• Ela Stilwell
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Knowing Your Thinking Preferences

Einstein is quoted as saying that we can’t solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them. That’s because we have thinking preferences that often drive how we behave. More importantly, we have zones of thinking discomfort that impact our behaviour.

Knowing how we think is vital in a project context because projects are all about people. If we understand how we think and apply that reasoning to those we work with, we can create better connections and relationships simply because we can understand what may be going on in their thinking process.

Our blog posts are a condensed version of our podcast! Listen to the episode linked above to hear Rod take you through this content.

This is not to be confused with judging people or assuming the motive behind a response or reaction. But instead, it requires taking a step back and looking at how the person processes thought, sees the world around them, and relates it to themselves. It requires us to recognize that we think differently from one another.

Reflect on the last time you disagreed with someone close to you and consider how your different thinking preferences may have contributed to the disagreement as we dig into this model.

This article is rooted in a model known as the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), pictured on the left. Although we’re not going to go into the depth of a day-long seminar or PhD thesis, we want to quickly understand the four quadrants in the model and how they impact your day-to-day work and projects.

Photo from thinkherrman.com

The human brain is about 1.4 kilograms or 3 pounds of chemistry. There are 100 billion neurons, and each neuron can connect with 10,000 adjoining neurons. So neurons connecting with other neurons is about one + ten and a half million zeros after it. With these connections come skills and styles of doing things associated with each of the four quadrants described below.

These descriptions will be pretty general – you may be a combination of all four! This model helps describe how we think; it doesn’t define who we are. And it doesn’t put us in little boxes from which we can never exit or get out of them. We have the gift of introspection, and we can analyze our reactions and thought patterns, and that is what we hope to start here.

Analytical Thinking

This quadrant is the logical, mathematical kind of critical thinking. This front left hemisphere is where we problem-solve and look at things technically.

In practice, if you’re analytical and in a meeting, you want to have data – don’t give me fuzzy stories, don’t give me anecdotes – what are the facts here?

Analytical thinkers may find their skills in analysis, evaluation and qualification. This thinking preference is often very technical, so you may thrive in the financial side of project management, in feasibility studies, pre-feasibility studies and all of the things that we do to lead up to the execution of the project.

When making a decision, your style typically wants precise, logical authority behind the data.

Individuals with a thinking preference in this quadrant may come across as rigid, ruthless, cold and calculating, very short-term, and perhaps even limited by the need for proof.

Practical Thinking

This quadrant wants procedures and processes. Although very controlled and detailed, thinking preferences in this quadrant are usually very decisive. This ability to stick to a plan usually coincides with a very administrative and organized person.

With an inclination for logic and order, people with this thinking preference are often skilled in implementing plans and procedures, which includes time management and keeping lists to stay on track.

The style associated with this quadrant is typically very careful, methodical and focused on the procedure. In practice, this leads to reliability and predictability associated with a “get stuff done” attitude.

Individuals with a thinking preference in this quadrant may come across as a little controlling or maybe even nitpicky or bossy. Sometimes we can be accused of being in a rut because we’re sticking to the plan or even boring and old-fashioned.

What’s important to recognize is the reason behind it is that we love that control. We love those processes. We love procedures because they’re safe. And this is a quadrant where safety is important.

Relational Thinking

Also considered emotional thinking, this quadrant includes the interpersonal, social, and emotional thinking preferences.

Individuals with a relational thinking preference are likely skilled at customer and interpersonal relationships, with the ability to teach or train, anticipating needs before they arise.

The style of relational thinkers is often caring, friendly, sociable, empathetic, humanistic, and possibly emotional, which can be a positive or a detractor.

Rational thinkers may come across as a little overly sensitive, sometimes needy or un-businesslike, or talking too much.

Experimental Thinking

Those with an experimental thinking preference love trying out new things. They may be artistic and holistic, allowing them to step back and look at the big picture. Interestingly, we find that experimental thinkers are also higher risk-takers.

Experimental thinkers may be skilled in brainstorming and visionary work, usually involving exploration, imagination and adventure. Synthesizing, holistic, and strategic planning may be among their gifts. As a change agent, the experimental thinker wants to do things differently.

Individuals with an experimental thinking preference may come across as unfocused, impulsive, rash, and maybe even oblivious to deadlines. Because they are strong in big-picture thinking, they may struggle to meet the deadline or have their imagination run away with them.

Think back to that disagreement you pulled up earlier. Can you remember what you were thinking and imagine what the other was possibly thinking? Is it possible that the challenge was the difference in thinking preference?

  • Maybe that individual was very analytical, but you gave anecdotes instead of data.
  • Maybe they were very practical, and they wanted to get down to a solution while you were still talking about people’s feelings.
  • Maybe they were feeling-oriented, and you didn’t give a damn about the feelings, instead focusing on the data.
  • Maybe you were drilling down into the weeds when really they needed to understand the big picture.

One’s thinking preference is not always clear. On the podcast, Rod shares an instance where he wrongly assumed a client’s thinking preference early in his career:

“Many, many years ago, when I was much younger, I had a sales role with a business products company. And we took this seminar sort of thing on how to sell better. And one of the things they told us was when you go in, and you meet with a client, look around their office, and there were lots of cues there or clues. Well, the same goes for today. When you project lead, and you go into the client’s office or one of your teammate’s offices, and you look around, you’re going to see certain clues. What they didn’t tell us was that it’s quite possible that the person who manages the office isn’t the person who lives in the office. So in my case, I went into this office one day with a perfectly clean desk and, you know, everything was in its place, and nice pictures on the wall, etc. And I judged from there, what this client was going to want in the way of a proposal. What I didn’t realize was that this client had a very efficient, effective executive assistant who kept his office pristine for him. But this guy actually loved the detail, and it was kind of messy! But I couldn’t see any of that. So that’s that judging a book by its cover that we need to be careful of as well. Sometimes what we project may not actually be who we are. So I caution, as with any model, be careful not to rely on it so much that you ignore the other information going on around you. “

This is so important for us in projects because when we think differently, we behave differently. And because we behave differently, that can create friction within the team. So even though all of these thinking preferences are important, we each have preferences we like more than others or rely on more than others. And when we act on our preferences, without explaining to others why we’re responding or thinking the way we do, we can find ourselves at odds with each other.

There’s no right or wrong. Although the model breaks the brain into quadrants, we can use all the components of our brain, what the Hermann Institute calls whole-brain thinking, to come to better solutions. There’s no perfect way to think! What’s important is that we grow and expand how we think. If you’re not analytical, you can practice leaning more into the data. If you don’t like planning, you can practice integrating task tracking into your work. If you’re one who struggles with interpersonal, you can learn about how to be more engaging. Or, if you don’t look at the big picture, you can learn about how to step back a little bit sometimes to look at the bigger perspective. That’s the ideal.

We’re not perfect; we are messy! But the cool thing is that we have opportunities to learn and grow. We all have these skills within us. It’s how much we use it.

If you’d like more information on the HBDI and how it can be used in the workplace, don’t hesitate to reach out to .

Author: Ela Stilwell