By December 2, 2009 43 Comments Read More →

How To Think Like Bill Gates

HowToThinkLikeBillGates3

Over the years, I’ve asked various people at Microsoft about how Bill Gates thinks.  I’ve asked people from his speech writers to people that have survived his executive reviews, where Bill is known for his grueling interrogations.  I was always curious how somebody of that caliber flexed their mind and used their skills to slice and dice problems.

Bill Gates sees and thinks differently than most people do.  He has an amazing ability to find the flaws, or see opportunities, or connect the dots.  He can zoom in to details with precision or zoom out to the big picture.  He can flip back in time or fast forward to the future.  He also has the ability to focus on the merits of the idea or innovation before worrying about the business case.  Chances are, you could benefit from Bill’s thinking skills, even if it simply means getting a new perspective on your problems.  Whether you’re trying to change the world, or you want to unleash your best, it doesn’t hurt to be able to leverage the thought patterns of a billionaire and one of the world’s most influential philanthropists.

10 Ways to Think Like Bill Gates
While I don’t think Bill will lend you his brain, you can do the next best thing.  You can take some of this thought patterns and practices for a test-drive.   Here are ten patterns to get you started:

  1. Prioritize.  “What’s the next best thing you should be thinking about?”  It starts here.  Time is your most limited and precious resource.  This is about asking whether the problem is even worth your time.  Before you throw cycles at it, figure out whether it’s worth it.  Is it significant?  How much time should you spend on it?  For an example of how Bill Gates figures out how to prioritize, check out the following video: Bill Gates on Mosquitoes, Malaria, and Education.
  2. Ask smarter questions.  If you want better answers, ask better questions. Rather than getting stuck in one line of questioning, such as “what’s wrong with this?” or “what’s right with this?”, you can explore your thinking more deeply, by asking a range of questions.  One of the skills we learn at Microsoft is Precision Questions / Precision Answers.  In this approach, there are 7 categories of precise questions: 1) Go / NoGo -   Do we need to talk about this? 2) Clarification – What do you mean? 3) Assumptions – What are we assuming? 4) Basic Critical Question – How do we know this is true? 5) Causes – What’s causing this? 6) Effects – What will be the effects? 7) Action – What should be done?
  3. Make data-driven decisions.  This is one of the toughest switches to make.  By default, most people make emotional decisions and then find data to support the decision.  This means asking questions like, “what’s the data say?”  This means getting informed, before you make your decision.  This means evaluating the sources of data.  It’s an extreme exercise in emotional intelligence to pause your emotional response, while you check your logic and critical thinking.
  4. Divorce your ego.  This is where you separate yourself from the problem.  This is also about separating yourself from the solution.  Instead, you hold the problem or solution out in your hands and inspect it from different angles.  Rather than focus on whether you’re right, it’s about whether the solution is right.  It’s about being able to beat up the thinking, without taking it personally.
  5. Frame the problem.   Framing a problem is simply how you look at a problem, just like how you frame a picture.  It’s about choosing what to focus on, what’s in and what’s out.  When you frame the problem, you bound it.  Framing also helps you get a better perspective on the problem, as well as share the problem more effectively with others.  Some questions to help frame a problem include: Who’s the customer? What are their needs and priorities? What’s happening in the market? What are competitors doing? What are our options for responding?  How do we differentiate? How is technology changing and what possibilities does it offer our customers? What are the priorities for our business?
  6. Get perspectives on the problem.  This means being able to switch your perspectives.  Rather than see the glass half-full or the glass half-empty, you should see both.  Challenge yourself to switch back and forth from finding flaws to finding opportunities.  If you only know how to play the Devil’s advocate, you have a limited view.  Like a multi-faceted diamond, you should be able to look at the problem from different angles.  This also means being able to broker in experts and get other people’s perspective on the problem.  Problem solving is a team sport.    It’s also about leveraging smart people without domain expertise.  For example, you can take a dev manager in consumer devices and have him/her move into the enterprise or business applications.
  7. Model the problem.  By abstracting the problem into a model, you can think about it in simpler ways, without being bogged down by the implementation details.  One of Bill Gate’s favorite tools is his whiteboard.  A whiteboard makes it easy to sketch out ideas and visualize them.   A whiteboard can help whether you’re trying to map out the problem or draw a solution.  Keep in mind that George Box taught us that, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.”
  8. Think of the system and the ecosystem.  Bill Gates has an engineering mind.  He can see the problem as a system.  You can map out the system by asking yourself questions along the line of, what are the bits and pieces?  … How does it work?  … How do the bits and pieces work together? … what’s the flow through the system? … what are the inputs and outputs?  After you have a handle on the system, you can ask yourself about the ecosystem or the system of systems.
  9. Think of the problem over time.  It’s easy to look at the problem and just see it as a static snapshot.  The challenge is playing out the problem or your solution over time.  Time can dramatically change what it looks like.  Consider the impact of trends.   Consider sustainability.  Some things that look good only temporary, and really break down when you apply time to them.  Sometimes time is on your side.  You might find that there may be better windows of opportunity.
  10. Think strategically.  Strategy guides your actions.  You can think strategically along different lines.  Consider the core of what you do (mission, vision, values, and goals.) Consider internal analysis (strengths and weaknesses, resources and capabilities, and benchmarking.)  Consider external analysis (competitive analysis, opportunities and threats, and industry conditions.)  Consider the organization design (structure, controls and incentives, culture and people.)   Consider execution (roles, responsibilities, resources, action plans, measurement, and accountability.)  Consider functional strategies (marketing and sales, operations, human resources, and R&D.)  Consider strategic choices (corporate strategy and business strategy.)

