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Thinking about Thinking

Thinking about Thinking

Adopting different styles for more effective solutions

Every day at work we face a wide variety of challenges and problems. Some issues aren’t easy to fix but – once they’ve absorbed what feels like a lot of time and energy – they are fixable. Much worse than this is when there is endless discussion and debate, but no actual decision is made and the issue never gets resolved.

The fact is there are many different ways of thinking about problems. However, just like in so many other aspects of our lives, without realising it we have a tendency to automatically go into our preferred style of thinking when things get challenging – and it may not be a style that’s appropriate for resolving the complex or difficult issue that’s in front of us.

To break out of this cycle we need take a more disciplined – critical – approach to how we think. We need to think about how we think – and actively work to use a wider variety of thinking styles to discover new ways of looking at issues.

Three blocks to thinking differently

There are three common blocks that get in the way of thinking differently:

  • Binary thinking – believing there are only two, mutually exclusive solutions
  • Deficit thinking – believing there are no solutions
  • Rational thinking – believing our logical approach is the only solution, based on excluding any conflicting facts, how people feel or completely new ideas

Let’s look at each of these in more detail – and how you can overcome the blocks they present.

Binary thinking

When people disagree about how to solve a problem the different solutions they put forward are often two mutually exclusive options. Jess believes her suggestion is the best approach. Sonja goes into detail about why it won’t work and argues instead for her suggestion, which seems to be the polar opposite. The disagreement continues and there’s no resolution.

Jess and Sonja’s belief that there are only two possible options is binary thinking.

A typical example in an organisation is the perennial pendulum issue of whether to centralise or devolve decision-making. Senior managers want to keep decision-making at the centre, but over time staff begin to feel increasingly disconnected and disempowered, so the call goes out to devolve decision-making. Eventually this results in silo working and even some ‘mission creep’ as people expand their areas of decision-making. Senior managers then agree control needs to return to the centre, and back the pendulum comes. And so on.

The reality is that there are very few situations where there are genuinely only two – and those wholly conflicting – options. These options are nearly always more interdependent than we think, and that means our effort to decide which option to choose over the other is futile.

The solution is re-integrated thinking – looking at the two options together to see how we can take the best from both.

Re-integrating thinking questions:

  • Can we use both of these options?
  • What qualities do both of these options share?
  • What strengths do both of these options bring?
  • What disadvantages do both of these options bring?
  • How can we achieve the strengths of both and minimise the disadvantages of both?

Going back to our example, rather than a binary choice between centralised or devolved decision-making, the two options are now opened up to consider the specifics of what would need to be the case in terms of systems, policies and procedures to ensure positive results.

And even more specifically to examine:

  • What decisions are better made locally – within agreed guidelines – because it is only a local issue?
  • What decisions are better made centrally – within agreed guidelines – because it’s an issue that affects the whole of the organisation?

Deficit thinking

As a species, human beings are generally very good at spotting problems, flaws and weaknesses. We can spend hours in meetings discussing everything that’s wrong with our work, our organisation, and the world in general. This is deficit thinking. Despite the name, though, it’s not all bad – deficit thinking is key when it comes to helping us detect danger and risks.

However, like so many things we find easy, many of us have a tendency to overuse this style. And the challenge with that is that focussing on what’s wrong with a proposal provides far fewer solutions than it creates more problems, and it saps energy and motivation.

The more a problem is talked about – and framed as a problem – the more of a problem it becomes. For example, it’s unlikely in the history of IT that there’s ever been a trouble-free installation of a new system – so it should hardly be a surprise when there’s the odd crash and a number of glitches appear in the first few months. Deficit thinking at this point can mean people put their energy into inventing a personal work around or even circumventing the new system altogether, derailing the whole initiative.

The solution is strength-based thinking – searching for what works well and how it happens. By looking for these strengths, we understand why success occurs and can then work out how it can be multiplied and leveraged. Groups using strength-based thinking become energised about what might be possible, and confident in their ability to make changes and improvements.

Strength-based thinking questions:

  • What has been working well?
  • What has made progress possible?
  • What are we most proud of?
  • How can we build on this?

