What Kind of Thinker Are You?

I love this piece from the Harvard Business Review by Mark Bonchak and Elisa Steele on different modes of thinking within an organization.  Separating individuals on continuums of both focus and orientation, Bonchak and Steele propose that to be most effective, individuals should have thinking roles that complement or coordinate with their doing roles.

Depending on whether individuals orient themselves to “big picture” or “details,” and whether they focus on “ideas,” “process,” “action,” or “relationships,” the authors identify eight thinking personality archetypes.

When you know your thinking style, you know what naturally energizes you, why certain types of problems are challenging or boring, and what you can do to improve in areas that are important to reaching your goals.

Trying this exercise will provide some insight into your own methods of thinking.  Trying it with your team will hopefully allow you to gain a better understanding of each member’s role within your organization, and to refine those roles to enhance satisfaction and productivity.

Detecting Bias in Your Decision-Making

Warren Buffett is regarded as one of the most successful investors in history.  He and his partner, Charlie Munger, attribute a large part of the success of Berkshire Hathaway to the partnership’s ability to make investment decisions without the influence of cognitive bias that risk every human decision.

Whether it’s about investments, business strategy, political candidates, or personal matters, we all try to make good decisions. Unfortunately, emotion and bias is part of human psychology.  While we can’t eliminate bias completely, we can each develop our own toolkit for detecting and mitigating against those unhelpful mental quirks that can lead us down the wrong path if we’re not careful.

Paul Graham of Y Combinator has written a thoughtful essay describing an elegant but subtle method of detecting bias in the evaluation of applicant pools.  The interesting idea in Graham’s observation is that it allows third-parties to detect bias in an organization’s decision-making, even if that organization makes efforts to screen certain details of its process.

Graham suggests that bias can be detected whenever “(a) you have at least a random sample of the applicants that were selected, (b) their subsequent performance is measured, and (c) the groups of applicants you’re comparing have roughly equal distribution of ability.”  Graham explains that in these circumstances, bias can be measured by comparing the back-end success of different groups of applicants, even if you cannot view the applicant pool itself:

How does it work? Think about what it means to be biased. What it means for a selection process to be biased against applicants of type x is that it’s harder for them to make it through. Which means applicants of type x have to be better to get selected than applicants not of type x. Which means applicants of type x who do make it through the selection process will outperform other successful applicants. And if the performance of all the successful applicants is measured, you’ll know if they do.

Graham provides a helpful example of detecting gender bias in the venture capital world:

For example, many suspect that venture capital firms are biased against female founders. This would be easy to detect: among their portfolio companies, do startups with female founders outperform those without? A couple months ago, one VC firm (almost certainly unintentionally) published a study showing bias of this type. First Round Capital found that among its portfolio companies, startups with female founders outperformed those without by 63%.

Graham’s idea seems applicable to any process through which various individuals or opportunities are screened for participation or selection through some pre-defined criteria.  This could include hiring decisions, investment decisions, account or client decisions, or media or networking opportunities, just to name a few.  If you find that a certain group of applicants, or investments, or account type is outperforming the average of the total selected pool, you may have revealed some cognitive bias in your process disposed against the higher-performing group.

Improving decision-making requires a constant eye scanning your processes for places where bias might hide, and from which it might rise up to influence a decision.  Couple Graham’s idea with Shane Parrish’s The Work Required to Have an Opinion and Musashi’s tactics for understanding the strength and weakness in your position.

Musashi Miyamoto on Training to Proper Perspective

Are there ways to prepare for and deal with conflict that will allow you to maximize your chances for positive outcomes?  In both business and personal interactions, we often enjoy finding collaborative and cooperative resolutions to disputes.  Nonetheless, conflict is inevitable.  How do you respond in tense moments?  Do you find yourself overcome with anger, emotion, and anxiety?  Does your judgment cloud and your decision-making suffer?  Why are some people able to stay grounded, maintain a clear, calm view, and make good decisions in the midst of the most chaotic disputes?