If these thought patterns and practices don’t stand out as different or extraordinary, contrast them with some common default patterns:

  • less focus on emotional intelligence and more driven by emotional reaction
  • more likely to start thinking about a problem before asking which ones
  • more likely to ask a limited range of questions, from one specific angle or perspective (such as Devil’s advocate)
  • more likely to get lost in the details of the problem rather than step back, model it, and play with possibilities, unlikely to see the challenge as a system or think about the ecosystem (the players, the key levers, the centers of gravity … etc.)
  • unlikely to think about the problem over time (especially larger time frames like 1 year, 3 years, 5 years … or consider trends)
  • unlikely to think strategically over tactically, or get mired in tactical details before evaluating strategic options and differentiators, strengths, or weaknesses.

The good news is, thinking is a skill and there are plenty of resources that we can use to improve our thinking techniques.  One of my favorites is Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats.

My Related Posts

Photo by Domain Barnyard.

43 Comments on "How To Think Like Bill Gates"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Wait?! Could I possibly be First! commenter here? Too good to be true.

  2. Wow, I think I WAS first commenter!

    I notice how all Mr. Gates’ questions are very open-ended. Smart indeed.

    We can think strategically in blogging too, timing posts or guest posts just right, writing in batches when creativity hits, maximizing on Stumble It under the “Weblogs” category by visiting blogs in that category when we have a post up that would especially appeal to or be of help to bloggers.

  3. Bill Gates has such an expansive brain. He can code, play cards, run a company, and solve the world’s worst problems.

    I will never be as smart as Bill Gates, but I will implement these concepts. My favorite is data-driven decisions. I need to make more decisions based on the data instead of with my gut.

  4. TheAnand says:

    @Karl,

    I second you buddy. . . . but for most people, seperating ego from a problem is the hardest.

  5. Gates is amazing — and so is this post about him. Awesome stuff, J.D.!

  6. Jason says:

    Great post, I really enjoyed this one. I especially appreciated the anti-patterns at the end, it made the usefulness really stand out. Its easy to look at your 10 ways and not realize how revolutionary they are without the contrast with what’s common.

  7. Patricia says:

    I copied this post, because it is just well done, and because it might assist me getting more linear in my thinking – so I put it up on my cardboard reader to refer to often.

    I think this post may just assist me in helping to understand my IT daughter – who just may be as brilliant as Bill Gates….She is certainly close….and beautiful!

    I wonder why MS thought she might make a filing clerk???? hmm

  8. Jenn Z says:

    J.D., I enjoyed this post and found that 1. 2. 4. 5. 9. 10 were most applicable to me right now.
    I love the idea to divorce the ego, and to hold the problem and solution in our hands without becoming one with it. This can create new angles, perspectives :) I also enjoyed this pattern: less focus on emotional intelligence and more driven by emotional reaction
    I’m currently mulling through some ideas/solutions but in essence it has all to do with responding to something that is tugging on my heart. I’m looking at the angles in my hands right now and considering, and being willing to experiment as needed, as the time comes (waiting for divine nudges). Thank you for an excellent post! Warmly, Jenn Z

  9. Cath Lawson says:

    Thank you JD – this is awesome. So many people would love to get a glimpse into the mind of Bill Gates, so this is an amazing gift you’ve given us.

