Meta Thinking

As usual, I discovered I knew something because someone asked me how I do something they had observed me doing.  This has become an interesting pattern for me: I am unaware of things I am competent at. This is not a good place to be because it means you cannot teach it to others. Being consciously competent, I have found, sometimes requires someone to ask me a question.

Let’s put that aside for a moment. The question I was asked was about thinking strategically. I was really taken aback to see  my version of the answer slip off my tongue effortlessly: It is then that you realize that you are pretty good at something without having known it.

So here’s my framing of how to think strategically:

Imagine that you are in a room with a bunch of people. Someone has opened up an idea and there is a free form discussion in the room about the idea.

So what happens in meetings? Someone says something. And there is a reaction to it. And yet another reaction. And so the discussion continues, usually bound by a quantum of time. 1 hour? Have a relaxed discussion for 45, and demonstrate a sense of urgency in the last 15.

The problem with these discussions is the focus on action-reaction.  Reacting to something results in narrowing of focus, and an examination of a path laid out in front of you – and disregarding other avenues that might exist. Indeed, this is the reason that brainstorms are ineffective. They narrow the focus down prematurely.

Narrowing is appropriate in some instances and very inappropriate in others. The problem is when we do not take the time to distinguish between the two.

Quite generally, I have observed three kinds of people in discussions

  • The Take Charge guy. This person will lead from the front, be fearless in saying what is on their mind, and will be the person to get  things closed out and keep an eye on the time.
  • The timid minority – They will barely contribute to the discussion, and when they do, it is because they are very sure of the facts. Being vulnerable is not a strength. They would go to great extents to avoid being corrected.
  • The Quiet listener – this person usually will not speak for the first 5-10 minutes and take the time to absorb what is going on. But when they do speak, they have a significant impact on the discussion, and often it will be a revelation to others – Why did we not think about it? This is your strategic thinker. They garner respect and everyone waits for him or her to speak up. They are able to do it because they have a slightly different frame of reference from others.

What this person does is apply the meta-thinking principle. Stop, uplevel, understand the bigger picture. Often, what this person finds is that everyone is missing the big picture.

If the room represents a bounds on the limits of the discussion, what this person finds is that there is a door that leads to another room, and well as one that takes you to the courtyard. They first zoom out to this bigger picture, understand it , and then either zoom back down to the smaller level – or help others understand  the bigger context.

This can sometimes work against this person – Strategy and tactics go hand in hand.

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” – Sun Tzu

Being stuck in the big picture land without the ability to ferret out the path to take is a problem many leaders face – especially those who excel in being able to see the big picture. The true leader is the person who can go broad first and then help narrow down, while keeping the big picture in mind.

My advice: Actively cultive the big picture thinking. Resist the urge to jump directly into conversations till you have understood the big picture. The best way to do this: prepare beforehand and understand the big picture. Become the guy that everyone waits to hear from because they are likely to have a deep thought to share with you that could completely upend the discussion. And then be the person who will help zoom back in and propose how we should solve the problem – and actively narrow the scope of discussion.

One thought on “Meta Thinking

  1. SR – Love the framing! I agree with your self assessment. One question – in a fast paced, results oriented environment where most folks are solving for numbers or short term goals (revenue, customer acquisition etc), how do you shift focus to ‘big picture’ ‘meta’ thinking. Most of the time, people come to meetings with solutions / opinions and expect a reaction usually a decision to move forward. Do you think Meta thinking sometimes negatively impacts velocity? If yes, how do you address it?

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