“How often do you think about how you think?” That sounds like a trick question. It’s one we ask in our workshops. The answer, usually, is, “not a lot.”
There's a second question:
“ Where do you focus your thinking?”
The answer, (usually) is
“ I dunno ...”
These are not trick questions. These are key questions.
Let’s look at the first one. If you understand how you think — you can understand how you learn. If you understand how you think — you can improve your critical thinking skills. If you understand how you think — you can make better decisions and communicate clearly. Your thinking is the key to better leadership — self-leadership, team leadership, and thought-leadership.
The second question is the key to unlocking your potential. It’s the difference between a good day and a bad day.
“Where do you focus your thinking?”
“Problem or outcome?”
Problem-reacting vs. Outcome-creating.
Are your problems big or small? Simple or complex? No matter the size of our problem, we all tend to fall into the trap of reacting to it. We don’t want it. We want to fix it, to make it go away. How we think about the problem tends to be narrow. Single-minded. Every problem is a nail, and how we think is the hammer.
Outcomes, on the other hand, are a chance to mentally breathe. To be creative. To approach that problem from a different angle. Outcomes are something we can collectively work toward. They are the consequence we want. The end state we desire. They broaden our thinking and stimulate people.
Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt had outcome-creating in mind when he said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”
Let’s face it, we’re all pretty good problem solvers. When we took our first pop-quiz we started down the road of rewarding the problem-solver. We’re trained in school to solve problems. Most professions wire you that way. Doctors learn to diagnose problems (symptoms) and come up with solutions. Engineers learn to recognize problems and overcome them.
We’re trained to be problem-reactors. We can't help it.
But that’s a problem. It's limited.
Reacting to problems is short-term. We miss opportunities to be broad. It's what neuroscientists call low-road thinking. ¹
We're swamped with problems at work. We don't want to live with them, but we do. We fight fires, try workarounds and fix problems. When we're deep in the problem-swamp, we lose sight of why we came to work in the first place — to create outcomes.
Below the line, on the low-road, we react to problems. Above the line, on the high-road, we create outcomes.
Below the line is the fire-drill. Above the line is winning the big deal. It's putting a smile on your customer’s face. It's a new product success story. A team that fires on all cylinders.
How much time do you spend above the line?
Below the line is a fixed mindset, where we don’t learn. We apply our skills and experience in the same way.
Above the line is a growth mindset, where we’re at our most expansive, our most creative. It’s agile thinking. With fixed thinking, we can become rigid and entrenched. Expansive thinking allows us to be at our most flexible and open.
When we’re fixed in our thinking, we can be at our most destructive. We're closed. We're right, and they are wrong.
When we’re expansive in our thinking, we can be at our most creative. We're adaptable. We're curious. We're looking for a win-win.
To move above the line, we have to train ourselves to do two things.
1) Focus on outcomes, (allowing us to look at our problems differently)
2) Think expansively.
We have to dig deeper into how we think. Since you probably don’t have time for a Ph.D. in Psychology, we’ll use a simple model — your thinking pattern.
Each of us has a thinking pattern. They’re composed of four key elements: ²
Ethics is about people and commitments. Vision, about possibilities and ideas. Courage, about action and bold moves, and Reality, about data and plans.
As you look at those elements, you will be more drawn to some than others. Two of these elements will be particular strengths of yours. If you’re drawn to Ethics and Reality, you might over-focus on fairness and accuracy. This might get you stuck in the problem swamp when things aren’t fair, or right. You might miss the bigger picture or fail to take decisive action.
You can build stronger thinking habits working through all these elements. This broadens our thinking as we go from problem-reacting to outcome-creating. To create good outcomes we have to look at data (Reality). We have to talk to people (Ethics). We have to think through possibilities (Vision). We have to plot a course of action (Courage). We have to ask why, what, when and how?
This is not as easy as it sounds. Under time pressure, we get fixed in our thinking. We focus on problems. When we do this, we get habitual in our thinking. If we value people and ideas we over-index on Ethics and Vision. We ignore or don't think through plans (Reality) and action (Courage).
Under stress, it feels like we’re using our strengths. In fact, we’re over-using them. This hurts us.
We get stuck in a loop of fixed thinking. For me, I focus on ideas and push through actions. I may miss details, and not get people on board.
When you’re stuck, when you’re faced with a difficult choice or decision — focus on the outcome you want, not the problem you face. Work towards that outcome by expanding your thinking. Take a mental trip around your whole mind — look at data (Reality), possibilities (Vision), people (Ethics) and action (Courage).
¹ Schwartz, Jeffrey, et al. “The Neuroscience of Strategic Leadership.” Strategy+Business, Summer 2017, no. 87, 5 Dec. 2016.
² Koestenbaum, Peter. Leadership: The Inner Side of Greatness, A Philosophy for Leaders, New and. N.p.: John Wiley & Sons, 2010. Print. The Leadership Diamond®, created by Peter Koestenbaum, Ph.D. is a philosophical model of the leadership mind. Think of it as “the way you think about how you think.” Koestenbaum believes that leadership is a “mindset and a pattern of behaviors” that can be learned and taught. Koestenbaum developed the Leadership Diamond as a way to represent these ideas. Koestenbaum’s model of the leadership mind is not a psychological profile. It is a leadership model that deals with how you respond, under ideal conditions and under stress.