    I’m going to come back and print this out later today and check out those links. But now I have to go back to your first point – prioritize. I’m way behind with my studies – I have an assignment to hand in tomorrow and I haven’t even thought about starting it.

  10. A logical brain that thinks things through carefully and makes smaret decisions… Lots for me to think about there!

  11. Hi J.D.,

    What perfect timing. Over the Thanksgiving holiday I watched a show on Bill Gates. I am in awe of his brilliance, and you’re right; we could all learn a lot from him and his thought processes.

    The part that really struck me is where you say to ask if the problem is even worth our time. When I think about it, I use to get involved in problems that weren’t mine. Now I’ve learned to recognize that and move on. What a time saver that is.

    Like Patricia, I’m going to copy this post and reread it again later. There’s a lot to digest. Thank you for sharing so much value.

  12. Lance says:

    This is really great stuff you’ve shared! I’m looking at and thinking about where I am – and see much I can do. The idea of prioritizing is huge for me – one that will help me focus better. It’s easy for me to get caught up in what can be with too many things – and then not really prioritize at all…

  13. JB King says:

    I wonder if there could be more said of Bill Gates’ communication skills and how well he can empathize with whomever he is talking. His ability to find those words to describe things in a simple yet powerful way is something worth noting in how the world sees Bill Gates.

  14. Hi JD,

    I loved the point about divorcing your ego. That is so true and often that is what prevents people from growing and learning. They want to think that they know it all and no one knows it all.

    Also, it is important to mention that Bill Gates worked his ass off to get where he is and he really loved what he was doing. You do not become a legend by accident…you really work hard to get there and do what you can to grow and learn.

    Awesome psot!

  15. divorcing your ego is challenging! But agree that an emotionally detached approached to problem solving works.

  16. I love these tips for thinking like Bill Gates, and I recognize some of them from the book “How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci.” My favorite is “ask smarter questions.” If you foster curiosity, then all things are possible!

  17. Nice insights J.D., In addition to the amazing things he did with Microsoft I’ve been fascinated by the direction he and his wife are taking the foundation in. Many efforts can be improved by bringing a different perspective.

  18. philip wan says:

    i saw similarthings somewhere. But it’s good to see it again. This time may be the time that I will put these tips on my thumb.

  19. Making data-driven decisions while divorcing from ego helped me recently big time. I am starting to adopt another pattern such as framing a problme and it already looks very promissing

    Good stuff, JD [and thank you, Mr. Gates ;)]

  20. Hilary says:

    Hi JD .. I just watched the Bill Gates video .. good timing for me – I’d wanted to watch it before but 20 minutes wasn’t available. He is an amazing man and appears to be so human, despite being so brilliant – and as Nadia said – he worked hard for his present status .. as a philanthropist.

    You have set these points out so well .. and I too will be back to review and take them in properly. I enjoyed the TED talk though … and your reference back to your session at Microsoft earlier this year in PQ/PA ..

    Thanks – a really good reference point -
    Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

  21. JD says:

    @ Jannie

    You won! You’re the quickest draw in the West.

    Blogging is a really good example. If you’re going to throw your energy into something over so much time, it’s good to think about the ROI and making your best moves. After all, it’s your life force you’re spending day after day.

    @ Karl

    Using emotions as input, but making data-driven decisions is one of the most effective ways to gradually improve your life.

    @ TheAnand

    One of the phrases that helped our group was “expose the thinking.” Everybody on the team, got use to sharing their thinking separate from themselves.

    @ Positively Present

    Thank you. He’s a great example of smart in action.

  22. JD says:

    @ Jason

    Thank you. It seemed like the antipatterns really do help make the patterns pop.

    @ Patricia

    Thank you. It’s a small set of patterns, but each one can really help get results. Thinking about your thinking is an art and science.

    @ Jenn

    Sometimes testing your results is the best way to go. Once you know what you want or want to accomplish, then you can experiment to find the best path. Sometimes the key is figuring out what you heart wants for the long run, then using your mind to figure out how to get there.

    @ Cath

    Thank you. Before Microsoft, I just thought he was a gifted smartie. Now I realize, while yes that’s true, there’s a discipline to thinking and you can always improve your skills.

  23. JD says:

    @ Annabel

    It’s good to think of your logical mind as another resource. I’ll use my emotions as input and check what my gut says so I can leverage intuition, but I’ll also use logic as input to make smarter choices.

    @ Barbara

    Bill’s pretty amazing. Because he has so much capability, he really has to prioritize where he spends his time so he makes the most of his impact.

