Work Traits

Conceptual Thinking

Conceptual thinking is particularly helpful for positions like consulting, business modeling, communications, policy, and research.
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What is conceptual thinking?

Conceptual thinking means that when a new project lands on your plate, you’re not one to roll up your sleeves and jump into tasks or start delegating responsibilities. You prefer to step back and conceptualize or theorize the project before getting into action. 

You have a strong desire to understand the “why” behind every project. Why are you doing this? What’s the purpose behind the project? What impact will it have?

Getting a grasp of the overall concept gives you better context for your work, and it also makes you particularly skilled at presenting to stakeholders. You’re able to understand what information is most relevant to them and deliver it in a targeted and tailored way.

We call it: Concept

Your level of energy for conceptualizing, analyzing, and theorizing when engaging in projects and tasks.

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Leaders who have conceptual thinking

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla is the inventor behind the alternating current electric system, which is still used widely today. Groundbreaking discoveries and contributions like that don’t happen unless someone is a skilled conceptual thinker. 

Tesla is remembered as a true visionary, and as a man who saw inspiration everywhere. 

Need proof there was a visionary concept behind his work? In 1915, he had a vision for the wireless connectivity we know and love today. He was quoted as saying, “Some day, there will be, say, six great wireless telephone stations in the world system connecting all the inhabitants of the earth to one another, not only by voice but by sight.” 

This concept drove his inventive achievements and pioneering spirit; seeing how his work would fit into a global concept kept him motivated.

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper was an early pioneer of computer programming, and was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark 1 computer. She was also an admiral in the United States Navy, a rank and position that wasn’t commonplace for women in the 1940s. 

But, Hopper was always able to envision bigger things—both for herself, and for the world. “Admiral Hopper theorized that a wider audience could use the computer if it could be made both programmer-friendly and application-friendly,” writes Sharon Anderson in an article for the Department of the Navy’s Information Technology Magazine. 

“During her lifetime many of her predictions were realized as industry built more powerful, more compact machines, and developed the operating systems and software that allowed ordinary individuals to own and operate a personal computer.”

Hopper is another great example of someone whose conceptual thinking gave them the energy they needed to do work that would ultimately change the world.

Grace Hopper
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Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Susan B. Anthony is a well-known and remembered name in American history as a key activist in the women’s suffrage movement. But, fewer know the name Elizabeth Cady Stanton, another major activist for women’s rights. 

She and Anthony worked closely together, and it was said that Anthony preferred to organize and take action, while Stanton handled all of the theorizing and conceptualizing.

Stanton was quoted as saying, “I fashioned the thunderbolts and Susan fires them.” 

They made a perfectly complementary pair; a conceptual thinker collaborating with someone who loves to take action can be unstoppable together!

The benefits of conceptual thinking

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Understanding the justification behind different tasks and projects means you’re far more motivated to accomplish them.

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You’re able to identify the information that’s most relevant to your current audience and present it to them in a highly-targeted and engaging way.

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Your passion for conceptualizing and theorizing means you’re willing to hear about other solutions and pursue creative ideas.

The blind spots of conceptual thinking

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Theorizing can be positive and productive, but you eventually need to take action. You can fall into the trap of continuing to conceptualize, if you don’t take tactical steps forward.

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Constantly thinking at such a high level makes it easy to lose sight of practicality. What works in theory doesn’t always work in reality.

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Because you prefer to conceptualize, you might not enjoy planning and organizing resources and different parts of a project. If that sounds like you, pair up with a team member who does!

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How to be a conceptual thinker

1) Ask “why?”

Before you roll up your sleeves and make progress on a project, get to the root cause behind it. Why are you doing this? What’s the purpose?

Digging deeper will help you connect your day-to-day work with the broader concept and theory.

2) Be mindful of perceptions.

Conceptual thinkers pride themselves on their ability to think outside the box and explore creative, seemingly unfeasible ideas.

That’s going to be hard to do if you enter into every conversation or interaction with preconceived notions. Be mindful of your biases and perceptions and try to keep an open mind. That will allow you to theorize without limits.

3) Read (and read some more).

Reading and consuming information is a great way to expand your horizons, which is important for conceptual thinking.

Develop a passion for reading—about any and all topics that interest you. The more information you take in, the better you’ll be to theorize. If you hate reading, try podcasts or webinars!

4) Poke holes in your thoughts.

When you’ve wrapped up a project or task, play devil’s advocate with yourself. What if you did this another way? What if you made a different assumption?

Poking holes in your own conclusions will help you zoom out and think about your work on a more conceptual level.

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