Don’t replace “thinking” with “execution”


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It can be common at some companies for execution to be the norm. (More on this in a second.) I’ve done 51 episodes of my podcast now, and usually the feedback I get from listeners is that they like the sections where the guests go over actionable, tactical items. In other words: execution. People want to know how to achieve something — the steps and processes — because often that’s most important to their rank/level (and theoretically most important to the company scaling successfully). But what if there’s a better approach?

The lost art of thinking

An article from MIT’s Sloan School of Management entitled “The Lost Art Of Thinking In Large Organizations” sums this up very well. Consider this paragraph:

How did we arrive in a state where managers do not recognize that thinking is part of their job? The answer reflects a relentless focus on execution in many large companies. A company becomes big by finding a successful business model — and then scaling it massively. This necessitates building a finely tuned system with highly standardized processes. To get promoted in such an environment requires an almost singular focus on execution. In other words, it requires action more than thinking. However, once executives are promoted to a senior level, these new business leaders must be able to think strategically. Ironically, the very skills in execution that led to their promotions often make these executives ill-equipped for their new roles, since their strategy thinking muscles have withered from disuse.

Yes, and all too common. So now what?

How to think more when doing CX

First of all, since CX is inherently about the customer is responding to what you make or do, you need to talk to the customers. It’s impossible to achieve anything in this field if you don’t do that.

Talking to the customers will give you a lot of new thought patterns and off-shoot ideas. It’s very valuable as opposed to just going heads-down on task work all the time.

Secondly: take time and break once in a while. The maximum ceiling on human productivity is about 55 hours/week, even though many of us go over there each week. The optimal ratio for workload management is 52 minutes on a task, 17 minutes off it. There — I even just gave you some social media breaks.

Third: always fit CX into the strategy of the business and use the same vocabulary as other stakeholders — then, over time, navigate them to your vocabulary. If the plan isn’t tied to any strategy or revenue generation, no one will care.

Fourth: take walks. Seriously.

Fifth: remember that work is ultimately about the quality of what we produce, even though many confuse that with having a high quantity of things to do. Always focus on the quality. In CX, the guiding question might vary by company, but it should always be some variation of “How this will impact the customer?”

What other ideas have you seen to facilitate more thinking in your orgs?

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. I notice you begin the argument about “How to think more when doing CX” with the notion of “First of all, since CX is inherently about the customer responding to what you make or do, you need to talk to the customers” I suggest that you also need to listen to the customer and hear what they are communicating to you..

    I also recimmend that your executives learn to think inside the box and less strategically. If you are trying to relate to the customer, shouldn’t you be thinking like him/her i.e. thinking inside his/her box?

  2. Consultants like Tom Peters always favor a bias for action. If that were all an enterprise did, without a strong culture, a stakeholder-centric mission and vision, and a well-planned strategy and set of tactics, he also recognized that the result would be chaos. In CX, investment in individual and collaborative thinking, insights generation, and methods for evaluating milestones (both before and during action) will yield desired results.

  3. Some people need to verbalize their thoughts in order for them to develop, Making it OK to be seen talking to a colleague about work issues is one way to promote thinking for some folks.

  4. Hi Jeanne: good advice to take walks. I also recommend lap swimming because there are so few distractions. When working out, swimmers can’t see or hear very much, and you can’t check your phone for email and other notifications.

    Regarding MIT’s lost art of thinking. I agree that thinking – especially over-thinking gets a bad rap. But I’m unclear about the writer’s point. Further, the scenario he cites, “A company becomes big by finding a successful business model — and then scaling it massively,” doesn’t happen that way. Sure, a company might maintain a core idea or premise, but I couldn’t think of a single instance where the writer’s description occurs. When it comes to business models, every company I’ve worked with, or read about, iterates, tweaks, improves, pivots, re-tools, modifies, overhauls – what have you – strategies and tactics as they go along. All, the result of thinking.

    And the thinking v. execution distinction can be fuzzy: I agree that talking with customers and prospects is highly important for every company. Isn’t that an action that’s vital for thinking about the meaning of their sentiments? And what’s the purpose of learning about customer sentiment if not to take action, and execute changes accordingly?

  5. Perhaps the most dangerous consequence of “execution” over thinking things through before hand and after, is realizing that a task could have been completed using lesser resources and/or time. Often, managers realize this sub consciously much later, and the explanation they offer selves is that the customer’s time/effort was prioritized or at least the task was accomplished. In order to avoid this, I personally write difficult situations down and the solution i resorted to, under the circumstances, also later i record the alternative solutions, sometimes after a session of discussion with my peers. This aids thinking in forthcoming situations.


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