Styles of Thinking on Teams: A Framework to Discover How Your Team Members Think and What That Means for Building an Effective Team

A model of different styles of thinking in the workplace can help teams learn to work better and create better together. 

Teams are a truly wonderful way to organize and unite different kinds of people behind the same goal. The best teams understand that bringing together team members with different talents, skills and experiences can lead to more creativity and success.

But it’s not just team members’ actions and opinions that make them different. People think differently too–through the way they analyze and work through problems and how they attempt to come up with solutions. 

In our last blog post, we listed the most common types of thinking. That was hopefully an enlightening look into different ways of thinking and how there are various different ways of looking at problems and finding solutions. 

However, as we mentioned then, many people think in multiple ways, and when it comes to thinking on teams, it can be hard to separate everyone into exclusive categories of “creative thinkers” versus “abstract thinkers” versus “concrete thinkers”, despite there being natural inclinations towards different types of thinking depending on the situation and role. 

In doing research for that blog post, I came upon a model of different styles of thinking in the workplace, developed by Mark Bonchek and Elisa Steele. It’s an interesting way to look at thinking types, and it might be a little more practical in terms of helping teams create more of a balance of different ways of thinking. And it might just offer some lessons about how teams can be more inclusive of different styles of thinking.   

So in the following post, I’ll break down this model for you, and give you some of my own analysis about what its potential benefits are, and how it can be used in team building and creating more effective teams.   

Styles of thinking on teams: A model 

Source: Mark Bonchek and Elisa Steele, Harvard Business Review

Bonchek and Steele’s model is based on two axes: Focus (ideas, process, action, or relationships) and Orientation (big picture or details). Out of this emerges eight distinct styles of thinking: Explorer, Planner, Energizer, Connector, Expert, Optimizer, Producer and Coach.

Axis 1: Focus 

The “focus” axis addresses which problems or areas you particularly are interested in or tend to be drawn to. In other words, what do you naturally like to think about, or what are good at thinking about? 

  • Ideas–focusing on problems and concepts.
  • Process–focusing on planning, systems and organization.
  • Action–focusing on steps you need to take;  how to get from A to B.
  • Relationships–focusing on connections between and with other people and how to improve them.

Axis 2: Orientation

As stated above, the orientation axis is related to how you tend to view and approach and the perspective you ted to take, broken into two poles:

  • Big picture–this is the same as holistic thinking, which means looking more generally at issues and ideas and trying to place them in larger contexts, possibly in connection with other issues or ideas. It can also mean attempting to get a bird’s eye view of the situation. 
  • Details–this means going into the weeds on issues, and focusing in deep on particular and specific problems and their immediate solutions.

The 8 styles of thinking

When you combine the two axes of focus and orientation, you get the 8 styles of the model. It’s in how your perspective and area of focus interact that reveals what kind of thinker you tend to be on your team. 

1. Explorer Thinking (big picture orientation, ideas focus)

Explorer thinking enjoys coming up with new ideas and creating new ways of thinking about problems. As the name suggests, people who think this way prefer to forge new paths and think outside the box rather than sticking to old methods or ideas. 

2. Planner Thinking (big picture orientation, process focus)

Planner thinking is about coming up with overall processes for solving. This style of thinking understands systems, institutions, and methods well, and can design (better) systems that will get the job done and keep the team organized and efficient. 

3. Energizer Thinking (big picture orientation, action focus)

Energizer thinking mixes big picture thinking with a focus on action and getting things done. This type of thinking looks at ways of mobilizing the team and its resources in order to achieve its goals, and involves a great deal of motivation, and creating an engaging “vision” for the team to follow.

4. Connector Thinking (big picture orientation, relationship focus)

Connector thinking is all about relationships and how to increase the connectivity of teams as a whole. People who possess this type of thinking can easily perceive social relations and are capable of figuring out ways to strengthen the overall bonds of the team. This style of thinking also recognizes when there are problems or issues that could potentially upset the social fabric of the team.

5. Expert Thinking (details orientation, ideas focus)

When detailed thinking is combined with an ideas focus, it produces expert thinking, which means becoming highly knowledgeable about a specific area or field. This also involves striving to be as objective as possible about this area, and the ability and desire to teach others and share knowledge as well.

6. Optimizer Thinking (details thinking, planning focus) 

Optimizer thinking is invested in looking at ways to improve certain methods and ways of doing things. This style of thinking can pinpoint what specific areas of a process or system could be made better in order to make the team work more efficiently or productively.

7. Producer Thinking (details thinking, action focus)

Producer thinking deals heavily with seeing how to complete a given task involving lots of moving parts. This thinking also involves being able to delegate and understand how to maintain momentum throughout the project. Producer thinkers are good at understanding how to complete tasks and projects.

8. Coach Thinking (details thinking, relationship focus)

This style of thinking is heavily engaged in cultivating individual talent. It involves the ability to perceive individual team members’ talents and strengths and to work one-on-one with them as a mentor, teacher or trainer. 

How this model of styles of thinking can be used on teams

There are a couple of benefits of this model for both individual team members as well as teams as whole. The ability of this model to easily break down a lot of different ways of thinking into easily recognizable and organisable “styles” is similar to other sorts of personality-type models (e.g. Myers-Briggs) that help individuals become more aware of their inner skills and talents. 

So learning about different styles of thinking from this model can be useful in learning more about your own way of thinking and how to learn what role is best for you to fill on teams. Likewise, it benefits teams to learn about the different ways that their team members think and how best to place these styles of thinking within the team’s processes for achieving goals.

It also benefits teams to know about different styles of thinking so that they can find the right balance between different thinking styles. Having a team of all explorer thinkers will be able to generate lots of creative ideas but will have no way to implement them. Likewise, a team of lots of energizer thinkers will likely be one that is full of competition and jockeying for leadership.

So teams need to think about different styles of thinking in order to attempt to create a more balanced environment, one that encourages a multiplicity of different thinking and working styles and that stimulates creativity and new ideas. It is only through being more aware of your team’s diversity that its potential can be truly unleashed, and this model of styles of thinking can help. 

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