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Why Don’t Managers Think Deeply

by David Brock on June 16th, 2008
Today, the Harvard Business Review Working Knowledge Newsletter and Art Petty On Management had complementary articles on Why Don’t Managers Think Deeply? It’s a fascinating topic that should concern all leaders. Both are worth reading, and, dare I say, thinking about.

I’d like to add some of my own opinions about why manager’s don’t think deeply:
  • People confuse form with substance: Brilliant presentations, PowerPoint’s, or “hot programs” may be attractive and create a lot of interest, but many have no depth beyond the bullet point on the chart. People haven’t really thought about what the strategy and the most effective means of execution. People don’t get into deep discussions about the issues or alternatives.
  • Activity trumps results and effectiveness: We. particularly American business professionals, have a bias to activity. We see nothing wrong with Ready, Fire, Aim. The activity is often unfocused, aimless, and ineffective. We are often to busy with our activities to take the time to think.
  • Activity can be mistaken for accountability: “Busy people must be doing important things and producing good results.” In reality, busy people may be busy people, but “busyness” does not necessarily mean a lot is being accomplished. The greatest sin made in the name of “busyness” is multitasking–we simultaneously sit in a meeting, process our emails, text message on our phones, and think about what we want to do on the weekend. This keeps us from focusing on what we must do.
  • Thinking—at least results focused thinking– forces us to make choices. It forces us to commit to a course of action and to execute it. Many people are afraid to commit to a course of action. It is better to react or do nothing than it is to commit to something and to be held accountable.
  • Thinking deeply is messy hard work. It is difficult to reduce it to a bullet point. It is demanding and takes time—but time spent thinking doesn’t look like activity. The results aren’t pretty and can sometimes be complicated to present and get others to support.
  • Thinking deeply requires the ability to integrate and synthesize. Some people just aren’t good at this–but it is critical for leaders.
  • Thinking deeply isn’t rewarded in a lot of organizations. It’s hard to measure, consequently hard to reward. Thinking takes away from “busyness.” it’s easier to measure and reward activities.
  • Thinking deeply may be threatening to senior executives. Senior executives who don’t take the time or have difficulty thinking deeply about issues will, justifiably, feel threatened by subordinates that take the time to think before acting.

And I could go on, but enough for now. I would be remiss though, if I didn’t look at some of the downsides of thinking deeply. I have encountered people in business who are deep thinkers, yet who cannot translate the results of their thinking into meaningful action.

Deep thinking must be accompanied my meaningful—thoughtful action. Without this it is never tested and the results are never produced.

  1. I really like this post, Dave, and the thrust that I read as “we should think better about what we do.” But I would prefer “critical thinking” to “deep thinking.”

    I don’t think very much of the population goes in for “deep thinking” and I think that’s OK. It also seems to me that very few good business ideas come from “deep thinking.”

    Most great business ideas seem to me to come from flashes of insight followed by hard work that turns the insight into action. An example is Tom Stemberg of Staples, whom I wrote about in my forthcoming book, Ruthless Focus.

    The Staples story is usually told this way. Stemberg had just been fired from his job and was wondering what to do next. When he couldn’t find a printer ribbon one afternoon, he got the idea for an office supply superstore.

    Stemberg calls that “the fairy tale version” of how Staples got started. Everything in it is true, but it’s not the whole story by a long shot.

    The whole story includes connection with an industry veteran, advice from a former professor, that flash of insight, and lots and lots and lots of research. That’s critical thinking. It’s rigorous thinking. But it’s not deep thinking.

    One point you make is worth underlining. Americans have that bias for action as a replacement for thinking. Over and over again you hear, “We know what the problem is, let’s get to work.” What we need is time for that critical thinking coupled with a bias for action.

    • Wally, you hit the nail on the head! I was struggling with the wording and leveraged the deep thinking concept from the referenced articles.

      The concept of critical thinking is much more appropriate. Thanks so much for the insight!

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