Strategic v Detail Thinkers and Trees

Since I’m due to be assessed for Autism shortly I’ve been obsessing a fair bit about how different people think and make decisions.

I’ve known people who are gifted at thinking strategically/creatively (and I envy them), but very slow to get to the details. Myself, I’m detail oriented – I get deep down into the details of an option and work in the details and then work back to the level of the original options and head for the details in the next of the original options which makes me very poor at making strategic decisions quickly. In short – I’m good at computer programming but dreadful at chess.

Why the difference? That’s where trees come in. Decision making can be represented by a kind of tree. Each decision is a fork in the tree. The trunk is where we start considering the main options. The details are where the leaves are. A common problem given in computer science (where data is often stored in tree-like logical structures) is to find a way of exploring as much of the tree as possible in a given amount of time. The answer depends very heavily on how branched the tree is, how many alternative paths can be explored at the same time, and whether we want more detail at the expense of fewer options.

A detail thinker may be only capable of exploring as little as one path through the tree in one go. They think very linearly most of the time and so are very efficient at it. They get to the detail of a given option more quickly than the strategic thinker, but they have to backtrack repeatedly to explore all the ramifications of the given option before eventually returning to the trunk and doing the same thing again for all the other branches off the trunk. You’ll get the detail on a particular option very quickly, but if you want a quick overview of all the options, go elsewhere.

A strategic thinker is capable of thinking laterally along several different alternative paths at the same time, which means they can explore more options at a broad, strategic level up without backtracking until they get so far into the details of the individual options that they exhaust their multitasking ability and have to resort to the more linear thinking style of the detail thinker to get any further. Being less practised in that thinking style compared to the detail thinker, they lose their edge to the detail thinker.

I’ve worked with and lived with strategic thinkers. Sometimes the clash between our thinking styles led to mutual frustration. The last thing a strategic thinker wants is a dissertation on the details of the option they were least likely to pursue. The last thing a detail thinker wants is to find that they have been on a wild goose chase analysing an option that the strategic thinker didn’t really favour in the first place. Communication is the key there, I suppose.

With good communication the differences can be complementary. Let the strategic thinker have pick out the bright ideas and let the detail thinker analyse them. There’ll still sometimes be frustrations – the strategic thinker will feel like the detail thinker is ‘always putting the brakes on’; conversely the detail thinker will often feel like the strategic thinker’s ideas are ‘half-baked.’ More positively, the detail thinker can often save a strategic thinker from making a costly mistake because unfortunately the devil is often in the detail. Likewise the strategic thinker can save a detail thinker from wasting time and money on projects that won’t get anywhere in the long run.

From this detail thinker to all the strategic thinkers I’ve ever known – “we’ve frustrated the heck out of each other, but we need each other. Vive la difference!

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