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How analytical thinking complements creative thinking

  • Published: May 14, 2015 03:30
  • Writer: Detlef Reis | 1 viewed

'Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it," said the American entrepreneur Henry Ford. Thomas Watson of IBM agreed: "All the problems of the world could be settled if people were only willing to think. The trouble is that people very often resort to all sorts of devices in order not to think, because thinking is such hard work."

This column normally discusses creative thinking, but today we'll look at analytical thinking — what it is, how it's done, and why it's needed to complement creative thinking.

What is analytical thinking? Analysis is the "detailed examination of the elements or structure of something, typically as a basis for discussion or interpretation", and also "the process of separating something into its constituent elements". As such, analytical thinking means to examine, or think about, the different parts or details of something in order to understand or explain it better, or to work logically and systematically to resolve an issue.

In contrast, creative thinking describes cognitive processes that lead to ideas, solutions, concepts, artistic forms, theories or products that are new.

What are examples of analytical thinking? You engage in analytical thinking when you:

- examine complex systems to better understand how they work, both as a whole and in detail (e.g., investigating the financial markets of a country and how they connect to the global financial system);

- break down complex projects into smaller, more manageable parts (as when planning the global launch of a new product by considering facets such as product roll-out and campaigns, stakeholders, budgets, schedules, and locations);

- break down a process into sequential steps (such as specifying the sequence of thinking steps when using an ideation technique);

- clarify the sequence of events in a project (e.g., during a training course, these may be registration, welcome remarks, introduction, instruction and exercises, final presentations, awards ceremony, farewell and closing);

- identify information needed to work effectively on a project and resolve issues (as when you become aware of — and work to close — gaps in your knowledge);

- check on the accuracy of knowledge and assumptions (e.g., assessing the reliability of market share information, and examining assumptions about how competitors will respond to your new product);

- investigate and reconcile data inconsistencies (e.g., differences between monthly revenues reported by different divisions and overall revenues shown by the corporate accounting system);

- process numerical data and compute numeric solutions (such as calculating the mean in a time series of monthly revenues);

- examine the relationships between different variables or parts (e.g., how do female literacy rates and infant mortality correlate, and why);

- examine cause-and-effect relationships;

- look at what-if scenarios (e.g., predicting the effect of different prices on sales and profits);

- try to discover the possible causes of an observed event (e.g., why did sales of your products suddenly drop?);

- identify similarities and differences among various factors (e.g., Asian consumers in different countries may have similar functional and emotional needs from a new product, but they may want the launch campaigns to be specific to their local culture);

- assess the pros and cons of various options (e.g., raise funds through a walk or rally, or with an indoor reception at a hotel);

- anticipate consequences of an action (e.g., legislators looking at the consequences of a new law); or

- try to identify supporters or opponents of a proposed change (e.g., the advent of the Asean Economic Community).

Why do analytical and creative thinking need to support each other? Analytical thinking is the focus of business schools and of many daily business activities. But excellence in analytical thinking is not enough, just as relying solely on creativity will not get you very far. Analysis and creativity need to go hand in hand.

While working on a project, especially an innovation project, you need to alternate between convergent thinking, which is mostly analytical, and divergent thinking, which is largely creative.

Although pop psychology separates the brain, and people, into creative and analytical parts, the greatest geniuses, such as Leonardo da Vinci or Albert Einstein, embodied the ideal of integrated whole-mind thinking. They made good use of their entire brain and felt equally at home employing both their analytical and creative faculties while working on a challenge. We would do well to try to follow their example.

Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Limited (, an ideation and innovation company in Asia. He is also a lecturer in business creativity and innovation leadership at Mahidol University's College of Management and an adjunct associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. He can be reached at