Musashi Miyamoto explores this fundamental challenge in The Book of Five Rings.  Musashi was an expert Japanese swordsman and ronin who lived from 1584 to 1645.  After developing an unparalleled skill in swordsmanship and winning 60 duels, he developed the Niten-ryu school of swordsmanship and authored The Book of Five Rings.  On its face, the book is a technical manual of swordsmanship, but read more broadly, it is a masterful piece on strategy, tactics, and philosophy that is relevant today.

Musashi believes that victory in conflict is dependent upon the ability to perceive the entire adversarial situation from multiple perspectives.  By observing clearly the situation from your own point of view, your opponent’s point of view, and a neutral point of view, you place yourself in the best position to act with clear intent and with good judgment.

Statue of Musashi Miyamoto fighting against his rival Sasaki Kojiro. Musashi defeated Kojiro.

According to Musashi, success in battle begins with your own ability to maintain clear vision and perspective in difficult times.  Clear vision will allow you to clearly view your position, your opponent’s position, and where relative advantages may lie on your battlefield.  Musashi instructs:

Where you hold your sword depends on your relationship to the opponent, depends on the place, and must conform to the situation; wherever you hold it, the idea is to hold it so that it will be easy to kill the opponent.

Understanding your best position of advantage requires not only knowledge of your own potential attack, but also the place and the position of your opponent.  Musashi advises us to conceive of our attack in relation to the condition of the environment around us: “Position yourself with the sun at your back.”  In other words, advance your argument or your negotiating position only after you understand the external factors that may impact the correctness or effectiveness of that position is unwise.  This is sometimes easier said than done:

“Observation and perception are two separate things; the observing eye is stronger; the perceiving eye is weaker.  A specialty of martial arts is to see that which is far away closely and to see that which is nearby from a distance.”

Musashi’s lesson is that in every moment, we have blind spots.  In a dispute, we take positions and make arguments.  We believe that those positions and arguments are based on facts.  If our opponent disagrees, we conclude that it is because he or she has misunderstood the facts.  This may or may not be true; we cannot truly understand the strength of our position and the best path for attack unless we challenge ourselves to view our own perspective from afar and the distant perspective from up close.

Become the opponent.”

Good strategic decisions during conflict require an understanding not only of the strengths and weaknesses of your own position, but of your opponent’s position as well. Musashi advises, “The way to win in a battle…is to know the rhythms of the specific opponents, and use rhythms that your opponents do not expect.”  He continues to counsel, “Whenever opponents try to attack you, let them go ahead and do anything that is useless, while preventing them from doing anything useful.”  This is intuitive – to attack in ways that your opponent may not expect, and encourage your opponent to waste energy on fruitless efforts.  It will be impossible, however, to truly understand to succeed in that effort, until you fully understand your opponent’s position.  That takes study.

Shane Parrish, at Farnam Street, wrote a truly excellent piece called “The Work Required to Have an Opinion.”  In his piece, Parrish quotes Charlie Munger as saying, I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”  Munger’s comment echoes Musashi’s points on tactics.  You cannot have confidence in your position until you know its strengths and weaknesses.  This requires you to do the work to question your own position, to attack it, to test it, and to scrutinize it, just as your opponent will.  By doing this work, you will develop an understanding of the perspective of your opponent.  You will learn what your opponent likely believes his or her strengths to be, and what your opponent’s goals are.  From that effort, your own position and plan of strategy will become more clear.

Musashi provides nine specific suggestions for developing this complete strategic perspective:

  1. Think of what is right and true (i.e., check your assumptions).
  2. Practice and cultivate these methods (i.e., train).
  3. Become acquainted with the arts (i.e., learn a wide variety of techniques).
  4. Know the principles of all professions. (i.e., cross-disciplinary learning)
  5. Understand the harm and benefit in everything (i.e., cost-benefit analysis).
  6. Learn to see everything accurately.
  7. Become aware of what is not obvious (i.e., refine your techniques).
  8. Be careful even in small matters (i.e., details matter).
  9. Do not do anything useless.

