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What are ways of thinking?

If motivation is about behavior in the world of people and things, ways of thinking are about behavior in the world of information. Ways of thinking, i.e., cognitive styles are individuals' ways of processing information (Witkin et al., 1977). They are higher order heuristics, knowledge structures which regulate all intellectual behavior, planning, problem solving and learning (Messick, 1984). Viewing planning and problem solving as a competency composed of four steps, driven by specific ways of thinking folds out an accurate, more differentiated view to individual development needs.

Analysis - intuition as an example

Researchers have identified a large number of different ways of thinking, from 19 (Messick, 1976) to no less than 30 (Riding and Cheema, 1991). Perhaps the most well-known among them is the bipolar analysis-intuition dimension, already familiar from antiquity. The dimension is viewed by some researchers even as a founding structure in human thinking around which other ways of thinking can be positioned (eg., Allinson & Hayes, 2012). The dimension's intuition end has aroused particular interest in the past two decades.

The rational analysis end is seen as an efficient way to think in structured and logically functioning environments while the emotion-based intuition end is viewed useful in unstructured, illogically or "whimsically" functioning environments. In a query of nine countries and a thousand respondents, intuition was seen most useful in strategic planning, HR development and marketing and least useful in materials management, production management and financing (Parikh et al., 1994).

A study on the test results of almost three thousand North American executives from private and public sector (Agor, 1989) showed that intuitive thinking varies according to management level, sex and occupational specialty. Intuition was favored most in the decision making of those on the highest executive level, women leaders and those working in organizational development (compared to leaders working in financing). In the public sector, the use of intuition is emphasized among central government leaders (compared to leaders in local government).

Cumulative results from the widely used CSI test (Allinson & Hayes, 2012) show that the scores of people working for example in accounting and legal issues concentrate to the analytic end while those of entrepreneurs and people working in creative occupations get clustered more to the dimension's intuition end.

Planning & problem solving as a competency

Emphasis on analytic vs. intuitive thinking seems to in general way direct individuals toward competence in different fields and jobs. But instead of looking at one single way of thinking, much more differentiated and accurate pictures of individuals are attained by looking at the issue from the opposite direction. Namely by starting from some performance entity and searching for potential drivers among the almost thirty available different ways of thinking.

A workable solution entails viewing planning and problem solving as a competency in itself, an area of work competence growing now immensely in importance. The more "doing" becomes more the responsibility of algorithms and robots, the more important position shall planning and problem solving occupy. Namely to answer the question of what and how things could or should be done.

Planning and problem solving can be unfolded into four general problem solving steps each of which is directed or driven by a particular way of thinking. People (a) approach things either by seeking facts or new ideas, (b) perceive them in focused or broad manner, (c) produce either standard or creative solutions which they ultimately begin (d) implementing with caution or by taking risks. The figure below displays the ways of thinking and the planning and problem solving steps directed by them.

Ways of thinking
The four-step division opens up a more differentiated and accurate perspective on the individual's development needs. An example is the situation where the individual wishes to develop his/her creativity while thinking that he/she needs stronger intuitive thinking to achieve that goal. However, a step-wise scrutiny might reveal that he/she actually practices extensive intuitive thinking (driving creative solutions) but lacks the ideas on which to build his/her creative solutions. The individual's strong fact-oriented approach style prevents from noticing new ideas. The person's real development goal is to change the way he/she approaches plans and problems, to look for new openings.

Another example is the classical case where a functional leader has been promoted to group executive level based on his/her strong implementation history. His/her drive toward quick implementation leads to reiterating the manner of perceiving things in brisk and focused way, leading to miss the big picture. Working on the the group level always requires strategic ability, the most important element in which is perceiving things in a reasonably broad manner. Therefore, the person's development challenge is to broaden his/her perception of things, to see the forest for the trees.

Existing vs. new processes

In the big picture, each step in planning and problem solving always promotes either existing or new processes. Thus, emphasis on facts, focused and precise perception of things, standard solutions as well as cautious and controlled implementation maintain and strengthen existing processes, the existing state of affairs. New ideas, broad perceptions and creative, situation-based solutions and risk-taking implementation will in turn generate new processes, novel states of affairs.

