Thinking as a Skill


Thinking is probably one of the simplest things to improve that can improve you’re overall impact.

At Microsoft, I’ve seen first hand the impact of skillful thinking.  I like the fact that with a few techniques, people can change their game when it comes to analyzing, assessing, and responding to problems.

Here’s what  I’ve noticed among the smartest people I know: they control their emotions, they know what to look for, they know the right questions to ask, they know how to test assumptions, and they know how to find a way forward.  

The other common denominator among the smarties is they are all trained in thinking skills.

At Microsoft, I’ve been trained in strategic thinking, creative thinking, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence.  In each of these trainings, I learned new lenses, models, and techniques to improve my thinking.  My big take away is, I don’t have to be the smartest apple in the barrel.  Instead, I need to know the right tool for the job.

In the book, Tactics: The Art and Science of Success , Edward de Bono suggests that learning thinking as a skill is more important than raw talent.

Key Take Aways
Here are my key take aways:

  • It’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it. You’re more limited by a lack of skill than a lack of IQ.
  • Skill wins over natural talent.  The way I like to think of it is, In a bar fight, who do you bet on … the boxer or the brawler?  Natural talent takes you so far, skills take you further.
  • Thinking is not the same as IQ.   Rather than think in terms of IQ, think in terms of thinking skills.  This means you can acquire and learn new skills to improve your thinking.

Thinking Can Be Developed Through Training and Deliberate Effort
It’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it.  de Bono writes:

“I like to think of intelligence as being equivalent to the horsepower of a car.  The skill of thinking is then the skill of the driver.  There may be a powerful car driven badly and a humble car driven well.  Indeed, a powerful car may be particularly dangerous because it demands a higher degree of driving skill.  I believe that thinking skill, like driving skill, can be developed through training and deliberate effort.”

Learned Ability Over Raw Talent
Somebody who is naturally good at math, would still be less effective than somebody who is trained in math.  de Bono writes:

“If we tested the raw natural mathematical abilities of a group of people, we would get a scatter of talent.  But even the best people would probably fall far behind someone who had learned the notations, methods, and systems that have developed for the operation of mathematics.”

Skill in Thinking is More Important Than Genetic Endowment
Skills make the difference.  de Bono writes:

“Because we have made so very little effort to train thinking deliberately as a skill, we have to rely on untutored natural ability.  When we start to treat thinking like a skill and to train it, we may find that skill in thinking is more important than genetic endowment in this area (within certain limits).  For example, the use of the random word as a deliberate creative technique can yield a higher output of ideas than an effort without such a technique.”

Thinking is Not the Same as IQ
If you consider thinking the same as IQ, then it’s limiting.  de Bono writes:

“I would regard the notion that thinking is the same as IQ as being highly dangerous, because from it follow two suppositions: first, that people with high IQ do not need to learn thinking; second, that people with a lesser IQ cannot be taught thinking anyway.  The result is that nothing is done.”

Ability to Focus and Prioritize is Key
Focus and prioritization seem to be at the heart of developing a powerful thinking style.  de Bono writes:

“It is possible that some successful people have developed a powerful thinking style on their own and without specific training.  The ability to focus and to assess priorities seems to be a component of this style.”

A Story
What does thinking as a skill look like in practice? Originally when I would prepare for project reviews, I would drive from walking through the project, from the business case, the impact, and then the execution.  At a high level, this sounds good, but during the review, a lot of issues would get exposed.  For example, what’s the problem look like over time? Is now the right time for the market?  Do we have the right people? … etc. 

After some training in Precision Questions / Precision Answers, negotiation strategies, and Crucial Conversations, (and getting beat up enough times), now I can very quickly do a question-driven analysis of the problem, the solution, the project, including both the vision and the execution.  Now it’s easy for me to very quickly drill into any of my own or other projects using the question framework that cuts right to the chase.  My learned framework evolved by observing my early results and changing the approach, and the beauty of it is that I don’t need to be a domain expert or apply any special intelligence to make it work effectively.

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Photo by cesarastudillo.


  1. Prioritize… Hmmn. I think I’ve heard that word before. Yes, Yes, as in, PRIOR to surfing great blogs, I could do well to check off the things on the list I wrote, My Smart Person list.

    Plus write those words of apology for saying something not completely nice to someone in the heat of a somewhat recent battle. Those olde uncontrolled emotions. Yet, there is forgiveness. And knowing how to move forward. So goes I to that and a plethora of actually quite-possibly-even-fun-depending-on-my-attitide things to do, all accomplished while careening rakishily towards the side of skill than the side of any naturally endowed mental prowess I may have (within limits — great limits,) inherited. 🙂

  2. Yes! I love it!
    Controlling emotions (EQ) is the one that helps me prioritize and focus on outcomes no matter what. It saved me too many times. I as i get more skilled i start to understand that in consulting the biggest challenge is finding the real problem or the goal behind the goal or the real customer. That requires skills… It reminds me Jay Leno who said something along the line “i pretend i am the dumbest guy in the room.” I assume it helped him to constantly look for improvement and develop more skills.

  3. This is an excellent post on thinking. Most people don’t think about thinking as a skill, but it REALLY is, and you’ve offered some awesome advice on how to become better at it. This is something I’m working on all the time. It’s not easy, but it IS important.

