Slow Thinking vs. Fast Thinking

I hope you’ll take a few minutes out of your busy day to go on a little mental journey with me. Let’s start with Steve. Here’s his profile:


Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful, but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. He is a meek and tidy soul. He has a need for order and structure and a passion for detail.


Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer? What led you to that conclusion?


We observe selectively based on what we already know. You might have said to yourself, “I know a librarian who is shy and quiet and very organized so I think Steve would be a good librarian.” Or you might’ve said, “My dad was a farmer and I remember riding on the tractor with him as he methodically went up and down the neat and tidy rows. Yet I remember feeling very alone. Steve would be a good farmer.” If something fits based on our past and experience, we put it in a file. This is an example of fast thinking and we do it all the time.


In The 5th Discipline, Peter Senge argues that to learn better as an organization we need to change our mental model. Our mental models are how we see, make sense, and take action in the world we live.  Fast thinking involves going with what’s familiar. We go with our past experience and we hear selectively based on that. We lean in the area of familiarity based on our history. In order for an organization to come to better and wiser conclusions and actions, we need to develop slow thinking. Slow thinking may allow us to get a “shared” conclusion as opposed to a “solo” conclusion.


To develop slow thinking, start at the bottom of the Assumption ladder that appears below. What’s going on? What do we know? What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? Next we make sure we have the facts; here are the facts or here are all the findings. The next rung on the ladder are the assumptions we make. Here’s our criteria, here’s what we looked at, here’s what we assumed to be true based on the facts. The next rung (this is pivotal) are the conclusions we make based on our assumptions. As a result…to summarize… One of the great questions to ask at the conclusions rung is what other perspective could there be? What is a different view we could have? Challenge your assumptions based on the “files” you’ve created in your mind. Validate your conclusion or come up with something new to explore. Finally, move to action. Communicating each step up the ladder will create more buy-in and get people on board more quickly.


This is a great tool in change management. If any of you are going through a change in your unit or division and would like coaching around the assumption ladder, I’d love to help. Contact me anytime.




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