The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough. We don’t get paid for working with our feet — we get paid for working with our heads.  —Thomas J. Watson, Sr.

T homas J. Watson, Sr., the founding Chairman and CEO of International Business Machines (IBM) from 1914 to 1956, first wrote the word THINK on an easel in a sales meeting in 1911. He was challenging a group of salesmen from National Cash Register. Later, he made the word an enduring motto for IBM where it was trademarked and even used in the names of some its products.

Today, the word “think” is most often used to describe one’s thoughts or opinions: “I think it is going to rain today.” “She thought he would ask her out.” “He thinks his cousin is a loser.” Watson’s version was something different. In that 1911 sales meeting, Watson was calling his team to look beyond the obvious and consider all of the possibilities. Later, he would often quote Nicholas Murray Butler: “All the problems of the world could be settled easily if men were only willing to think. The trouble is that men very often resort to all sorts of devices in order not to think, because thinking is such hard work.”

Thinking is hard work. As we run through our days, we seek the fastest path and thinking often slows us down. Thinking is an act of creation; an exertion of energy to process, design, solve, or construct. In our jobs, we want standard forms, standard contracts, standard replies, standard processes, standard programs, standard responses – anything that streamlines and speeds our ability to function. The reason is clear: it takes a lot of effort to develop each of the items above into a standard. The problem is that once we have the standard, we stop working to question or improve it. Once it is in place, we stop thinking about it.

Technology and Thinking

THINK about it. We all do it. Just tell me what I need to do. Don’t make me think about it. The information technology industry has gone to incredible lengths to minimize our need to think about mundane tasks. We no longer need to remember phone numbers, directions, recipes, names, addresses, or even faces – our phones do that for us. Need to add some numbers? No worries, grab your phone. Need a contract? All you need to do is search for something on the internet. So much is at our fingertips that we often don’t think to think about what we’re looking for or how to find it. Not certain what you need? Enter a few words and a piece of software will give you a hundred different possibilities. Easy.

Perhaps it’s a bit ironic that Watson coined “Think” given the fact that IBM was one of the early enablers of our lack of need to do much thinking. But I’m not here to denounce technology; I am certainly no Luddite. Technology is, and should be, an enabler to help us think more, faster, better. The problem is that we’ve become trained to look for answers and then save them for retrieval later. In this way, everything becomes linear: a + b = c. When our equation doesn’t compute, we get frustrated.

An example of our frustration with thinking is our impatience with other people’s thoughts. More specifically, their opinions. Whether we agree or not doesn’t matter. We just don’t want to have to process the other person’s ideas. If we agree, great! We can mark the check-box in our brain and move on. When we don’t agree, we get frustrated because we don’t want to go through the effort of pulling a cohesive argument together or of working to try to understand the basis of the other’s opinion. It is just too much work.

Thinking at Work

Moving beyond opinions, we see a breakdown in “thinking” in many of our work environments. In healthcare, we want to break every step down to a task list and then impose it on everyone. From a universe of known diagnoses, we select the most likely option. From there, the logic tree expands with next step options. Order test. Conduct procedure. Observe. Repeat. Add-in our legal system and steps get plugged-in to prevent lawsuits. Place our payment system on top of it all and the logic tree gets warped to meet a different set of logic – economic requirements and limitations. The result is that thinking becomes painful and risky. Follow the check-list to play it safe.

Our commercial environments are no different. We’re so busy looking for symptoms of problems that we struggle when we actually get to the root of a problem. Besides, if we actually get to the root of an issue, then we’ll have to think to figure out how to fix something that is undoubtedly more complex than the symptom. The result is that we keep addressing symptoms while deeper problems simmer, boil, and eventually spill over. When this happens, the problem is usually solved by someone leaving; a customer, an employee, a supplier. After a point, it is easier to leave than to figure out how to fix the problem let alone the relationship. Then we start again.

Have we become lazy? I suppose to some degree but I see far too many hard-working people to believe it is just laziness. In fact, we’ll often go to great lengths to address a symptom because it is still an easier path than digging down to the root of a problem. Or, perhaps our span of authority is too narrow to allow us to actually fix the problem so we keep fixing what we can and let the endless bureaucracy absorb the penalty of the unaddressed problem. In essence, we say “it’s not my problem.”

Our efforts to systematize and proceduralize our world have resulted in the tamping down of thinking. With the objective of efficiency and speed, we take the mass production approach to thinking: do it once and then distribute the answer among our workforce. This creates a culture of non-thinking and drone-like behavior. We have created a hive mentality waiting for instructions from the Queen. Efficient? Yes.  Satisfying and self-improving? No so much.

Thinking Beyond the Status Quo

The massive institutions that have resulted from our ongoing quests for efficiency and our efforts to regulate them work to keep things functioning in a status quo fashion. Once the system is in place, change becomes far more difficult. Strangely, we recognize this and embrace the disruptive possibilities of our entrepreneurial culture. Remember Apple’s famous “Think Different” campaign from 1997? Though Apple was no longer a startup, it was the disruptor and was positioning itself directly against what was viewed as status quo thinking. We know what we’re up against.

For us as individuals, the challenge is to apply our thinking intentionally within a world that often does not want us to think and within systems that were designed to remove our thinking altogether. In short, we need to keep thinking. How do we make sure that we are thinking and not merely parroting opinions or ideas that have been placed between our ears?

  • Read. Thinking begins with information. Ideas are the source and we need many in order to prompt our own. Good ideas. Bad ideas. Ideas with which you agree. Ideas with which you don’t agree. Religious ideas. Philosophical ideas. Scientific ideas. Facts and figures. History. Fill your head.
  • Write. We process ideas when we write.  We think when we write. Not a writer? Ridiculous. We’re all writers. Start with a journal. Work at it. Force yourself to write your ideas, your reactions to the ideas of others, and the random thoughts that fall in between. Start simply by writing about the day’s activities. Then, move to writing about news, shows, or other events. Finally, capture your observations. The more you write, the more your writing will evolve.
  • Discuss. Our best thinking happens when we talk through ideas with other people. Start with a safe circle and safe topics. Take an issue at work and discuss it with your peers or manager. Don’t just discuss the symptoms, get to the root. What-if thinking is a mentally expansive approach to considering all of the possibilities of problem and brain-storming solutions. Or, take something complex and talk through it with your spouse. Explain it. Ask questions. Engage. A happy side-effect of this is the relationship building aspect of discussion. Especially discussion that isn’t just a cursory review of the day. Dig deep. Work at it.
  • Argue. We are pushed to the next level in our thinking when we argue a point or series of points. I’m not talking about a shouting match debate, I’m talking about cordial disagreement or inquiry. A recent argument with a friend reminded me of this. Though we disagreed, we honored each other by allowing each to share his thoughts, ask questions, and continue to disagree. I found myself considering the conversation long after we had parted for the evening and guess what? I will be even better prepared the next time we meet. So will he.
  • Write. Did I mention that you should write? It bears repeating. Capturing your thoughts not only helps you remember, it makes them real. Writing forces you to organize them into cohesive sentences. Writing makes you think. Keep writing.

Each of us has a staggering capacity for thought. Thomas J. Watson Sr.’s challenge to us was to use our abilities to think capaciously. We don’t need to stop at the surface. We shouldn’t just look at the symptoms. We need to dig deeper and find the root of issues, ideas, and the problems that confront us. Don’t settle for the prefabricated thinking given to us in our jobs or by other people – find your own voice in the noise, create your own notions, and embrace your ideas. Don’t wait for someone else to give you the answer, do the hard work that thinking requires and allow your creative self to shine in the process.

Think. You are made for it.


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