Thinking About Thinking – Part 1of 2

How much time do you spend just thinking? Take a guess – how much during any given day, week or month? I’m don’t mean the kind of thinking you do while driving in your car, commuting on the train, during your morning run, or even in the shower. I’m referring to the kind of thinking you do ensconced in your office, or your den, or perhaps your garden. You are not reading a book or a magazine, nor watching TV, nor listening to music. You are simply thinking.

How much time do you spend doing that? Most of you will answer little to none. Many people consider spending time “just thinking” to be a luxury. After all, you have real problems – customers, employees, investors – all wanting some of your time, all wanting you to do something. And in our action driven society, we need to be doing something – much of the time we seem to be doing two or three things at once. But thinking?

It seems silly to rhetorically ask why this is so important. Thinking is the process by which companies and people create intellectual capital and knowledge. Thinking is the way we actively develop new ideas, rather than reacting to our current circumstances. Thinking is how we invent strategy. Thinking is one of the hardest things there is for people to do, let alone do well. But to figure out how to make the most of your precious resources, to leap ahead of your competition, and to master the ever-accelerating pace of change, you have no choice. You have to think about things.

There seem to be two broad categories of thinking. One category consists of free-form activities like daydreaming and meditating, and I will address these in a later column. The second category includes the disciplined process of asking questions and trying to answer them. This is the practical side of thinking and is the perspective of this article. Does it make sense to write a brief article about thinking? Not a learned, academic treatise on cognitive science – but a short pragmatic missive, practical and prescriptive. I think so. I think clarifying the concept of thinking gives people a way – a process – and perhaps provides greater access to thinking.

When I think about the issue of thinking, what am I really doing? I am asking a question – I actually say to myself – “what is thinking?” I might further ask, “what does my mind do when I try to think?” Or maybe, “How can I think without asking a question?” And so on. I don’t get very far with all of this, because no matter how I try to direct my thoughts, I discover that I am always asking a question. Every single time.

This would be hard enough if all there was to it was asking good questions. But for the process to be of real value, I have to consider answering the questions as well. Or at least I have to consider possible answers. So my simple definition of thinking is: asking questions and considering possible answers.

Why don’t I just say answering questions rather than considering possible answers? Because generating definitive, single-pointed answers is only one kind of thinking. The second, perhaps more powerful kind of thinking – particularly in the realm of strategy – is known as inquiry. In the process of inquiry, you ask questions and look at possible answers. Your goal is not a definitive answer, for that would bring the inquiry to a close. Rather you peel back the question, like the leaves of an artichoke, revealing more questions, and more possible answers, and so on. At some point, you get to the heart of the matter, just as you get to the heart of the artichoke.

To think about an issue, focus your mind by asking one or more germane questions. Each question should be designed to elicit a response driving your mind in a particular direction. You can ask questions serially, answering each in turn, or stack your questions one on top of another, attempting to answer the whole lot of them at once when the time is right. Sometimes your answers will give birth to more questions. Even your unanswered questions will sometimes yield more questions.

When do you cease asking questions? When you have thought the thing through – when you have developed sufficient ideas that profoundly illuminate your original question.

There are other criteria for stopping your questioning. You might decide to inquire into an issue for a fixed period of time, say thirty minutes, or seven days. Or, you might ask a question with the intent of coming up with fifteen or twenty new and provocative answers. You might decide to keep asking questions until your answers yield no further questions, or until your questions yield no further answers. You might not decide any of these things and simply stop when it feels right – when you feel you have the “right” answer. Or you might not stop at all, instead engaging in the question continually.

Then there is the issue of answers. I’ve always liked those 8-Ball fortune geegaws which offer the same answers no matter the question. But what distinguishes thinking from mere questioning is developing answers authentically and responsibly. I think it is the commitment to come up with a useful answer, rather than saying “I don’t know” or simply trotting out some time-worn old bit you know will fit, but not really add anything.

Many times you have no idea as to what an answer might be. What do you do then? One of my favorite perspectives is, “Well if you did know the answer, what would it be?” Another useful perspective is to simply invent an answer. Make one up and see if it fits. Trust your subconscious. Access all of your stored knowledge and experience – it just might come through for you. I think that is thinking.

What kind of questions should you ask? I have no idea, but it’s a good question. Since I am unable to answer it, I have decided instead to offer 16 questions about strategic direction. I think these questions are worth asking. Please substitute we for I, our for my, my company for I and me, as appropriate.

What is my purpose?
What do I want (to be, to do, to have) that I do not already (be, do, have)?
What am I thinking is the real thing, when “the real thing” is simply substituting for something that can really make a difference?
In what ways am I being effective? In what ways am I not being effective?
What isn’t getting done that needs to get done?
What doesn’t exist in our market, which people want, and we could deliver?
What other ways would people like to get what we give them?
What are we doing that we want to stop doing?
What would make us happy?
What did I forget?
When will we be ready?
How hard are we willing to try to make it easy?
What aren’t we taking on because we don’t think we know how?
What is the most important thing, right now? What will be the most important thing next month?
Who could help us?
Where are we looking for answers, and where not?

I hope these questions get you thinking.