Going back to our IT example, rather than focusing on the failures and becoming increasingly disillusioned by the new system, the way is opened up to properly examine what’s working, how far it’s already changed things for the better and what are the benefits now – and going forward? It’s not easy for those of us who naturally work in a deficit thinking mode to shift gear into strength-based thinking, but the latter is significantly more productive when it comes to moving forward positively on an apparently intransigent issue.

Rational thinking

At it’s best, rational thinking focuses on logical components, where solutions to problems are characterised as steps in a logical sequence. Most of us are pretty comfortable using this thinking style and given the chance will hold up our rational approach almost as a badge of honour.

Problems arise when our apparently disinterested, ‘rational’ approach is in fact ring fenced by a rigid point of view or theory. Without realising it we can fall into the confirmation trap – looking for information that supports our theory, while conveniently avoiding information that challenges it. This confirmation bias not only affects where we go to collect evidence, but also how we interpret the data. It makes us much less critical of arguments that support our initial ideas and much more resistant to arguments against them. The truth is no matter how ‘neutral’ we think we are, our brains often decide intuitively on the ‘right’ way, making us susceptible to the confirmation trap all the time.

When taking a rational approach, we can also fall into the incomplete information trap – overlooking a simple data element or not realising we are making an assumption which may be wrong.

Ways to avoid confirmation and incomplete information traps:

  • Expose yourself to all the conflicting information and examine it all with equal rigour.
  • Look for ways to disprove your hypothesis.
  • Make sure you’re not asking leading questions that will automatically take you back to your original point of view.
  • Ask yourself explicitly what other data is important to consider?
  • Make your assumptions clear. What implicit information forms part of the problem you are exploring?

Rational thinking is an important part of our thinking repertoire, but only if we avoid these common thinking traps. Unfortunately it’s still possible – however carefully you’ve avoided the traps – that purely rational thinking will not get you the outcome you need.

For example, Sanjiv has been tasked by the senior management team with putting together and implementing an internal communications strategy. He’s researched what other organisations have done and checked out the best systems, taking into account – and then putting to one side – his own bias. The resulting strategy is a model system – easy to use and transparent – and yet it’s being ignored. The challenge for Sanjiv is that in his desire to create the best, rational system, he’s failed to take into account people’s emotional response to something that is effectively about organisational change.

Where emotions and feelings are so important they can’t be removed from decision-making we need to use feeling thinking – that is, treat emotions as a piece of essential data to be considered alongside the facts and logical patterns. Anything to do with change is a classic example of this – without the buy-in and support of the people affected, rational thinking alone simply won’t work.

Feeling thinking questions:

  • What does our instinct tell us about this issue?
  • Who do we need to consider (outside what’s overtly rational) when exploring this issue?
  • What will be the likely impact on morale?
  • What is the likely impact on the result of how people feel about this?

Finally some issues are so new, or left field, or complex that the only workable approach is creative thinking. Creative thinking can be fun, bring disparate groups together, raise motivation and allow people to be more engaged in their work. And to work it needs to be very focused and done systematically. Often you need to give people permission to ‘switch off’ their rational brain for a while and to think creatively. You can find out more about creative thinking by going to another =mc download Building new ideas.


You can become an effective thinker by making thinking a conscious activity – a skill that you need to practice and develop like any other new competence. Keep trying different approaches, and be explicit about the style you are using and why. And encourage others in your organisation to do the same.

Five steps to hone your critical thinking:

  • Determine the outcome you want to achieve
  • Actively choose the most appropriate thinking style
  • Use a method or technique to support that thinking style
  • Set time limits
  • Review and evaluate what works best and why

Happy thinking!

What’s next?

If you are interested in this technique and would like to see what else we offer visit our learning and development pages or get in touch with one of our consultants on 020 7978 1516 or


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Charlotte Scott

About Charlotte Scott

Charlotte specialises in leadership development, team facilitation and strategy development. Charlotte worked for over 20 years in the not-for-profit sector. Before joining =mc ten years ago, she created and implemented...