    When you’re a good problem solver, it’s easy to take on other people’s problems, and it can be addicting. It’s good you’re making thoughtful choices over what to take on.

    @ Lance

    Thank you. There’s always more things to do than time in the day. Prioritization is our friend ;)

    @ JB King

    He really does have a great way of using his words. He seems to be able to take complex thoughts and say them in a way that’s easy to follow.

  24. JD says:

    @ Nadia

    Great point on success by design over by default.

    He’s a perfect example of spending all his energy on his passion. He’s a workhorse, but what somebody might think of as work, he finds to be play. He continually pushes the envelope.

    @ Vered

    If anything, it lets you see with more clarity. It gives you a chance to leverage your best thinking.

    @ Melissa

    I haven’t read the book How To Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci, but it sounds interesting. Whereas Bill is more about organized, logical thinking, I would expect Da Vinci to be more chaotic and creative.

    @ Fred

    Thank you. I like the fact that he’s always been about making meaning and changing the world. Technology just happens to be his way.

  25. JD says:

    @ Philip

    I think these are pretty timeless patterns and really get to the root of good thinking and judgment.

    @ Alik

    Thank you. When you can frame your problems with precision, divorce your ego, and evaluate the data, you’re kicking arse and taking names. It gets easier with practice. The ego part can be tough unless you think in terms of finding the best answer or best approach for something. It takes the focus off you and puts it onto the problem and solution.

    @ Hilary

    He’s amazingly human, yet. when he’s in his arena, he’s like a super hero from another planet.

    I’m glad he uses his super powers for good. They say power corrupts, but he’s a great example of using his power to change the world for the better.

  26. Mona Nomura says:

    Easily in top three best posts of 2008 and 2009…ever, perhaps. Thank you so much for this.

  27. JD says:

    @ Mona

    Thank you for you very kind words.

  28. jorod says:

    He may be smart with computers, not so smart with malaria…..

  29. Svish says:

    Is something missing in point 8? It stops very abruptly…

    … After you have a handle on the system, you can ask yourself about the ecosystem or the system of systems. You can think about the

  30. JD says:

    @ jorod

    It’s all relative and it depends on what you measure.

    @ Svish

    Yes, thanks. I can’t find my original text, so I deleted the fragment.

    Thank you.

  31. Bill gates has been one of the smartest guys we have see in the past few decades, I wish I am able to inculcate these qualities in myself to be somewhat like him… :)

  32. There is only one Bill Gates and we cant be like him and we shouldn’t even strive to be like him. But, we should imbibe his qualities in order to be what we want to be.

  33. JD says:

    @ Raj — One of the things I learned lately is the key to smarter thinking is directing your attention.

    @ Nimit — It’s like a grab bag of skills, and I think it’s great how Bill set an extreme bar for what’s possible.

  34. Joe Paz says:

    First of all – thanks for this great post. I found some rally helpful suggestions in there.

    I have one question: are these thinking skills actually from Bill Gates? I mean, how do you came up with this list? Did he say these things (where) or is it your interpretation of how he thinks based on what you read about him?

    Again, I find this post very valuable in and of itself already, and just want clarification on the source of this info :-) thanks.

  35. JD says:

    @ Joe — Thank you.

    I’ve based these patterns on three key things:
    1. Interviews with people that worked closely with Bill
    2. Analyzing the culture he shaped and created (for example, creating a focus on Precision Questions and Precision Answers, creating a culture of exposing and checking your thinking, etc.)
    3. Observing what he says in does (He often shares his framework and thought process in his talks, such as through the questions he asks, or the way he parses a problem)

  36. Joe Paz says:

    Hi JD,

    thanks for clarifying!

  37. Philip says:

    Hi JD

    Which part of the video ‘Bill Gates on Mosquitoes, Malaria, and Education’ concentrates on how to prioritize…?

    Thanks a lot

  38. Roy Sharples says:

    Soooo insightful and very well summarised, JD. Not only is Bill a prolific thinker and an extraordinary technologist, he is one of the best business strategists of all time. His unlimited mental capacity, intense focus, extreme competitive nature, and insatiable drive for success has propelled him beyond any technologists and entreprenuers, certainly of his generation and in many cases beyond. He’s right up their with Henry Ford and Thomas Edison!

  39. JD says:

    @ Roy — Thank you. “one of the best business strategists of all time” — well put, and so true! He is definitely among the best the world has ever seen.

Post a Comment