Leaders should be independant thinkers.
Whether you are trying to develop a vision statement, solve a problem at work, or influence the team, leaders have to think about where they are going and how they are going to get there.
The good news is that thinking is a skill, and it’s one that we can all get better at. The better we get at thinking, the better our chances to succeed as leaders.
Today we’ll look at 25 techniques to sharpen your thinking that will help you level-up as a leader.
Set the Conditions
One of the biggest challenges to effective thinking can be simply carving out space to think in the first place. Once you’ve done that, now what? Start to sharpen your thinking by setting the conditions for your thinking session to be productive. Here are some ideas.
Make it a regular thing. Practice the art of thinking as a habit. Like anything, you get better at it. One way to do this is to leverage the time you already are using. Admiral Thad Allen, former Commandant of the Coast Guard rode his bicycle 15 miles to work each day and used that time to for reflection, planning, and problem solving.
Pick a Topic and an outcome. It can be helpful to pick a subject to focus on. Even better, put a goal on your thinking session, like coming up with five new ideas in the next 30 minutes.
Bring the right tools. If you’re a visual person like me, it helps to be able to see your thoughts as they take shape. Use a notebook and sharp pencil to write what comes into your head. A large white board and a fistful of colored markers can help with brain storming. A note pad or voice recording phone app can also help, especially if you will be out and about. Record your thoughts as they come to you, let them build upon each other and combine into new ideas.
Go somewhere new. The same environment will start to spawn the same thoughts. Separate yourself from the usual and surround yourself with something different. It may be as close as a table at your local library, a bench at a local park, a local museum, or that new coffee shop just down the street.
Be prolific. Sometimes quality comes with quantity. Adam Grant points out in Originals that when masters like Beethoven, Picasso, or Maya Angelou produced the works they are most famous for, they emerged during the most productive times of their lives. For each of their master works, they also produced hundreds of lesser pieces. The more you produce, the better the odds that something will be great.
Allot time. It’s good to consult other sources – books, blogs, people, but manage how you spend that time. The goal is not simply to listen and repeat. The idea is to absorb, process, and come to your own conclusions. So if you have an hour and want to read up on a topic, save the last 15 minutes to think about what you learned and decide what it means.
Just write. Sometimes the simple act of forming your thoughts into words and writing or typing them out can help you focus. Start with a question or idea, write it down, and then keep writing and see where it leads you.
Keep the notepad ready. After your thinking sessions, your brain is often still working subroutines in the background, and results can pop into your head at any time. Be ready to capture them. Keep a notepad by your bed, use a phone app like Evernote, record a voice memo, or send an email to yourself. Whatever you do, capture that good idea before it gets away.
Prime the Pump
With the conditions set, consider injecting new perspectives and leveraging the thinking of other people as part of the process to sharpen your thinking.
Consult thought leaders. Have a say in what you are exposed to. Pick a topic and focus in – listen to a podcast during your commute or watch informative videos at lunch. Have a way to record your thoughts as you go. Then turn it off, think about what you just heard, and compare it to other sources.
Read a book (twice). I have taken up the habit of always reading with a pencil. The first time through, when there is an interesting passage, I’ll put a small mark by the section, and a small circle at the top right corner of the page. When I finish the book, I go through it again, flipping to the marked pages, thinking about the passages I’ve marked, and writing about them in my notebook.
Talk to someone different. In his interesting book “A Curious Mind” producer Brian Grazer credits a lot of his creative impulse to the fact that he is constantly having deliberate “curiosity conversations” with people from radically different walks of life. He has tracked down people from Jonas Sauk to Mohammed Ali to ask what their lives are like, where they get their inspiration, and how they do what they do. He found that exposing himself to radically different perspectives stirred new ideas in his own mind.
Read something different. A variation on this can be to read books from very different environments. Exposure to the unfamiliar can trigger new ideas in your own focus area. For example, reading one of the books from this selection exposes how real leaders solved difficult problems in very different environments. Their actions may give you some ideas about how to deal with your own challenges.
