Creating a Thinking Environment

“The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the 20th Century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing. The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st Century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and the knowledge worker.”

Peter Drucker

My initial motivation for the post “Leaders Still Need Time to Think” came from my observations that technology and ease of access to data points was driving a warped speed of business that seemed to cut out the critical step of deep thinking. Time constraints and time bound expectation are stopping us from pursing a level of thinking that allows us to explore beyond the obvious.

Time To Think by Nancy KlineAs I was writing that piece I was asking myself – how do we do that? How do we as leaders create an environment that not only gives people permission to think but also encourages them to think? My research very quickly showed me that others, not surprisingly, have asked these questions before me. The most noted a woman by the name of Nancy Kline who authored a book called Time To Think in which she offers some very practical tools designed to support a thinking environment.

What follows is based loosely on what Nancy has articulated with a good measure of Ann thrown in. For an indepth understanding of the tools I highly recommend Nancy’s book.

1. Time. Let’s start with time, simply to create a link to my previous post. Giving people time think without the contraints of looming deadlines or meeting packed days will naturally result in a higher level of thinking. Nancy refers to this as Ease. Many of us spend our days in meetings. Back to back. Different topics. Different people. We rarely have the time to assimilate the information that is being shared during those meetings let alone move through a process of critical thinking.

2. Attention and encouragement. If someone comes to us with a problem or request for help we need to ensure firstly that we empower that person to find a solution for themselves. Give them permission to think. Listen without interruption. Quite often people share what they think we want to hear or what we think they should think. Let me give you an example. I have been involved in an enterprise wide project that was led by a leader who had very strong opinions, who struggled with ideas that did not support their own and who would consequently “decree” direction. The process was an uncomfortable one. We are naturally programmed to find a way to remove our discomfort and unfortunately one solution was to give this leader exactly what they wanted. This particular project struggled to define its scope, team members disengaged from the process of thinking, attrition was higher than expected and we lost the benefit of the combined thinking that the team members brought to the table. We simply could not capitalize on the expertise in the room.

As a leader your role is to remove the judgement and encourage people to think for themselves. Listen deeply. A few years ago I worked with a Learning Manager who, in response to hearing the term “I don’t know” would ask the question “what would you say if you did know”. More often than not this freed the person to speak in a more ‘hypothetical” way that tooks away the onus of having to know. More often than not they provided sound insight – they just needed validation without fear of judgement. I have used this technique many times with great success and it has become one of my favourite “coaching” questions.

3. Ask penetrating questions that are designed to strip away the assumptions that we use to limit our thinking.

4. Provide information. Sound thinking can only occur if we have understand what we are dealing with. Transparency, clear communication, and open sharing are all key foundational requirments to nuture a thinking environment. As a human being I am willing to invest my time and effort in “thinking” if I know there is value. If we feel that information is being withheld, which then throws into question the validity of that thinking, we are less likely to want to make that investment. As a leader you need to not only provide the information, you also need to encourage others to do the same. We need to all trust that we have the necessary information from which to think our way into great things.

5. Create equality in an environment that supports thinking. Human beings are more likely to listen and be attentive to others when we know that we will have an opportunity to also share our thoughts. Establish meeting protocal that gives everyone the opportunity to speak without interruption. Utilize tools such as brainstorming and round robins to solicit input. Create a process that allows people to go away and think, then add further input. Collobartive sites are one tool that enables this in a way that doesn’t necessarily require more meetings. Equality also means we remove the heirachical value attached to position power. Thinking is best supported in an environment such as the distributed leadership model. Your organization may not be structured that way but you, as a leader, have the ability to influence a team/project/department environment that has the right supporting characteristics.

6. Treasure and promote diversity. Diversity in background and experiences will naturally bring with it a diversity in thinking. The differences between us will help add a richness and quality to our collaborative thinking that our similarities simply cannot.

And one thrown in based on my own recent experiences

7. Think like an author. I have discovered that I look at my world very differently as I try to articulate a concept or thought or opinion. I question because I want to learn, I think because I want to assign meaning and I want to share that learning. I research because I understand that my expertise needs to be augmented and I seek out others thoughts because they challenge my own. Thinking like an author encourages you to go a little deeper with an inquisitive mind than you may otherwise would.

This is exactly what we want our people to do. You, as the leader, have the power to make a contribution to this century by enabling the thinking power of your more important assets. Your people.

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