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

Six Situational Mindsets To Putting First Things First

No one would argue that as leaders, we want to immediately tackle the most important issue or opportunity. As Stephen Covey advises, “put first things first.”  However, deciding what is most important, and that awareness, cannot be made based on past practice, outdated assumptions, or preconceived options.  Circumstances change too quickly to rely on what was valid.  We must continually reassess our situation and alternatives. Interestingly, a study of leaders found that 80% of them never consider alternatives or situational mindsets before making a decision, despite changing conditions.

When we drive our cars, we cannot rely exclusively on what we see through our windshield.  We also check the side and rear view mirrors.  But we also have to check our dashboard for speed and any warning lights.  This expanded context ensures our safety.  Likewise, leaders banking on a single viewpoint miss opportunities and invite risk.  Utilizing multiple sources of current information delivers optimal choices.

Leaders inherently know this, however, many leaders will utilize default decision-making, blindly sticking to tradition; skim over or ignore data that contradicts beliefs; or readily jump on any goal bandwagon, and implement current fads. In a dynamic environment, adopting a “ready, fire” approach is dangerous.  “Aiming” or situational awareness must precede the decision to launch as it is the only way to discover the best path forward. Instead of believing we have all the answers, we must commit to asking all the right questions to analyze our circumstances.

So, what is the alternative when deciding what goal to pursue? Leaders must become situationally aware by studying six situational realities.

To collect the information for aiming, questions addressing six situational factors must be investigated.  These mindsets depict what has happened, what is happening, and what is likely to happen.  The situational mindsets are:

  • Inventing or measuring how innovative your products, designs, and services compared with what is possible.
  • Catalyzing or assessing the level of your customer service, market position, and sales effectiveness compared to the competition.
  • Developing or evaluating system effectiveness, information flow, unit alignment, goal and policy alignment, decision making and autonomy
  • Performing or studying the quality of deliverables, cycle time, productivity, workflow, safety, and ROI
  • Protecting or questioning staffing levels, retention of key talent, succession planning, engagement, and cultural agility
  • Challenging or examining trends, business plan options, validating assumptions, identifying niches and searching for alliances

Inquiring about these situational mindsets provide leaders with the ability to see what is on the wall, around the corner, and within reach.  And it is an easy practice to implement.  The six mindsets become a checklist to ascertain complex, challenging, ambiguous, or precedent setting circumstances.

In addition to developing a mindset question checklist, we should also:

  1. Allocate time for reflection, analysis, and imagination. The KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid) only works when things are stable. Dynamic factors and new realities are rarely simple. H. L. Mencken captured this truth by saying, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem” neat, plausible and wrong.” We must stretch our thinking to secure our future.
  2. Identify our biases and rationalizations. Smart choices mean we must generate new ideas to address the waves of change. As Einstein stated, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking we used when we created them.”
  3. Recognize the power of asking open-ended questions. As Dr. E. Edwards Deming remarked, “If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.” Expand the scope of your questions to detect trends, examine implications, and craft new opportunities.
  4. Accept the fact that the greatest obstacle to our future is not ignorance, but the illusion that we already know all that we need to know. We must dig deeper and wider in a search for new knowledge and insights.  It is important to ask: what have we learned what should we start doing, and what should we stop doing. Mark Twain observed, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It is what we know for sure that just ain’t so.
  5. Resist peer pressure and the temptation to follow the crowd. Enthusiasm for a new initiative regularly conceals flaws and squashes critical thinking.  Ask for what could go wrong, what other options are there, and what potential issues might surface. As journalist Walter Lippman observed, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”  We need people to think and speak up.

Take the time to ask the mindset questions to discover what to put first.  Let’s make our future truly promising.

Published first at Value Walk: https://www.valuewalk.com/2019/08/six-situational-mindsets-first-things-first/

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°.

Bridging Executive Team Conflict

One of my clients was entering a strategic planning process with a dysfunctional executive team. The team was stuck over how to plan for the future. The lack of harmony was attributed to perceived personal slights, pressure tactics, and lack of information. In this case, resistance and competition replaced collaboration and the chance for agreement was never established.

Background on the Team

My client, a newly hired president of an international firm, wanted to adopt a new strategy he had crafted by himself. His team of six vice-presidents actively resisted the plan. The client said that the vice-presidents were “just stuck in the past.” He believed they sought to limit his success and tenure since several had applied for his position. He wanted me to interview each team member to start a bridge-building process with a one-day offsite meeting.

The Beginning of the Bridge to Conflict

During interviews, the vice-presidents voiced objections to the president’s “go it alone” style and his lack of industry knowledge since he was new to the industry. The prevailing opinions were that he was grandstanding for the board and was not interested in working collaboratively. The fact that the president did not consult staff in developing the strategic plan was used as an example of his Lone Ranger approach. It was clear that the team was at an impasse. From the interviews, I also discovered, while there were entrenched positions, everyone wanted the organization to succeed. Therefore, I chose to focus on identifying shared organizational outcomes to shift the team’s focus away from personal suppositions to objective analysis. My goal was to engage them in a results-oriented search to discover a mutually acceptable plan for the future. Since the strategic plan was the official cause of the breakdown, it made sense to focus on strategy.

