Most of us take for granted our own thinking skills.  We make decisions, see patterns, consume information and create new ideas, and generally we think more about content than process.

Of course many of us have learned a few tricks along the way.  We know, for example, that generating new ideas can sometimes be helped by the process of brainstorming where we capture many thoughts and ideas without judgment.  We also use memory processes to help us remember things; everything from a grocery list to remembering what to buy at the store, to electronic reminders that tell us when a meeting is about to start.

But beyond these simple processes and tools, most of us didn’t learn how to think in school.  We had subjects like math and science but rarely a subject like “critical thinking” or “idea creation”.  And we all know full well that our brains don’t come with owners manuals.

Could we be underutilized or worse, misusing,our own brains?

Understanding how we think

The study of the brain and thinking has a long history dating back to prehistory.  The earliest records of Greek and Egyptian civilizations provide evidence that people were “thinking about thinking” even then.  Fast forward to the 1800s and names like Decartes and Wundt begin to appear, and later more recognizable characters like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Today the study of how the brain works has exploded on both the scientific and business radar.  Subdomains like organizational and industrial psychology, behavioral economics, neuroscience and brain biology have emerged.

But as business leaders, why should we care?  The answer is simple; the way thinking happens in our organizations can make the difference between success and failure.  Authors like Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline), Kaihan Krippendorff (Outthink the Competition) and Edward de Bono (various titles including Six Thinking Hats) all suggest that better thinking gives companies a competitive advantage.

Leaders must have insight into the way brains work – their own and those of others.  How we think, and how we think about thinking, is an indispensable skill for all business leaders.  But in such a vast sea of knowledge and research, where do we begin?

The two thinking systems

Recently author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Daniel Kahneman provided a useful insight into how our brains work which he shares in his bestselling book,  “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.  In it, Kahneman shows how our brains actually have two systems – a fast thinking system and a slow thinking system.  The “fast system” is responsible for reactions, quick decisions and intuitions, but at the same time can be highly biased by habit or emotion.  The “slow system” is more deliberate, logical, fact based and requires more time and energy, and can be a bit lazy.

It’s easy to see that we rely on the “fast system” for quick thinking tasks like reacting to a traffic issue when travelling at speed, while the “slow system” is most suited to analysis of problems or patterns that involve a lot of data or information.

Where people tend to get into trouble is when we use the wrong system in a situation.  Here’s an example; how would you answer this question?:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

If you are like most people your answer would be 10 cents.

And you would be wrong.  

Don’t feel bad, you are probably a busy leader reading this article quickly and, therefore, your “fast system” jumped to a conclusion before your “slow system” had time to do the math.

Here’s another example:

How many of each species did Moses put on the ark?

Again most people would say 2 of each, one male and one female.  And again they’d be wrong.

Kahneman describes many flaws in the way our brains work due to this two system model including:

  • Priming effects – how the way we think about a topic or situation is influenced by the previous topic or situation we were just focussed on.
  • Causality – human beings look for cause-and-effect when often statistically there isn’t one
    • … and when we get cause and effect backwards.
  • How we overestimate norms simply because our experience has a greater than average exposure to that situation, called the availability effect. For instance, if a lot of our friends are divorced, we overestimate the divorce rate.
  • Not clarifying the word “average” (Bill Gates walks into a bar and everyone becomes a millionaire … on average).
  • Misunderstanding normally expected distributions as “hot streaks” (the reason casinos do so well).
  • Overweighting the likelihood of poor outcomes due to risk aversion.

Suffice it to say, humanity is far from perfect and we are a long way from taking full advantage of this tool we call the brain.

Lessons for business leaders

There is no “secret formula” for avoiding the pitfalls described here.  But as business leaders there are some considerations we should keep “in mind”:

  • In a fast-paced business environment, speed can often be the enemy.  Be aware and find ways to slow down, especially in complex and emotional situations.
  • Slow thinking takes more mental energy, and therefore it can be better to undertake tasks suited to slow thinking when we are fresher or less tired.
  • For important decisions, consider the “sober second thought”.  Prudence is the midpoint between indecisiveness and being rash, and sometimes choosing to postpone a decision and revisit later can be a wise move.
  • When it comes to critical information, always try to go to the source.  Every human hand-off of information degrades the accuracy (like the telephone game we played as kids).
  • Business is about human beings, not automatons.  People won’t always do the logical thing or make the most rational choice.
  • Similarly, because people are not machines, leaders must expand their knowledge and study to include not just classic ‘business topics’.  Make a point of adding topics like psychology, sociology, and behavioral economics to the reading list.

And if you are still thinking fast and didn’t do the math … the answer is 5 cents. and zero (Noah, not Moses, put animals on the Arc).

Do you know someone who’s could benefit from better thinking?  Pass this article on to them.

Article by Tim O’Connor