Thinking about Thinking

In my last career as a change consultant, I facilitated a lot of groups, senior leadership off-sites, and training programs mostly. These sessions all had a mix of large group discussion and small group discussion to allow for more participation. Sometimes I would create small contiguous groups composed of people who were sitting next to each other at tables or in the “U.” But sometimes, in order to mix the group, I would ask participants to count off and then form groups of all the ones, twos and so on.

There was one mistake I made over and over again. When it was time to break people into small groups, I asked participants to count off by the number of people in the group, rather than by the number of groups that I expected. For example, I would say to a group of fifteen, “Count off by fiveswhen I expected there to be three groups of five. What I got was five groups of three. It is a dumb mistake that had my co-facilitator whistling the theme song of Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, “If I only had a brain.”

This is the kind of mistake that comes from being on autopilot. It happens to us all, like when we walk into a room and suddenly can’t remember why we wanted to go in there.

In his book Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes two thinking processes: System 1 (automatic processing) and System 2 (focused conscious thought). System 1, automatic processing, accounts for 90 percent of our brain activity, and System 2 does the other 10 percent.  It is a good thing that this is true. Imagine having to drive to work with the same brain activity that you had when you first learned to drive a car: OK, now ease off on the clutch, give it a little gas, not too much, watch out for that car on your left, give the bicycle a little more room, you’re coming up to a stop sign so start slowing down.

Our conscious brains are very powerful. When we focus we can calculate, evaluate, solve problems, plan, and execute plans. But our conscious brains can only do one thing at a time. So we switch out of System 2 into System 1 as quickly as we can; our brain goes on autopilot.

Our autopilot brain still makes decisions and directs our actions, but it does so based upon the frequency with which it has made a particular decision in the past. Go into that room now, go back to thinking about . . . – Oh. . . Hmm . . .  why did I come in here?..

Our automatic processing brains are also very susceptible to suggestion. What our unconscious brains see is often what we expect to see. “That light was green, officer.” This selective perception can cause us to see things that aren’t there or to not see things that are there based upon our expectations.

In my work with leaders in the chemical, and oil and gas industries, I spent a lot of time thinking about “brain failures.” It turned out that a substantial percentage of Process Safety Incidents resulted from people’s “brains on autopilot” or “expectation-based inspection.”

So, I came to believe that leaders need to get control of their thinking. They must use their conscious brains to focus on what’s important and to run periodic checks on their automatic processing brains.

This is a critical requirement in light of the overwhelming amount of information available to us. Some of this is driven by technology –  email, smartphones, social media, internet ubiquity; some is driven by the lionizing of multitasking. I often saw “ability to multitask” as a specific requirement in entry-level management job descriptions. What that said to me was “we know we’re giving you too much to do; we just expect that you can do a bunch of things at the same time.”

Let me be clear. Multitasking is a myth. What we are doing is switch-tasking, rapidly switching between our conscious brain and our automatic processing brain. Switch-tasking has been shown to degrade overall productivity, decrease working memory, and compromise the ability to focus.

So as a leader, your first act is to get control of your thought processes. Create space where you can use your working memory effectively. Review emails at regular times, say, 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Quit saying, “My door is always open.” Maintain your accessibility to your people, but occasionally close your door, and find time to think about how you think.

Self-awareness is the foundation of leadership. How could we expect someone to follow unless we understand how we ourselves think, behave, and come across to others? It all starts with thinking.

Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychologist, posited two primary brain functions. The first is perceiving – the way we take in information; the second is deciding – the way we draw conclusions from that information and prescribe action. He further broke each of these functions into preferences, two ways that most people prefer to take in information or decide and act.

Do you prefer to take in information in an ordered, organized, step-by-step way, or are you more comfortable skipping around and “reading between the lines”?

There is no right or wrong way here, just differences between people.

