I am reading a book which depicts the years preceding and following the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in the 1970s. The book tells the story of the girl’s family, who were Jewish, as their living environment changed dramatically around them.
It is not a remarkable book, but one thing did stick with me. The family are taught, cajoled, convinced, encouraged to think. Almost as if thinking in itself is a solution to problems.
The reason that it resonates loudly with me, of course, is that I happen to agree with the sentiment. That is not to say that I am any great thinker just that I feel more relaxed, more rational and more in control when I think something through. Thinking makes me feel good.
Thinking requires data and information. Obtaining and evaluating data leads me to then think about where the data comes from. Is the “data” fact or opinion? Does it matter if it is fact or opinion? What is the purpose for which I am going to use the data and what risk is attached to the potential decisions I might make dependent on the data?
If it is highly probable that a decision I make based on poor data has a negative consequence or if the consequence itself is significant, I will think about finding better sources of data, or at least corroborating data. If I can’t, I may still make a decision but before going through with it, think about how I can recover from the significant consequences should they actually occur.
In thinking through contingencies, I begin to think about what leading indicators might exist to alert me that the consequences are beginning to occur. Getting the indicators right allows me to implement my contingency plan before the consequences get so entrenched to make it difficult to recover.
After thinking all of that through I think about communicating all of this to my colleagues and subordinates so that they may know what I am thinking and what we should do. This starts me thinking that maybe they might have better ideas and I should get them to challenge my thinking.
One can conclude from the foregoing that thinking never ends. Thinking about situations, problems and possible solutions, implementation and management is a series of never ending loops. Each loop has an interaction with another, some reinforcing, some balancing and some opposing.
Another thing I know about thinking is that I have never thought of anything truly original. That is not to say that I have not thought of anything which can be covered by copyright. I do that almost every day, but someone much cleverer than I has already thought of the essence of it before me.
And so, the way I think has been thought about by many others. Peter Senge popularised the way I think for use in thinking about organisations in his book “The Fifth Discipline”. It is called systemic thinking. It is a method of thinking that looks for patterns in activities, looking for continual cause and effect and observing patterns or theme that underlies what is observed to happen.
Systemic thinking is but one method of thinking. There are many more. Unfortunately, zealous supporters of one method tend to deride others. In my experience thinking is more important than using a particular method.
Leaders who do not think and do not encourage others to think tend to leave their team in a vacuum where progress is hampered by unintended consequences.
Leaders in most organisations spend far too much time in meetings, organising meetings and going between meetings to be able to think properly by any method. Thinking about complex problems is dependent on extended quality time.
Brainstorming workshops are not a substitute for thinking. They are a good means of getting common issues voiced, but rarely good for finding solutions to the issues or even finding the common themes that define the problem to which a solution must be found.
Thinking is sometimes best done alone and many times in small groups of no more than three. Thinking in large groups of twenty or thirty or forty rarely results in quality thinking. The latter is what happens in most organisations as the output of large workshops is submitted to management teams for review.
It is better to have the thinking done by a few and challenged by many than done by many and challenged by a few. A plan developed by the management team and subjected to review by all those impacted through as a series of challenge workshops is a better alternative.
Too many leaders do not think. They react or ignore. It is time they stopped having meetings and workshops and spent time thinking. Even thinking about thinking would be an improvement.