How To Develop Conceptual Thinking

Updated July 21, 2022

Soft skills like communication, problem-solving and time management are valuable for employees at all levels of an organization to develop and use. Conceptual thinking is a soft skill that many people can benefit from using but that few are aware of. The use of conceptual thinking can vastly improve employees' understanding of their role in the broader organization and their work products. In this article, we explain what conceptual thinking is, describe how to start thinking conceptually and offer examples of conceptual thinking in the workplace.

Related: Conceptual Skills: Definition, Overview and Examples

What is conceptual thinking?

Conceptual thinking is the practice of connecting abstract, disparate ideas to deepen understanding, create new ideas and reflect on past decisions. Conceptual thinkers can understand abstract concepts, like the function of a complicated business or a nonlinear digital process, easily. They can connect disparate concepts to find innovative ideas and reflect on past decisions to improve future outcomes. This soft skill is valuable for a variety of reasons and useful for people in a range of positions within a company.

Why is conceptual thinking important?

Conceptual thinking is important for better work performance and job satisfaction. Employees who practice conceptual thinking can often find and implement creative and innovative solutions to business challenges because they're able to connect abstract ideas. Often, conceptual thinkers find deeper satisfaction and commitment to their jobs because they understand the value that the specific work they do brings to the company and customer.

Who uses conceptual thinking?

Conceptual thinking is often fostered and applied among managers and other company leaders, but every employee can benefit from developing conceptual thinking skills. Managers and other leaders must recognize the connections between various departments and efforts to maintain company unity. However, all employees can improve their work performance by practicing conceptual thinking to improve their abstract thinking and problem-solving skills.

Related: 10 Jobs That Require Creative Thinking Skills

How to start thinking conceptually

You can develop and improve your conceptual thinking abilities with focus and practice. Use these steps to improve your conceptual thought processing and increase your work performance and dedication:

  1. Observe leadership

  2. Use challenges as case studies

  3. Seek outside knowledge

  4. Stay up-to-date on the industry

  5. Apply new practices

  6. Discuss concepts with colleagues

  7. Find a mentor

  8. Learn about the organization

1. Observe leadership

Leaders often apply conceptual thinking to their day-to-day tasks and responsibilities. Observe how the leadership in your company identifies disparate concepts and finds connections between them. Watch how they apply processes from one department to another to see if a new procedure improves work performance.

2. Use challenges as case studies

When faced with a work challenge, use the issue as an opportunity for a conceptual thinking case study. Begin by considering how other departments within the organization might handle the problem. Reflect on past challenges and consider what was effective and what was not. Find other abstract connections to create a unique solution.

3. Seek outside knowledge

Conceptual thinking depends on abstract connections. Seek outsider information to solve insider problems. Look to organizations outside of your industry to see how they handle challenges. See how a combination of ideas can create an entirely new outcome.

4. Stay up-to-date on industry trends

Keep informed about changes in your own industry. Discover how leading companies in the field are innovating work processes, products or other business elements to improve their operations. Consider how you might apply some of these practices to your own work.

5. Apply new practices

Once you've identified a variety of interesting processes, ideas and procedures from within and without your industry, try applying some to your job to see what works and what doesn't. Track your progress and reflect on your experiments for continued improvement.

6. Discuss concepts with colleagues

Ask your colleagues what connections they see within the organization that can improve work performance and product. Propose new concepts and ask how your colleagues might apply these ideas to their own work.

7. Find a mentor

Seek out a mentor in your industry. Find someone who practices conceptual thinking regularly and who can help you develop the skill for yourself. Watch how they apply conceptual thinking to their own work and ask for guidance as you connect disparate concepts and find unique solutions.

8. Learn about the organization

Understand how your company or organization functions. Develop a clear image of how each department supports the others and how everyone in the company works toward the same goal. If possible, spend time with departments you don't normally interact with and learn about their contributions to the company's mission.

Related: 6 Examples of Critical Thinking Skills

Examples of conceptual thinking

Conceptual thinking can take many forms depending on the specifics of your job and industry. Use these examples to apply conceptual thinking to your work:

  • Reflect on project outcomes. After a project, take a moment to reflect on what worked well and what you could improve. Consider the outcome for yourself and other stakeholders.

  • Assess the reach of proposed solutions. Before applying a solution, consider how the outcome will impact other, seemingly unconnected members of the organization.

  • Create organizational models and frameworks. Make mind maps, flow charts or other illustrations of the company's hierarchical framework. Visualizing the organization can help you consider all internal stakeholders as you work.

  • Identify how your work supports the whole organization. Consider how your daily responsibilities and tasks contribute to the overall success of the company.

  • Apply different ideas to projects. Use the knowledge you've gathered from outside sources, mentors and other resources to develop innovative concepts for your work.

  • Practice identifying the context and purpose. Whenever you're tasked with a new project or assignments, consider its context in the larger organization and its purpose in promoting the company.

  • Create operational plans. Make sure your operations align with company goals. Regularly evaluate and develop improved operational plans to optimize your time and deliverables.

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