How to Think Better

Last Updated Aug 10, 2010 5:38 PM EDT

The most effective and creative problem solvers don't merely consider the problem that confronts them. They also assess the way they think about it. Do you tend to step back to see the big picture, or are you more likely to dive into the details? The best thinkers, says Rotman School of Management professor Mihnea Moldoveanu, learn to flip back and forth between both modes. That's the argument he makes in Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers, the book he co-authored with Rotman dean Roger Martin. I recently spoke with Moldoveanu about his book's rather cryptic title, the benefits of "flipping" your thoughts, and how to defuse conflict among your staff by understanding what everyone really thinks.
BNET: What on earth is a "diamind"?

Moldoveanu: It's a dialogical mind -- one that has the character of a dialogue, and is marked by a number of qualities including the ability to simultaneously embrace opposing models and courses of action without losing the ability to actually act.

BNET: How does that ability play out in real life?

Moldoveanu: It's like the rabbit-duck illusion, in which the viewer of the image flips between seeing a rabbit and a duck. In a business context, that ability to flip between different models is what distinguishes the best thinkers. For example, diaminds might have the logical depth of a star computer engineer coupled with the breadth of a great saleswoman. As leaders, they are able to translate seemingly competing goals to get buy-in from team members who may be at intellectual odds.

BNET: What can you do to become a better translator between different types of thinkers?

Moldoveanu: Let's say you're a CEO dealing with a chief technology officer and VP of sales who have competing interests, which isn't surprising given that the CTO is likely to focus deeply on one issue, while the salesperson is going to be more shallowly engaged with a wider range of issues -- the mile deep thinker versus the mile-wide thinker. You help them flip between the two modes of thinking. Do not end a conversation with either one of them until you can give them complete confidence that you understand every single argument they've made. The key is to keep asking questions. As a translator, it's your job to build trust conduits that alleviate any contempt between them.

BNET: How can you prevent contempt from leading to unproductive conflict?

Moldoveanu: Recognize that most human interaction operates on all of these layers: what I think, what you think, what you think I think, and what I think you think. Former Harvard University president Derek Bok was known for effectively making use of this knowledge. Before contentious meetings, he would approach participants and say, for example, "Here's what I think you think about this initiative, tell me if I'm wrong." It's a great way to make conflicts explicit and to eliminate fake conflicts -- the ones that exist only in your mind.