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.
This story captures much of the sense of the responses to this month's question about why managers don't think deeply. The list of causes was much longer than the list of proposed responses. But in the process, some other questions were posed.
Ben Kirk kicked off the list of reasons for the phenomenon when he commented, "… 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.
Adnan Younis added the possibility that "… managers are not trained for it." Dianne Jacobs cited the possibility that persisting assumptions borne out of success serve as "roadblocks to act on needed change" (proposed by those who engage in deep thinking?).
Ulysses U. Pardey, whose comment triggered my recollection of Tony Athos, wrote that "Time-for-thinking is a special moment which can be resource consuming and an unsafe activity …" (Fortunately, Athos held a tenured position in an academic organization.)
A number of comments alluded to the triumph of bureaucracies and large organizations over deep thinking. As Lorre Zuppan said, "I think Jeff Immelt's efforts to protect deep thinking reflect a nice sentiment but … If his team could carry the ball, would he need to announce that he's protecting it?" Tom Henkel was more succinct: "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!!" Among other things, Krishna Sripad suggested fostering "an environment where transformation is 'truly' valued" by institutionalizing it and "setting aside a percentage of employee time" for it. Edward Hare proposes that organizations might "understand who their deep thinkers are and then make absolutely certain that they're in a position to take advantage of their rather unique capabilities."
Rob Smorfitt states that for many managers, "it (deep thinking) needs to be learned." This raises the question of whether it can be taught. Frances Pratt comments, "To get deep we must be deep." The issue is complicated by uncertainties about just what "deep thinking" is—pursuing "all possible threads, options" (Ganesh Ram), "adopting another's point of view" (E. Forrest Christian), something "hard and painful" (Phil Clark)?
Just what is it that should be taught? Does this have any place in a business school curriculum? If so, how should it be approached? What do you think?
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?
In their new book, Marketing Metaphoria, Gerald and Lindsay Zaltman suggest some answers to the questions. 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.
According to the Zaltmans, while nearly all research techniques commonly used today probe humans only at their conscious level, the subconscious (offering deep insights) really determines behavior, and that explains why humans don't behave as they say they will, whether in buying or other behaviors. As a result, for example, four in five product introductions perform below expectations.
The Zaltmans expand on ideas they have been studying for some years, namely that strategies of all kinds can be based on insights gained from listening in a disciplined way for metaphors that relatively small numbers of people (consumers, managers, public servants, etc.) use in the course of extended, probing interviews. In these interviews, the object is to use "surface metaphors," like "I am drowning in debt," to identify "metaphor themes," like "Money is like liquid," and the associated "deep metaphor," in this case "resource." They claim that just seven deep metaphors—balance (equilibrium), transformation (changing states or status), journey (as in life), container (keeping things in and keeping things out), connection (feelings of belonging or exclusion), resource (providing survival), and control—describe 70 percent of our inner feelings. The objective is to find deep metaphors that individuals share in common (a true market segment or a basis for resolving a confIict) rather than differences. If we would just take the time to explore them we would be able to realize such things as more substantial, farsighted, successful new product introductions (such as the hybrid auto ten years ago at Toyota); more successful conflict resolution; and more significant innovation, à la GE, in general.
This raises several questions: Have the Zaltmans hit on a basic problem of leadership and management today? Are there appropriate responses other than the one that GE is pursuing? What is your organization doing to combat the absence of deep thinking in decision-making? What are you doing to combat it in thinking about your own life inside and outside the organization? What do you think?To read more: Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay H. Zaltman, Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal About the Minds of Consumers (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008); Gerald Zaltman, How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003)