First published in Harvard Business Review by Mark Bonchek
Every day, we sit in meetings in which someone presents a problem or opportunity. The response is always a version of “What are we going to do about it?” When’s the last time someone said, “How are we going to think about it?”
Design thinking is popular these days. We design products, experiences, and even business models. But something is missing. We’ve embraced design thinking, but we’ve failed to design our thinking.
To design our thinking, we have to become adept at working with mental models and managing thinking styles. This requires both learning and unlearning.
We normally aren’t conscious of our mental models. They are the proverbial “water to the fish,” shaping how we see the world, make distinctions and connect cause and effect. It’s hard to see our own mental models. But we can see their reflections, like the shadows in Plato’s Cave, through our language.
For example, consider the way we think and talk about an organization. It is a body when we talk about the head of a department. (The word corporation comes from the Latin corporare, to combine in one body). It’s a machine when we talk about high-performance. It’s a species when we talk about ecosystems. It’s a brain when we talk about a learning organization. And it’s a computer when we talk about everyone being in sync.
Once we see the mental models that already exist, we can begin to design new ones. There is a saying that the map is not the territory. The design of mental models is the design of better maps to fit a changing landscape.
For example, social media has changed the nature of marketing. The old models — whether segments, funnels or campaigns — were linear, intermittent and asymmetrical. We need new models that are more continuous, multi-dimensional, and peer-to-peer.
The design of thinking is more how we think as individuals and what happens inside our heads. But we also have to design how we think as teams and what happens in our relationships.
Normally we think about building teams based on what people do. We select for skills and assign tasks and responsibilities. It’s a mental model that comes from teams. We put everyone in the right position. But we can also design teams based on how people think.
The first step is to understand what kind of thinker you are. I’ve outlined this simple process in an earlier article. Next, identify how everyone else on your team thinks. Now you’ve got the building blocks to begin designing the thinking of your team.
As an alternative mental model, think about your team as a portfolio of thinking styles. Just as you construct an investment portfolio differently for different investment objectives, you want construct your thinking portfolio.
Most teams need every kind of thinking style at one point or another. So just as geese tend to take turns leading the flock, different thinking styles should also take turns. In the beginning of the project, Explorers and Planners are helpful to set the strategy and structure the work effort. Then Connectors and Energizers take the lead to create the vision, access resources, and enroll the stakeholders.
As strategy and planning give way to execution and operations, those with a more micro orientation take the lead. Experts and Optimizers work together to work out the details and find the efficiencies. Meanwhile, Producers execute the plan and cross things off the list, while Coaches keep everyone engaged and performing at their best.
The shift from doing to thinking has consequences for the role of the team leader. First, the leader is responsible for maintaining the effectiveness and alignment of the team’s mental model. This is more than keeping the team informed. Information gets filtered in or out depending on the mental model. So team leaders are responsible for setting the context more than the content of people’s thinking.
Second, the leader is responsible for creating the right mix of thinking styles. Then, like an orchestra conductor, the leader chooses which thinking style comes to the fore at a particular point in time to carry the tune. Put too much focus on big picture thinking and the details won’t get done. Give too much emphasis on action and process thinking, and you will lose the vision or drop out trust and connection.
Thinking styles can also be helpful in making hiring and staffing decisions. Consider not just the experience and personality of the candidate, but also their thinking styles.
As an example, say you are hiring new sales team or adding to an existing team. What kind of thinking styles are most important? Do the salespeople need to come up with creative ideas? Look for an Explorer style. To structure effective solutions — Planner. To answer technical questions — Expert. To improve existing systems — Optimizer. To form coalitions — Connector. To build deep relationships — Coach. To push the pipeline — Producer. To close the deal— Energizer.
When hiring, also consider more than what they know and how fast they learn. You want people who are able to unlearn and shift their thinking. Do they have not only mental ability, but mental agility. In some roles, it’s also critical that they have an ability to the shift the thinking of others. Great leaders today are able to persuade by creating and shaping the mental models of their organizations and communities.
In this time of rapid change, it’s not enough to do new things. We have to think in new ways. This takes more than “getting out of the box.” We have to design a new box and, like a hermit crab, find a way to get from the old to the new. We can start by becoming conscious of our mental models, understanding our thinking styles, and conducting our teams as orchestras of diverse and complementary thinkers.