  4. Hi J.D. – You’ve got me thinking here ( no pun intended!). I think if we had to choose, a lot of people might think that natural talent would take them the farthest, but I think you’ve done a good job here of letting us know why that might not be true. Even if you have all the talent in the world – it still has to be utilized! (and hopefully with skill)

  5. In my career, I have often found that those that think ahead about opportunities verses those that just go to work and think on the fly is a key difference. If you were to ask a hundred people if they think ahead and dream of opportunities you would probably get a near perfect response that they do. They would also tell you they don’t make decisions on the fly. However, what I find in reality is that they may dream but that they do it in the very moment they need to execute (on the fly). Stepping back and using thinking as a tool as you outline here tends to add a strategic approach to thinking verses a randomized way of using your brain. Although there may not be a perfect thinking model, the basic principle of stop, analyze and thinking outside of the boundaries often separates the stars from those that are struggling. Find the time to think and you will find your career to be much more exciting and lead to many more opportunities.

  6. I really like the car analogy here. I think so much of what works in our brains has an analogy in the physical world.

    I actually do go on the track (racing, lapping) with my car and the analogy holds. I would separate it even a little more.

    1) IQ is like your engine. Big engine, a lot of power.

    2) My father and I used to talk about drive train. Gears, transmission. This is the ability to turn that power into forward movement and manifest something physical in the world. Without it, the engine runs, but you don’t move at all. Think of this as your nervous system and your body’s physcological and emotional capacity to handle stress.

    How many people have met the brain-iac who is so smart, but can’t get much done because there is no real world ability to put the power to the ground and get somewhere. This is sometimes the issue with some autistic people and other intellectuals who have trouble relating to the world.

    3) Then comes the driver. Now that you can move, what’s the most effective way to move forward? Do you spin in circles very fast? Do you know how to steer yourself effectively? There are certain patterns that work on the track. Driving is very much an art. A good driver can use a car with a much lower horsepower and still keep up or even beat you. You can make up for a lot here. The analogy holds for thinking as well.

    And there is a little bit of a feedback loop here to because how you drive can break your drive train. Slamming yourself around physically or mentally makes it more likely that you’ll diminish your capacity for forward action.

    I have definitely found this true in life. I’ve always had a big IQ, but I lacked the drive train for many, many years. I got by on my IQ, but I really had a hard time. Much of the power was wasted. As I’ve made the drive train stronger, now the issue is thinking. I can make progress, but where do I want to drive? How do I get there efficiently without wasting energy and time?

    Most of us only have a “drivers ed” education in thinking. We know how to get around, but that’s it. Racing and really pushing yourself is fun, but requires more training. The payoff is huge.

    Good stuff.


  7. I can’t disagree with these conclusions but there is a missing component. Let’s call it desire. If one doesn’t want to become more skilled in the area of a natural talent, no amount of skills training will get one there. So that leaves me thinking – what creates authentic desire? I think we want to be better in the area where we have a natural talent.

  8. So weird… I was just having this conversation with some family members last night about how applying oneself is more powerful than IQ. Talent can only take a person so far. After that, it’s all about intent, drive, and taking action.

  9. I grew up in a household that really emphasized talent. I do believe it’s better to focus on skills. At the very least, it gives kids a good reason to work hard. Otherwise, what’s the point?

  10. Tbe lessons here are significant. They’re especially cogent for me as I try to maximize my productivity. I’ve long admired certain of those around me because of their thinking skills–& their ability to communicate their thoughts effectively. I’ve attempted to model their behavior, but my empirical lessons aren’t efficient. I would like a guide. J.D., is de Bono’s book what I seek?

  11. @ Jannie

    There’s something to be said for knowing what’s more important. The secret though is first knowing what you want to accomplish. Then you can simply test against that.

    Yeah, uncontrolled emotions are the downfall in so many scenarios. I think you flex your mental prowess very well.

    @ Alik

    You hit the heart of it. It’s the focus, outcomes, and priorities. Figuring out the real problem actually is a skill.

    @ Positively Present

    Thank you. I’m a fan of skill building and I always wondered where to draw the line between naturally smart vs. skilled. I eventually learned that it doesn’t really matter and the key is to measure against results.

    @ Amanda

    I like the way you put it. Utilizing your talent with skill really is the key.

    @ Jeremy

    You nailed an excellent point. The ability to step back and think really can change your game. I’ve seen the pattern you mean where some folks are stuck in the grind and I have seen some folks significantly rechart their course through some strategic thinking (and following through.)

    @ Rob

    I like your analogy and it was easy to follow. I think it helps drill home the point, smarts don’t matter if the rubber doesn’t meet the road.

    @ Tom

    I agree – desire is key. I like how you connected the dots between authentic desire and natural talent. One thing I would add is that sometimes a big dip or lack of skill can get in the way of desire, so I think the distinction between skill vs. strength is important.

    @ Melissa

    I agree. Results and effectiveness are the ultimate measures. Talent might be the bootstrap, but it takes more than that for the long haul.

    @ Vered

    You bring up a good point and there is a difference between talent and skills. I think the trick is to find the skills that leverage your talents.

    @ Jimmy

    Communicating your thoughts effectively is one of the most important skills time and again.

    There are 3 things you need:
    1. Study NLP. It’s a way to model excellence. I recommend the book Brilliant NLP. The part to pay attention to is “modeling.”
    2. Find 3 great examples you want to model and study their thought patterns, if they’ll share.
    3. Study de Bono’s work. He teaches thinking just like you might teach Algebra. He’s nailed it as a science and an art.

  12. Hi J.D.

    I agree thinking is a skill and we can train to be better. Talent doesn’t always lead to success, but talent plus the ethic to work on improvement will.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  13. Thanks J.D.,
    I know that my takeaway is in this area:
    *Ability to Focus and Prioritize is Key
    Also, I love strategy games like chess it helps to train the mind so much! Thankfully hubby and I are a great match, though our games take forever,.. he always gets me by a smidgen, I hate losing after putting so much effort in for that long!! haha, but better that it is to him.. ;)Happy New Year 2010~ I enjoy your posts! ~Jenn

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