Many people work on their goals by engaging in positive actions — hitting the gym, planning a trip or taking guitar lessons. But they may be overlooking one of the most important tools for effecting change – the power of thought. Harvard Business School professor emeritus Gerald Zaltman recommends exercises called “think keys” to tap into the conscious and unconscious dynamics of the mind. He has used these techniques to help business leaders around the world, and he’s now sharing them in a book titled Unlocked: Keys to Improve Your Thinking. Zaltman, who is also partner in the research-based consulting firm Olson Zaltman Associates, joined the Knowledge at Wharton radio show on Sirius XM to talk about his book. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: You emphasize thinking more clearly, but we’re all so busy now that doing so can be a challenge. Would you agree?
Gerald Zaltman: Well, it is a challenge. It’s a challenge for a number of reasons, but let me just describe the concern that those reasons have created. The concern I have is that we are becoming a nation of strangers. It’s a situation where discussions of important topics are put off limits. We can’t carry on conversations with people who are family members, good friends, good colleagues because of very fundamental disagreements. Our thinking is foreign to one another, and that’s concerning me — that there’s not an openness to discussing conflicting information.
Knowledge at Wharton: How do we work around that? If you go back to pre-internet days, that was how discussions occurred on a daily basis.
Zaltman: That’s right, and I think there are ways of getting back to that more open, more civil and more informative kind of exchange. But it’s not going to happen overnight. We’re facing a unique situation that didn’t prevail two, three, four decades ago. Information is more abundant. Much of it is of questionable quality. It’s fractured. I sometimes think of it as being a puzzle that used to have 100 pieces, and now it has 1,000, and possibly 400 of those aren’t really relevant or accurate or appropriate. It’s what the RAND Corporation has labeled “truth decay.” That is, there’s less and less truth, and more and more information. The result is we’re becoming a nation of strangers to one another.
Knowledge at Wharton: There are 39 think keys in your book. What are think keys?
“The concern I have is that we are becoming a nation of strangers. It’s a situation where discussions of important topics are put off limits.”
Zaltman: They are exercises — devices, if you will — that I developed over the course of my teaching both MBA students and executive education students to help them understand the thinking dynamics that underlie the discussion of a particular case or issue. They evolved gradually. Some I take rather directly from other sources. But in all cases, they are an attempt to get each person to think of their own mind as a case study, as opposed to someone else’s mind. And that’s a fun and challenging process.
Knowledge at Wharton: How do emotions affect this process of thinking through things?
Zaltman: Emotions are very powerful. They’re perhaps central to the process. Think of what an emotion is — an unconscious physiological response to some stimulus. Those unconscious physiological dynamics will give rise to certain feelings, which we label as anger, sadness, surprise, disgust, whatever. Those feelings are what drive most of our thinking, most of our conscious thought. When feelings, or opinions which arise from feelings, conflict with facts, those feelings, those opinions will tend to prevail. Ultimately, those are rooted in one or another emotion or combination of emotions. So, it’s pretty hard to get away from emotions as a platform for thinking.
Knowledge at Wharton: In business, we’re seeing this unbelievable level of transformation with many companies. But other companies stay on the same path even though transformation is necessary. Why aren’t they using think keys?
Zaltman: It is a challenging process. Unfortunately, there’s too much deference given to the desktop computer and not the “neck-top” computer. What we have to understand is that it’s ultimately the neck-top computer — the manager’s mind, the quality of that mind and its biases and proclivities — that ultimately determines success. Too often, that mind is very much afraid of being wrong, rather than being right.
One of my favorite questions in having discussions with managers is to pose this issue, which is also in the book: Which statement best describes you? I love being right. Or, I hate being wrong. There’s a lot of equivocation because they’re both true. Everyone loves being right and hates being wrong. But when you push someone to have to choose, the great majority of people choose “I hate being wrong” because of all of the penalties that are attached to being wrong. They are very severe, and they outweigh the benefits of being right. That produces a lot of “let’s do today what we did yesterday, and let’s do tomorrow what we’re doing today,” which creates a pattern that’s very hard to get out of.
“Unfortunately, there’s too much deference given to the desktop computer and not the ‘neck-top’ computer.”
Knowledge at Wharton: You have these think keys broken down into segments, and I wanted to go through a couple of these segments. Let’s start with context. Sometimes context can put you in a very good spot, but it can also put you in a very tough spot.
Zaltman: That’s true with regard to both the context of the decision-making group — a brand team or a group of executives — but also the context of the industry and the proclivity to follow best practices in an industry without thinking if they apply or how they need to be adapted to your own setting, your own particular organization. But context is extremely important. It’s sometimes said, and I think correctly, that the mind is not the possession of the individual. Rather, it’s greatly shaped both in terms of its proclivities and its operations by the setting in which it operates.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also talk about assumptions. Why is that important?
