How to Develop High-Performance Thinkers

In my mid-teens, I listened to a lecture series by Barbara Branden called Principles of Efficient Thinking. Early in the series, I remember hearing these words:

“Nothing is more important than to become self-conscious about the nature of your own mental processes. To observe what your mind is doing. To be on the lookout for faulty mental habits in all sorts of situations. At your work, in emotional crises, when you’re happy, when you’re sad.”

I remember thinking briefly that there were, in fact, many more important things to me at the time, although I had to acknowledge that Ms Branden probably had a point. But was I really thinking in that moment? Or was I simply reacting automatically to what I had heard? Later, I learned that there is, in fact, a big difference between the two.

Imagine for a minute that as I was listening to the four sentences above from Barbara Branden, someone was inside my head filming the words and images that comprised my own stream of consciousness. They probably would have seen something that looked like this:

Yup, disciplined, focused thought requires effort. Thankfully, I’ve come a long way since then, but I still love Star Wars.

When I eventually left my teen years behind, and the other ‘important’ things in my life receded in significance, I started working with my brother, Barry, on a grand-scale project to get kids to think and act like entrepreneurs. As part of the project, we tried to reverse-engineer what made high-performance entrepreneurs tick. That’s when the difference between thinking reactively and thinking deliberately became plain. What we discovered is that high-performance entrepreneurs are disciplined thinkers who know their own minds. And even when it appears that they are flying by the seats of their pants, they’re actually controlling their thinking actively, albeit quickly, and applying principles and heuristics that lead to better performance.

So what kinds of traits did we see in the thinking of world-class, high-performance business folk? And how can you develop these traits to the advantage of your learning and change programs?

Focus on a goal

If you want to develop high-performance thinkers, you must encourage goal-oriented thinking. You must consciously select the goal of your thinking, describe it clearly, and focus your full attention on achieving it. All other unrelated thoughts that come to mind should be pushed aside or parked until later for further consideration. Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” It all starts with having the right focus.

What are you doing in your change and learning programs to stimulate goal-oriented thinking?

Follow a process

If you want to develop high-performance thinkers, you must get them to follow a systematic process. What process? Well, there are many! You could follow George Polya’s four-step process for solving mathematical problems, which happens to be wonderfully universal. Or James Webb Young’s technique for producing ideas in a creative context. In the absence of a process, people tend to default toward a single strategy: the one they’re most familiar with. By following a process, individuals can perform beyond their skill and experience level, by approaching challenges with rigor.

What are you doing in your change and learning programs to highlight useful thinking processes?

Be objective

If you want to develop high-performance thinkers, encourage them to be objective. Being objective means focusing on what is real and true, and recognizing that this is not necessarily the same as what you wish to be real and true. The history of the world’s financial crises is a grand narrative of a failure of objective thinking. When investors participate in a frenzied bubble market, based on hoped-for outcomes rather than realistic estimates, then reality eventually comes crashing down around them.

What are you doing in your change and learning programs to encourage objectivity?

Apply concepts

If you want to develop high-performance thinkers, encourage them to build a library of concepts to help them solve problems. Warren Buffett says that his partner, Charlie Munger, has “the best 30-second mind in the world. He goes from A to Z in one move. He knows the essence of everything before you even finish the sentence.” Munger’s secret? He says that he took time to study the big ideas from all the major disciplines, to an extent that he is able to draw on them automatically at any time. In a moment, he can crack challenges with concepts from the world of economics, engineering, accounting, physics, etc.

What are you doing in your change and learning programs to highlight powerful concepts?

Avoid cognitive biases

If you want to develop high-performance thinkers, you must ensure they avoid the mental traps of cognitive biases. We’re all guilty of being biased, more often than we’d like to admit. Take confirmation bias, for example. How often do you look for evidence to support your view, instead of actively seeking opinions from both sides of the fence? Even more pernicious are our unconscious biases! That is, the preferences and prejudices that cloud our view of the world without us ever knowing they’re there. Unless we actively go looking for them, of course.

What are you doing in your change and learning programs to help people avoid cognitive biases?

By focussing on these strategies, you can create more engaging learning experiences, and change programs that stick. Because if you want to activate behavior change in employees, you have to change the way they think. And if you do that well enough, you can have a lasting effect on performance.