquiry and connection-‐making as fundamental aspects of one’s mindset.
Expanding upon constructivist learning premises (e.g., Bruner, Ausubel,
Piaget), cognitive flexibility theory recognizes that learning is built upon existing knowledge and experience, and then extends beyond that concept to address the way we process new information. The theory is more focused on the transfer of knowledge into perspectives flexible enough to embrace change. Yash Gupta, inaugural dean of the business school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has used the phrase “intellectual flexibility,” meaning to “help create a mindset that will roll with the punches, that will help you get to your destination.” Leading cognitive flexibility theorists Spiro and Jehng (1990) state: “By cognitive flexibility, we mean the ability to spontaneously restructure one’s knowledge, in many ways, in adaptive response to radically changing situational demands. This is a function of both the way knowledge is represented (e.g., along multiple rather than single conceptual dimensions) and the processes that operate on those mental representations (e.g., processes of schema assembly rather than intact schema retrieval).”
In a classroom or learning setting, intellectual flexibility content and activities would be presented in a variety of ways. The content would include different perspectives and views of the subject, allowing the learner to pay attention to knowledge construction. The materials would support real-‐world contexts and situations. The outcomes would include motivation of students, an embracing of possibilities rather than certainties, and development of learners who can readily transfer knowledge from one modality to another.
In a workplace or organizational setting, the individual or climate would embrace a belief in organizational change that supports multiple points of view and protocols. A leader would possess the skills necessary to accept and motivate diverse types of employees, shift rapidly in response to a new situation, be receptive to ideas and think outside-‐of-‐the-‐box, and promote contrasting decision-‐making styles. Leaders who possess the skill to be intellectually flexible handle change with ease and competence, since their perspective goes beyond the obvious and they are prepared to accept and embrace change. Since they can make sense of complex situations, they can inspire others and help them to understand the rapidly changing environments.
An individual who has achieved the core skill of intellectual flexibility will:
Focus forward (rather then rear view mirror thinking)
Embrace and cut through ambiguity and complexity
Be open to possibilities, not fate
Have an open mindset
Encourage creativity, productivity, and innovation in self and others
Express abundance vs. scarcity and collaborative vs. competitive mentalities
Use various types of intelligence
Encourage others along the way
Give direction to others as policies and circumstances change
Switch reactions to context of situation.
As part of our life span development, intellectual flexibility requires that we constantly learn and grow in our attitudes, abilities, and beliefs. A mindset open to possibilities creates our ability to achieve goals by considering options other than the automatic response. Developing or enhancing a core skill of intellectual flexibility will move our thinking beyond the belief that there is only one way to solve a problem or only one avenue for achieving our goals, and will open our minds to the possibilities of what can be.