How thinking styles can improve or destroy a technology management project

Intuitive vs analytical thinkingCreating a step-change in innovative technology development necessary to generate new growth requires objective thinking but all too often the structured process can be derailed by one or two strong personalities, with catastrophic results for the long-term future of a company.

Over the many years I have observed this phenomenon. However, it was while recently facilitating a technology strategy process for a global cosmetics company that I most acutely observed how extreme thinking could disrupt the process.

Technology strategy for global cosmetics company

The aim of the process was to develop a set of new technologies for a portfolio of new or improved products. It was also to be used as an input into identifying new partnerships, technical competencies required for the future and a re-structuring of R&D. Good scientific evidence had been produced, the outputs were well articulated and based on a strong assessment and the strategy subjected to peer review by external experts.

Then two of the team broke away and created their own presentation to the chief technology officer. It was based on their personal view of a specific formulation that used technologies superseded by the findings of the process. It transpired that the two both had previous careers with the same company and intuitively believed that the technology they were familiar with was the best.

The experience made me consider other occasions where a particular thinking style had been incompatible with the objectivity required to develop a strategic direction.

Blend of thinking styles 

Successful technology management combines a view of the strategic direction of the company (what to do) with the operational (how to do it). It requires analytical procedures to ensure that the underlying science and market assumptions are correct, but also creativity to see the potential and the opportunities.

Thinking hard about the future is not easy as we are influenced by the present, so a structured process using external challenge is required to look beyond the immediate needs and existing solutions.

If the technology strategy is developed well and objectively then it will protect competitiveness by generating a technical direction for the whole company. Conversely a poorly developed strategy misdirected by internal strife could easily send the company into administration. So it requires a combination of thinking styles both analytical and intuitive.

Extremes can derail technology strategy

Most people are capable of both modes of reasoning and switch between the two as the situation requires. Pure analytical thinking is focused, linear and contains no opinion. Intuitive is based on the more primitive ‘gut reaction’ where emotions guide us.

A combination of the two provides both the ‘big picture’ and the important softer inputs to technology strategy and planning. The problem occurs when in the many process workshops you have thinkers at the extreme of one or other style who lack the capacity to adapt. Analytical thinkers will slow down progress by becoming obsessed with irrelevant detail and intuitive thinkers are prone to the phenomenon of ‘conformational bias’ (picking information that fits with your world view).

Although through evolutionary history intuition has served us well, allowing quick reactions to potential danger and in some disciplines – such as medicine – an intuitive approach based on experience is beneficial, in R&D management it can be disastrous. It can send you down the wrong track or to miss technologies outside your experience and it will be many years before the results are seen.

Successful facilitation 

A successful technology strategy workshop should aim to take the participants out of their comfort zones to challenge their thinking. Bringing in external experts from different disciplines can greatly assist in this process by offering unexpected scenarios and solutions. So too can facilitating the group so that different thinking styles can be brought into play.

As one CTO from a consumer goods company remarked: “Despite all the evidence from manufacturing and marketing about the quality of a new product, a senior R&D manager totally ignored it – he was very intuitive, ‘my way is the only way’. This was only resolved when an external facilitator was used that had no vested interest and was not influenced by internal politics or the strong personality.”

There are techniques and tools to assist with the facilitation of technology management projects, which are discussed in the nu Angle white paper “Intuitive and Analytical Thinking in Technology Management.”

Click here to download the white paper