Boosting your mental agility and critical thinking

Large amounts of data and rapid change increase the need to think critically and adjust to new realities.

Will Rogers reminds us that “even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” While stagnation is dangerous, finding the path forward can be challenging. Mental agility, situational awareness and sound judgment are essential to addressing probable, pervasive and problematic change.

The rapid rate of change has led CEOs to identify critical thinking, judgment and innovation as essential to their future success. In today’s complex world, no individual has all the answers, but a person can ask the right questions and evaluate responses.

Mental agility — the ability to recognize what has happened, what is currently happening and what could happen in the future — requires an open, inquisitive mind. And that openness must be combined with a critical analysis of all relevant information to discern how to leverage opportunities in the short and long term. Mental agility and critical thinking close the ubiquitous gap between what we think we know and what we need to know. They prevent missteps and blunders.

Mental agility and critical thinking do not require an elevated IQ, advanced degree, lofty position or specific personal style. They do require a dedicated willingness to:

  • Test existing assumptions that may have changed based on dynamic environments
  • Check for potential distortions or bias, including level of effort and confirmation bias
  • Solicit and respect multiple points of view

Adopting an open mind means actively seeking information, considering alternatives, and selecting a viable and valuable goal. With multiple variables affecting any decision, a comprehensive framework is indispensable in collecting pertinent information. Knowing it all prevents risking it all.

Consider the purchase of a car. Decision factors include price, warranty, miles per gallon, cost of insurance, features, size, lease or purchase, color, style, type of gas required, cost of maintenance, towing capacity and dealer location. This list may appear lengthy, but compared with the factors involved in organizational success, it is quite small.

Organizations confront greater complexity and interdependencies than purchasing a car. One individual’s ability cannot juggle every aspect. Leaders need a system to gather timely, relevant information from multiple sources. Considering six situational mindsets ensures an effective grasp of reality. The following definitions and questions serve as a guide and can be tailored into a checklist for your organization:

  1. Inventing Situational Mindset questions concern innovative products, designs and services: What new features or services can we offer? How can we apply technology in a new way?
  2. Catalyzing Situational Mindset questions assess the level of customer service, market position and competition: What new markets can we explore? What will grow sales? How can we improve customer service?
  3. Developing Situational Mindset questions evaluate system effectiveness, information flow and seamless execution: What will improve cross-functional collaboration? Are our systems effective? What policy alterations will support our goals?
  4. Performing Situational Mindset questions examine quality, cycle time, workflow and return on investment: What deviations should we address? What can we improve? What limits our productivity?
  5. Protecting Situational Mindset questions address staffing levels, retention of key talent, succession planning and engagement: What will improve collaboration? How can we retain key talent? How can our culture become more agile?
  6. Challenging Situational Mindset questions probe trends, assumptions, strategies and opportunities: What new alliances are possible? What new niches should we pursue? What will position us for the future?

These situational mindsets surface what is present, what is within reach and what is around the corner. Their use builds the mental agility and critical thinking essential for organizations to achieve their goals in the midst of change.

Published with permission from SmartBrief.com

About Author:

Mary Lippitt, an award-winning author and speaker, founded Enterprise Management Ltd., an international firm helping leaders deliver results. A leader in the field of organizational effectiveness, she has assisted corporate and government clients in the US and abroad, including Lockheed Martin, Marriott, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Would You Choose the Red or Blue Pill if you were in the Matrix?

In the film,The Matrix,the main character, Neo,is offered a choice. He could take a red pill representing a desire to live in the real world as a free person or take a blue pill and remain secure in an illusionary world where he could hold on to his established beliefs, practices, and expectations. His choice was change or stability.  It was an either-or choice to be made immediately.

In the movie Neo takes the red pill, rejecting a fabricated world to gain increased awareness and discomfort and the risks that follow.  He elected reality and change over staying in a fictitious world offering predictability and safety.  With only two choices and pressure from Morpheus, encouragement from Trinity, and pursuit by agents he had little time to make this momentous decision.