Discovery of Mindsets

In my experience, many strategic discussions revolve around vague aspirational statements which offer encouragement but little direction, definition, or measures. This executive team needed to agree on something specific and measurable. My assumption was that strategic alignment would rupture the personal stereotypes, trigger discussion, and allow the team to critically assess alternatives. Therefore, in preparation for the off-site meeting, I asked all attendees to complete the Leadership Spectrum Profile® and review the generated report. The Profile examines six organizational goals and how they currently drive an individual’s goals and priorities. It also creates a common vocabulary for discussing advantages, constraints, and trade-offs among those goals. In addition, it focuses on existing circumstances and goals rather than past actions, offering an opportunity to explore facts and alternatives. The six situational mindset goals concentrate on:

1. innovation or being seen as state-of-the-art,

2. customer and growth focus,

3. seamless infrastructure and policies,

4. productivity, quality, and ROI,

5. change-ready engaged culture with strong bench strength, and

6. new trends, business models, and niches.

The team was asked to complete the inventory based on their assessment of the best strategic orientation. After completing the inventory, each member received a report on their goal orientation. A composite team profile without names was presented at the off-site and the composite revealed a split with six individuals in agreement and one with a different perspective. Offering the results without attribution enabled participants to identify their positions and kicked off a productive discussion of the strategic priorities. The six vice-presidents shared a common focal point on improving quality and internal processes. This point of view or situational mindset prefers evolutionary change, risk mitigation, and has an internal focus at this time. The president’s mindset targeted expanding the customer base and growing market share. This growth-oriented goal values revolutionary change, external focus and accepts risk for the opportunity for great rewards. After an open discussion, they each discussed the facts, events, observations, and evidence that drove their thinking about their priority or desired path for the future. During that exchange, the president learned that large corporate accounts were being lost and the vice-presidents learned that the board had mandated the president’s growth strategy to improve ROI. These insights defused some of the tension, but a division remained.

The Connection Between Organization Life Cycle Stages and Strategy

The next step was to connect the organization life cycle stages and strategy. While the group was not familiar with the organizational life cycle model (Lippitt, 2014), they recognized it since it mirrored their product and project life cycles. They also knew that different actions were essential at each stage. After defining the six stages of organization life cycles as Birth or Start-up, Growth, Stature, Prime, Mature, and Renewal stage, I asked each person to select their organization’s current stage. This discussion exposed the same split presented by the inventory findings. The president selected the Growth stage since it reflected his board mandate. The vice-presidents split between Stature and Prime. The tone in the room changed when they mapped their differing individual perspectives onto the organization life cycle model and talked about their reality. The group recognized the organization was past the entrepreneurial Growth stage with a respected brand and well-established policies. The firm was moving into the Prime stage where the focus revolves around process improvement, quality, and ROI. The premise that market growth was the only way to improve ROI was debunked.

Bridging Differences

The vice-presidents shared many additional internal issues that were unknown to the president. Problems, including quality issues, information system failures, and staff shortages, were undermining productivity, morale, and quality. As the president absorbed this key information, he understood his staff had rejected his fast growth strategy since the loss of major accounts stemmed from operational flaws rather than competitive factors. While the president had assumed that the vice-presidents were driven by personal motivations, he now realized it was due to current circumstances. His demeanor changed. He listened and learned what was holding the organization back from the success everyone wanted. He also realized that before the organization could grow, they had to halt the hemorrhaging of major accounts. It did not take long before an internal improvement strategy targeting operational flaws was formalized. The team agreed, when this strategy was achieved, they would develop another plan based on newer vital needs.

Conclusion

Once they agreed on their goal priorities, the executive team estimated the financial impact of the lost accounts on their bottom line. They developed a pitch for the Board that showed the importance of addressing quality. They also agreed a new strategy would be presented after quality concerns were addressed, and that the next strategic thrust might be market growth, assuming the situation warranted it. The president’s presentation to the Board highlighted the fact that getting new customers and then having them leave due to operational shortcomings not only wasted marketing efforts but also impacted the brands’ reputation. After all, dissatisfied customers not only stop using the firm but also spread their negative experience with others. The Board accepted a “build it and they will come” approach to meet current challenges and improve ROI. A once dysfunctional team coalesced around a shared reality and the need for results. Personal attributions were superseded by shared common results-oriented goals.

Sources

Dewey, J. (1910). How we think. Boston, MA: Heath & Company.

Greiner, L. (1998). Evolution and revolution as organizations grow. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https:// hbr.org/1998/05/evolution-and-revolutionas-organizations-grow

Janis, I. (1991). Victims of group think. Political Psychology, 12(2), 247–278.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Lippitt, G. (1982). Organization renewal: A holistic approach to organization development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Lippitt, M. (1999). Leadership Spectrum Profile® Inventory. Retrieved from https://www.leadershipspectrum.com

Lippitt, M. (2014). Brilliant or blunder: Six ways leaders navigate uncertainty, opportunity, and complexity. Palm Harbor, FL: Enterprise Management Limited.

Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind: Moving from the information age to the conceptual age. New York: Riverhead Books.

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

Critical and Strategic Thinking Builds Agility

Leaders say they want to boost creativity, critical thinking and agility to improve performance and manage change. Research studies confirm the accuracy of those statements. Who wouldn’t want their staff to be quick on their feet, display ingenuity, offer critical insights, or make effective strategic choices? However, there is no consensus on how to boost agile thinking or increase brain capacity beyond the standard 10% utilization. Read More

Success Mindsets For Astute Scanning

We all recognize that better decisions follow reliable data collection. However, obtaining it remains a challenge. Too often we accept a penetrating glimpse of the obvious or past practice since it is safe and efficient to keep doing what we have always done.  Unfortunately, this tendency keeps us in an echo chamber where old assumptions reside and reverberate.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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