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Daring to Unlock How You Think

Daring to Unlock How You Think

Gerald Zaltman

Unlocked book cover wide

Marketing professionals have a great interest in what customers think, why customers have those thoughts and feelings, and the marketing strategy implications of both. Of course, customers are influenced by how and what managers think and do. These interacting thinking processes give rise to the “mind of the market.”  

Although managers’ thought processes are a significant driver of marketplace transactions, few resources have been invested in investigating them. For instance, how much of this year’s budget in your organization is earmarked for inquiring about how and what you and your colleagues think? And how effectively are these allocated funds, if any, used? Too frequently, the answers are “hardly any” and “not very.”


Daring to be Curious

Learning how we think can be enjoyable as well as instructive and surprising. So, why don’t managers inspect how they think more often? The CMO of a consumer products firm suggested a reason after reading Unlocked

“You should caution readers: grappling with how they think takes courage.” 

Other senior executives have expressed similar sentiments after reading the book. No one suggests that managers lack courage to take on the task, only that the importance of this competency is not well understood and thus not exercised enough in matters of thinking and decision making.  

Turning a key to unlock a thought process can create uncertainty. It introduces the possibility of a surprise insight, one you may be unprepared to address or may not like. A sense of uncertainty may foster caution, which, in turn, can inhibit learning about how you could improve your thinking process. Fortunately, uncertainty is a double-edged sword. It also produces curiosity, which ultimately fuels new ideas and practices—marketing’s motor. 

Satisfying curiosity about thinking involves responding to three related dares or challenges.

Challenge #1: Dare to Understand How We Think

The philosopher Immanuel Kant famously said, “Dare to understand.” This message still resonates–after all, you are how you think. And let’s face it, while reflecting on who you are may be enjoyable, it’s generally difficult to stop and understand how you got there. It is easier to defend what you think and do. And, like Pandora in the Greek fable, you don’t know what you might discover.

Speaking of keys, recall the “convenient light syndrome.” As the story goes, an inebriated man late at night is searching under a street lamp for his missing car keys. A passerby asks if this is where they were dropped. The man replies, “No, but the light is better here.” This prompts a few questions to ask yourself: When did you last question the wisdom of your information search and processing behavior? Was it an equal opportunity process in which evidence relevant to very different decision outcomes received equal attention? How actively did you seek and examine information that might contradict your ultimate conclusion or position? Ample evidence suggests people tend to avoid information that contradicts a preferred position or an expected answer (i.e., the confirmation bias). Moreover, these tendencies often operate subconsciously. People don’t stop to ask whether the convenient light they are using is even pointed in the correct direction. 

Challenge #2: Dare to Question Your Thinking

Understanding how you think is a big step, but it is not enough. You must also dare to question what you’ve come to understand. This requires raising doubts and suspicions about how you think where none existed previously. Sometimes this occurs spontaneously. For instance, how often have you said or asked yourself, “I wish I thought of that!” “How did I ever come to that conclusion?” “Why didn’t I see that coming?” “How could I be so wrong?” How did I think that up?” Or felt, “I wasn’t thinking straight” “If only I could have a do-over.” These are probably familiar statements. But how often do you actively pursue them and seriously inspect possible flaws in how you think? Typically, they are not entertained for very long. 

Questioning one’s thinking can be intimidating. Unless you are trying to avoid blame, who likes to admit they missed important cues, made a wrong assumption, or don’t know something they should? Doing so acknowledges a vulnerable, inferior position.  And there may be a domino effect. Questioning and assumption may lead to questions about our use of language, which may demand that we be more sensitive how contexts in which we think affects how we allocate limited attention budgets. Challenging conventional wisdom involves questioning other people’s thoughts even when you agree with them. This can prompt strong pushback, a reminder that there may be unspoken, forbidden zones of inquiry.

Challenge #3: Dare to Think Differently

Daring to think differently involves experimenting with new ways of seeing. When questioning and tinkering with how we think, we need to be prepared and willing to occasionally perform serious surgery. This requires the cool passion of a brain surgeon or what I’ve called “di-stance,” being apart from your thinking so you can view it in as detached a manner as possible while also being engaged in it. Put differently, the passion found in the embrace of an idea needs to be balanced by stepping back and viewing it through a skeptic’s cool lens.  

Helpful questions to audit our inclination to think differently include: Am I making myself out-of-date as quickly as possible by learning the newest relevant facts? Am I searching for relevant information in contexts new to me? Have I explored how I would explain an outcome where an idea or action turns out to be wrong? What relevant available information am I overlooking? Underestimating? Undervaluing? Misinterpreting? 

A question I often ask thoughtful academics and executives is: 

Which one statement most describes you: 

A: I love being right or 
B: I hate being wrong 

People are required to choose just one statement even if both apply. After some squirming statement B is usually selected.  The penalties for being wrong apparently outweigh the rewards of being right. Changing how we think can be difficult when it requires acknowledging being wrong. This is partly because how we think is intimately connected to our sense of self. Discovering that how we think may contain a significant flaw creates major cognitive dissonance. And one way of avoiding that is to not make the discovery in in the first place. This loops back to the very first dare: understanding how one thinks. Why bother understanding and questioning our thinking if we dare not change it? 


Examining how we think is important and challenging. Challenging our thinking requires being open to understanding it, a willingness to question it, and the capacity to change it. All three challenges are propelled by curiosity. And curiosity requires audacity. 

Marketing professionals are encouraged to engage three “dares” about thinking. The occasion for noting them is stimulated by comments made by senior marketing executives upon their reading of Unlocked: Keys to Improve Your Thinking. The book’s exercises, they agree, are engaging, effective, and productive. The exercises have been widely used with managers from around the globe and have a demonstrable effect on improving marketing decision making. However, they also demand the courage to be curious especially when an outcome might be having to change thinking. I am confident the courage to do that is widespread. I hope the Think Key exercises in Unlocked will make acting on it easier and achieving your goals more successful.

For more information, go to the Unlocked website. Order your copy here.

Gerald Zaltman is the Joseph C. Wilson Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School and the author and editor of 20 books.