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Your Move — Thinking About Thinking

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Relying on instinct works for only so long.

Do you spend much time thinking about your company?

Dumb question. Of course you spend a lot of time thinking about your company. But do you think about your company in the right ways? Do you, for example, think about how you think about your company?

Understanding your thought processes can help you gain perspective. Seeing things differently can lead you to discover new ways to grow your company — or just to survive. And it’s more than instinct.

A former Marine officer I know tells this story about a patrol he led in a Vietnam jungle:

"As we moved, a sniper fired at us. I checked — ‘Anybody hit?’ No one was. ‘Do not return fire,’ I said quietly. ‘Proceed.’

The sniper fired again. ‘Anybody hit?’ ‘No,’ came the replies. ‘OK. Proceed.’ "

This went on for a while, and at least one Marine chafed at the inaction. "Marines shoot back," he complained. But the officer stood his ground.

Years later, he told me his thinking: "That sniper either couldn’t see us, was just guessing we were there or was incompetent. Either way, if we open fire, he knows where we are. Chances of us getting killed go up a lot and, besides, why take out a sniper who can’t shoot?"

The point of this story is not that this Marine officer was smarter than decades of proven Marine tradition and training. The point is that procedures that work well most of the time don’t work well all of the time. When that happens, a leader has to realize it and know how to think differently, how to sidestep standard procedures to make the right move.

This same Marine, who was running his own company the last time I saw him, shared another insight: "One thing Vietnam taught me was to always be thinking about that next move — where am I going if this happens, what will I do if that happens. Back then I had to make myself think about it. Now I don’t think much about it, but I still do it."

To take your company as far as you want, you must know yourself well enough to know how you think. And you must turn thinking about thinking into a habit.

To realize high-end results with this technique, train not only yourself to use it, but also others in your company, especially your senior managers. Invite their ideas aggressively. Reward them for ideas that run counter to accepted thinking, regardless of whether it works.

Instinct works only for so long for entrepreneurs, especially when so many unknowable — and uncontrollable — snipers are hiding in your jungle.

And don’t be fooled: Some will be able to shoot.

Writer: Scott Pemberton is the publisher of the Edward Lowe PeerSpectives Report. Tell him about your moves at scott@lowe.org.

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