Zaltman: Assumptions generally lie outside of our active decision-making field. They’re very powerful and provide context for decision-making. But they’re kind of like gum on the sole of your shoe. We may not always know they’re there, but they’re there. It affects things. And changing our assumptions or even identifying them requires a lot of scraping. It’s hard work.
One major assumption that maybe illustrates this is that we’re aware of our thinking processes. If you ask someone, “Do you know how you’re thinking?” They’ll say yes. What they don’t understand, what they’re assuming is that the unconscious mind is relatively unimportant, when it’s very important. It’s where assumptions live. But we don’t go there very much. It’s kind of like a lit flashlight. If you ask it to shine wherever it’s dark, it looks in a lot of places, and every time it looks, it sees light, not darkness. So, it misses the fact that it’s surrounded by darkness, which are the assumptions we make.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also talk about cues. In business, it feels like we are looking for cues from co-workers to get a feeling for how they are approaching an idea, a project, or how they feel about being in that particular company.
Zaltman: We’ve often done work on the topic of what it’s like to be innovative or to lead an innovative program in your firm. People are asked to bring in images about the environment in which they work that relate to that issue. It’s extraordinary what the array of cues are that they use in their environment. It could be everything from the perceived facial reactions of someone to an idea, to the way in which a memorandum is formatted. It’s quite extraordinary. We’re very attentive, in ways that we’re often not aware of, to a variety of signals of questionable validity about the merits of an idea we’re putting forth or what ideas we should put forth.
Knowledge at Wharton: Next is metaphors. Many people use metaphors in speech, but you discuss body metaphors. Can you explain what those are?
Zaltman: Metaphors are not something we use from time to time. We actually use about six metaphors per minute of speech. Many of these metaphors are so obvious, we don’t even think of them in that way. Many of those are embodied metaphors, where we use elements of our physiological experience as a yardstick. We say that someone is “moving up the corporate ladder.” It’s a question of orientation. Or someone is a “big shot” or “the head of the pack,” which is a physical orientation relative to followers or to those who are not quite as big and their social prominence. These have a powerful impact on our thinking. Again, that’s something that happens unconsciously.
Knowledge at Wharton: You spend time talking about attention. What is significant about it?
Zaltman: First, we have a limited attention budget, so if we’re paying attention to certain things, we’re not paying attention to other things. One of the most popular, well-known examples is the so-called invisible gorilla. You’ve probably seen this, where a group of people, some wearing white shirts, some wearing dark shirts, are passing a basketball to one another.
The observer is asked to count the number of times the people in the white shirts pass the basketball to one another, while the people in the black shirts are passing another basketball. People count and generally come up with a correct answer or very close to a correct answer. What half the people engaged in this exercise miss is that about halfway through the video clip, someone dressed in a gorilla outfit walks into the middle of the group, pounds its chest and continues walking out. People are so focused on the directive that they literally do not attend to or see the gorilla, which is a major disruption in the scene — much as we often miss disruptive innovations in our industry.
“The foe of curiosity is the avoidance of disconfirming evidence, or what I think of as knowledge disavowal. We’re afraid to find out things that contradict us.”
That’s an interesting phenomenon all on its own, but a deeper analysis of it also shows the importance of the question or assignment that people have as a way of focusing attention. Had you asked a different question, people might well have noticed. Most people might well notice the gorilla walking through the group. That raises a rather important issue of whether we’re asking the right question and how the question drives our thinking.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also talk about curiosity, which is ingrained in us. It’s part of who we are.
Zaltman: It’s the home base, home plate for imagination, which is where I think competitive advantage lies. One of the things that disturbs me greatly is that, in society as a whole but especially in businesses as well as in our schools, we do an awful lot to discourage curiosity. It’s maybe part of the issue of fear of being wrong and not being willing to take risks. The foe of curiosity is the avoidance of disconfirming evidence, or what I think of as knowledge disavowal. We’re afraid to find out things that contradict us. I believe that is a major reason why certain market research doesn’t get used or doesn’t get used more robustly.
One of the challenges I always like to give to my students is to ask, “What if you’re wrong in that position that you’re advocating with regard to whether you should enter a new market or not? What evidence have you looked at that you would use to explain a failed action or a decision? It’s extraordinary how little attention people give to pre-mortems, to figuring out what information would contraindicate a particular action. There’s something called a “knowledge creep,” where the more you wrestle with a decision, the more information that conflicts with the emerging action tends to get ignored. And that, I think, displays a lack of curiosity.