Spotlight Interview: Dan Kowalski

Business Development and Deliberate Thinking: An Interview with Dan Kowalski, SLKone Advisory Partner

Kevin Gore: Would you tell us a little about your background and what you do?

Dan Kowalski: I call myself a thinking catalyst because I help people upgrade their thinking. The way I do that is by asking questions that others don’t know to ask, don’t think to ask, or are afraid to ask. Because I specialize not in giving answers but in asking questions and improving thinking, I have several techniques to help people view their issues from multiple perspectives in terms of what they know, what they don’t know, and how they might get better information to be able to think through what needs to be done in a clearer fashion.

KG: So “upgraded thinking” is almost a working definition of “Deliberate Thinking.” Can you tell us a little more about that?

DK: Deliberate thinking is the term that I use because Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate, wrote a book called “Thinking Fast and Slow” based on his research in behavioral economics. We have two modes of thinking. Thinking “fast” is reactionary and based on rules. So for example, if I see this set of circumstances, then I do that. He used the term “slow” or “deliberate” for situations where we don’t have as much information, and we don’t have ready-baked solutions that we already know will work. I prefer the term “deliberate” because it is more thought-oriented and “let me understand what I have to do” rather than knee-jerk-reaction-oriented.

Now, there is a time and place for the fast thinking, for the knee-jerk reaction stuff. When you see the brake lights light up on the car in front of you, you hit the brakes. You don’t sit there thinking, “What are brake lights? What should I do?” And that’s the right time and place for fast thinking. But today, especially with COVID, there is so much more that is unknown, and we don’t have prior conditions to compare to; the conditions are changing so rapidly, if not daily, certainly regularly. Earlier this summer, we heard that it would be safe to reopen schools because children don’t spread COVID and they can’t get infected. Now schools are getting infected and they are changing their view. So, we don’t know everything that’s going on, and we need to be more deliberate when thinking through these situations.

KG: What type of tangible or measurable impacts have you seen in prior clients?

DK: This is a difficult question to answer because if we were to conduct a survey asking a wide range of people to rank their thinking on a scale of below-average to above-average, almost everyone would self-report as an above-average thinker. Very few people would have the ability to rank themselves as average or below-average.

So, most of my work is done by referral, from someone who was on a team I facilitated or coached. Quite frankly, most of my clients would not go on the record to explain how they were helped because they were on the verge of doing something big and expensive and stupid. Very few people want to broadcast “Yep I was almost dumb, and good thing Deliberate Thinking showed up to help me through it.” I get that. I understand that. Some of the things I have been able to do is to assist people to make decisions that they were not expecting to make prior to our conversations. I have one client who was facing a very tough choice to replace their payroll system. Their current system came with a bunch of additional benefits, but the software was not working with them. So, the CEO contacted me. After speaking with everyone, I realized it wasn’t a question of performance but rather a question of risk. The CEO called me after the two-hour session I facilitated and said that he knew it was going to be a 3-2 split vote the next day, but he didn’t know which way, whether to keep or replace the system. The next day the CEO reported an unbelievable 5-0 unanimous vote to keep the system because everyone understood that the risk and the cost of changing far outweighed the current limitations in functionality.

Another client was really struggling to find the type of material to use in the startup process for an offshore production facility. The plan was to manufacture interim material in the US and incur the tariff to ship that material offshore. I asked one question. I said, “I don’t know anything about this process. I do know that whatever we do has to be food grade. Is there something with similar physical properties as food that we can use to test the equipment?” They immediately said they had never thought of that. Through that question they came up with an in-county alternative and saved three quarters of a million dollars.

Those are the kinds of things that Deliberate Thinking can do. In the first case, Deliberate Thinking reframed the alternatives in terms that allowed them to understand and relate to what it was they were actually talking about. In the second case, it allowed them to ask questions they had never considered. So, those are tangible results. And the advantage of an outsider is that outsiders don’t know what a stupid question is. So, I’m going to ask. And often the question is not stupid, it just hasn’t been formulated.

KG: What would you say to someone who doesn’t give credence to the qualitative benefits of something like Deliberate Thinking, but needs to see the ROI of this type of investment?

DK: Take a look at your baseline. There are situations where you are spending a lot of time deciding and debating, but then the decision is put off to the next meeting – again, and again, and again. Think about the fully-loaded cost of the people in the room. I am currently working for a client who has been kicking a decision around for a year. I asked him to think how much that is costing him. And although he responds with the COVID excuse, the delay is still not adding value. So, it is wasteful if you are not thinking deliberately when you should because you will have to revisit things, rework things, and frustrate people. Those costs are high and hidden until you begin to document them. That is very tangible.

KG: You spoke of the difference between thinking fast and slow, but you claim paradoxically that slow, deliberate thinking actually accelerates your decision-making process.

