Friday, April 21, 2006

Thinkers versus Doers

There is, I think, an interesting balancing act in many firms regarding innovation. There are at least two "camps" of people in any business, and keeping these folks working together and in the appropriate proportion is challenge and an opportunity.

I'm identifying the two camps as "Thinkers" and "Doers". I recognize that's highly simplistic, but strawmen in blogs often are. Thinkers are the people who are open to new ideas, new concepts and are constantly trying to improve or change the way things are done. They are the creative types, always experimenting. Their strengths are their willingness to experiment and change and try new things, new processes, invent new products or services. The weakness of many "Thinkers" is that they don't understand the processes and issues required to bring these new concepts to market.

Contrast the "Thinkers" with the "Doers". Frankly, the Doers are the people who get things done. They recognize an efficient, optimized process and don't appreciate tinkering with the process or with people who introduce a lot of change. Doers don't really like change all that much, since change is disruptive to the existing norms and processes.

Clearly, a firm needs both "Thinkers" and "Doers" and people who can be the bridge between the two camps. What's interesting is that a firm composed completely of Thinkers is basically a research lab or a think tank, while a firm compsed completely of "Doers" would eventually run itself, very efficiently, right out of business because it never changed or created new products or services. We need both of these skill sets to be effective in any business.

The trick to to understand:

1) the appropriate proportion of each skill set in every product group or team
2) the different approaches to compensating and motivating these very different people within the same teams
3) how to bridge between them and make both kinds of people successful in an organization

A creative agency I've worked with is a great example of this tension. There are five or six creative directors, who are free to generate ideas and early concepts. These folks are seen as gods in the firm. What the creative directors don't recognize is that behind each creative director there are eight to ten people responsible for taking those ideas and implementing them effectively for a client. Many of the people responsible for the execution of the work feel somewhat slighted that their work is not held in high esteem - and it would not get done if some of these "Doers" weren't there.

Since most businesses are built on the backs of "Doers", the people who reinforce efficiency, process, cost cutting and the like, the "Thinkers" are often looked at with some skepticism in many businesses, or shuttled off to skunk works or R&D labs. Here's something that will shake up your organization and improve the productivity: insert a "thinker" into each product group or business process, with the appropriate compensation and senior management backing. The thinker will create some (hopefully) creative tension within the process or product, but if incorporated into the team, will create real results.

What's the proportion of "Thinkers" and "Doers" in your organization? Do most of the "Thinkers" reside only in organizations like "design" or "R&D"?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:09 AM

10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:31 AM  
Blogger kittykabuki said...

I agree with the sentiment behind your post but have to say that this kind of distinction between thinkers & doers does sometimes feel a little "eighties" if you know what I mean. I think in today's world we're seeing the emergence of not only the 'creative class' as Richard Florida has termed it, but the entrepreneurial class - people who by the very nature of entrepreneurship - both think & do.

I agree that many people can be one or the other, but I think that the people who are successful in business are the people who can do both. And the rise of small businesses and successful entrepreneurs is testament to this.

Would you agree?

7:09 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

First of all, I don't like the terms "thinker" and "doer" in this context. But they are pervasive, so I'll stick with them for now.

I would stress the caveat you made that identifying two camps is highly simplistic. I have a hard time identifying many people, at least in small-to-medium-sized industrial companies, that are either one or the other. Any company that has to innovate to survive has a variety of thinker-doers and doer-thinkers involved in the innovation process. The most valuable individuals are the ones that are closest to the balance between the thinker and doer.

I think the key is to identify those people who can be the "bridge," and nurture those individuals as the leaders of the team and of the organization. These individuals are the ones that excel at both, not the ones that do both with mediocrity. Leaders with balance between thinking and doing should learn to appreciate individuals that are closer to either extreme. And that will lead to both kinds of people feeling, and being, successful in the organization.

6:02 AM  
Blogger cqithinks said...

I am making a thinker/doer website. I am trying to come up with a good structure for the website. It may take a volunteermatch.org structure to match doers and thinkers. Are there such sites or can anyone think of a great structure for the site?
thx,
Boyd

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