By Paula Haddock.
“Everything we do depends for its quality on the thinking we do first.” –Nancy Klein
In my last blog post, ‘Ten ways to help others do their best thinking’, I summarised 10 recommendations for creating a thinking environment from Nancy Klein’s book, Time to Think. Klein argues that encouraging creative, transformative thinking is vital to the success of organisations.
Her 10 key principles include: paying attention by actually listening, fostering equality, showing appreciation, being at ease by removing urgency, and offering freedom to share without pressure.
These are challenging principles. Yet it is possible and vital that we work towards creating environments where we are getting the best out of these incredibly capable brains of ours. After all, it is the quality of our thinking that puts money, materials and human power to their best use.
Major projects to improve ways of working are often put off for want of time and resources. So without much effort or money, what can be done to create an environment for encouraging better thinking?
Klein reminds us that teams are a primary force in organisations and their ability to keep each other thinking helps them to perform well. The way in which most teams communicate collectively is via a team meeting.
Notice the emotions that arise when you think of this. Many of us dread these meetings – or even meetings in general. Yet these are still one of the key ways in which we communicate (along with emails – also often dreaded). Klein suggests that if we can turn meetings into highly productive thinking environments, they could become an organisation’s best asset.
How can we do this? Here are Klein’s nine guidelines for chairing a meeting to encourage better thinking and engagement:
- Give everyone a turn to speak with the assurance they won’t be interrupted. This might sound like it will take longer but experience shows that doing this during the meeting means you get more out of people, achieve more overall, and spend less time after meetings with people seeking air time for what went unsaid.
- Ask everyone straight up what is going well (in the project, since you last met, in their work). We have a tendency to err on the side of negativity but you get a fuller picture of reality if you state the positive. It also helps create a more positive and productive thinking environment for working through problems later on.
- Let people finish. We worry people will go on too long but fear of interruption can actually make people elaborate even more and think less well.
- Identify assumptions and ask incisive questions. The very format of everyone having time to speak without interruption already breaks down the assumption that people’s opinions are not valued or useful. To get even more out of the meeting, one question could be: ‘What are we assuming that might be limiting our thinking?’
- Divide into pairs with each person getting an allocated time to speak to their partner and vice-versa. This is particularly effective when exploring a new idea or challenge. It re-energises the group and re-ignites thinking.
- After the thinking pairs, do another round of letting everyone speak to share anything new that has come up. Again, we fear this may take too long, but Klein encourages it since new ideas may have arisen that can ignite new thinking or resolve issues.
- Give permission and encouragement to tell the truth. Imagine what would come up if you made it clear that you genuinely wanted to know what people think – the truth as they see it, not a half truth or fabrication. People might be negative, and we might fear the effect this will have on creativity and motivation, but pretending to be positive for the sake of it is just that – a pretence. Getting out negative thoughts helps us explore them, learn from them, and incorporate them into our thinking about the best way to move forward – with people left feeling heard and valued.
- Allow feelings and do rounds to check in with people. As in the last point, covering up or pretending feelings don’t exist will not encourage people’s best thinking. Emotions affect our thinking, attitude, and perspective. Working with them rather than trying to ignore them will lead to better thinking.
- End positively – with appreciation for the meeting itself and for each other. How often do we hear what people value or respect in each other? People’s thinking improves when they get concrete appreciation and yet this may only be done in a token team building exercise once a year.
Klein explores some of the reasons why people don’t want to use this approach, including fear that it is too fluffy/for wimps, might reduce productive and healthy combat, or be just plain uncomfortable to do. Her argument is that the quality of ideas produced, the business results, and team enthusiasm will outweigh these anxieties and help bring about real and lasting change.
I’d be interested to hear people’s experiences of using these or other techniques to encourage better thinking. Is ‘thinking quality’ ever discussed? Are meetings being set up with this objective in mind? What helps to influence managers who just want to run meetings in the same way as usual?