Organizations today often cast major decisions as either-or options, when, in reality, there are few binary choices.  For example, what if Neo asked if he could take both pills?  What if he asked Morpheus for additional time?  What if he asked if there was a purple pill? With only two polarizing possibilities, he elected not to stay shackled to an impersonal manipulative system and change the matrix.

Leaders today must reject dualistic thinking and apply critical thinking to assess multiple options.  This does not require an advanced degree, membership in Mensa or a lofty title.  The practice merely requires an open mind and a willingness to shift mindsets to address current conditions.  Adopting the practice of probing six situational mindsets enables leaders to discover alternatives and weigh options.  It also engages others, surfaces new information, and creates common ground.  The six mindsets questions cover every organizational aspect.

  • The Inventing Mindset probes options for new products/services, creative designs, and new synergies.
  • The Catalyzing Mindsetfocuses on serving the customer and building the organization’s brand.
  • The Developing Mindset creates seamless infrastructure, integrated systems, and effective polices.
  • The Performing Mindset targets process improvement, quality, workflow efficiencies, and ROI.
  • The Protecting Mindset centers on developing talent, collaboration, agility, and bench strength.
  • The Challenging Mindsetevaluates challenges, trends, risks, and opportunities for sustained success.

These six mindsets combat our natural tendency to rely on past practice, accept only confirming information,jump quickly into action, and tolerate limited alternatives.  We can do better asking questions covering all six mindsets.  A simple mindset checklist will prevent hasty action.

Now some resist the idea of a checklist viewing it as a personal shortcoming.  However, lawyers, doctors, and pilots use them.  The world is too complex and there are too many variables to juggle and weigh complex issues.   If we have to-do lists, grocery lists and digital schedules, we already recognize ourinability to balance all of the information.

If we adopt an inclusive understanding of our circumstances and choices, we will find more alternatives. May be there was a purple pill option for Neo if he had asked.  What questions should you be asking right now?

4 Ways to Smash the Barriers to Critical Thinking

Many leaders exhibit a tendency to jump intoaction.  When a problem is identified there must be an immediate response.  There appears to be an ingrained “just do it” mentality on the assumption it will produce results as well as admiration.   What is overlooked is the option for a pause between learning about a situation and responding to it.  The pause enables information gathering and analysis.   It also acknowledges recognizes that no one, no matter how talented, can master the complex issues facing us today.

The practice of gaining input can be called brainstorming, consulting, buzz groups, task teams, or crowdsourcing.  But these work only when they are employed,  when everyone believes they can contribute,  and when everyone feels that it is safe to offer an opinion.

The lack of critical thinking cited in many CEO surveys encouraged me to poll 100 people about the barriers they experience in practicing critical thinking. The results are:

  • 42%  Identified time pressure or the lack of time to consider options
  • 20%  Expressed fear of rejection, ridicule or retribution
  • 20% Replied nothing will happen as a result; They were resigned to accept that status quo
  • 9%   Doubted their ability to add anything important
  • 5%   Feared that it will mean just mean more work for them
  • 4%   Stated that no one required them to think critically

Organizations are wasting valuable human resources if insights and concerns never surface. And reversing the top concerns require only minor adjustments.  Consider implementing one or more the following:

  1. Concerns over time constraints can be overcomeby setting aside 5 to 10 minutes of a staff meeting to explore an idea or ask for an issue that needs attention. It can also be encouraged by reminding staff that preventing problems saves time and effort rather than having to resolve setbacks later.And, the cost of blind spots continues to grow.
  2. Creating a “safe” environment by encouraging and respecting different points of view. Why not start your next staff meeting by asking “what have we learned since our last meeting?”  Another option would be to appoint a rotating “devil’s advocate” who will critically examine proposals and raise issues. This is particularly important whenpotential benefits crowd out a comprehensive examination. The devil advocate can spotlight the need for deeper dive.  In business and physics for every action there is a reaction, and it is important to recognize ramifications before leaping into action.
  3. Every suggestion or proposal deserves a response. Clarification on what was done or why no action was taken must be shared. It showsrespects for the person who offered the suggestion and ensures further engagement.  Additionally, the contributor can learn about factors that can turn an apparent slam dunk into a pitfall.
  4. Build critical thinking confidence through coaching, usingan established checklist, and providingtime to reflect and confer with others. Recognize that not all critical thinking happens instantaneously.  It can require “soak time,”  whether it is in the shower or in the car. Confidence is also boosted when critical thinking is recognized, whether it was implemented or not.  Whatever the outcome, the practice deserves encouragement

