By Paula Haddock.

“The quality of everything we do, everything, depends on the quality of the thinking we do first.” – Nancy Klein 

Who is doing the thinking in our organizations? Could we think better? What can help us? There is plenty said about organisational learning in the not-for-profit sector, but Nancy Klein, author of Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind, gives us a new perspective to consider. She challenges organisations to think about how we help people think for themselves and create environments where we can do our best thinking.

Thinking-Image_credit_Portrait_of_Stox_by_fofie57_CC licensing300x200She proposes 10 components that make for a productive thinking environment. It’s not rocket science – most good ideas aren’t – but how do we shape up?

1. Attention: How well would you think if you knew you weren’t going to be interrupted? Klein argues that when people know they are about to be interrupted or that someone else clearly wants to speak, their thinking slows down. We need to get interested in what people have to say and place our attention on three things:

  • The content of what they’re saying
  • Our reaction to it
  • The thinking environment we are creating for them

When we pay attention to all three, we stop listening only to reply and start listening to help ignite the other person’s thinking.

2.  Equality: Are we getting the most out of each person’s potential to have ideas, be creative, provide different perspectives? Do we really believe in being thinking equals? As professionals, we feel justified and perhaps even obliged to think better than others – what else are we being paid for? Yet studies show that when people seek advice or support, they want to be asked what they think, who they are, and what matters to them. We need to regard clients and partners as equal and show them that regard by giving them equal time and equal attention.

3. Ease: Klein reminds us that rushing kills creativity. In the ‘developed’ world, we tend to assume that rushing = important; tense = focused; and pressured = alive. However, what about being at ease as opposed to dis-eased? In reality, ease = quality. Giving full attention and being at ease are great conditions for high-quality thinking. We spend time learning how to use tools like SWOT analysis. What about learning about being at ease? If this is how to get the best thinking out of people, is it not worth investing in?

4. Appreciation: Neuro-imaging has shown that appreciative thoughts and feelings help blood flow to the brain and stabilize the heart. Apparently the best appreciation-to-criticism ratio to motivate and support creativity is 5:1. We all know it feels good to be appreciated, so how can we factor more of this into our daily interactions?

5. En-couragement: “What would happen if we build people’s courage to go to the unexplored edge of their ideas by eliminating competition between thinkers?” Klein warns that being ‘better than’ is NOT always a good thing because what you are ‘better at’ could be not particularly good in the first place. Creative thinking needs trust to not be judged. Competition often leads to not listening for very long and then not proposing adventurous solutions. We get energy from being able to be ourselves – and use our minds – rather than always trying to be better than others.

6. Information: Denial of what is true is dangerous. Distortion (e.g. it happened but it wasn’t that bad) is similarly concerning. Even scarier is when denial leads to events and facts being rewritten so that what is bad somehow seems good. Klein argues that thinking dies in denial and information resurrects it. We need to supply facts and accurate information to aid good-quality thinking.

7. Feelings: Someone said to me recently that ‘emotional intelligence’ was big more than 10 years ago. How can a fundamental aspect of human intelligence no longer be ‘en vogue’? How we feel and manage our feelings has a critical effect on how well we think individually and collectively. Fear constricts thinking; strong feelings can make our heads foggy. Being self-aware and being to manage our emotions when they arise is a core skill. Kindness, clarity, ease, genuine interest, and not apologizing for emotions when they arise can help our minds do better thinking.

8. Diversity: Reality is diverse, yet assumptions about people’s identity (age, race, gender, nationality, etc.) limit our thinking and collective progress. Too often we objectify people and see them as ‘other’ – even in the extreme, as less human. We play lip service to diversity when in reality we mean ‘we value diversity as long as you think, act and feel like we do.’ It’s easy to fall into the traps of wanting others to think like we do or of thinking like others to please them. The objective needs to be to encourage everyone’s finest thinking and not only accept but make the most of the real diversity that comes from that.

9. Incisive questions: Untrue assumptions play a huge role in the quality of our thinking. Asking incisive questions can help work through them: what are we assuming? Is it true? What is true? And if you know something to be true, how can you move forward?

10. Place: Physical environments that say that someone matters will help them think better. What sort of environment are we creating for ourselves and others to think in? And what about our bodies? They are an important factor in the quality of our thinking. If you are healthy and taking care of yourself, your thinking is likely to be better.

So how can these components of the thinking environment be integrated into the way we work so that we give each other a framework within which to generate our own ideas? My next blog post, again drawing on Klein’s work, will look at concrete ways to apply these 10 components to meetings, learning events, even emails.