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essentials | Chapter 6

Thinking Styles

While there are plenty of tools to help understand personalities, it’s harder to gain insight into how we think and collaborate. Thinking Styles are a simple and effective tool to accelerate collaboration and enhance individual and team performance.

Don’t just out-produce the competition—outthink them.

What are Thinking Styles?

A simple and effective tool to accelerate collaboration and enhance individual, relational and team performance.

The Thinking Styles approach was developed by Mark Bonchek and Elisa Steele. It offers a simple, intuitive alternative to assessment tools like DISC and Myers-Briggs, which can be complex, time-consuming and expensive, and which focus on personality rather than cognition and collaboration.

Thinking Styles can help teams move more quickly from “forming, storming and norming” to performing. Understanding our own and others’ styles accelerates collaboration, increases engagement, generates contribution and improves team performance.

Understand Thinking Styles

People tend to focus on ideas, process, action or relationships, and to be oriented towards the big picture or details.

The premise is that people tend to have a typical area of focus on Ideas, Process, Action or Relationships, along with an orientation towards the big picture (macro) or details (micro).

These eight styles are fluid and change in different settings. But most people have one or more dominant styles, just as they are either left- or right-handed.

Thinking Styles: Not the same as roles

Your thinking style is not your job description.

We normally think of roles as being about what people do, such as team leader, project manager, or researcher. When you need a decision, you go to the team leader. When you want a status update, you go to the project manager. When you need something investigated, you go to the researcher.

It’s important to keep Thinking Styles mentally separate from roles. While certain Thinking Styles may tend to be drawn to certain roles, different Thinking Styles can and do succeed in the same role. A range of Thinking Styles is helpful across all roles.

Just as team members have assigned doing roles, teams also need to make sure that all thinking roles are covered. By knowing how other members of  your team and organization think—and by others knowing how you think—everyone can be more energized, more engaged, more creative and more productive.

Individuals find it helpful to understand their own Thinking Style so they can see how to leverage their strengths and focus their development efforts. People are naturally energized when their work aligns to their Thinking Style and feel empowered when they learn to master an unfamiliar style.

On teams, a “heat map” of Thinking Styles can show where the team is over- or under-represented relative to the goals and objectives. Oftentimes, team function suffers not because of who is in the team, but who is not. The distribution of Thinking Styles reveals what’s missing so the team can compensate or bring in complementary resources.


What’s your Thinking Style?

When you know your Thinking Style, you know what naturally energizes you, why certain types of problems are challenging or boring, and what you can do to improve in areas that are important to reaching your goals.

Once you know your default style, it helps to share it with others, and to have others share theirs with you. In this way, your Thinking Style becomes a useful tool—a kind of social currency—for the team.

iPad with images of quizzes


See yourself as others see you

We often have a hard time seeing aspects of ourselves that come naturally. If you’re having a tough time getting clear on your primary Thinking Style, it can be helpful to turn to your colleagues for their perspectives.

Ask a few colleagues which Thinking Style they think best describes you, and why. Remember that it may or may not be a style that seems directly related to your role. You can use their response as a springboard for discussion about your respective Thinking Styles, and how they resonate or complement each other.


Rank your Thinking Styles

To assess how you relate with the different Thinking Styles, you can rank them along an axis of how much return is generated by your efforts.

When you’re using Thinking Styles that are in your “genius zones,” you’re getting the biggest return on your efforts. Ideally, these should be the Thinking Styles you use most in your day-to-day work. To assess your Thinking Styles, place them along this axis.

High Return: Put in $10 effort, get $100 results

Medium Return: Put in $10 effort, get $10 results

Low Return: Put in $10 effort, get $1 results

Design how your team thinks

Innovation takes teams of diverse and complementary thinkers.

Imagine you’re putting together a team to work on a new initiative. Wouldn’t you like to know who’s energized by big-picture strategy discussions and who finds them frustrating, who likes to work on executional details and who is energized by managing team dynamics?

Normally we think about building teams based on what people do. We select for skills and assign tasks and responsibilities. It’s a mental model that comes from teams. We put everyone in the right position.

But we can also design teams based on how people think.

The leader as orchestrator

Leaders are responsible for creating the right mix of Thinking Styles. Like an orchestra conductor, the leader chooses which style comes to the fore at a particular point in time to carry the tune.

Put too much focus on big picture thinking and the details won’t get done.

Give too much emphasis on action and process thinking, and you will lose the vision or drop out trust and connection.

Thinking Styles and project lifecycles

Most teams need every kind of Thinking Style at one point or another.

In the beginning of the project, Explorer and Planner thinking is helpful to set the strategy and structure the work effort. Then Connector and Energizer thinking take the lead to create the vision, access resources, and enroll the stakeholders. As strategy and planning give way to execution and operations, more micro styles take the lead.

Expert and Optimizer thinking work together to hammer out details and find efficiencies. Meanwhile, Producer thinking executes the plan and crosses things off the list, while those with Coach thinking keep everyone engaged and performing at their best.


Thinking Styles are a simple and effective tool to accelerate collaboration and enhance individual, relational and team performance.

  • People tend to focus on ideas, process, action or relationships, and to be oriented towards the big picture or details.
  • Your Thinking Style is not your job description.
  • Thinking Styles are useful for individuals, relationships and groups.
  • To maximize productivity, find your genius zones.

Go deeper

Read the article that started it all: What Kind of Thinker Are You?

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