Nurturing Thinking

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

Product Managers (PMs) have a work problem. Too often, a hard day’s work for a PM is to be inundated with emails, Slacks, meetings, and impromptu conversations from anyone wandering by (thanks, open office!). However, what is the value of a PM to the business? Is it to be good at these activities? To get to inbox zero each day, reply to every Slack, and deliver every slide for every deck on time?

To a degree, yes. But critically, it is not the whole story.

Communication is a fundamental PM skill. You must work with stakeholders, and customers, and your engineering team, and drive alignment on what is being built, and why. But again, step back a moment and consider what it is that you are sharing when you step in front of your team, or stakeholders, or engineers? How have you been leveraging your time and talent? How often do you have significant, imaginative, or inspiring things to share? Or did you just arrive at the best option available given the time, and thought, you gave it during a busy workday?

This busy trap isn’t a PM only issue. Any self-aware knowledge worker understands this problem. As machines learn and automation encroaches ever further into the busy work of our occupations, we must embrace the fundamental humanness of how we do our work, and more importantly, how we define what our “work” is. The “what”, and “how”, of our approach to our work comes down, fundamentally, to how we think. It is not only what makes us valuable to the business but it’s also what creates a real sense of purpose and progress in the product work we do, as this how we create and drive products in new and interesting directions. 

So let’s take a moment to think about thinking. 

Analytical vs. Elastic

An essential step in understanding how we leverage our innate humanness is to think about thinking and step one is to understand first that thinking isn’t a singular activity. Depending on the problem, and stage you are with that problem requires different approaches and different conditions for how you will arrive at an answer.

By reading Leonard Mlodinow’s wonderful book Elastic, I, for the first time, started to draw some distinct lines between the two different types of thinking. To establish a vocabulary for what they look and feel like, and to understand the conditions within which the different types can thrive. These types of thinking are analytical and elastic.

Analytical thinking is what I would call the heads-down work. The rational and logical process we most synonymously associate with thinking, and work. It is the need to immerse yourself in a subject or problem. To take on a challenge and dig, probe, and uncover, and then to walk through logical steps to a conclusion, all filtered and processed by the beautiful rationality of minds. This type of thinking, and the work produced, is often prized and valued by ourselves and others, and has been since the Enlightenment. This is not only because rigorous rationality and logical process is a distinctly human trait to which we can all relate, which is all true, but also because it can be more easily quantified. The output required is easier to define and to grasp hold of, so success and achievement are also easier to specify and reward as an employee of an organization.

Analytical thinking is also awash with methodologies and practices for how to achieve it, and how to progress beyond competence to expert. As a PM some good examples would be competitive analysis and user research, stakeholder interviews, and data analysis. This is the foundational busy work of product. This is not to say it’s boring or unimportant. It’s actually critical, enlightening, and stimulating. Without this analysis, you don’t have the raw materials with which to craft a solution. 

But as a PM, the output of that analysis is often not the end of the project. You may have weaved your notes and findings into a report or a fancy deck, but then comes the need for the deep absorption of those findings. The synthesizing and filtering of what’s essential and what’s not. The part where you have to internalize and empathize with the customer and their problems to such a degree that you can craft a meaningful product solution. A solution that not only applies to your product broadly but also to the customer’s needs precisely. In short, you need to make new connections.

Often for PMs, the business goal is set. What’s lacking is the vision for how to achieve it and the strategy for iteratively shipping against that vision, ready and willing to pivot as you go. The scope of possibilities is rarely a blank space but instead a junction with a hundred different pathways available. Our work is fundamentally about choosing, justifying, and selling the path you chose (as well as admitting when you are wrong and redrawing a new path). 

The image of the PM as a cartographer has always been a favored analogy of mine. The task is to explore the unknown parts of the map, filling in the empty spaces where it currently says, “here be dragons”.

Here be dragons!

