Cultivate Your Conceptual Thinking for Visionary Leadership

by Daniel Hannig

There are certain qualities that we expect to see in leaders–tenacity, intelligence, and an ability to inspire the people around them. The traditional image of a leader is someone who is exacting, who makes carefully considered decisions based on evidence and facts. They are logical and rational. However, there is one characteristic of successful leaders that is often overlooked: creativity. While logic and reason can minimize risk and maximize existing resources, they are little help when it comes to making something new. A leader without a vision can keep a company on a stable, predictable course, but they can’t spearhead projects that create new value.

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Creating a product that is the first of its kind on the market gives your company a competitive advantage, no matter how many copycats follow you. Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo, said that when she was tapped to head European business for the food and beverage giant, she was told, “I can get operating executives to run a profit-and-loss-center. But I cannot find people to help me re-conceptualize PepsiCo. That’s the skill in shortest supply.”

Ideas drive strategy. A company needs an overarching, long-term strategy to inform decisions and prioritize goals in the short-term.

Sequential thinking is a step-by-step approach to solving immediate problems. Say you’ve opened a bar in a small town. You’ve ordered in a case of your favourite craft beer, but the locals aren’t buying it–likely intimidated by ordering anything other than their usual lager. In taking a sequential thinking approach, you might say, “I’m not going to buy this beer again. Instead, I should offer the kind of beer that the locals are used to.”

Conceptual thinking is concerned with the bigger picture. It strives to get the best immediate outcome while also keeping the ultimate goal in mind. In taking a conceptual thinking approach to your bar, you might say, “I’m going to open the first craft beer bar in this town and attract the beer-lovers that didn’t have anywhere to go.”

Conceptual thinking is essential to the holy grail of business innovation: disruption. You can’t disrupt an industry with the same ideas that have already been done before. However, conceptual thinking involves an element of risk. In order for conceptual thinking to be valuable in your organization, it needs to be useful, and that means actually putting big ideas into action. As Lawrence Weinbach, the former chairman, president, and CEO of Unisys said, “If we want to be leaders, we’re going to have to make decisions with maybe 75% of the facts. If you wait for 95%, you’re going to be a follower.”

We see examples of the success of conceptual thinking all around us. It’s rumoured that after a conference in Paris, the founders of Uber couldn’t hail a cab, and thought, “What if an idling limo service could come pick us up?”. Amazon transformed a home speaker into a home assistant that does so much more than play music. In 2007, Steve Jobs introduced an attractive phone with an internet connection and completely changed our perception of what a phone does. Conceptual thinkers find new ways to look at old problems and challenge our notions of what’s possible. Conceptual thought is a competitive advantage in a retail landscape that increasingly rewards pioneers.

Thinking in concepts and abstractions comes more easily to some than others. Some people who have been elevated to management positions for their Type A personalities struggle with the ambiguity and idealism of conceptual thinking. Fortunately, with a little self-awareness and effort, it’s possible to develop and train your conceptual thinking abilities.

8 Tips to Develop your Conceptual Thinking

  1. Ask “What if” questions. “What If” questions are the root of any groundbreaking idea. A “What if” question inherently challenges how we’re operating now with a potentially new way of working. It doesn’t matter how pie-in-the-sky your “What if” question might be–people asked those questions themselves when they invented the airplane and put a man on the moon.

  2. Learn as much as possible, in as much detail as possible. In James Webb Young’s classic book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, he refers to this stage as “gathering the raw material”, and it’s arguably the least exciting step in conceptual thinking. As Young put it, “It is such a terrible chore that we are constantly trying to dodge it…. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us.” Research your topic thoroughly, to the most granular obscure details, to develop a deep understanding of how it works. How do all the pieces fit together? What are they made of? Where were they made? How have they changed over time? Like Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”.

  3. Visualize your train of thought. It’s easy to forget ideas if you don’t put them down on paper. Don’t let an inability to draw keep you from sketching out your ideas. Write your ideas on sticky notes and put them up on a wall, or plot out mental maps to draw connections between different concepts. These simple techniques can help to record a chronology of ideas, giving you context when you revisit them later. Keep a notebook on you at all times, because you never know when the perfect solution to a problem will hit you.

  4. Find a sparring partner. While too many cooks can overcomplicate a good idea, finding someone you trust to share your ideas with can be an invaluable resource. Ideas get fleshed out, tested, and improved when you are challenged by another person. Make sure that your creative confidante is someone that is open-minded and outspoken in order to get the most insightful feedback possible.

  5. Work from a new location. Sometimes you just need a change of scenery to get your mental gears moving again. Take your laptop outside or to a coffee shop if you’re feeling stuck in a rut. You can also try going for a walk or taking a ride on the bus to shake your mind out of its stupor. Exposure to different sights, sounds, and smells can reenergize your creative muscles.

  6. Talk to your target audience whenever you can. While you likely have data points that reflect how your consumers interact with various touchpoints (website hits, email conversions, etc.), nothing compares to meeting your customers face-to-face. Take an interest in how real people feel about your company and the problem it’s your mission to solve. If your company makes children’s clothes, strike up a conversation with parents at the park to find out what drives them crazy about buying clothes for their kids. It might spark an idea for an innovative way to make their lives easier.

  7. Don’t censor yourself or anybody else. Sharing ideas to a group is a little like performing–you are exposing yourself to the judgement of other people. If you shoot down someone’s idea immediately, they will be less likely to offer another one next time. In improv comedy, they call this the “Yes And” rule: accept what the other person has stated and expand on it. Without the “Yes And” rule, improvisers could never build a scene together. Every character could reject the entire premise of the scene, causing incomprehensible mayhem on stage. Besides, once an idea you’re unsure of now is executed, you might just fall in love with it.

  8. Work out the logistics later. In your first round of brainstorming, it isn’t necessary to figure out exactly how your idea will work in practice. What matters is coming up with a volume of ideas that could theoretically be useful. While some ideas may seem far-fetched or unrealistic, there is usually a way to scale them back into practical territory. These big ideas might also be more feasible later once you’ve acquired more resources.

Conceptual thinking in leadership inspires conceptual thinking in employees. Innovative ideas attract ambitious employees that want to do exciting, different work. By setting an example of creative thinking at a leadership level, you will motivate others to approach their work from all angles. It doesn’t take a big, industry-changing idea to inspire your employees, either. Sometimes small but meaningful paradigm shifts are enough to attract the notice of forward-thinking employees.


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