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13 January 2016

Think About Thinking: 9 Thinking Modalities

David A. Zimmer Print

Think About Thinking: 9 Thinking Modalities


Have you ever thought about thinking? Probably the most impactful statement said to me in my life was from a gentleman whose name I don’t remember.  He remarked, “You think the most important thing in life is faith. I think the most important thing in life is to think. Most people never think about thinking. Think about thinking.” I still think the most important thing about life is faith, but I sure have thought a lot about thinking these past 30 years since he made that comment.

I ponder thinking while I sit, mull over it as I drive, contemplate it while riding the train, consider it while walking, ruminate when standing in line; in fact, I never stop reflecting on the different modalities of thinking.

The genesis of this article started when my boss told me I needed to sharpen my critical thinking skills. I thought his remark was interesting. I worked exclusively at a client site with no interaction with or oversight by him.  He really had no clue what I did from day to day or what my critical thinking skills were or even if I used the skills at all. It seemed his remark was just the standard corporate line I hear in almost every company: We must improve our critical thinking skills.

My boss, not knowing I had attended a webinar the day before about conducting training concerning critical thinking, was not ready for my response.  I said, “I would be happy to improve my critical thinking skills because I am always looking to learn. But just so we are clear what I am to improve, I need to know which of the four different definitions of critical thinking skills we are discussing?” He was silent. I continued.  “In fact, I have a sign above my desk here that lists nine different thinking modalities. I review that list several times a week and especially when I am tackling a difficult problem because I want to consider several perspectives so I don’t miss a subtlety. Would you like to know the other eight thinking modalities?” He coughed, sputtered and said, “No, that won’t be necessary.”

Having been a sole practitioner consulting with clients at all levels of the organization, I have been hired to pioneer creative solutions to their thorniest challenges. I have learned over many years solving a problem only using critical thinking skills – one of the nine modalities we will discuss – misses many clues or opportunities hidden within a problem. By looking at the same problem and employing several, rarely all, of the thinking modalities, I arrive at a more complete and comprehensive solution.

In this article, we will introduce the nine modalities followed by more in depth articles per modality later.

And so we are clear and not misleading, let’s state upfront, the nine modalities are not exhaustive. We continually discover other modalities but have chosen to limit ourselves at this point to the nine. Once they are documented and as we learn more about the others, we will add those to our compendium of thought process.

The nine thinking modalities are

  1. Visionary – forward looking with alternative futures,
  2. Strategic - the generation and application of unique insights and opportunities intended to create a desired outcome,
  3. Systems - holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way constituent parts interrelate, work over time and within the context of larger systems,
  4. Creative – the method of considering problems or situations from fresh perspectives which might suggest unorthodox solutions,
  5. Analytic or Critical -  the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication,
  6. Lateral – out-of-the-box - solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious, reframing questions to elicit different approaches,
  7. Structured - a process of putting a framework to an unstructured problem,
  8. Conceptual - the ability to understand a situation or problem by identifying patterns or connections, and addressing key underlying issues, and
  9. Visual or Spatial - the ability to visualize special patterns and mentally manipulate them over a time-ordered sequence of spatial transformations.
As one can see, there is overlap between the modalities, or stated another way, each modality is related to the others.  At any given time, a thinker may employ several thinking modes while following a prescribed method, such as Structured or Systems thinking. By understanding an individual mode, we can better understand how to use them individually and in combinations with others.

These articles are not intended to be the ultimate guide to a specific way of thinking. The intent is to introduce the method, provide some cursory information and give some guidance. We will have met our goal if you simply consider the various modalities of thinking when encountering your next problem to solve.

Follow us as we explore the different thinking modalities. Challenge our thinking and let us know what you think.


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