Thinking Upside Down

In my day job, I’m coaching an extremely capable executive in a high technology company. During our first meeting, I asked him to explain his business. It took no more than thirty seconds or so before I was absolutely lost.

My first thought was that this was a much more complex business than I had ever encountered. Just as I despaired of ever getting a handle on it, he made a statement that brought it all together.

But then his explanation moved back to a level of detail that had me lost again. After a couple of minutes, another statement clarified everything. Clearly, there was a pattern here.

The best way I can describe it is by distinguishing between inductive and deductive thinking. Inductive thinking is the basis of scientific method—it builds from empirical evidence to a general idea that encompasses the evidence. In contrast, deductive thinking starts with the general idea and then reasons back down to the experience.

It’s only to be expected that a highly trained engineer would favor inductive thinking and feel at home in a world of technical detail. But the business world prefers that information be presented deductively: tell me what you’re going to tell me and then fill in the details.

When my client was explaining his business, I got lost in the trees.  It was only periodically that I would catch a glimpse of the forest.

Smart, well-trained engineers are the lifeblood of high technology companies, but without a strong business focus, there will be no company. Often, there is a split down the middle of the company, with the engineers on one side and the business people on the other.

Neither are terribly enamored of one another. Not speaking the same language, each has a hard time understanding what the other is saying. The cooperation that is essential for the success of the company is elusive.

One way to bridge the gap is for each to recognize they need to turn their thinking upside down. Going against their nature, the engineers need to present their conclusions first, and only then back them up with the detailed logic they’re so good at.

Likewise, the business people need to turn their thinking upside down and present the logic that leads to their conclusions. It will enhance their credibility with their more technical colleagues.

When both try to think like the other, communication and cooperation will improve. It’s not a bad approach to take whenever we’re confronted with people different than ourselves.

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