Modes of thinking for tech discovery

What are modes of thinking? Why do they matter for discovering, tracking, and validating technologies, research, and markets? How can you use modes of thinking in a team or individually? And how do they impact the way you use data for tech discovery?

I will explain below, but first I’d like to start with a little story about a tech conversation gone sideways. The story will help illustrate why modes of thinking are important, and how they can help. But if you want to peak ahead, you can use the article outline below to navigate.

A tech conversation gone sideways

Imagine the following situation: A conversation between three engineers in a technology company. Let’s call our engineers Bobby, Wendy, and Brian. They are discussing how to best solve some critical issue in one of their new products.

After a while, the conversation goes sideways. Bobby keeps trying–and failing–to get the others interested in some new tech that he just discovered, and that he thinks could help them solve their issue. Wendy keeps asking, “sure, but how do we know this tech is not a hype?”. And Brian keeps wondering why this new tech would even make a difference to their product, even if it worked as advertised.

Now, Bobby thinks that Wendy is negative and just wants to shoot down all his ideas. Wendy thinks that Bobby has his head up in the clouds. And Brian doesn’t understand why neither Bobby nor Wendy can “see the big picture”.

Does this sound familiar to you? We’ve probably all been in situations like this, or similar to this. It’s frustrating, and it doesn’t lead to progress.

How can we change this? Enter modes of thinking.

Your team discussions do not have to be like this. Modes of thinking can help. Photo by Ming Jun Tan on Unsplash.
Your team discussions do not have to be like this. Modes of thinking can help.

What are modes of thinking, and why should you care?

In a very useful online course on critical thinking, Becky Saltzman distinguishes three modes of thinking: creative, critical, and strategic. Each mode of thinking has its own goal. For the table below, I adapted Becky Saltzman’s goal definitions to the domain of tech discovery.

Mode of thinkingGoal
CreativeDiscover new ideas, solutions, and perspectives.
CriticalValidate new findings or existing technological and business approaches.
StrategicDevelop plausible future scenarios.
Three modes of thinking for tech discovery. Adapted from Becky Saltzman’s online course on critical thinking.

Modes of thinking explain why our engineers’ conversation went sideways

Now let’s look again at the conversation between Bobby, Wendy, and Brian. It seems that Bobby used creative thinking: He kept trying to introduce a new idea into the conversation. Wendy, on the other hand, used critical thinking: She kept wanting to validate Bobby’s idea. And Brian used strategic thinking: His perspective was that even if Bobby’s new tech idea was valid (-> Wendy), it might just not matter.

This explains why our friends’ conversation got stuck. Their different modes of thinking resulted in conflicting goals. Each of these goals are both important and legitimate: We need new ideas; ideas need to be validated; and ideas need to be relevant. But you can’t squeeze all these goals into the same conversation. And, even more importantly, you can’t tacitly assume that everybody is using the same mode of thinking as you are. There has to be some kind of explicit agreement.

There is another advantage of being explicit about the mode of thinking. It helps you dissociate the person from the problem to be discussed. This way, everyone gets to be ‘creative’, ‘critical’, or ‘strategic’. Modes of thinking are roles that you assume, not your personality.

Modes of thinking also help you individually

Even if you do tech discovery on your own, you should consciously choose your mode of thinking. That’s because of the different goals that come with different different modes of thinking. And your goal should match with the nature of your task at hand. For example, if you are stuck and need a fresh perspective on a problem, you’ll probably get most out of creative thinking. But if you want to plausibility-check your approach to a tech or business problem, critical thinking is probably better.

In a team, clarity about the mode of thinking helps you dissociate the person from the problem to be discussed. As an individual, modes of thinking give you the right approach for solving different tech discovery tasks.

OK, now I’ve introduced modes of thinking and how they can help you, whether you work in a team or individually. Next, let’s get more hands-on and see how modes of thinking influences how you use data for tech discovery.

How modes of thinking influence the way you use data

Tech discovery is about discovering, tracking, and validating technologies, research, companies, and markets. When you do tech discovery, your goal could be to discover a solution for a technological challenge, for example. Or you might be interested in discovering game-changing innovations as early as possible. You might want to estimate the maturity level of a technology. Or you might want to identify possible future scenarios for a technology.

Depending on what the tech discovery task is that you’re engaged in, you’ll probably use different kinds of data in different ways. For example, if you want to detect emerging technologies early on, you’ll consult data where the likelihood is high that such emerging tech shows up. This could be early-stage venture investments, publicly funded R&D projects, or science and technology blogs, for example.

In a similar fashion, depending on the mode of thinking you’re using, you’ll use different data and analytic techniques. This is what the next sections will be about.

Related articles:

Creative tech discovery

The goal of creative tech discovery is to discover new ideas, solutions, and perspectives.

When to use ‘creative mode’

Creative mode of thinking is best for addressing questions such as:

  • What could be a game-changing or breakthrough innovation in my field of interest?
  • How are similar problems solved in other industries?
  • Might there be a completely different technological approach to solving my problem?
  • Are there relevant markets for my products or solutions that I’m not aware of yet?

How ‘creative mode’ works

Try unconventional search queries. For example, rather than searching for a technology, you could search for an application or a property (e.g. “light-weight”). Our technical knowledge base features an article that describes how you can do this: SimpleTRIZ: How to search for contradictory requirements.

In Mergeflow, the ‘Venture Capital’, ‘Funded Research Projects’, and ‘Markets’ (context markets in particular) data sets are good places to start. You could also use Mergeflow’s Emerging Technology topics for inspiration.

Examples of ‘creative mode’

Here are some examples from our blog that use creative tech discovery:

Critical tech discovery

When to use ‘critical mode’

Critical mode of thinking is best for addressing questions such as:

  • How plausible is this market size estimate that I found?
  • Is this technology really “early stage” or “mature”?
  • Could this technology be a hype?

How ‘critical mode’ works

Critical tech discovery often uses back-of-the-envelope calculations. For example, in order to verify a market size estimate, you can use population or revenue data from Wikipedia to make educated guesses. We describe in detail how to do this in one of our blog articles.

You can also use distributional data from Mergeflow, for example for estimating technology maturity.

Examples of ‘critical mode’

The following articles from our blog are examples of critical tech discovery:

Strategic tech discovery

When to use ‘strategic mode’

The strategic mode of thinking is useful to address questions such as:

  • If I used this new tech in my product, what would it enable me to do that I couldn’t do otherwise?
  • How likely is it that this emerging technology will be commercially available in five years from now?
  • What could be the innovation strategies of companies in a certain tech field? 

How ‘strategic mode’ works

For developing plausible future scenarios, a core question is, What needs to change in order for something else to happen? You could ask, for example, what still needs to happen for a given technology to be commercially available. If, for instance, the technology only shows up in R&D, a lot more still needs to happen than if it also shows up in venture investments or market estimates. You can see this distribution across data sets when you do a 360° search in Mergeflow.

In order to infer possible innovation strategies of companies in a certain tech field, you can use Mergeflow’s Grid Search. With Grid Search, you can see, for example, areas of innovation where there are patents but no published R&D. Such a pattern could hint at strategic intentions of companies holding the patents in these areas. After all, if a company holds patents in an area where nobody else seems to be doing anything, this might give them a particularly great advantage.

Examples of ‘strategic mode’

Here are articles from our blog that talk about strategic tech discovery:

Our technical knowledge base contains a shorter-form version of this article. Access it by clicking here.


Featured image by Mukul Joshi on Unsplash. Photo of fighting deer by Ming Jun Tan on Unsplash.

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