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Legal Commentary

: Adam Smith, Esq.

Critical Thinking II


I recently wrote about the dearth of critical thinking abroad in the land.

Now I'd like to bookend that piece with a classic from The Harvard Business Review, "Why Don't Managers Think Deeply?"

The opening lines are priceless; I would ask you only to put yourself in the shoes of fellow HBS faculty members and try--honestly--to envision your reaction:

A since deceased, highly-regarded fellow faculty member, Anthony (Tony) Athos, occasionally sat on a bench on a nice day at the Harvard Business School, apparently staring off into space. When asked what he was doing, ever the iconoclast, he would say, "Nothing." His colleagues, trained to admire and teach action, would walk away shaking their heads and asking each other, "Is he alright?" It is perhaps no coincidence that Tony often came up with some of the most profound insights at faculty meetings and informal gatherings.

Another touch-point for this question comes from an announcement out of GE early last year:

Jeffrey Immelt, GE's CEO, has received a lot of publicity recently for fostering "imagination breakthroughs" by encouraging managers to think deeply about innovations that will ensure GE's longer-term success. He has vowed that he will protect those working on the breakthroughs from the "budget slashers" focused on short-term success. Questions that this effort raises include: (1) Why so much publicity? (2) Isn't "deep thinking" what leaders are paid to do? and (3) Why do these kinds of effort require so much protection?

Are you beginning to get the same creepy feeling I am, that large organizations discourage deep or creative thinking?

Well, in that case, shall we just pile on? Here are some HBS professors' comments on the initial piece:

"... what rises to the top levels are very productive and very diligent individuals who tend not to ... reflect and are extremely efficient at deploying other people's ideas," implying that this type of leader is not likely to understand, encourage, or recognize deep thinking in others.

"... managers are not trained for it."

"Time-for-thinking is a special moment which can be resource consuming and an unsafe activity ..."

"There's a name for managers who think deeply--entrepreneurs ... Big companies are no place for big thinkers."

Providing time to reflect, particularly in an era of multi-tasking and the tyranny of technology, was most frequently suggested as an antidote to the dearth of deep thinking. As Chris Shannon put it, "I think creatively better out of the office, say while out in the boat or at a conference, so that looks very much like not working!"

Also, we have the uncomfortable reality that deep thinking can produce uncomfortable collisions with accepted reality:

In the book, Marketing Metaphoria*, Gerald and Lindsay Zaltman suggest some answers to the question [why managers don't think deeply]. In decrying the lack of what they call "deep thinking" among managers and especially those responsible for marketing, they suggest some things that get in its way. Among them are: (1) reluctance to take risk, especially when short-term performance is at stake, (2) the fear of disruption resulting from "thinking differently and deeply," (3) the potential psychological cost of changing one's mind resulting from deep thinking, and (4) the lack of information providing deep insights on which to base deep thinking.

*Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay H. Zaltman, Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal About the Minds of Consumers (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008)

Are there "deep thinkers" within your firm? Would you count yourself one?

If there's a shortfall on this score, why do you think that's the case?:

  • People are task-oriented rather than business oriented?

  • Reactive rather than patrolling the perimeter?

  • Excessively focused on the short term?

  • Allergic to change, in whatever form, so reluctant to engage in any mental activity that might suggest a need for it?

  • So successful that "if it ain't broke,..."?

  • Invested in the existing hierarchy, erego unwilling to even think of doing anything that could upset the apple cart?

  • Simply and innocently in the dark, so they don't even have the base-level wherewithal to take the first step in any meaningful direction?

  • Flat broke out of time?

  • Prisoners of human nature (at some level aren't we all?) who are invested in going along to get along?

What do you think stands in the way of your firm deploying its immense intellectual assets better to understand your own capabilities and try to move in a purposeful, conscientious, and disciplined way towards a brighter future in these times of surpassing challenges?

Full post as published by Adam Smith, Esq. on January 17, 2009 (boomark / email).

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