From Episode 86 of The Complete Leader Podcast

Do you remember when you could only buy one song at a time, on a 45? Or, if you had enough money, maybe five or six songs on each side of a 33?

Perhaps I’m dating myself.

But paradigms within the music industry have changed significantly over the past several decades, from vinyl records to cassette tapes to CDs to getting your music over the internet—and now we each have entire libraries at our fingertips. These paradigm shifts, especially with the coming of the internet, were hugely disruptive to the industry. But they each took place to solve a problem or exploit an opportunity.

A paradigm is a type of conceptual thinking. It’s a set of assumptions you use in order to get the results you want, and you use it to make decisions, take actions and relate to other people. Sort of like a mental map to consider what might or might not be helpful for you to act on. And the most important thing that drives new paradigms is this idea of conceptual thinking, of considering exactly what results you are getting, why and how you are doing something the way that you are, whether that’s working or not and what assumptions led you to act that way.

And when someone realizes the way you’ve always done things isn’t quite working anymore, that’s when they’ll jump to disrupt the old and bring in the new.

As my friend Dr. Evans Baiya likes to say, “It’s never technology and then strategy. It’s always strategy first, then technology.”

Understanding and working to change paradigms can actually develop your conceptual thinking skills as well. I like to think about it as developing a new level of thinking. It’s a look-in-the-mirror moment to realize that a large part of the problems that you are dealing with, you also created because of the way you were thinking or the assumptions you were carrying.

If you can learn to think at this new level, you can diagnose which concepts or paradigms weren’t working—and begin building new paradigms. Here are five ways to level up your thinking and grow your conceptual thinking skills overall.

Identify the assumptions that drive your systems, behaviors and/or results. For example, consider traffic patterns. Which streets are one-way or two-way, and why? What are the speed limits on those streets? These are all based on different assumptions. Keep this in mind everywhere you go and ask yourself, “What are the underlying assumptions that have created this behavior or system?”

Study different kinds of strategies. Strategies are all around us. Keep an eye out for them and remember to look for the concepts underneath that are driving the strategy. Write down how people approach different activities and systems. Soon it will become automatic.

Notice the problems and opportunities around you. This is something The Innovator’s Advantage covers extensively. Innovation begins with the identification of problem-opportunities. Something is not working quite right, or there’s an opportunity to do something even better to create value for your customers. Identify these possibilities, but don’t attempt to solve or judge them right away. You simply want to build the foundation of identifying problems and opportunities to expand your conceptual thinking abilities.

Ask about the mental models behind decision-making in your workplace. Talk to your customers, your suppliers and other stakeholders and help them think this way too. Getting others in on the conversation will only compound the creativity around you.

Build other skills. As with many skills discussed in The Complete Leader, growing your conceptual thinking skills helps you to build other essential leadership abilities. And vice versa. So growing your futuristic thinking, creativity or problem solving will also add layers and nuance to your conceptual thinking abilities. These skills help you to overcome problems and come up with new solutions and ideas because you’re thinking at an abstract level about why things happen the way that they do and what you can do differently to generate different results.

Following these five steps to level up your conceptual thinking skills will help you deal with an ever-increasingly complex and fast-paced world. You’ll gain new insights and come up with solutions you never would have thought of before, you’ll be able to more accurately forecast long-range outcomes and you’ll be able to identify both the intended and unintended consequences of your strategy—all of which will help you to identify paradigms that are no longer working and begin to develop new ones. And as with any skill, you’ll only get better with practice.

Learn more about growing your conceptual thinking skills.

Photo by Startup Stock Photos via Pexels.