conceptual thinking

Making the Abstract Concrete

This is the second installment in our 25-week series exploring the 25 competencies, or soft skills, that our assessments measure. Each week we’ll give you the definition of that competency, explain its value, and give you tips to help you develop it.

This week: Conceptual Thinking.

Conceptual Thinking is analyzing hypothetical situations, patterns, and/or abstract concepts to formulate connections and new insights. It’s focused on taking a step back to see the bigger picture at hand. On drawing connections between the different aspects of a situation, and seeing the whole.

This is a skill that requires you to stop and just think. It’s all about working a problem or concept over and over in your mind, making the abstract concrete. Those that are skilled in Conceptual Thinking can see patterns not recognized by others. Their brains are analyzing every situation on multiple levels to see the common threads or similarities that it might have to other situations they’ve faced in the past.

Conceptual Thinking is a critical skill needed to abstract what might come of a hypothesis and see it through to creation. Conceptual thinkers think in terms of patterns, strategies, and paradigms and then apply those ideas to the real world. They can analyze a concept or structure and then determine how to best apply it to their current environment.

They are constantly analyzing the structures and processes behind real-life events. Trying to determine how things move from an idea to a concrete object. When you’re out to dinner, they’re the type of people who are interested in uncovering how a restaurant sources its ingredients. They get a sense of fulfillment by being able to figure it out.

Conceptual Thinking is often closely related to another of our 25 skills, Continuous Learning. People who are good at Conceptual Thinking tend to love to learn. They like to understand new approaches and paradigms. They want to learn how different systems and patterns work and they are naturally very curious individuals.

Relying too heavily on Conceptual Thinking can have its downsides though.

Those with high Conceptual Thinking scores are often slow to start new projects. They prefer to take time to fully analyze the problem and the intended outcome before beginning. They want to think through every scenario to make sure they choose the best possible approach. This helps them have a well-informed plan of attack once they do start, but it may take them a while to actually get going. They see thinking time as just as important as action.

Sometimes those with great Conceptual Thinking skills may have trouble conveying the concepts that they see so clearly in their heads to those around them. They are so good at identifying and analyzing patterns that it becomes somewhat of a second nature to them. They do it without even really thinking about it. This can make it hard for them to translate those concepts to others. They can clearly see the systems at play in the background, but might not be able to articulate that to someone who is not as adept in Conceptual Thinking.

Great conceptual thinkers may also spend a lot of time daydreaming. As I mentioned earlier, they value thinking just as much as action and that may cause them to spend too much time in their own heads. They may need help finding the right balance between analyzing and acting. At what point does continuing to analyze something lose its effectiveness? This may be a hard question for them to answer, as they’ll tend to think it never loses effectiveness. But figuring out where that point of diminishing returns is will help them be more efficient in their work.

To develop your Conceptual Thinking skills, start thinking!

Stop to think about how things have come into your life or why certain things happen. Digging into the patterns and systems that lead us to act in certain ways or that bring certain products into our life will get you to start thinking about the conceptual world behind the concrete world. It may sound unnecessary to think about things that deeply, but it can greatly improve your ability to think in terms of systems and processes, thereby improving the systems and processes you use.

Reviewing the results of past projects to identify what contributed to the outcome is also a great way to build your Conceptual Thinking. By identifying the patterns or trends from the past you can use that knowledge to repeat desired outcomes and avoid negative ones. Reflecting on the past will also help you better be able to identify when something might be starting to go wrong in the future. Knowing the cause and effect of actions can make your work much more successful.

You can also work to use more Conceptual Thinking by visualizing projects before you even begin. What will the world look like after you’ve accomplished your objective? You don’t have to be right about your ideas, but the important thing is that you are defining a concrete future driven by your current actions.

What are some potential changes that might happen? How will those changes affect individuals? Is there a department that might merge with another? Will anyone take on new responsibilities? Will anyone’s day-to-day activities change? It can be vitally important to be able to explain the effects of change in order to help people prepare and accept it. You’ll be able to win more people over to your cause if you can clearly lay out what will change and how.

Conceptual Thinking makes the unknown known.

Being able to think conceptually about the world around you helps you better understand how and why things happen. You’ll be able to see the patterns behind events. Which will help you better prepare for what is to come. And it will help keep you one step ahead of any potential issues.

Great conceptual thinkers can see what others can’t yet envision. And they can help make that a reality. They can see the potential in the world around them and can figure out how to bring it to life. They are the dreamers and the big picture thinkers that keep society progressing. Without them, we’d still be in the stone age.


If you’d like to learn more ways to develop your Conceptual Thinking skills, download our Conceptual Thinking Rx PDF here.

Written in part by TTI Success Insights.

Eure Consulting