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Unthinking Thinking

Invest Your Intelligence Where It Matters; Stop Wasting It on Things That Don't

Deidre Paknad  ::  Leader Development

In a particularly creative working session with a young product designer, we arrived at what seemed like a terrific idea with a novel implementation. We’d had one of those brainstorms where ideas built naturally on each other and with them, momentum to a conclusion. We quickly “locked and loaded” on our result and she set off to detail it for development. Luckily, it was a Friday and the weekend created a natural simmering period.

By Monday, it was clear we’d overlooked several important things. It was equally clear that time had ripened and enhanced a fundamentally sound idea; what we handed off to development on Wednesday was indeed a smart, novel feature.

Ironically, it’s hard to spend time on product or strategic thinking, but easy to spend too much time thinking about regrets or fears.

The things we should simmer slowly get shut off too soon and the things we shouldn’t simmer at all, stew until they boil! The comparison presents a perfect opportunity for self awareness -- we can choose what to think about, how deeply and for how long.

Being clear and intentional about where you will invest intellect and time improves strategies, products and relationships. It aligns your actions with your aspirations. This isn't an argument for moving slowly, but rather for managers and leaders to think and act more intentionally. To quote Diane Hamilton, “an impulse is not an imperative”. But recognizing your impulse is an imperative to managing it.

Simmer Well: Product ideas, market messaging and business strategy

Don’t rush to closure too soon on these activities. They benefit from exploration, debate, and iterative consideration. According to McKinsey, it's important that executives and teams take time to frame issues and to question early conclusions because of natural bias from prior conclusions and perceptions; time helps leaders and managers better “identify the real choices and constraints facing their organizations” and results in far better strategy. Teams rush the process because they believe the answer is self evident or doesn't require deeper consideration. Managers and executives short cut because they feel they don't have time to devote yet it’s among the most important uses of their time. (McKinsey and Blue Ocean Leadership, a terrific assessment of where managers should spend their time.)

Product direction, market messages and business strategy are expensive to put in play and far more expensive to reverse – a loss of both capital and time in market that cedes ground to more effective competitors. Before committing to execution, allocate enough time to explore and expand thinking commensurate with the importance of the decision. If your team is making strategic business decisions, fulsome exploration and healthy debate are essential; McKinsey reports strategies debated with vigor and even outright tension produce better business results. Without adequate time to think and reflect deeply, the variables that determine success and the range of potential outcomes aren't well enough understood -- key ingredients to good strategic decisions (See Deciding How to Decide for more on good, timely decision making).

If you’re making important product or market decisions alone without benefit of debate to challenge entrenched conclusions, give yourself breathing room to see the unseen. Try an hour or more of your favorite endurance sport at your highest intensity level to create space for a different quality of thinking – the combination of air, effort, and time for uninterrupted consideration do wonders. (Cycling works for me -- I’ve pulled off the road to capture more than one breakthrough idea!)

Never Simmer: Regrets, defeats and fear

These things and other ruminations on the past or perceived wrongs don’t improve with simmering. When you find yourself building a case against someone (or yourself) in your head, stop. Simmering negative thoughts reinforces them and makes things worse -- it’s bad for your health and it diminishes the energy and quality thinking you could give to more value-creating activities, reports Travis Bradberry.

To turn off the burner on negative thoughts, look directly at the essence of the grievance or fear, acknowledge that it’s there and make a conscious decision to move past it. This is a decision to invest your intellect in things that are better for you. Knowing your priorities and actions needed to execute strategic plans creates a ready replacement for the negative thought cascade, and enables a faster shift of that intellectual energy to aspiration and achievement. This is a skill that requires real and sustained practice!

Some leaders use meditation, yoga or other mindfulness techniques to improve this skill; I started about five years ago. It increased my capacity to extract the wisdom that comes with fear, for example, and drop the anxiety it produces more quickly. CEO Tony Hsieh, Arianna Huffington, editor in chief of the Huffington Post, Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, CEO Marc Benioff, and former CEOs and chairmen of Hartford and Medtronic. These techniques bring attention to the present rather than past events or forecasts of future problems. Tech giant Google even offers its staff classes and has a company mindfulness leader.

Four Tactics to Take Away

Try a more thoughtful approach to thinking with these four tactics:

  1. Move thoughtfully from strategy conclusions or product ideas to action.
  2. Move quickly to cut off negative thoughts from becoming conclusions or undermining your actions.
  3. Maintain clarity on strategies, priorities and actions that require your intellect
  4. Design time into your process for deep thinking commensurate with the significance of the decision or conclusion

Deepen good thinking and avoid wasting energy on negative thinking. You’ll be more successful and happy -- but self-awareness is essential.

What do you think? (No pun intended :)

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