Five Steps to New Thinking

An expert in any field learns to organize and group information around principles. That allows the expert to quickly draw information when he or she needs it.

An expert in any field learns to organize and group information around principles. That allows the expert to quickly draw information when he or she needs it. By Judy Chartrand, Heather Ishikawa, and John Maketa, authors of “Now You’re Thinking”

Doctors see a symptom, scan through a database in their heads, and ask a series of questions to quickly winnow down the possible causes. Peyton Manning can scan a football field, see opportunities and risks, and make snap decisions with great success. A novice organizes information in a more random and error-prone fashion. By putting a thinking model in your head, you are organizing important steps and information, which helps you learn more quickly and efficiently. A model, like a recipe, helps you see the ingredients and steps for success. So, let’s look at five steps of a model that can become a valuable part of your own thinking. 

1. Stop and Think
When faced with the impossible, it’s often best to start with the small steps of what is possible. Being able to stop and think is a reflective skill; it is the ability to stop and figure out what type of thinking skill you need at this point in time. When you do this, you are actively taking control of your thinking. The situation might be life changing, an unproductive debate with your teenager, a problem at work, or an entrepreneurial opportunity. The situation does not matter— the process remains the same. You stop and think about your thinking so that you can apply the correct strategy for the situation. Here are a few simple, but essential reflective questions to ask yourself:

• What is going on here (or with me)? Stop and define the situation and gauge your feelings.
• What am I (are we) trying to accomplish? Stop and define your purpose or goal. Keeping your purpose, goal, or dream at the forefront prevents derailment and keeps feelings in check.
• What type of situation is this? Stop and figure out if it is urgent or important. Most situations are not urgent or extremely important. When they are, you want to be ready to apply your thinking skills. When they aren’t, you don’t want to waste energy by treating them like they are. • Do I need to know more? Determine if you need more information to answer what (facts), when, why (the context), or how (process) questions. Do you need more information to determine if there is a need to plan, to monitor, or to evaluate? By thinking reflectively, you put yourself in a position to identify the real problem, or put small problems in perspective so that you don’t waste valuable time and energy. Asking yourself reflective questions improves your awareness and focuses your thinking. It allows you to apply what you already know to the situation at hand.

2. Recognise Assumptions
If you go to the Ritz Carlton, you’ll get great customer service and if you buy a Honda, it will be a reliable car. These are common assumptions based on the reputation of the companies. Assumptions, statements, or beliefs that you assume to be true operate almost automatically, so you take them for granted without checking the facts. They are useful because they save you time. If you didn’t make assumptions, you would be forever checking every single fact in every single instance. In essence, you would be repeatedly and forever saying, “How do I know that to be true?” Your life would grind to a halt. The problem with assumptions is that sometimes they are wrong. Not too long ago, leading fashion retailer Gap Inc. decided to launch a new logo to refresh their brand. The old logo had been in place for decades and the company assumed a more contemporary image was needed. Unfortunately, they didn’t check their assumption and their online community condemned the move. After only one week, Gap Inc. recalled the new logo and brought back the old one. When assumptions are wrong, they send you down a dead-end track and you don’t even know you are heading in the wrong direction, which can be a very costly mistake. The ability to recognize assumptions will help you avoid pitfalls, and the best place to start is to understand where assumptions come from.

Personal experience is the most common source of an assumption and it is the most difficult to recognize. We hold beliefs and make assumptions based on our culture, background, and experience. Do you favor health-care reform? Do you know why you hold this belief? We see through the eyes of our own experience, and we don’t know what we don’t know.