There is solid, rational, and hard work that happens in that exploration. It’s where you soak in the influences of a thousand voices and inputs, and choose to follow some paths rather than others. But, at the end of the journey, as all cartographers know, comes the real work. The creative and imaginative choices on how you represent that discovery on the canvas, so that everyone can understand it and use it. What is important and what are the unnecessary details that should be left aside? What are the places that people didn’t even know existed, and how will they know how to find their way there?

This is where new connections need to be made. Leaps forward of imagination. A unique synthesis of raw materials. But how does this synthesis piece work? When we make those hitherto unseen or unspoken connections, where do those unique perspectives come from? For example, how do you choose the right emphasis when documenting your findings? There’s always an abstraction layer between the research and the deliverable, just as the map maker must make trade-offs between comprehension and literal one-to-one drawing of the world around them. So how did we land on the decision we did? 

We’re talking here about those “aha” moments when it all comes together. This is elastic thinking. The type of thinking that allows us to let go of old dogmas and genuinely create and innovate.

Elastic thinking is what endows us with the ability to solve novel problems and to overcome the neural and psychological barriers that can impede us from looking beyond the existing order.

Importantly, there is no need for elastic thinking to be shrouded in anecdote and romance. You don’t need to be waiting, helpless, wondering when the lightning bolt will strike while walking, or the dawn of inspiration in the shower or the breakthrough while driving to work. Instead, you need to inspect your own unique set of conditions for when those “aha” moments occur. To be curious and interested in how they came about and what were the foundations on which they were built:

“the first step in nurturing either analytical or elastic thinking is to nurture thinking—to become more conscious of when you employ automated scripts, and to discard them when they don’t serve you well. For it is only when you are self-aware that you can interrupt an automatic script if it is not appropriate.”

Elastic Thinking as Work

With this bifurcated concept of thinking in our back pockets, we need to use some of that analytical thought and apply it to what work we do as PMs. To take a moment and consider what type of thinking is required, and when. We have to be self-aware enough to break away from the conventional notion of “work” as a singular term. When we say we are working, most often, what we are saying is that we are doing analytical work. To get a lot of work done is to have completed tasks, crossed items off lists, or completed deliverables. This is tough work and requires its own set of personal understanding for when it can be best achieved. But, when you are faced with a broader, more ambiguous problem. When you are standing at that junction or staring at that empty part of the map, you are probably looking at a time when you need to do a different type of work. 

It’s time for some elastic thinking work.

This doesn’t always need to be times of great importance. It could be just how you structure a presentation or run a potentially tricky meeting. But often in our work as PMs, analytical heads-down, brute-force “work” isn’t going to be enough. Or, more critically, it may well be enough to get you an answer, but will it get you a breakthrough? Will it just be an answer that follows what came before? Or will you take a moment to consider throwing out the old map and drawing a new one?

The analytical approach we’ve worshipped in Western society ever since the Age of Reason is a low-level god, while the Zeus of human thought is elastic thinking. After all, logical thought can determine how to drive from your home to the grocer most efficiently, but it’s elastic thought that gave us the automobile.

Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change by Leonard Mlodinow

Because when you think of breakthroughs, they are often not radical deviations from what has come before. They are instead subtle edits. They are removals, reorderings, or reframings of the problem. That was what led to a different or new solution. I believe that is why, when these breakthroughs occur, we all raise our palms to our foreheads and pronounce, “well, duh!”. Because it was like the answer was staring us in the face the whole time. Which it was, it just needed the right type of thought, plus time and knowledge to be applied to it to see what others could not and make sense of it.

Psychologists call the process of altering the framework through which you analyze an issue “restructuring.” That most fundamental operation of our minds often spells the difference between finding an answer and reaching an impasse. Or, once you’ve reached an impasse, restructuring is often the only way to overcome it. Today, as the assumptions of the past are being rendered obsolete at a blinding pace, the ability to restructure your thinking is less and less a requirement for standout achievement and more and more simply a requirement for survival …Effective thinking often boils down to that—the ability to restructure your framework of thought about the facts and issues.

Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change by Leonard Mlodinow

If you work in tech, the world is a swirling quicksand pit of possibilities. Those possibilities all represent opportunities for your mind to play, discard, and sink deeply into. Your analytical mind sees these new tools and wants to use them to build something, sure, but what that thing is will be a logical variation on what worked before. Your elastic mind can help you break that pattern. To allow you to step away, however briefly, from what has come before, and think of the problem on its own terms and in the context you now find it. By itself, this is a critical human skill, but one that is difficult to achieve. Letting go of previously established patterns or preferences is well understood to be a barrier all of its own:

“”In the preface to his 1936 book General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, economist John Maynard Keynes wrote, “The ideas which are here expressed so laboriously are extremely simple and should be obvious. The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify… into every corner of our minds.””

Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change by Leonard Mlodinow

Conditions for Elastic Thought

Much is understood about the conditions for analytical thought. Concentrated focus, with limited distractions. The ability to sink deep enough into the research so that you can genuinely assimilate and make sense of the overwhelming flood of information available. However, what works for one doesn’t work for all, and everyone will have their own variations for what a good work setup looks like. 

Elastic thought needs the same attention but emphasizes, even more, the personal twists that are specific to you. It also requires some fascinating variations from analytical thinking conditions. The most basic ground rule of all is the acknowledgment that it is a non-linear process. How you make connections between disparate pieces of information or reframe a problem entirely, is not going to happen through a procedure you can repeat. Instead, you must accept, like the mindfulness practitioner wandering to and from thought, that how these connections are made is subconscious, or when the brain is in a “default state.” The preliminary work is to seed the mind with the right information, then place it in the right conditions and then let the magic happen. 

A sense of mindfulness is one of the pre-conditions for this process. You must be aware, and awake, to how you think, and when you need to abandon the script. After that, you must embrace emotion. Analytical thinking is rational thinking. One of its sales points is that it is devoid of emotion. It is the logician’s approach to problem-solving that says I bring nothing but the facts to bear, and the solution will emerge. Not so for elastic thought. You must understand that emotion is part of the process and, in some way, be open to how emotion can guide and be a marker on the path to a truly original solution. What triggered some excitement? Where is there a niggling uncertainty? Why is something not sitting right? These intangible, bodily expressions are emotional reactions to something your brain has yet to make sense of. Listen to that, and inspect it, a breakthrough may be waiting on the other side.

Other key aspects to elastic thinking are to be aware of when the best time of day is for that kind of work. Most people are already conscious of when the best time of day is for analytical and task-based work. Whether that be the first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon. The rhythm to the workday throws up periods of focus and periods of distraction and procrastination.  Elastic thinking has its own optimal time. This is entirely personal. The author, for example, said that he found it best in the evening when he was tired for this type of thinking. In contrast, first thing in the morning was when he could do the more heads down analytical work. It just maybe, that when those lulls that appear in your day, when you just can’t sit down and get started on something, may well be an indicator that your mind is ready for a shift of pace to a different type of thinking. 

The final tactic for elastic thinking and this one is dear to my heart, is to embrace what the author calls the “symphonies in idle minds.” To make new connections using the immense knowledge base already in your head, your mind needs the space to mull and ponder that knowledge. In practice, this means making time for such beautiful activities as daydreaming, resting with your eyes closed (napping or not), walking, or even driving. 

“When your mind is at rest, what it is really doing is bouncing thoughts back and forth,” Andreasen says. “Your association cortices are always running in the background, but when you are not focused on some task—for example, when you are doing something mindless, like driving—that’s when your mind is most free to roam. That’s why that is when you most actively create new ideas.”

Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change by Leonard Mlodinow

Of all the concepts here, this is the most powerful for a PM. There must come a time when the research and analysis stops. You’ll never have all the information. You’ll never talk to every customer. You must, at some point, decide to close your laptop. You must let the associations and recombinations happen. You must gift yourself the time and space to do the other work. The elastic thinking work. The work that will complement and expand upon all the analytical work you have done and deliver the insights you crave and the customer-delighting products we long to build.

Inspiration: Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change by Leonard Mlodinow

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