Learning to think

imaged of areas and functions of a brain

We need to teach people how to think, not what to think.

Costa Markides Escaping The Jungle, 2008. London Business School.

The process of learning to think may begin with the 5W’s, Who, What, When, Where, Why. With arguably the ‘why’ being most important.

The difference may be seen in whether someone is a leader or a manager. Leaders encourage, foster and nurture others, they encourage input, provide credit for ideas and do not penalise people for taking risks and making mistakes. Managers on the other hand are more concerned with process and policy, policing, compliance, obedience, not rocking the boat and KPI’s that reward outcomes over impact.

Encouraging people to think is supported by great conversations, where ideas are shared without justification or criticism, where diverse and disparate perspectives are allowed to sit (sometimes uncomfortably) alongside each other, without their authors insisting upon acceptance by others, and where the outrageous, new, innovative, challenging, crazy and fantastical are not met with the ubiquitous ‘that won’t work in our place’.

I worked with a colleague on several projects some years back and we spent a lot of time sharing ideas. We came at things from different lived experiences and different perspectives; there were many times we did not agree with each other. We never let our differences get in the way of a good old fashioned conversation. An exploration of potential. Even when we couldn’t find a way forward, we just let it lay, often to return to the conversation at a later time. Progress was incremental, but that is better than no progress at all.

When we create an environment where people are encouraged, supported and allowed to think, we also create an environment for innovation. Ideas emerge from conversations and these ideas are nurtured, watered and allowed to germinate through the way people are treated. In an environment where there is little care and nurturing, the newly germinated seed will wither and die.

When people are discouraged from thinking, they withdraw and move from being proactive to become reactive; they cease to think for themselves and they think only about the things they are allowed to think about. This leads to groupthink and myopic vision. A dearth of ideas will kill any business faster than a lack of planning and poor cash flow combined.

People in management roles often discourage others from offering ideas and solutions. Partly out of fear; afterall if someone is in a management role then they are supposed to have all the answers. Wrong! The current environment for businesses of any type is far to complex, fast moving, and unpredictable for any one person to know all there is to know. The answer to complexity and change lies with engaging all your people in the decision making process, through listening to and allowing discussion of their ideas.

I’m John Coxon. Since 2002 I have worked with management teams in nonprofit organisations and with business owners, guiding and advising. Today through building blocks I offer a suite of diagnostic and assessment tools to help ensure you direct resources where they will have the greatest impact. I would love to discuss how these tools may help you. Email me and we can organise a Zoom meeting,

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