DK: Absolutely! Absolutely, because you’re going to be more effective in your decision making as opposed to corporate whack-a-mole where you just hope to come up with something that works. Unfortunately, corporate whack-a-mole doesn’t end because you run out of quarters at the arcade, it just keeps happening. Deliberate Thinking has you asking, “What should we be thinking about and how should we go about it?” Maybe it’s unplugging the machine so that the moles stop popping up. I’m being facetious with that example, but Deliberate Thinking is about thinking through issues in new ways, and that will be more cost-effective.

KG: Have you seen Deliberate Thinking used in scenarios similar to what we are facing today?

DK: Since the dawn of humans, we have been using Deliberate Thinking when we have unknown situations for which we do not have a known solution. In fact, we have institutionalized it with the phrase, “necessity is the mother of invention,” or if you’re more scientific, “nature abhors a vacuum.” We have always been thinking through how to innovate in times of disruption. There have been a number of articles written retrospectively of new ventures being launched in times of crisis. And that’s when there is the most turbulence and the chance for people to think differently. So, Deliberate Thinking is not a new skill. What is new is the ability to rapidly teach and coach others to use it effectively, so they are not both learning and applying a new process simultaneously. We can teach them that questions rather than prior answers are the way to go, and then rapidly apply that to their work. Because honestly the ideas are simple. If I talked fast or you sped up the recording, our workshop content would only take up about four hours. The challenge is not the burden of content but the application and coaching, and we do have ways to help people with that.

KG: So, if you were the CEO of a mid-sized company in the current environment, what do you see as major challenges to acquiring clients?

DK: Well, it depends upon the business. Earlier we were discussing with our advisory group that there are four buckets of businesses.

Bucket one consists of those businesses which are becoming irrelevant because consumers are beginning to realize they are unnecessary in the face of alternatives. For example, movie theaters are going to be in big trouble. Buckets two, three and four, while different, are similar because they will stay in business.

Bucket two consists of those businesses that have survived but will really have to rethink their business model. Classic example here would be restaurants. There’s no longer going to be a full dining room, so they have to figure out how they will augment income. The takeout business is sort of okay, but it’s not perfect. Consumers have to think about what foods will still taste good after the transit and not get soggy after reheating. So, restaurants have to ask what value they can offer consumers that they weren’t expecting and that is unique. In that case, Deliberate Thinking would focus on thinking through new ways to provide that value and would involve a lot of creative decision making, testing, learning, and small experiments. The restaurants that figure that out are going to thrive because it will be a while before we all go back to dining-in as before.

Bucket three consists of those that are thriving, such as Netflix and Zoom. But it’s not like they were all thinking, “Wow, we’ve got a great product in case there’s a lockdown”. What they are going to have to think about is less of gaining new customers, but more of retaining their current customers. Right now Zoom’s revenues are through the roof, and they have a whole new D2C channel, but they will need to retain that customer, and maybe even consider, “Do I want to retain this customer?” because it is a different service model for them. For Netflix, they have a lot of current demand, but they cannot easily create new content because they cannot get cast and crew together to film new episodes. While no one has watched every episode of every series, not every piece of content is universally appealing. So, they need to find out how to keep it fresh. Maybe that’s through educational programming for kids at home; it isn’t clear what that solution looks like. The fourth and final bucket includes the brand-new businesses that are starting. We are already hearing about the micro-schools and pods and people hiring teachers. While I’m not in the education field, I would happily support anyone looking to clean up and upgrade their thinking. The educational field is just perfect for a lot of disruptive thinking. How do you help parents to become part-time teachers if they don’t have the resources to hire someone? I saw a quote a couple months ago from someone with an education degree saying that they still needed to learn to teach their own kids. They were great at teaching other students but struggled to educate their own children and homeschooling parents understand that. So, there is another place for Deliberate Thinking because there is no one answer and several small test-and-learns will need to be employed.

KG: If I were an employer looking into Deliberate Thinking, how would I go about training my team?

DK: There are a couple of ways to do it. One way is modular. Some clients are not interested in a full workshop. They want immediate application for tangible results followed by analysis to deconstruct and learn from that experience. The other technique is the complete workshop with facilitated sessions, followed by application to their particular business scenario. These are the two mechanisms.

Ideally, I would recommend a full dosage of Deliberate Thinking in the complete workshop with all six modules. The limitation to a situation-specific module could result in a one-hit wonder. As the expression goes, “give someone a hammer and everything begins to look like nails”. These days, everyone has a nail gun and everything looks like a shingling job, which may not be the best approach. The full suite with all six modules provides professionals with a complete suite of tools to not only identify situations that require Deliberate Thinking, but to then select the questions, the tool set and the Deliberate Thinking process that will be most effective in addressing the issue at hand.

KG: Where can people go to get in touch and learn more about you?

DK: My complete focus over the last year has been to refine content for the Deliberate Thinking Workshop, so the best method is to get in touch through the SLKone website.