think about thinking skills
June 16, 2023

Do you even stop to think about thinking skills?

By Tony Boobier

Continuing our series which aims to think about thinking skills. In this post we review the importance of thinking about this topic. Why should busy data leaders take time out of their busy days to think about thinking skills?

So far in this series we have heard from two experienced business & leadership coaches. Dr. Ty Francis shared his reflections of the importance of taking time to think. He also shed light on how your environment can help or hinder creative thinking. Next, Kevin Watson warned about the pitfall of being trapped in negative thinking. See his four tips to escape such a trap. Now, let’s consider why a focus on thinking skills matters.

Tony Boobier will be known to regular readers as a prolific author, mentor & advisory board member. Globally he has helped many businesses prepare for the future of AI and analytics. He has also shared with us before on the topics of cost cutting, motivation, communication skills and failures. In this post, Tony turns his reflective attention to the topic of thinking skills and why we need to think about them…

Do you have time to think about thinking?

One of the common responses to Paul’s challenge is we don’t give enough time to think about thinking skills. But, we can make better decisions if we understand how we think. This in turn can help us improve that process. The recent article by Ty Francis set out the mechanics of thinking and reminded us of the convergence of analysis and creativity. Perhaps we might add to those the influence of intuition?

Many people already view thinking, and thus the application of ‘thinking skills’, as an intuitive process. Something which happens automatically. To some degree they are right. Intuitive thinking perhaps comprises no more than some voice at the back of your head telling you the right thing to do. 

Intuition is usually based on things learned through a career of successes and sometimes through hard knocks. Intuition is not to be confused with emotional intelligence. It’s that feeling in your gut that you are doing something right or wrong. At times there may even be a contradiction between the application of a thinking process, the exercising of ‘thinking skills’ and simply having a ‘gut feeling’ about a decision. 

Intuition, experience and analysis all have a role

In practical terms, intuition and the application of thinking skills sit comfortably side by side. They are, perhaps, the yin and yang of decision making. Chinese philosophy describe Yin and Yang as the interaction between apparently conflicting forces. Adding the effect of emotional intelligence creates a ‘Holy Trinity’ ( or perhaps a Bermuda Triangle) of effective decision making.  

In a business environment, leaders often make important decisions based not just on intuition. More often many also apply analysis and experience. Some might say that this three-way process is fallible, especially when operating in an unprecedented environment. For example, during the recent pandemic or in anticipating the possible impact of rapidly approaching impact of AI, both intuition and experience are less helpful. There is seldom enough data to make sensible analytical decisions, and no historic evidence on which to base a judgement. 

Putting aside the elements of intuition and experience, the concept of ‘analysis’ in decision making is both scientific and methodical. Perhaps such a formulaic approach could even lend itself to some form of automation but this shouldn’t seem so sinister especially as many business decisions are increasingly data-driven.

Recognising the need for creative thinking in business

The application of creativity in decision making adds yet another dimension. Traditionally many business leaders have tended to have qualifications in Humanities rather than science or business studies. One newspaper article suggested “Those with a more creative degree, particularly in a humanities/sociology direction, are likely to have a broader understanding of behaviour and self-awareness, which are valuable assets in the workplace.” 

With so much hype about AI, there is an argument that creativity as part of the wider thinking process is a human trait and can never be automated. We shouldn’t be so confident. The flip side of this is that AI-type systems are already capable of creating music or art, even if under some degree of human direction. For the moment this falls far short of finding a creative decision to a business problem.  AI has not yet hit the heady heights of creative decision making, but perhaps we should not be complacent. If we equate thinking to being ‘a process’, then at some time in the future this process might be automated. That is a discussion for a different day.

Turning to the ‘Here and Now’, Ty Francis also sets out especially that we need to create what he calls a ‘thinking environment’. Put another way, we need to give ourselves ‘room for thought.’

Take time out to ponder

Perhaps we should delete the word ’room’ and insert the word ‘time’? Don’t we have to give ourselves time for thinking? The problem is that often we don’t have that luxury and are obliged to make quick decisions. We may be faced with a tight deadline or a time-critical decision. Some professions such as the emergency services consistently operate in a time vacuum where near-instant decisions are needed. In those situations, training is critical. In other words, we need an analytical approach based on the combined experience of others. 

For most business leaders, taking time to ponder about big decisions should be a permissible action. The same way that an individual might want to take some time to think about an important career move such as a new job. The interesting thing is that, as computer power increases together with the pace of business change, might the pressure on making rapid decisions also accelerate?

As for creativity in the thinking process, this is a ‘wild card’. We should not be misled by computer generated faux-creativity. Michelangelo is famous not because he followed established thinking but rather because he did something different. Ray Kroc broke the rules by reinventing the concept of fast food through the McDonald franchise. Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame effectively reinvented the retail shopping process. Surely we are still some way from AI being able to ‘think’ a business-relatd step change in this way?

Recognise their importance and shape the future

To summarise, it is at our peril that we avoid consideration of the application of ‘thinking skills’, with all their complexities. Going forward, in an increasingly data-driven world it’s likely that decisions based on intuition and experience will have limited value, if only because of the need to demonstrate rational decision making to external stakeholders such as Regulators or stockholders. The analytic element is likely to become increasing automated, and this includes the ability to make effective predictions based on the probability of possible outcomes. As for the automation of creative thinking, this seems to be one thing which (at least) will remain in the human domain for the foreseeable future.  

At the end of the day, it’s essential that we understand the value and application of thinking skills to ensure that we operate effectively in the increasingly volatile business environment. Beyond that, to truly understand the future function of human-based leadership in a AI-infused, technological world, what is needed? Probably better quality thinking.

Many thanks to Tony for adding his voice to this conversation about thinking skills. What of all that Tony has shared or questioned resonated with you? How could you put that thought into practical action?