Take a moment and have a think. When was the last time you thought about the way you think about things? It is a question rarely asked, especially by ourselves and is one that I believe is worth asking if we are to cope with the pressures of the 24/7, always ‘on’ world we all now occupy.
When we did our research in 1998 for our book ‘Strategy, Paradigms and Cowdung – the quest for new strategic space’ we discovered that leaders do most of their strategic thinking when they are not at work.They recognised even back then, that the working environment they occupy is not conducive to reflection,contemplation and the thinking required to extract insight and develop wisdom. Since then the world of work has got a whole lot noisier; the amount of distractions have multiplied and getting time to think at work is becoming a rare opportunity indeed.
When I facilitate leadership teams and coach leaders and managers I am often struck by the almost overwhelming desire they have to get to actions. ‘Actions speak louder than words’ seems to be the credo that rules in our busy world. A credo I firmly believe in myself but it needs to be tempered at times if sustainable behaviour and performance improvement is required. Most meeting agenda’s I see now are packed full of rapid fire reporting and quick decision making sessions; most calenders are full of back-to-back meetings; and consequently far too many people end their working day exhausted.
So how do you find time to think? What tactics do you have to help you get into the right ‘state’ for reflective thought?
I know from my personal experience and from working with many leadership teams in a wide range of sectors, that the human brain needs to be in a relaxed state if it is to perform at its best. The more pressure we are under the more unlikely it is to develop any new thinking and the more likely it is to simply rework old thinking. One of the key jobs of any leader is to challenge the prevailing mind-set and incumbent behaviours, to in essence disrupt the prevailing paradigm.Such leadership happens one conversation at a time and if it is to be successful leaders need a range of tactics to help people relax and create working environments, both physical and emotional, that become small oases of calm in which new thinking has a chance to emerge.
I often deploy the ‘take a minute to think’ tactic in the meetings I facilitate. Giving people a minute or two of silent reflection to gather and jot down their thoughts before we start a discussion on a topic can dramatically improve the quality of the subsequent debate. It also acts as a ‘pattern interrupt‘, it gives people a chance to quieten their minds, helping them to focus on the topic in hand. Get people up and about and moving will also help release energy which can be a fuel from which new thinking can emerge. In longer meetings consider sending people off in pairs to ‘walk around the car park’ and discuss a well framed question and come back after 10 minutes with some considered views. Tactics like these will work wonders as they break well embedded habits and improve the quality of subsequent conversations.
The most powerful tactic that I encourage leaders to use if they want new thinking to emerge is to simply ask better quality questions. This is easier said than done. If you listen to the typical questions that get asked in most management and leadership meetings they usually require only recall and comprehension to answer. E.g.’What are last weeks sales numbers and are we on target?’ This only requires access to data and some knowledge of the current budget to answer. A far better question to ask is ‘what does last weeks sales numbers tell us about our aim to increase market share?’ A simple shift in emphasis that will drive deeper thought and creates an opportunity for higher quality discussions and decisions.
In most organisations it is true that leaders and managers ultimately get measured on what they achieve, not what they think or say, so actions do in reality speak louder than words. However, if there is a gap between current performance and desired performance in your organisation, and this gap is both a knowing and a doing gap, then this should be a trigger that some new thinking has to emerge if the gap is to be filled once and for all. To paraphrase one of Einstein’s quotes ‘The thinking that got us into this mess will not be the thinking that gets us out’
I believe the journey to a new idea should start with ‘bewilderment’ – a state of mind that as humans we have very little tolerance for and one we want to move quickly away from. Creating working environments where it is OK to be bewildered for a while is a starting point. This state has the capacity to gently unsettle our minds, making them open to new ideas and new thoughts from which new actions can emerge. After all, one of the definitions of madness is to continue doing the same things and expect a different result.
If you can offer any further insights into this chain of thought please do contact me I would be delighted to have my mind gently unsettled.