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.