Analytical Thinking ("cognito ergo sum")

How analytical thinking complements creative thinking

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it”, said the American entrepreneur and inventor Henry Ford (founder of Ford Corporation), and IBM founder Thomas J Watson Sr. concurs: “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.” Thinking is typically separated into two faculties — creative thinking and analytical thinking. While this column is usually dedicated to the former, today’s article is on the latter. Let’s find out what analytical thinking is, how it’s done, and how it needs to complement creative thinking.

What is analytical thinking?

Analytical thinking goes back to the concept of ‘analysis’, which describes the “detailed examination of the elements or structure of something, typically as a basis for discussion or interpretation”, but can also be defined as “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 better understand or explain it, or to work logically and systematically to resolve an issue or case.

In contrast, creative thinking describes cognitive processes that lead to ideas, solutions, conceptualizations, artistic forms, theories or products that are unique, novel and meaningful.



What are examples of analytical thinking?

Among others, you engage in analytical thinking when you:

  • Examine complex systems to better understand how they work as a whole and in detail (e.g., investigating the set-up of the financial markets of a country and how they are connected to the global financial system)
  • Undertake complex projects and systematically break them down into smaller, more manageable parts (such as planning the global launch of a new product by considering categories such as: product roll-out and campaigns; stakeholders involved, budgets, time schedules, and locations)
  • Break down a process into steps that one needs to sequentially follow step-by-step (like specifying the sequence of thinking steps while applying one particular thinking tool)
  • Clarify the sequence of events in a project (e.g., in a training course, the sequence of events may be as follows: registration, welcome remarks, introduction, instruction and related exercises, final presentations, awards ceremony, farewell and closure)
  • Identify information needed to effectively work on a project and resolve issues (whereby it’s particularly important that you also become aware of —and later close— your knowledge gaps)
  • Check on the viability of perceived facts and of assumptions that you make (e.g., checking on the viability of market shares in a category, and making assumptions about competitor responses on an innovative product that you plan to launch)
  • Notice and reconcile data inconsistencies (e.g., investigating differences between the monthly revenues reported by different divisions and the overall revenues shown by the corporate controlling system)
  • Process numerical data and calculate or compute solutions to numerical challenges (such as calculating the mean in a time series of monthly revenues)
  • Examine interrelationships between different variables or parts (e.g., what is the correlation between female literacy rates and infant mortality)
  • Systematically examine cause and effect relationships between factors or variables (also known of causation; beware of implying a causation when the relationship between variables isn’t crystal-clear — e.g., which one came first: the chicken or the egg?)
  • Systematically change variables to determine effects on the parts or on the whole (e.g., testing effects of different prices for a product on its sales as well as the overall profitability of your category)
  • Think of multiple possible causes that may explain a certain observable effect (e.g., you investigate why one of your products experiences a sudden drop in sales)
  • Identify similarities and differences between factors involved in a situation (e.g., Asian consumers may have similar functional and emotional needs across different countries towards a new product, but they may prefer the launch campaigns to be different by taking into account aspects of the local culture)
  • Assess the pros and cons of different ideas, options and alternatives (e.g., doing a fundraising campaign by means of a citywide walk-rally or an indoor reception at a hotel)
  • Anticipate consequences of a possible cause of action or evolving situation (e.g., legislators looking at likely consequences of passing a new law)
  • Investigate forces that may support or oppose a proposed new course of action or change (e.g., the advent of the ASEAN Economic Community)


Why do analytical and creative thinking need to support each other?

Nowadays, analytical thinking is the mainstay of business school curricula and many daily business activities. But being an excellent analytical thinker is not enough to succeed in modern business, just like relying solely on your creativity would not get you too far ahead. Analysis and creativity need to go hand in hand for two reasons:

  • While going through a project in general and an innovation project in special, you need to steadily alternate between convergent thinking (which is mostly analytical as it uses cognitive activities that move from the many to a few) and divergent thinking (which shoots into different directions and aims to create different ideas and solutions for an issue, thus being largely creative in nature).
  • Roger Sperry’s split-brain theory noted that analytical thinking and creative thinking take predominantly place in different parts of the neocortex (the sophisticated “outer shell” of the human brain that evolved last): The left hemisphere is said to be more analytic, rational and logical in nature, while the right hemisphere is more creative, holistic and intuitive. Well-known geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci or Albert Einstein represent the ideal of integrated whole mind thinkers who make good use of their entire brain and felt equally at home employing both their analytical and creative mind while working on a challenge.

Got curious on how you may further your analytical thinking capabilities to complement your creativity (or vice versa)? At Thinkergy, we offer special training courses in both Analytical Thinking and Creative Thinking as part of our business thinking skills training courses. Drop us an email if you want to find out more.


© Dr. Detlef Reis 2015. This article was published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on 14 May 2015.