Thursday, May 10, 2018

Don’t Hold That Thought

OK, yes, you can hold onto a thought. But don’t hold off on thinking.

We should care that people do not spend enough time thinking. We tend to focus on the actions, the tactics, before thinking about the strategies and objectives they’re supposed to support. What passes for thinking is often unfocused busywork, a churning of un-prioritized activities.

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of one of the best pieces of advice he ever received about strategic thinking; it was from former President Bill Clinton. The president said, “Scheduling.” In a Stanford Graduate School of Business seminar a few years ago, Mr. Blair talked about how he both used and passed along this tidbit. “Where’s your thinking time? Where am I going? What am I trying to do? You have to create the space to be thinking strategically all the time,” he said.

It’s another example of how process and creativity are not mutually exclusive. As a fan of the Arthurian legends, I was taken aback by a comment made in The Once and Future King about the king’s style of thinking toward the end of his life: “The old man had always been a dutiful thinker, never an inspired one.” Again, it was a poor characterization and sets up a false choice. We need both varieties. A dutiful thinker is one who is habitually observing, searching for solutions, and attempting to anticipate the future.

The creative spark is precious but dutiful thinking, steady and stepwise – hand-in-hand with research and analysis – is a virtue of its own. Sometimes we can get to the goal line in one play. More often, though, progress is made in important, incremental steps that ultimately add up to the win.

Friedrich Nietzsche observed the interplay of thinking behaviors in 1878. "Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration... shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects... All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering."

There are many ways to think and in any number of combinations, including:

And now we can add “unsafe thinking” to the list. In a new book by the same name, Jonah Sachs places the “unsafe” label on what is actually an amalgamation of vision, bold moves, measured risks and follow-through. I don’t think Sachs is lobbying for ideas that are literally unsafe. Unsafe is clever and attention getting in the same way the profiles in the book showcase inspired, double take moments created by smart thinkers.

Smart thinkers and good leaders also ask probing questions and seek a variety of inputs. But some, especially in the public relations, marketing and advertising realms, seek seclusion so they can develop “the big idea” on their own. Then, they present their campaigns as a fait accompli like Athena bursting out of Zeus’s head fully armored and ready for battle.

While there is a clear need for individual thought, creativity is no one’s personal domain. You want and need exceptional thinkers but they must know how to leverage a team. Beyond using other minds to reality check, pressure test and sharpen concepts, we should be accessing ideas from across the organization. If not, we risk wasting, alienating and demoralizing a most precious resource.

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