Leaders and decision makers must recognize those that think out of the box as well as those that think inside it, and under it.  To paraphrase,Einstein, today’s problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that was used to create them. We must expand our thinking practices.

Bio

Dr. Mary Lippitt is the author of “Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When it Matters”.  She founded Enterprise Management Ltd. to help leaders successfully navigate today’s challenges,  boost critical thinking, foster engagement, and deliver stellar results.  She can be reached at mary@situationalmindsets.com

Breaking the Vacuum Around Leadership

When something is missing, it is a vacuum or space creating a void. I believe we have a missing element in our understanding of leadership. We all recognize that leaders face challenges that were unfathomable twenty years ago. However, leadership remains consumed with the relatively stable aspects of personal style and skill sets.

Given our dynamic environment, situational awareness becomes an essential component for leadership success. Leaders must recognize how the competitive landscape, regulatory forces, workforce demographics, and system ramifications impact the organization. No one should ignore their present realities.

While I would temper Peter Drucker’s statement that leadership “has little to do with “leadership quality” and even less to do with “charisma.” Its essence is performance,” I agree with his focus on results. But to date, it undervalues results in favor of steadiness, predictability, and persistence, all of which certainly play a key role. However, so does flexibility, agility, timing, and current conditions. Ignoring these increases our blind spots and risk.

Getting the leadership “formula” right reminds me of searching for the sorcerer’s stone. A magical solution, to be sure, but we must remember it is also fictitious. Search for any universal formula will not work. Precisely following in the footsteps of Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos will not guarantee success. Certainly, those leaders deserve their acclaim but that does not mean their formula will work in every organization.

Few leaders run an organization that is the equivalent of an Apple or Amazon. I have met many business leaders who assume that what worked in one environment will work in every environment or that what worked in the past will work in the present.

Leadership has changed in scope and expectations. Organizations are more integrated, customer requirements shift more rapidly, and resources have become more constrained. And to make it even more challenging, our greater complexity means that no one person can have all the answers. So instead of becoming the solution provider, leaders need to develop their ability to question and evaluate alternatives. Luckily, this is not rocket science or a matter of IQ. It requires committing to a practice of employing six situational mindsets to uncover information before jumping to a decision.

Situational awareness Consider what a leader could learn by asking questions in six different areas including:

      • What new approaches or creative options can we investigate?
      • How can we improve customer service and retention?
      • How can we become a truly seamless effective organization?
      • What can improve our quality and efficiency?
      • How can we foster collaboration, engagement, and learning?
      • What can we do now to ensure a prosperous future?

Vacuums are broken using heat to expand the container. We should use the heat created by change to expand our view of leadership. Yes, listening, planning, team building, and engagement are critical but so is collecting information on our current realities and leveraging them to achieve results.


Dr. Mary Lippitt is the author of  Brilliant or Blunder: Six Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity and Complexity

“Breaking the Vacuum Around Leadership” was originally published on 10 July 2019 at BizCatalyst360.

Targeting What Matters When It Matters

Adopting a narrow or fixed perspective is both foolish and dangerous.  My MBA students frequently and fervently embrace a single answer, but in their rush to provide an answer they overlook key aspects and alternatives.   Experienced decision makers know to dig deeper to see all that they can to address what most important, rather than wasting resources on what appears promising or urgent. They know their role is to ask the right questions more than delivering an answer.

When we drive our cars, we do not rely exclusively on the view through the windshield.  We check the side and rear mirrors and this expanded awareness ensure our safety.  Relying on a single point of view, or past practice discounts alternate perspectives as immaterial or mistaken.  Such a laser-like focus equates to wearing blinders.  But the other extreme of trying to focus on everything equally produces confusion derailing achievement.

