What do Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, and James Watson and Francis Crick have in common? They are among the greatest conceptual thinkers of all time.
Leonardo is one of history’s master painters, perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived.[i] His innovations continued to influence the development of Italian art long after his death. Historian Helen Gardner describes him as the archetype of the Renaissance Man, one with “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination.”[ii]
Einstein’s development of the general theory of relativity revolutionized the world of physics and stands, alongside quantum mechanics, as one of its modern pillars. His mass-energy formula, E=mc2, is the world’s most famous equation, and in 1921 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect, which led to progress on quantum theory.
Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA in 1953, initiating a wave of progress that continues to change the way modern science sees the world. They built upon the discoveries of many previous scientists who failed to see the potential in their own work, largely due to linear thinking. Watson and Crick’s genius for visualization and conceptualization made the discovery of DNA a reality. Today, many significant medical breakthroughs, including identification of DNA for effective oncology treatment, rest on Watson and Crick’s innovations.
Each of these conceptual thinkers sparked long-lasting shifts in the way we envision the world. By pushing against established boundaries, they leveraged opportunities for growth and success. Lisa Bodell, founder and CEO of futurethink, explains: “The best employees [and leaders] of the future will excel at creative problem solving and different ways of thinking—synthesizing seemingly diverse things together for better solutions.”[iii]
Leonardo, Einstein, and Watson and Crick changed the world through their skills in conceptual thinking. But how are today’s leaders utilizing conceptual thinking in the marketplace? And how are you cultivating conceptual thinking within your team to develop the leaders of our time? Before tackling these questions, we need to clarify our understanding of what conceptual thinking is and to learn how it can strengthen leadership and progress within your organization.
What is so different about breakthrough thinkers? Many of us have been trained to rely on our analytical thinking skills, which are concentrated on the left side of the brain. Conceptual thinkers, however, rely heavily on the right side. Fostering creativity and innovation, they are able to imagine what is not yet seen by tapping into the right brain. Another important dimension is their ability to look forward, rather than getting bogged down in the assumptions of the past. Conceptual thinkers face the future with optimism and use past challenges as valuable knowledge in forming hypotheses about what is to come.
We are able to identify what defines conceptual thinking at its core by contrasting it with concrete thinking. Concrete thinking represents an immediate, literal understanding of a situation, based on exactly what meets the eye. Those who think concretely will have a difficult time identifying patterns or trends across time or forming generalizations from similarities between circumstances. Conceptual thinkers, on the other hand, look far beyond what lies before them, seeking links between bits of information that do not initially appear to have a relation to one another. They broaden their view of the situation and the world at large, enabling them to make connections that would otherwise go unseen.
Conceptual thinking, then, requires forward thinking, innovation, and visualization. Forward thinking spurs leaders to shape goals that stretch their organizations to see around corners and beyond horizons. Thinking that is outside the box and envisioning what has not yet been imagined lead to innovation that can be a game changer, repositioning the future and giving it fresh meaning. Through tools like charts, mind maps, and brainstorming exercises, ideas can spring to life. These visualization tools serve as powerful communication channels for developing new strategies and persuading others to adopt them.
In the modern marketplace, the ability to make abstract connections has the potential to make or break a company’s future. By integrating seemingly disparate concepts into an innovative breakthrough idea, it is possible to initiate a paradigm shift that will overturn the status quo.
One paradigm shift that has affected everyone came from Martin Cooper’s 1973 invention of Motorola’s cellular phone. While AT&T was still focused on the concept of the car phone, Cooper thought bigger—communication by phone from any location. That technological paradigm shift has had virtually infinite implications for society.
How do we nurture the Coopers or Leonardos within our organizations? First, by strengthening conceptual thinking skills in every team. As a leader, you have a responsibility to foster environments and work relationships that encourage conceptual thinking, and you must actively seek to communicate conceptually to your team members. Invite everyone to express creative ideas openly without critique, analysis, or over-processing. Refrain from setting boundaries—you never know where the next brilliant idea may come from.
Identify team members who are naturally inclined to think conceptually and ask them questions to generate discussion in the right direction. Allow processes or systems-thinking to evolve freely without limitations. Imagine how far things can go—and go even further. Avoid the tendency to get trapped in the day-to-day tasks of the work environment, but rather foster a broad scope of the future. Most importantly, nurture an environment of trust, cultivating a sense of comfort and belonging that will give people the courage to overcome their inner fears and be transparent with their ideas.
Like Cooper or Watson and Crick, conceptual thinkers do not wait for the future—they create it. To survive in the modern marketplace, leaders must be bold enough to envision a future that is not yet imaginable. Right now, some team is brainstorming and an unlikely individual may have just blurted out an idea that seems outlandish and inconceivable. But it could be the next Mona Lisa or theory of relativity. Conceptual thinking gives birth to paradigm shifts that forever change the world. How are you building your organization to change the world?
[i] Gardner, Helen (1970). Art through the Ages. pp. 450–456.