top of page

4D thinking

Highly effective CEOs share a rare capacity to assess situations from four dimensions of themselves (1st), other people's perspectives (2nd), all people's perspectives (3rd ), and the systemic perspective (4th). 

Why it matters: 4-D thinking is an impactful way to seize opportunities, overcome challenges, and make decisions in high complexity, but it isn't a learned skill; it's a developmental capacity.

The big picture: 4-D thinking is the extension of 3-D thinking that helps CEOs align their executives amidst conflicts in which they have different perspectives.

1-D thinking

1st person's perspective - subjective to the person's mindset. You see only one perspective: yours.

  • People who think in 1-D impose their views on everybody else. 

  • They aren’t capable of listening or even considering other points of view.

2-D thinking

2nd person's perspective - able to see the other's perspective.

You can see, relate, and acknowledge other perspectives:

  • Some consider or adopt other perspectives if they come from people who are more experts than them.

  • Some welcome other points of view as long as they fit into their pre-conceived goals and outcomes.

3-D thinking

3rd person's perspective can look at a situation from all aspects in the context of the system they operate. 

  • You ask questions with deep curiosity that expand your team's view from 1-D to 2-D to 3-D thinking.

  • You can see that different perspectives can vary significantly and still be true, which neither 2-D nor 1-D thinking can.

4-D thinking 

4th person's perspective is capable of multi-dimensional thinking that evolves with the ability to shift attention from advocating and promoting your perspective to inquiring about other perspectives. 

  • This shift requires an operating system upgrade that includes your assumptions, beliefs, and mindsets triggered by fears and safeguards. 

  • Your thinking capacity depends on your level of potential, as explained in previous articles.

Develop 4-D thinking: 

Here are a few strategies you can try, even if you don't know at what level of potential you are playing.

1. Identify your primary stakeholders

I have yet to work with a team that quickly agrees on the primary stakeholders without argument. 

The common ones are the board, customers, partners, employees, etc. Agreement on the primary stakeholders is key to team alignment.

The major criterion for decision is how critical a stakeholder is to the company's future.


Senior leadership team members of a medical device company were all over the place when they tried to reach a consensus about the primary stakeholder.

Should it be the board, patients, hospitals, insurers, or surgeons? 

Eventually, they narrowed it to patients and surgeons and ultimately decided on surgeons. 

They hadn't thought of that before, and that choice immensely impacted their strategy and resource allocation.

2.  Step into their shoes

Once you have a primary stakeholder (or two), you virtually 'invite' them to your meetings to actively participate.

Well, not really. 

When you want to tap into 4-D thinking, ask one or two team members to represent the stakeholders in the meeting. In remote meetings, they change the name into a persona and act as the stakeholders' avatars.

Another team member is an observer. Just a fly on the wall who isn't participating but noticing what is happening in the conversation from rational and emotional perspectives.

If the team takes it seriously and gets better at having open conversations with avatar stakeholders, you will get insights, perspectives, and ideas you wouldn't get otherwise.

Additional tips:

  • Allocate time and stop at that time

  • Honest dialogue – nothing should be held back

  • People should play and act in the role 

  • Reflect on the insights, emotions, and experiences

3. Develop systemic relationships with stakeholders

Very few leadership teams meet primary stakeholders together as a team. Typically one or two team members maintain relationships  (CRO/CMO). When the team meets

stakeholders, even annually or biannually, everybody (COO/CFO) gets access to systemic thinking from another perspective.

Additional tips:

  • 'Step into their shoes' prep before you meet

  • Have clarity about the desired outcome

  • What can you achieve together with the stakeholders that cannot be achieved apart?

  • Build the case for a win-win-win: Learn in the conversation who is the primary stakeholders of your primary stakeholders and discover a shared purpose. Win for you, win for the stakeholder, and win for the stakeholder's stakeholder (or the wider ecosystem).

  • Don't sell or promote solutions (in a relationship-building meeting)

  • Always inquire. Don't advocate (It's a recon op)

  • Shift stakeholders' engagement from transactional to relational (partnerships)

4. Collect data about stakeholders' perspectives

Like 360-degree assessments that provide feedback from stakeholders to individuals, we use team and organizational collective assessment to get a 4-D perspective from external stakeholders who see the team from the outside.

Many team assessments are out there, but most are taken by the team members, which helps build a 3-D perspective. But to get a 4-D perspective, you need external insight.

Our clients use team and organizational-level assessments such as the Collective Leadership Assessment built on the Leadership Circle framework. 

Senior leadership teams who take the Leadership Circle Profile individually love using the same framework to get a 4-D perspective collectively.

The bottom line

Use the four strategies to develop 4-D thinking and create an external perspective of the leadership team. 

At the same time, develop deeper relationships with primary stakeholders.

These relationships should be dynamic and emergent:

  • Focusing on who you jointly serve and how you can partner better

  • Experiment collaboratively with innovative emergent solutions

  • Co-create together what you can't do apart

30 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page