Not everything warrants immediate attention.  The urgent should not obscure the important. Decision makers must make the right call at the right time for the right results.

We can access mountains of data but extracting information, detecting patterns, and understanding the implications requires critical thinking and analysis.  Mining insights requires discipline rather than an advanced degree, an elevated IQ, or a lofty title.  Critical and situational analysis is not rocket science, and it is not bestowed on just a few of us.   What is needed is to develop the ability to ask questions and gauge current conditions before jumping to conclusions.

Decision makers at all levels must effectively scan their environment, extract key insights, discover alternatives, evaluate risk and target key issues.  And that cannot be done relying on our memory. Most of us have a working memory (the number of things we can pay attention to and manipulate at one time) of only three or four items at a time (https://www.livescience.com/2493-mind-limit-4.html).  Therefore, we must train decision makers to collect and gauge the glut of information in a systematic manner to avoid blind spots.

If we fail to see all that there is to see, we pay a high price.  Consider Tide PODS.  Procter & Gamble launched one of their most innovative products in 2012. The brightly colored packets have captured one-fifth of the laundry detergent market by 2018. Yet, that success has to be balanced with eight deaths and over 9,000 poisonings. Could that have been foreseen?  Many would argue that the risk could have been identified since young children are attracted to vivid colors and shapes that they can hold.  A risk assessment would have identified it as probably and severe.

Likewise, Boeing could have anticipated software problem with their flight-control system.  How do we know this?  Boeing offered their customers, at an additional cost, a Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) system enhancement to override potential malfunction in an angle of attack sensor. Given that 737 Max 8 cost over $100 million and the fallout from a failure, the decision to charge extra for the additional software was a major red flag demanding attention.   That short-sighted decision combined with a reduced amount of pilot training combined to increase risk and cost the firm approximately one billion dollars. Tide PODS and the 737 Max 8 had foreseeable and overlooked dangers.

Decision makers need to focus on asking questions to know what to do and when to do it based on current relevant information.  What questions are you asking to guarantee that your team can target critical issues?

“Targeting What Matters When It Matters” was originally published on 25 April 2019 in BIZCATALYST 360°.

Using Checklists and Statistics to Get in Sync With Reality

I was recently struck by my seeming lack of perspective on global developments while reading  Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think. My only consolation was that I was not alone;  95 percent of the people held the same views, according to the author, statistician Hans Rosling.

One of the questions I missed was according to Rosling was:  In the last 20 years has the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty:

  1. Almost doubled
  2. Stayed approximately the same
  3. Almost halved

Would you be surprised to learn of Rosling’s claim that extreme poverty has been cut by almost 50 percent?  I was.  In fact, I barely considered option three.  My preconceived ideas, my repeated exposure to tragic news stories and, to be honest, my reliance on outdated facts led me to conclude that poverty had almost doubled.

While I am in good company since almost everyone was mistaken, the fact is both comforting and disturbing.  It means most of us are out of sync with our current reality.   Why is this?  The causes include:  (1) our assumption that we already know everything we need to know, (2) a tendency to expect the worst case is the most likely outcome, (3) a proclivity to reduce issues to two simple options and (4) time pressures.

If you are not convinced of the extent of this problem, consider another question:  Which statement do you agree with the most?

  1. the world is getting better
  2. the world is getting worse
  3. the world is getting neither better nor worse

The correct answer is A, according to Rosling, and the data that he uses to support this contention  includes: significant increase in literacy, agricultural yields have increased, more people have electricity, more groups are allowed to vote, child cancer rates have improved, access to potable water has grown, more girls are in school,  and technology has spread widely to less developed nations.   Many of us failed to see this program.  We seem to see the world as a glass half empty, rather than half full.  Moreover,  this notion creates fear derailing critical thinking and analysis.