The sum score of Thinking on the Basic profile indicates toward which processes the individual is mainly tilted at. Both kind of processes are valuable, depending on the particular industry, organization and single job. For example, the main emphasis in administration is on reliable implementation of existing, time-proven processes. But marketing and product development crave for new kind of processes: new ideas, broader perceptions and solutions emerging from the situation's unique features. People's planning and problem solving tends to include elements that both strengthen existing processes and generate new processes.


According to Walter Isaacson, biografist of Franklin, Einstein and Steve Jobs, all three figures share a strong personality and a profound simultaneous interest in humanistic and natural sciences which is the key to building innovative economies of the present century (Isaacson, 2011). Well-known innovation figures attest to creativity generated from the coexistence of art and science. Also according to folk wisdom the condition of resourcefulness and creativity is the ability to think along several perspectives.

Psychoanalysts have come up with the concept “regression in the service of the ego” (Kris, 1952) to describe highly creative artists' ability to plunge from reality thinking to primitive fantasy and therefrom import ideas to their artistic work. The same ability to scan different worlds of ideas is used as an explanation in studies of creativity and bipolar mood disorders (Johnson et al., 2012).

Bipolar thinking dimensions provide a meeting place for opposite information worlds which may very well be the core of creativity. While idea-oriented way of approaching things, broad way of perceiving and intuitive thinking promote the emergence of new processes, the ultimate condition of creativity lies in the encounter of opposites in tension. In other words, creativity requires that ideas be tested against facts, broad perceptions focused on the practical world and creative solutions be challenged for their logical foundations.

Developing planning and problem solving

Changing the ways of thinking is commonly viewed as a challenging task, although Rush and More (1991) showed that intuitive thinkers with the tendency of occasional “feet of the ground” thinking were successfully taught to break things into parts and restructure problems, the useful skill of analysts. The focus in broadening the ways of thinking should be on the planning and problem solving steps, driven by the various ways of thinking. The needed concrete experience can also be reached by carrying out coaching as much as possible in people's everyday and work environments, translated into contents familiar to them.

Everyone can strengthen one's planning and problem solving skills in the direction of existing processes or new processes by rehearsing ways opposite to what one is accustomed to. The fact-oriented individual begins to approach things by opening up new windows of ideas. The idea-oriented individual improves the quality of his or her ideas by their systematic testing against facts, etc. Such broadening of one's customary ways prepares the person for more demanding planning and problem solving. In work teams, creativity is in turn enhanced by pairing together individuals who think in different, opposite ways to work toward shared goals.

See Wikipedia: Cognitive styles

Agor, W. H. (Ed.). (1989). Intuition in organization. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Allinson, C. & Hayes, J. (2102). The Cognitive Style Index. Tech. manual and user guide. UK: Pearson Education.
Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Johnson, S.L., Murray, G., Fredrickson, B., Youngstrom, E.A., Hinshaw, S., Bass, J.M., Deckersbach, T., Schooler, J. and Salloum, I. (2012). Creativity and bipolar disorder: Touched by fire or burning with questions? Clinical Psychology Review, Feb; 32 (1): 1–12.
Kris, E. (1952). Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. New York: International University Press.
Messick, S. (1984). The Nature of cognitive styles: Problems and promise in educational practice. Educational Psychologist, 19, 59-74.
Messick, S. (1976). Personality consistencies in cognition and creativity. In S. Messick (Ed.), Individuality in learning (pp. 4–23). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Parikh, J. Neubauer, F. & Lank, A.G. (1994). Intuition: The New frontier in management. Oxford: Blackwell.
Riding, R., & Cheema, I. (1991). Cognitive styles - An overview and integration. Educ. Psychology, 11, 193–216.
Rush, G.M. & Moore, D. M. (1991). Effect of restructuring training and cognitive style. Educ. Psychol., 11, 309-321.
Witkin, H. A., Moore, C. A., Goodenough, D. R., & Cox, P. W. (1977). Field dependent and field independent cognitive styles and their educational implications. Review of Educational Research, 47, 1–64.


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