How (some) thinking hinders innovation
How often do you think about your think? Warning: This post is meta.
The way we think explains why some people or organisations are better at entrepreneurship or innovation. In this article I will explain you how. Before this, I want to ask you, what type of thinker are you? You can take a quick test. It's just 25 simple questions, A or B. There is no right or wrong, just answer what appeals to you.
Take this little Google Form test - It will take 3 to 5 minutes.
If you have completed the test, you get a score. The higher the score (max 25), the more prone you are to attributing higher-level meaning to action (Vallacher & Wegner, 2010). This sounds a bit vague, doesn't it? In a study in 2018, this test was used to measure people's ability of concrete or abstract thinking (Bazzy et al). If you scored high, this doesn't imply anything per se. So far I've seen results (n=11) between 10 and 25. When I interviewed some people about answers, I started seeing why sometimes things purposefully are not abstract, such as watering plants, which was seen as a meditating activity. Do you feel like your score reflects your preference? Let me know in the comments.
The research was able to use this measure to predict how likely people were to engage in entrepreneurial activity (entrepreneurial intent). However, it was not the biggest influence, 'self-efficacy' was. Self-efficacy is "people's beliefs in their ability to influence events that affect their lives" (Bandura, 2010). To me, it makes sense that this plays a big role. However, abstract and concrete thinking are able to explain some of the outcome (statistically). I'm not entirely sold on this test. Nevertheless, the idea of abstract and concrete thinking has stuck with me ever since.
Abstract and concrete
What is abstract? Abstract is distant from reality. It's an abstraction, a simplification if you may, of reality. If you look at a process within a team: concrete would be the precise steps that people are taking, the action such as sending an email or writing a user story. Abstracter would be to conceptualise the entire process on a whiteboard and identifying the phases in this process. Another example: A product idea is more abstract than the actual product in your hands. It's all relative, but important to note the difference as the scale can be quite broad.
Abstract thinking allows you to think about broader meaning of something, of the big picture, goals, a desired outcome of a process, that can give additional motivation to start acting in a certain direction. Successful entrepreneurs seem able to switch between concrete and abstract thinking. Simply put, this flexibility allows them to think big (abstractly) and devise relevant, concrete actions.
Comparison between the future and now as fuel for action
Humans can think abstractly about a lot of things. We can conceptually think of future products, services, companies, societies and even worlds. These concepts that live in our heads are crucial for propelling us forward. When you envision a future (abstract) and then compare it to today (a mixture of abstract and concrete), and you will note differences. These differences can guide you, you can prioritise your actions and make these actions concrete. It is how the view of the future purposefully doesn't fit the view of today. That is what drives the classical image that we have of an entrepreneur: "I want to change the world".
Cristopher Alexander (1969), a design scholar stemming from the realm of architecture, said some wise things about this misfit of the concept and its context. We actually are not able to judge a solution for its fit with its context. We can only evaluate it for absence of misfit. Simply put: If all goes well, you don't notice anything. If your view of the future is in line with the view of today, you might not act, not towards a different future at least.
Thinking about the future will help us to conceptualise such a future. However, there is a difference between thinking about the future and actually synthesise a coherent concept of said future. This might sound a bit vague, however this is a key point in understanding how these entities shape in our head. Have you ever tried to write something down, for a presentation, that you sure knew you knew back and forward, but the moment you were confronted with the concreteness of words, it was actually a bit more complicated than you felt it would be? Everyone can think of sentences or separate words, but the challenge is to have an integrated whole that captures the meaning that you had in mind.
It doesn't always overlap. Note: Coherent is not the opposite of abstract. One can be coherent while thinking abstract.
So, thinking abstractly is not the same as thinking coherently. Being able to articulate your abstract thoughts well is a challenge. There are a lot of abstract thinkers that do not think coherently; you can probably name a colleague you worked with that found coherence challenging when (s)he would be talking abstractly.
However, if you want people on board to work with you on your abstract visions, you need to reach them on a level they can operate in. Sometimes when I coach entrepreneurs or designers, I get too abstract. I can see in their eyes that they get lost. I feel that's on to me, to not align to the other persons level of abstraction.
I imagine it as such the diagram above. Person A is the abstract visionary, however he might be too abstract for person C, let alone person B. Person D can interact with person A, person C and all the way to B, technically. This is my own conceptualisation of individuals and their thinking capabilities. So, what does this mean in practice?
Thinking capability gaps
If we think about the individual, some people are better at dealing with concrete stuff and some are better at dealing with the abstract. Neither is better, however I feel that our society values the abstract thinkers more. This might be due to the fact that it's perceived to be associated with intelligence. The latter is valued highly, at least in the western society I feel I'm a part of. I'm wilfully not going down that road in this piece whether it actually is more intelligent. I try to judge things on its merit, or in other words: judge a thing or person on its purpose, on what it is good at. For instance, I feel that concrete thinkers are drivers of forcing the abstract ideas to concrete steps. Everyone can play a role, however you need a balanced team. You don't want a football team with 11 goalkeepers.
What I see is that very often in organisations are either or both of the following of two situations:
No-one is in charge of abstract thinking that guides an organisation (such as visions, processes, strategies)
Someone is misplaced on the wrong level of thinking for their capabilities and will feel lost
In operational heavy organisations, managers are often promoted from the operation. I expect that these people that are good at functioning within the operation are very good at concrete thinking (and subsequent action). A PhD-candidate working in the McDonalds restaurant could be a misfit on that remark, as I learned. My line of thought goes as follows. If the concrete thinkers get promoted and promoted, and for some reason the abstract thinking capabilities are not nurtured or developed, this person will be charged with tasks (s)he is not able to carry out properly. Envisioning a future is something that not everyone is as skilled at. Again, this is not a bad thing, in a world with just visionaries we would have no result, just big ideas.
Innovations are inventions with value. Value only arises when innovations are implemented in real life. An idea for a solution might be abstract, but the implemented solution is very concrete. We need both types to achieve this. Recognising who you put in charge of which task is of crucial importance. So put aside all egos and look each other in the eye: who is naturally talented at synthesising concepts, processes and futures? Who is good at devising strategies from this? Who is good at making sure it gets carried out? Think about it.
In an attempt to bridge the gap between theory and practice, I aim to write about what I find in the academic journey that is my PhD-thesis. You can follow me here on LinkedIn or on Twitter @Coeluh for semi-related stuff.
Special thanks to my promotor Frido Smulders.
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Bandura, Albert. 2010. “Self-Efficacy.” In The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology, 1–3. American Cancer Society. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470479216.corpsy0836.
Bazzy, Joshua D., Adam R. Smith, and Teresa Harrison. 2019. “The Impact of Abstract Thinking on Entrepreneurial Intentions.” International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behavior & Research 25 (2): 323–37. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJEBR-03-2018-0128.
Vallacher, Robin R, and Daniel M Wegner. n.d. “Levels of Personal Agency: Individual Variation in Action Identification,” 12.