Do you prefer to decide things by weighing pros and cons, making spreadsheets or balance sheets? Or do you most often decide things by comparing expected outcomes to deeply held values, often about people? Again, there is no right or wrong and these are preferences, not absolute irrevocable personality traits. It’s like left-handedness. Some of us have stronger preferences for our handedness than others, but left-handed people often become more ambidextrous because they live in a right-handed world.

By now you may be thinking, Oh, he’s going to push the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The MBTI is an instrument that measures Jungian brain function preferences together with an understanding of external orientation (gravitate toward people and things) or internal orientation (toward concepts and ideas). I do like the MBTI as a way to understand differences among people, but I think it is misused to select people for jobs or compose teams. It is much better used to understand one’s self or as the basis of discussion between people trying to understand each other.

There are many models for the way people think that I like as well – David Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory, Ned Hermann’s Whole Brain Model, Stuart Atkins’ LIFO, The Gallup Strengths Finder, to name a few. I am agnostic as to the analytical model leaders use to think about their own thinking. However, I do recommend that a leader try to understand how he or she naturally thinks and to become more mentally ambidextrous. For example, to push the limits of how you think about strategy, use the Michael Porter Five Forces of Industry Structure model and the value engineering approach of Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy.

A client once said to me, “I like having you around because you think of things that would never occur to me. You see the impact of my decisions or actions long before they happen.” This is one of the nicest compliments I received. I think Fred valued my intuition and perhaps my “emotional intelligence” (to quote Daniel Goleman). But what he said was: “You think weird!”

It’s extremely useful for a leader to be surrounded by others who “think weird.” Recognize your own thinking patterns and the limits of your cognitive flexibility and hire people who fill out your flat sides. The drive for diversity in organizations is not just to create a fairer workplace. It is also to create a more complete thinking style, a collection of people who can think about an issue from many different perspectives in order to produce better decisions and more sustainable results.

There is one place where thinking flexibility doesn’t work: in problem-solving. Problem-solving requires two different kinds of thinking:

  • Divergent thinking, where
    • The objective is the quantity of ideas
    • You suspend all judgment
    • You use tools like brainstorming and lateral thinking
  • Convergent thinking, where
    • The objective is the best idea
    • You group and combine ideas, evaluate ideas, and plan execution of ideas
    • You use tools like affinity diagrams, prioritization criteria matrix, and critical path method

Leaders must insist that these two types of thinking be kept separate in solving problems, generating innovation, and improving processes. Just as “that’s a dumb idea” poisons idea generation, “here’s another thought” derails idea selection and planning.

Thinking about our own thinking involves introspection and strives for flexibility, either within ourselves or within our team. It also requires the discipline to focus on the right type of thinking at the right time.

It isn’t intended to turn us into the “smartest guys in the room” (that’s what the guys at Enron used to say, and that didn’t work out too well), but rather to recognize that “none of us is as smart as all of us.” And to give us the kind of confidence the scarecrow felt when the Wizard of Oz gave him a diploma:

The square root of the hypotenuse of an isosceles right triangle is equal to the sum of the square roots of the other two sides. Oh, Joy! Oh, Rapture! I’ve got a brain.

Yes, I do. And it is mine to expand and to use. Now break into three small groups, in whatever way you choose.


Alan Culler
Alan Culler
Alan Cay Culler is a writer of stories and songs, his fourth career (aspiring actor, speakers agent, change consultant, storyteller.) He retired after thirty-seven years as a leadership and change consultant. Alan was an executive coach, a leadership team facilitator, trainer, and project manager for innovation and improvement initiatives. Alan’s point of view: "Business is all about people, customers, staff, suppliers, and the community - pay disciplined attention to these people and rewards follow; ignore them and success will not last." Alan is “a seeker of wisdom from unusual places.” He is currently completing three books: Wisdom from Unusual Places, Is Consulting Wisdom an Oxymoron?, and Change Leader? Who me?. Alan earned a BA in Theatre from Centre College, an MBA from the London Business School, and a post-graduate certificate in Organization Development from Columbia University. Alan also builds cigar box guitars and wood sculptures, hikes, travels with his wife Billie, and gets as much grandchildren playtime as he can.

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