The Case for Subjective Thinking


Although adopting a subjective stance is most often used to describe an object or end result, subjective thinking in its most effective form is a process, an action, a verb not a noun. A protocol for solving problems and discovering new opportunities. Techniques and tools differ and their effectiveness are arguable but the core of the process stays the same. It’s taken years of slogging through data-driven decision making to bring us full circle to the simple truth about subjective thinking. That it is a most powerful tool and when used effectively, can be the foundation for driving a complex problem or business forward.

At the heart of subjective thinking is the ability to perceive qualities that cannot be quantified.

Changes in perception occur when the situation has not changed, but our interpretation of the situation changes. In a sense, the quantifiable facts are unchanged, but the context in which we quantify them has changed. Aesthetic judgments cannot be proven right or wrong by objectivity. They cannot be directly measured, only evaluated.

Craftsmen bond with their medium, giving them the feel.

Craftsmen develop a solid foundation for an understanding of their medium to the point where they can both anticipate its qualities and respond to surprises with relative ease. It is the mental state of flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Viewing problems through the lenses of other mediums or disciplines yield new insights and tests our preconceptions.

Many of the important concepts, strategies, and skills taught are “portable.”[ii] They transfer readily to other areas. The concept of perseverance, for example, may be found in literature and science. Cause-and-effect relationships exist in literature, science, and social studies. Interdisciplinary problem-solving supports and promotes this transfer. Critical thinking can be applied in any discipline.

Complex problems don’t have a single, certain, or correct answer.

When successful results are produced and time is short, even the most talented teams and businesses sometimes fall into the trap of going back to what is familiar. Subjective thinking requires that no matter how obvious the solution may seem, many solutions can be created for consideration. They are created in a way that allows them to be judged equally as possible answers. Looking at a problem from more than one perspective yields richer results.

Subjective Connection in the Real World

So how would we apply subjective thinking to a real-world problem? Here’s a good example. In this TED Talk, Jeff Chapin, an executive at IDEO, discusses how their design principles worked to bring sanitation systems to Cambodia and Vietnam. He discusses how they learned to communicate and help local business entrepreneurs, community leaders, and salespeople manage their own sanitation systems, and what it took to design the systems in the first place.

Chapin took multiple trips to Cambodia to design and execute cost-effective clean toilets and to Vietnam to create affordable hand-washing stations. The designers worked with villagers to create their prototypes and used villagers’ feedback to improve their designs. They designed each of these systems to be reliably sourced, manufactured, and distributed by local business people so that the innovation did not require continued outside influence.

Subjective thinking can also apply to everyday life. We need to create safe recreation spaces for teens. All school lunch trays should be recyclable. There should be better public awareness campaigns to combat hunger. These are just a few of examples of the problems out there today that would benefit from thinking like a craftsman.

Christine Haskell, Ph.D. is a leadership consultant and adjunct faculty at Washington State University. She helps busy leaders take responsibility for their learning and development. She writes on the topic of “Craftsmanship and The Future of Work.” sharing lessons from master craftsmen and women on personal and professional mastery, is due out late 2019. Sign up for her (semi-regular) newsletter here.