In self-deprecating rhetoric, Justice Ginsburg delivered a quote, Tuesday, much in support of analytical thinking. She defined the legal mind as one that “can think about a thing inextricably attached to something else without thinking about the thing which it is attached to.” She might have put the preposition “to” in another location. But aside from that, the comment, built on obvious legal assumptions, is a superb piece of analytical thinking.
Having used the Myers Briggs (MBTI) and one form or another of David Merrill’s personality inventory, I used to think that most business managers and workers were highly analytical. Of course, business people—by a huge margin—tend to prefer analytical thinking over the big-picture or strategic. But when I dug into clients and their colleagues’ behaviors, I got a very significant heads-up. Though managers’ preferences were analytical thinking rather than big-picture or strategic, my analysis revealed that a huge majority were not especially capable of cutting-edge analytical thinking.
. . . Selling analytical skills
So initially, I thought as a consultant that I could sell analytical thinking skills as a competency. But I quickly found that however I framed the subject, it wouldn’t sell easily. Selling analytical skills is much like selling communication skills. Everybody thinks they do a fine job of communicating, but when you dig deeply that usually means only one thing: they know how to communicate so that they’ll successfully avoid conflict. And most work with what little they can remember college about analytical thinking. Sometimes that’s very little.
. . . Evidence-based management and analytical thinking
The best business approach to analytical thinking is called evidence-based management, emphasized strongly by Pfeffer and Sutton as well as Rousseau and Briner. It’s all about making decisions by “conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of four sources of information: practitioner expertise and judgment, evidence from the local context, a critical evaluation of the best available research evidence, and perspectives of those people who might be affected by the decision.”
Though still very new to business, evidence-based management has a highly successful history from the medical profession. Indeed, Harvard’s Atul Gawande referenced the process strongly in his first book,Complications (2002). Gawande is now widely known as an expert on reducing error, improving safety, and increasing efficiency in modern surgery through evidence-based research.
But the foundation of all evidence-management is analytical thinking—along with what Karl Weick calls disciplined imagination. That being the case, in this blog I want to toss out a few ideas that orient us to effective analytical thinking.
. . . Some analytical thinking fundamentals
When you’re planning an intervention, a change, or even attempting an innovation, the beginning of analytical thinking is always the statement of a problem, question or issue. Defining terms is inevitably included in such statements as: “What do you mean by. . . ?” “How does this differ from . . . ?” “Why do you think this is appropriate?” “How else could we think about this?” “What are we missing in trying to understand this?” Once you’ve gotten initial clarity on these kinds of questions, put the answers on the parking lot for future reference and slowly move on the process.
The second issue in analytical thinking is always about data. “What kind of organizational evidence or data should we gather?” “How relevant is this data to our statement of the problem?” “How valid is this data? And how can we check the validity of the data?” Typically at this point in your thinking you may restate or reformulate the problem. On some occasions, you may make the problem even more specific.
If the question, intervention or problem is important for you and the organization, it’s wise to slow down the process at this point. Here’s where you dig into the problem statement and evidence you’ve surfaced.
Take your tentative conclusion and ask a lot of “what if?” questions. What’s likely to happen if we introduce this intervention? Would we be wise to approach this incrementally—just a few steps. Or even try a brief pilot program? How likely is the intervention to benefit us on a short term or long term basis? And what, if any costs may be incurred as a result of the intervention?
A second approach to data and facts involves making the justification for the decision explicit and transparent. Even where the evidence is small or ambiguous, identifying what you know and believe about that evidence makes it possible to appraise the available data and the assumptions of the decision makers.
A third approach is to determine what actually might be relevant evidence about the problem or question. Sometimes this approach helps you to identify organizational evidence readily.
A final approach, if possible, is to use consultants who can bring in and share how the consequences of an intervention may be measured and evaluated. Often, the best use of consultants is to get them to compare how other firms have framed similar issues, what kind of data and evidence they used, and what were the results. Consultants are especially useful at this point to give advice, confirm, qualify or even reject your approaches.
. . . Unique decisions?
One of the recurring experiences from my consultancy is that clients tend to believe that their decision is unique—different from other firms. It was Peter Drucker who commented years ago that most business issues—from morale problems to strategic implementations are “generic.” They are “repetitions of problems cloaked in the guise of uniqueness.” If a problem is generic, effective managers can benefit from understanding the strategies underlying it as a guide to action. And even if a problem is novel—a rare occurrence—awareness of effective analytical thinking can certainly help in achieving quality decisions.
So. . . Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg is more than merely adept in her analytical thinking. But her comment was an excellent ruse for me to gain your attention on one of the most important issues for determining organizational and personal success.
Flickr photo: nyhistory