What we know “for sure” is rarely entirely accurate.    Sometimes our knowledge is obsolete,  and at other times it is incomplete.  To understand our current circumstance, we must stop thinking we know more than we do and start asking questions to fully understand all the issues enabling us to examine the facts critically.   Critical thinking is vital as we confront rapid change and complexity.  It exposes misconceptions, while also producing wiser more rewarding decisions.

Knowing that we infrequently update our knowledge and overlook information that does not conform to our pre-existing assumptions , we need new tools. Deploying a checklist has proven successful in medicine, aviation, litigation, and construction not because of ineptitude or ignorance but due to inherent cognitive flaws.   Instead of being a constraint, checklists free our minds to concentrate on critical aspects, prevent small mistakes and save time.  Now it is time for leaders at all levels to develop, share and use checklists to stay in sync with their current reality.

The book cited here is: Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Roennlund, (2019) FACTFULNESS: ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think. [London: Sceptre Publishing]

The Role of Mindsets in Leadership Development

Leadership development historically has two basic approaches:  focusing on personal development and targeting an individual’s job skills. These were enough in a relatively stable environment.  However, in a dynamic and fast changing world, leaders must be adept at dealing with changing environments. This new contextual approach to leadership fills the gap between personal and organizational mastery.

Wise leaders collect, decipher, weigh, and use information from all points of view to capitalize on opportunities and avoid being blindsided by trends due to narrow perspectives. A limited frame of reference creates blinders.  This lens is also called current driving Mindset. If we ignore some data, we open ourselves to unnecessary risk. This current driving Mindset is one of six Mindsets which enable you to assess opportunities, threats, and risks characteristic of your organization. Seeing the big picture ensures that your actions, plans, and decisions target the right outcome and address the critical challenges.    

Mental agility remains a key leadership practice. Leaders who have foresight to see reality will be more proactive. To put this in practical terms, a leader who elects to act when noticing a fire code violation offers more value than one who waits until they see flames. It saves lives, property, and opportunities for the future.

Leaders with ability to make decisions or judgments which balance short-term and long-term priorities play an invaluable role moving an organization forward. It is often the ability to change minds and gain commitment of others to produce results, depends on collecting and evaluating data from six Mindsets:

Inventing

The desire to develop new ideas, products, and services is high in the Inventing Mindset. This Mindset also seeks new internal synergies and cross-functional innovation.

Catalyzing

A focus on fast action to meet customer requirements, keeping existing customers and building the brand and beating the competition drive this Catalyzing Mindset.

Developing

Building infrastructure, creating policies and systems are the focus of the Developing Mindset as are se goals and establishing policies.

Performing

Process improvement, safety, and profit margins are in focus in the Performing Mindset. In this Mindset, quality, improving productivity and performance metric are in the forefront.

Protecting

The Protecting Mindset includes developing talent and building the internal culture of an organization. It also concentrates on succession planning, team collaboration, and engagement.

Challenging

The desire to test assumptions, create strategic options and adjust the business plan is primary in the Challenging Mindset. Discerning and spreading best practices, seeking new alliances and niches are key to sustainability.

Neglecting to comprehensively collect and examine data generates blunders.  Consider the fate of Blackberry, Kodak, and Blockbuster.

The writing was on the wall, but they failed to see it.  Their limited situational awareness blinded them to the need for change.  Situational awareness is the missing link in leadership development.  It provided leaders with the ability to see what is on the wall, around the corner, and within reach.  It is time we help leaders effectively read the realities they are confronting.

Situational Triage: Judging Current Conditions

The TV series M.A.S.H. was not just a funny comedy; it also depicted advancements in field medicine including the practice of triage. As the helicopters and trucks arrived with the wounded, the doctors and nurses would check each patient and determine whose injury needed to be attended to first. Recent mass casualty events remind me of this process and the value of astute professional medical judgment.Read More

“Reading this brilliant book was both a pleasure and a gift. Situational Mindsets has not only helped me to analyze my own leadership tendencies and skills, but it caused me to take notice of the changes I need to make within my own organization to gain a competitive advantage in today’s world.”

David M.R. Covey, CEO of SMCOV, Coauthor of Trap Tales

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