The ultimate goal, according to Musashi, is to develop an unbiased mental framework, based on practice and repetition, that will allow you to understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of all arguments at play in a dispute:

In the science of martial arts, the state of mind should remain the same as normal … let there be no change at all – with the mind open and direct, neither tense nor lax, centering the mind so that there is no imbalance, calmly relax your mind, and savor this moment of ease thoroughly so that the relaxation does not stop its relation for even an instant.

This flexible framework and detached perspective will allow you the best strategic opportunity to reach your goals, with a robust tactical toolbox.  Perhaps more than any other risk in conflict, Musashi warns of the dangers of inflexibility:  “Fixation is the way to death, fluidity is the way to life.”

Protecting Time for Your Most Important Work

The way to hunt is for as long as you live against as long as there is such and such an animal; just as the way to paint is as long as there is you and colors and canvas, and to write as long as you can live and there is pencil or paper or ink or any machine to do it with, or anything you care to write about, and you feel a fool, and you are a fool, to do it any other way.

-Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

Focus on One Project at a Time

We live in an age of seemingly endless multi-tasking.  At any given moment, our conscious minds are being bombarded by the firing of neurons, reminding us of our professional obligations to our superiors and subordinates, client calls to return, due dates, deadlines, the wants and needs of our children, financial concerns, personal relationships, and our own personal well-being.  We all need to navigate these choppy seas, and the habits of routines and setting daily goals are helpful to focus us on a short-term basis.  Roy Baumeister and John Tierney urge in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength a simple lesson: to maximize your success, “Focus on one project at a time.”

This begs the question, though, of on which project should you focus?  Responsible business, family, and personal management will require some amount of attention to daily operations and maintenance.  But are you directing any time and attention to your bigger strategic goals?  The big projects, the ideas that fill your daydreams and pop up in your mind while you shower, run, or suffer through a daily commute?  These opportunities are important but not urgent, and thus often take a backseat to the reactive mindset of responding to daily asks.  These short-term needs all claim to be urgent, but closer inspection will show that they range greatly in terms of actual importance.  And at the end of the day, you’ll probably find that dealing with very few of those “emergencies” will actually advance you towards accomplishing the goals that are most important to you.  Charting a successful course requires us to protect time for our minds to think about, process, and progress towards our strategic goals and important projects.

Prioritize Your Life, or Someone Else Will

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown observes, “In order to have focus, we need to escape to focus.”  In other words, it is impossible to develop focus on the things most important to you and your long-term goals unless you are able to separate from the daily urgencies of life.  McKeown recounts the efforts of Sir Isaac Newton undertaken in writing Principia Mathematica, the three-volume book in which Newton published his laws of motion and universal gravitation, forming the basis of classical mechanics.  Between May 1684 and April 1686, Newton was so single-handedly devoted to the pursuit of his mathematical studies that he often forgot to eat, sleep, or change clothes.  His notebooks related to his chemical experiments have no entries for this same time period, demonstrating his abandonment of other projects and studies.

Newton’s work on Principia is an extreme example of focus, no doubt.  The lesson is of great value nonetheless.  As McKeown pointedly states, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”  Making progress on your long-term goals requires setting aside time to focus on them.  In another example, Baumeister and Tierney describe Raymond Chandler’s practice of developing focus in his writing through a method called “the Nothing Alternative.”  Frustrated with his lack of progress on a writing project, Chandler set about to develop greater focus and avoid distraction.  Of course, in trying to force focus artificially, Chandler discovered what you likely have experienced at one time or another – that attempting to force focus only results in your mind feeling even more distracted.  In other words, you can’t fake it.  To deal with this resistance, Chandler gave himself permission to write, or to do nothing.  He did not allow himself to do any other work.  In alleviating the pressure to “do something,” Chandler gave himself space to think in a focused environment, with an outlet channel of writing during the assigned time.

How to Find Time to Focus

Methods for finding distraction-free time are many, and include creating a workspace conducive to focused work and eliminating outside interruptions and alerts from colleagues and technology.  The most important step is simply committing to the time.  Set aside time on at least a weekly basis for uninterrupted thinking and work on your long-term goals.  If you can do it more frequently, do it.  Put it on your calendar today.  Make sure others know it is time that you need to and will protect.