3. Evaluate Information
Before you can jump on an opportunity, you need to evaluate its merits. When you are trying to choose between alternatives, you need to sort through their relative strengths and weaknesses. To make a good choice, you need to evaluate information. The good news is that information is far more accessible than it used to be. The bad news is that our society is now swimming in a sea of information and misinformation. It can feel overwhelming, and to cope effectively, you need a systematic approach. Before evaluating information, be sure you clarify the situation (stop and think) so that you know what’s going on, what you are trying to accomplish, and what type of situation it is. This helps you determine how much and what type of information to gather and evaluate. Try to root out vague and ambiguous language. When you hear phrases like, “I just want to be happy” or “we want a win-win outcome,” you’ve got vague and ambiguous goals. Clarify before you move forward. It takes time to gather information, so know what you need to look for (and what you don’t) before you start. As soon as you have criteria or a “keys for success” checklist in place, you can use two simple questions to evaluate information. The first question centers on the relevance of the information. Sometimes people get off track sorting through irrelevant information, and the common consequence is to feel overwhelmed or confused. As you review information, you will want to ask yourself, over and over again, “Is it relevant based on my keys for success?” Now let’s go to the second simple question: Is it accurate? Be on the lookout for information that sounds accurate, but is vague. Notice the difference between “Doctors recommend Zymbia.” and “A survey of the American Medical Association showed that 87 percent of the doctors surveyed recommended Zymbia.” It is easier to evaluate the accuracy of the second example. Watch out for popular opinions (e.g., Macs are easier to use than PCs). They might be accurate, but also be vague regarding for whom and when the conditions are true. It is also important to look at the source of the information when evaluating accuracy. For example, do you think Wikipedia is a credible source? How do you know? To gauge the credibility of a source, ask questions: Does the source have expertise in this area? Is his or her expertise up to date? Is he or she impartial and trustworthy? It is important to check your sources.

4. Draw Conclusions
Making the right decision can change your life. It might be making that instantaneous connection in a single moment, or choosing from multiple alternatives after thoughtful contemplation, that forever shifts your life’s course. Either way, the sequence is the same; you accurately evaluate the information and draw a conclusion that logically follows from the information. Unfortunately, mistakes often occur at the intersection between evaluating information and drawing conclusions. Let’s look at two common mistakes:

• Jumping to conclusions often occurs when people are under pressure to move quickly or when they are very results driven. Workplaces across America reward people who take action and get results, and the one downside is a nationwide tendency to jump on the first conclusion without fully vetting other possibilities.
• Overgeneralization is also common, and it occurs when you draw a conclusion that goes well beyond the information at hand. Would you invest all of your savings in the stock market because you read a favorable article in the Financial Times? Of course not. Yet, the economic road over the last few years is scattered with the carcasses of organizations that made a practice of drawing conclusions that extended far beyond a base of solid information. Good decision making (or problem solving) is about drawing conclusions that logically follow from accurate and relevant information. You use deductive and inductive reasoning skills to make the connection between information and conclusion. When the connection slips (e.g., jumping to conclusions, overgeneralizing), so does the quality of the decision. 

5. Develop a Plan of Action
Once a decision is made, what happens next? A plan of action helps you anticipate consequences and brings your decision to life. The type of planning needed depends, to a certain extent, on the type of decision (e.g., project plan, business plan, wedding plan). However, when you move from decision to action, three questions will get you off to a good start:

• What are the consequences of this decision?
• What plans need to be made to implement this decision?
• What types of resources are needed to implement this decision? Leveraging the qualities of a timely style helps to bring a proactive, resourceful approach to bear on a plan of action. Similarly, using an analytical style and looking for inconsistencies or missing pieces of the plan helps avoid gaffes and miscues. A plan of action keeps you focused, helps you avoid unnecessary detours, and leads to more predictable and promising outcomes.

Every day, you are bombarded with information and you will absorb it differently than you did before. Perhaps you will notice an opinion that looks like a fact, recognize an unstated assumption, or catch yourself agreeing with something just because it matches your beliefs. Maybe you will quickly recognize irrelevant information and save yourself time by moving on to something more relevant. Maybe you will see similarities across pieces of information and connect the dots using inductive reasoning. Regardless of what you learned in this chapter, the end result is that you are thinking differently.

You now have a new model for thinking and a series of relevant questions that allows you to organize your thoughts as you approach opportunities, problems, and decisions. The five-step model helps you approach thinking more like an expert (organizing and grouping information, asking better questions) than a novice. Practice your new skills each day and you will quickly see positive results.

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