Seek out the deep: Why good strategy means taking time to think about the small things

When strategists fail to allow themselves the time to consider the small things, the end result is undifferentiated and trivial work, warns Slingshot’s Simon Corbett.

How do you train yourself to think deep? Ultimately I think it is about two things; size and time.

Critical thinking is all about the small things because the small things, so soon, can become the big things. By ‘small things’ I mean elements that sit within and support research within your discovery phase.

For example, the number of citations a research study has can give strong clues to the veracity of the research.

Similarly, the top level domain extension of that website that is talking so confidently about a particular subject can help you form an opinion on the credibility of the website (for example only .gov and .edu cannot be bought by an individual so are likely more credible).

Small things like this can of course become very big things when researching because they all support – or dismantle – the credibility of your research. And the credibility of your research is everything. The only way you can do that is by being able to identify the details that matter… and that takes time.

Obviously, it is great to have strong instincts and personally I have a fair amount of confidence in my Spidey senses. However, I am very aware that I suffer from confirmation bias as badly as anyone and need to take the time to explore all sides of things and not fall in love with my own thinking.

Go deep or go home

So you must give yourself (and give your team) the time necessary to go deeper down the rabbit hole so that you can have absolute confidence that you have an informed opinion.

That takes time and let’s be honest, agencies are not generally renowned for allowing enough time to get things right. We push hard up against deadlines, we too often agree to timelines that we know will not allow us the requisite time to really do the ground work before coming back with recommendations.

There is absolutely no doubt that agency people too often work too long hours and get burned out. But I do wonder is that because we are not allowing the time to do the hard work upfront and subsequently then taking too long later on to make it all fit?

Time to focus means you’re able to give yourself a shot at uncovering an insight; a pivot point that dramatically changes your direction and shows you the light. Generally speaking if you have no time (or regard for the small things) then you have no chance at discovering an insight.

Here’s an example. I judged some awards recently and the key insight for one entry was this; ‘Nothing is more powerful than the truth. It can’t be refuted. It can’t be rejected’

Well that’s absolute rubbish isn’t it? The truth is often and repeatedly rejected and ignored by people who have a vested interest. Think about climate change, the war on drugs and the threat of terror. The truth of these issues is almost always refuted and rejected to further another (more profitable) agenda.

That thinking is shallow, superficially it sounds right but as soon as you take the time to dig under it is clear that it is blatantly not accurate. I smelt a rush job.

Do you pay enough time to the small things? Are you as cynical and curious enough to do the work that needs to be done? More importantly – are you asking yourself that question regularly?

Shallow thinkers rarely have great self-awareness. You cannot be a strong critical thinker without knowing how you work and regulating yourself as required, doubling down on strengths and compensating for weaknesses. The first step to stretching your thinking is to have the self-awareness to know your limitations. I make sure that everyone I work with knows what I am poor at and what my default behaviour is if allowed. They keep me on point and know how to challenge me effectively.  It’s hard – but worth it to avoid the shallow water and embrace the deep.

Remember don’t go big. Go deep.

  • Simon Corbett is Chief Innovation Officer and Partner at independent media agency Slingshot.

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