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THINK: Then and Now

Yesterday at my parents’ house I stumbled across a small black 3″ x 4″ leather-covered notepad with the word “THINK” on it in gold, and my grandfather’s initials (V. G. TROY) embossed in gold in the lower right corner.

This was an original IBM Think Pad.

Thomas Watson, founder of IBM, famously instructed his employees to “THINK” and had emblazoned the word all over the company’s offices; each employee carried a “THINK” notepad. And it seems they gave out various similarly-themed promotional material: my grandfather was a prospective customer to IBM, as he managed the automation of the New York State Insurance Fund in the early 1960′s. My wife recalls that her great-grandfather, an accountant, had a large “THINK” sign over his desk, presumably encouraging his supplicants to refine their queries.

I got to considering what it says about a company (arguably a society’s largest and most successful company) that is so fanatical about a single word like THINK. And what does it say about a company (and a society) that abandons that slogan?

THINK, in all caps and repeated like a mantra, says a lot. It implies that as individuals we are capable of logical contemplation that will result in conclusions that are universally true; that there is in fact one truth that all of us can visualize if we simply utilize our intellect and the tools of logic. What a view of the world (and of business) this is: there is only truth, there is only competitive advantage, there is only logic. If you want to succeed, all you have to do is find the truth.

Somewhere in the last 40 years, American business became unglued from truth.

Success in business became a kind of alternate-reality game, with a billion realities competing against one another, and perception trumping reality. No wonder a word like THINK seems obsolete and quaint now: it ignores the reality of Wall Street and all the complexity that comes when you’re painting a different picture for customers, employees, and shareholders.

If we were to choose a word that sums up the current business ethos, it might be something like “POSTURE” or “PROFIT”. But it’s surely not THINK; thinking has been out of fashion for some time, and it may just be that as we dismantle this fake, Bernie Madoff economy, we discover that if we want to achieve real economic success again we could do worse than to adopt Mr. Watson’s old mantra.


  • Tim Staines

    I find that “EXPLOIT” can be used to describe many of today’s businesses due to its negative or positive connotation.

    In the negative, you can imagine oil companies or the Big 3 and their seemingly indifferent attitudes towards natural resource EXPLOITation.

    On the positive side, you’ll find the tech sector, where companies still THINK and EXPLOIT innovations.

  • Reed Gustow

    Somewhere around 1980, the balance between hot air and substance in our culture shifted to the “hot air” side decisively. This engendered and slowly deteriorated into the current situation in which we are hoping to escape a true disaster. I see reason for optimism that people are finally beginning to “think” in sufficient numbers that we may do so.

  • Dana Stibolt

    You should post a picture of the notebook. It would be cool to see. Was there anything written in it?

  • mixtmedia

    I love your post! Your assessment of our society as one of facades created by corporations for customers, employees and shareholders is dead-on. We have, indeed, become “unglued from the truth.” Now that the technological mechanisms exist to chip away at these facades, we are just starting to evolve towards a society with a completely different orientation: one in which truthful thinking matters once again and the conniving noise of commercialism is no longer tolerated.

    I had the pleasure of working on a strategic innovation consulting initiative with IBM in 1995. The objective of our engagement (I was with now-defunct IdeaScope Associates) was to identify ways in which the IBM Research organization could “double the value” that it brought to the IBM corporation. It was fascinating to lead a team of engineers and other left-brain thinkers through our qualitatively-based innovation process. I remember being extremely impressed with the team’s (positive) critical thinking abilities and, at the same time, disappointed by their tendencies towards premature convergence and (negative) critical thinking. In retrospect, I wonder whether the positive kind of critical thinking or the negative kind of critical thinking more readily revealed the truth?

  • davetroy

    Dana – picture is above; thanks for the suggestion. It had several pages used but they’d been removed, so I found it empty.

    I have an Enron CD case somewhere… that can be a whole other blog post. :)

  • Joe “Giuseppe” Zuccaro

    I remember my dad had a pad like that given to him. Times have changed. Thanks for the memory!

  • mrhobbit

    Funny thing is – the only place all those souls locked in traffic have the space in their day to THINK without performance penalties coming from management?

    In traffic.

    It’s become the urban ‘working’ man’s only time alone to think.

    The way business is run now, it’s no wonder, no wonder at all.

  • Sam Parker

    Thanks for the thoughts here, Dave. I became an IBM man after reading (sort of).

    You inspired my tgim post today…

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  • Bruce Ackerman

    My father worked at IBM about 1957 to 1992. I recently found several of the original THINK signs, in several languages. A valuable keepsake.