Start with something unrelated. Justin Berg, a creativity expert at Stanford, finds that what we start with has a lot to do with where we end up. He calls this idea the “Primal Mark,” like the first brush stroke a painter puts on her canvas. If your starting point is commonplace, your results are likely to be ordinary, too. Instead, begin with the unrelated, come up with some crazy ideas, then try to fuse them with a more practical tool to yield a new, novel solution.
In an experiment to develop new interviewing tools, he had subjects start with the idea of in-line skates, and later added a pen. As a result, one subject came up with a practical tool to tell time by touch.
Come up with 25 more. When coming up with ideas, the first ones to pop into our heads are also likely the most conventional ones. Recognizing this, Upworthy makes a practice of coming up with at least 25 possible headlines for its posts. The stretching you have to do for those last few options may be just what you need to come up with something new.
Another way to sharpen your thinking is to ask good questions. Here are some starting points.
Question the source. Who are they, why are they writing? What do they want you to take away? Why should you value their opinion?
Ask the 5 “Whys.” This is one way of looking for the root cause of something. When faced with a problem, ask “Why is it this way?” Whatever answer you come up with, ask again, “Buy why is that so?” Like your annoying kid brother, repeat this at least five times to help you dig through the symptoms you are seeing and discover the reason behind them.
Ask, “What if?” Try out different scenarios in your mind and follow them to see where they lead.
Ask, “What good can come from this?” Not everything we think about is pleasant. Sometimes the problems we face are ugly and intractable. Even so, as you consider your next moves, as bad as things may be, look for what good might come from the experience. Many foundations, research efforts, and positive causes found their genesis in something bad that a creative mind turned into a positive.
What’s the opposite? Turning the problem on it’s head is another popular way to look at a problem. One airport dramatically reduced complaints about waiting for baggage not by getting the bags to the carousel faster, but by making it take longer for passengers to walk there.
Is my ego in the way? Re-reading Margaret Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” recently just highlighted this all the more to me. When ego gets in the way it can blind us to logic, good sense, and open-minded thinking. Whether you are working through a personal issue or trying to resolve a problem, if your sense of honor or ego is a key player, there’s a danger you won’t be able to see past it to a positive solution. Unplug the ego and re-think everything to see what changes.
Other Places to Start Digging
Passive voicing. I remember my high school English teacher used to always say, “If you hear someone speaking in the passive voice, he is hiding something.” When it’s not clear who the actor is in any sentence, there may be a reason for it. Phrases like, “Mistakes were made,” or “Actions have been taken” disguise the identity of the people involved and distance the speaker from the action. Might be worth asking why.
Explain it to a Six-year Old. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. We get distracted by all the minutia and lose track of what’s important. Try describing the problem out loud as if you were talking with a young child who really wanted to understand. The places where you get stuck may be the ones to focus on.
In the name of tradition. When you hear the phrase, “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” warning bells should start going off in your head. Maybe it made sense at the time, but conditions change and the reasons may no longer apply; dig deeper and ask why.
Beware the percentage. Numbers and statistics lend a tone of authority to any discussion, but look closely. Percentages can make small numbers seem large and give small sample sizes more power then perhaps they deserve.
Question the default. Internet Explorer was probably pre-loaded on your PC when you pulled it out of the box. It was the default, and it does the job. But that doesn’t mean that’s the one you have to use. There are better browsers out there. Similarly, re-look the default settings all around you. Maybe there’s something better.
Sharpen Your Thinking – The Takeaway
When you have set the right conditions, primed the pump, and asked good questions, you sharpen your thinking, and chances are you may find your mind producing new, creative, and useful thoughts.
The more you do this, the better at it you will become, and the more and better ideas you may generate.
But here’s the thing: be prepared for some discomfort. By definition, if you are thinking independently, the answers you come up with will not necessarily agree with what “everybody else” is thinking.
If it turns out that some of your thoughts vary from those of the crowd, then good. You might be doing something right.