What Kind of Thinker Are You?


We all think in different ways.  

As Shift Thinkers, it's important to understand not only what we think, but how we think. Keep reading to discover a simple way to discover your thinking style.   



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In Brief:  What's a Thinking Style?

There are all sorts of tests that tell us our skills and personality type.  But these don't tell us how we think. We have discovered two dimensions that shape how we perceive a situation.  

  • Our Orientation towards either the details or big picture.  
  • Our Focus on ideas, process, actions or relationships.  

Combining these two dimensions give eight Thinking Styles.  

One Thinking Styles is not better or worse than other styles.  We each use all of them at different times.  But some Styles come more naturally to some people than others.  Some Styles are also better in some situations than others.

  • When you understand all the Styles, you can match your thinking to the task at hand.  
  • When you understand your own Style, you can organize your environment and activity to play to your strengths.  
  • When you understand other people's Styles, you can organize teams to achieve breakthrough results.   


Want a Quick Overview?

Watch this short video from Harvard Business Review.



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Find out if your team has the right mix of Thinking Styles

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In Depth

Thinking Styles arise from two dimensions of thinking. 


Sometimes we zoom in to focus on details. Sometimes we zoom out to see the bigger picture.  

Orientation refers to the scale of our perspective as being either more micro or macro.  

You can usually tell your preferred orientation by what gets you frustrated in meetings.  Are you more likely to complain that things are too conceptual or abstract?  If so, you are probably more detail-oriented. Are you more likely to complain when the conversation gets "stuck in the weeds"?  If so, you are probably prefer big picture thinking.  


In any situation, it's possible to focus on many different things.  

Focus refers to what are focused on.  Is it an idea, a process, an action, or a relationship?  

  • A focus on ideas calls attention to concepts, patterns, information, creativity and analysis
  • A focus on process calls attention to design, systems, productivity, efficiency and sequence
  • A focus on action calls attention to goals, strategies, accomplishment and performance
  • A focus on relationships calls attention to trust, communication, community and learning

The Eight Styles

There are eight possible combinations from the two orientations and four areas of focus.  We've given each a simple name to reflects the particular kind of thinking.  For example, "big picture" plus "relationship" yields Connector thinking, which would be useful for thinking about social systems like organizations or communities.  Meanwhile "detail" plus "relationship" yields Coach thinking, which is useful for thinking about relationships in a more one-on-one setting. 


A Word of Caution

Thinking Styles are not like personalities or skills.  No one is good at everything.  And having multiple personalities is a mental health problem.  But it's healthy to use all of the Thinking Styles.  They are like tools for use in different circumstances.  For example: 

The "big picture" Styles are useful for:

  • Explorer:  generating ideas
  • Planner:  designing systems
  • Energizer:  mobilizing action
  • Connector:  building networks

The "detail" Styles are useful for:

  • Expert: analyzing data
  • Optimizer: improving efficiency
  • Producer: completing goals
  • Coach: developing people 

Do We Really Need Another Assessment?

In today’s marketplace, the most successful companies aren’t those that out-work the competition. Instead, it’s the ones that out-think them. The same holds true for individuals and teams.  Research shows that it is ultimately how teams think together that most determines their performance.

There are plenty of tools that help us understand people's personalities and skills.  But there are few tools that tell us how we and those around us think.  And the ones that do are complicated and expensive.  They are also hard to remember and therefore difficult to use in everyday work.

Shift Thinking Styles® is a quick and easy way to understand the lens through which we see the world.  We gain insight into how we approach a situation or problem.  By knowing how others think — and by others knowing how you think — we can play to our strengths, reach common understanding, and appreciate each others' contributions.  As individuals and teams, we can be more energized, engaged, creative and productive.

A Natural Preference

Although we can and do use all the Thinking Styles, we naturally gravitate to some more than others.  It's like being right or left-handed.  You use both hands, but find one to be stronger, easier and more natural. (A rare few people are ambidextrous, comfortable with either hand and multiple ways of thinking).  

When you know your natural thinking style, you know what naturally energizes you.  You understand why certain types of problems are challenging or boring.  How you can play to your strengths and make the best contribution.  And what kinds of thinking you need to develop to achieve your goals, even if it doesn't come so easily. 

Using Thinking Styles

complementary to skills and personalities.

In Your Work

On Your Team

Hiring and Staffing:

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 a new salesperson. What kind of thinking styles are most important?  Do they need to: 

  • Come up with creative ideas? Look for an Explorer style.
  • Structure effective solutions — Planner.
  • Answer technical questions — Expert.
  • Improve existing systems — Optimizer.
  • Form coalitions — Connector.
  • Build deep relationships — Coach.
  • Advance the pipeline — Producer.
  • 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.

This isn’t about picking one to the exclusion of the other. It’s about where your focus naturally lands. Just like when you consider watching a movie or reading a book, do you tend to go for action, romance, drama, or mystery? These dimensions are complementary to personality, skills, and traditional roles. Some project managers are more inclined to focus on process and others on people. And some extraverts are big picture and others more detail oriented.

Thinking Styles on Teams

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.



Once you know your style, it helps to share it with others, and have others share theirs with you. In this way, your thinking style becomes a useful tool — a kind of social currency — for the team. Imagine you put together a team to work on a new initiative. Wouldn’t you like to know who is energized by big-picture strategy discussions and who finds them frustrating? Who likes to work on the details of the execution? And who is energized by managing the team dynamics?

As a real-world demonstration, one company had their entire leadership team identify their thinking styles as managers and leaders. Looking at a heat map of the results, they realized they had a lot of big-picture Explorer thinking and a lot of Action thinking (Energizer and Producer), but very little Process thinking (Planner and Optimizer). The team was strong at coming up with big ideas and mobilizing everyone into action, but weak at working out the details and making things run efficiently.

With this new information in hand, they started giving more voice to those whose detailed thinking often seemed like a buzz kill to the big picture explorers and energizers. They also shifted the culture and recruiting strategies to create a more balanced and diverse thinking style.

At an individual level, one specific leader had always operated in idea-rich environments like consulting and marketing. But by identifying her thinking style, she realized that she was more energized by relationships than ideas. Her orientation was more towards Connector thinking than Explorer thinking. She used ideas to nurture relationships, rather than relationships to nurture ideas. This insight led her to shift the focus of her work toward account management and business development, leading to much higher levels of energy and engagement.

Role of the Leader

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.

 conducting our teams as orchestras of diverse and complementary thinkers.


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