I drove to Nashville this morning for some coaching appointments this week. The long, rainy drive gave me a chance to think about thinking. Specifically, I was thinking about ways to stretch how I think about issues, problems, and other interesting things. I came up with three ways to stretch my thinking:
1) Stretch the length of my thinking. Everything we think about has a timeframe associated with it. We may be good at explicitly stating the time frame — I’m considering buying this new car for the impact on my transportation over then next five years. More often, the timeframe goes unstated. I find that if I mull decisions in the context of different timeframes, it invariably stretches my thinking. Consider the car purchase against the value of the money invested and grown over the next twenty years, now I see the question differently. For me, longer timeframes drive better thinking. However, sometimes shorter timeframes can force action on all of those issues that fall in the “someday” category. What do I need to do in the next twenty-four hours toward my goal of writing the great American novel? Have you ever intentionally changed the timeframe of your thinking? I’d love to hear about it.
2) Widen the circle of those involved. I confess, my tendency is to approach every issue first with a how-does-it-affect-me mindset. By intentionally adding other perspectives to the mix, I find that my thinking on most subjects will change. How does this challenge affect my family? My coworkers? The shareholders? How do each of the options affect the community? The nation? The world? The universe? Okay, I can get carried away. The point is: every decision that you or I make will impact others. By intentionally including the impact on a larger group, my thinking and yours will become fuller. Frankly, I’m thinking about you as I write this article. Who do you need to think about as you wrestle with your most challenging issues?
3) Deepen the category of my thinking. There are three broad categories that I find myself using when I think about important things. The first, and by far most shallow, is the product category. What is the product of my decision? Which car to buy. Where to go to college. What to eat for dinner. Who to marry. That’s the product level, and it is where most people spend most of their thinking energy. The second, deeper level is the process level. What steps can I take to come to a decision? What process will help facilitate a good conclusion to this thinking work? The world is full of processes for problem solving. You’ve probably made lists of pros and cons — that’s the kind of process I’m thinking about. If you and others involved can’t agree on the product, move the conversation to process and open up the possibilities. The deepest category is principle. Namely, what principles are most important to serve in this decision? Thinking about principles will provide greater clarity (when you’re thinking alone) and more foundational agreement (when you’re thinking in groups). If you find yourself unclear or conflicted regarding the principles that are most important to serve, no process will lead to a good product. How deep is your thinking? For me, I know that I only go deeper when I intentionally make an effort to consider process and principle.
I hope you’ll try stretching your thinking on important issues along these three dimensions: length, width and depth. If you do, I’m wildly interested in how it works for you. Please share.