• Managing people

Creating a Thinking Culture

Saïd’s Alison Nolan on creating the capacity to think well ‘In the Eye of the Storm’

Friday 27 September 2019


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“Everything we do depends for its quality on the thinking we do first.” Nancy Kline

What was the quality of your thinking today? What was the quality of thinking you experienced from others around you? How fresh, courageous, independent or incisive was it?

If you are like most leaders in organizations, your daily experience is likely to have been embedded in an atmosphere of rush, interruption, competition, complexity, uncertainty, pressure, and sometimes ‘overwhelm’. This is just the way it is for many of us, most of the time. Thinking-time is squeezed to the edge as we focus on execution. As a result change projects follow one another in waves, often resulting in people who are even more exhausted and cynical than before. And if our actions and decisions really do depend on our ability to think well first, it is no surprise that organizations so often fail in their attempts at change and transform.

So, as leaders, we need somehow to make sense for ourselves in the middle of complexity and information overload, to create space for others to contribute their perspective and ideas, and then to make good decisions based on independent thinking.  We need to think well ‘in the eye of the storm’.

The good news is that it is possible to deliberately create the conditions in which people can reliably think well, individually and together.

Three questions help us in our approach to this: 

First ask, do we truly want people to think for themselves? This is of course important in an organizational setting, and not at all to be taken for granted. We know the importance of psychological safety in enabling trust and innovation.

Secondly, what gets in the way of this happening? After all, many of us now are knowledge workers, paid explicitly to think for a living. But our working culture often does not support our ability to think well. Neuroscience has brought us new knowledge about how the prefrontal cortex works, and there are two aspects in particular which can limit our ability to think well. The first is the effect of cognitive overload; the second is the impact of our threat triggers. 

Thirdly, what are the behaviours, attitudes and practices that enable independent thinking to thrive? How do we need to be with one another so that we can think well? Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment®, is a framework and a system developed over several decades which offers a practical answer to this question. 

Putting the knowledge from neuroscience and the practice of the Thinking Environment together consistently will create a culture that promotes, encourages and supports independent thinking.

Reducing the Barriers to Independent Thinking

Cognitive overload

“Making complex decisions and solving new problems is difficult for any stretch of time because of some real biological limits on your brain. Surprisingly, one of the best ways to improve performance is to understand these limits.” David Rock

Anecdotally, it seems that people whose work depends on original or complex thinking, tend to have working patterns involving about five hours of actual high-quality brain work each day, and they will protect and prioritize that time. This works because the prefrontal cortex, where all our conscious thinking takes place, uses energy resources (such as oxygen and glucose) fast, and these resources are limited. Prioritizing your thinking time early in the day, and taking a break to replenish energy resources is not just a good thing to do, it is physically necessary in order to continue to think well. Here are some brain-conserving tactics suggested by neuroscience writer and practitioner David Rock:

  • Remember that conscious thinking is a precious and finite
  • Don’t try to do two things at once – schedule blocks of time for different kinds of thinking.
  • The more important activities, such as prioritizing, are energy intensive, so make sure you do them first, before attending to other energy-suckers such as dealing with emails.
  • Schedule the most attention-rich tasks for times when you are fresh and alert, and more automated or routine activities for later in the day.

Taking regular short breaks, getting enough sleep and eating regularly and well are all essential for your brain too.

Reducing threat improves thinking

Thinking well depends on a level of perceived safety that frees the thinker to think for themselves. We now understand the powerful effects of triggering a ‘threat response’, when energy is diverted into protecting oneself by moving against (aggression), moving away (avoidance) or moving towards (people-pleasing). When one of these responses is triggered, energy is not available for other cognitive activity.

It helps to understand the social needs which make us feel rewarded when they are met, or threatened when they are not. David Rock describes them using the SCARF model:

  • Status: Relative importance to others
  • Certainty: Being able to predict the future
  • Autonomy: A sense of control over events
  • Relatedness: A sense of safety with others
  • Fairness: Perception of fair exchange between people

Bringing this framework to life, you might think of the meetings you have been in, whether one-to-one or in groups, where you or someone else is made to feel less important than others, treated unfairly, coerced, ignored, not listened to, interrupted or given instructions that take away their sense of personal control.

The threat response is easily triggered and long-lasting. Cognitive effects identified by Rock include:

  • Less energy available for working memory and linear, conscious processing
  • Inhibition of the ability to solve non-linear problems through insight (lateral thinking)
  • Tendency to generalize is increased, along with the likelihood of ‘accidental’ connections
  • Tendency to err on the safe side, shrinking from opportunities or new ideas.

The next section focuses on what we can do to reduce or eliminate threat in work situations and release the best thinking of ourselves, colleagues and teams.

Creating a Thinking Culture

In fact, we can do much more to intentionally create a thinking culture than simply reducing threat and cognitive overload. Applying the principles and practices of the Thinking Environment will reliably improve the quality of thinking for those present.  At the heart of the Thinking Environment is the practice of generative attention. This means, whether in one-to-one or group meetings, giving attention to the person speaking that is purely focused on that person’s emergent thinking. It is not waiting for your turn to speak, or formulating your response, or ‘tailgating’ another speaker. Nor is it what is known as ‘active listening’, where the focus is on the listener demonstrating that they are listening by seeking clarification and paraphrasing. Above all, it is not interrupting, ever, while someone is completing their train of thought. Experiencing this in practice very soon shows how infrequently we allow each other to think through a complete train of thought without interruption of some sort. As Kline puts it: “To be interrupted is not good. To get lucky and not be interrupted is better. But to know that we will not be interrupted enables us truly to think for ourselves.”

Principles of the Thinking Environment

Kline sets out ten components which together create the very best conditions for thinking well. Ensuring even two or three of these are in place will have a positive impact on thinking. Together they are transformative. Attention is the one essential and it is the most powerful tool we have.

Ten components of a Thinking Environment®

  1. Attention – Listening with palpable respect and without interruption.
  2. Equality – Treating each other as thinking peers.
  3. Ease – Offering freedom from internal rush or urgency.
  4. Appreciation – Offering genuine acknowledgement of a person’s qualities.
  5. Difference – Welcoming divergent thinking and diverse group identities.
  6. Encouragement – Giving courage to go to the cutting edge of ideas by moving beyond internal competition.
  7. Feelings – Allowing sufficient emotional release to restore thinking.
  8. Information – Supplying the facts; dismantling denial.
  9. Incisive questions – Removing assumptions that limit our ability to think for ourselves.
  10. Place – Creating an environment that says to people ‘You matter’.

It will be fairly obvious how these components align with what we learn from neuroscience about the relation between reducing threat and enabling thinking, but one or two examples may illustrate:

  • Creating an environment which reflects appreciation, equality and diversity increases a sense of status and fairness, particularly where there is hierarchy or bias involved, and enables a full contribution from everyone present.
  • Allowing feelings to be expressed rather than repressed increases relatedness, and releases energy for cognitive work which is otherwise tied up in blocking the emotional response.

Putting it into practice

There are a number of simple practices which can be applied in a wide range of settings, from team meetings to mentoring, or just as a way for two or more people to take time to think about questions of importance to them, and to dig deeper than is usually possible in the cut and thrust of everyday conversations. In fact, over time these practices improve even the everyday conversations, as they become more familiar and can be deployed flexibly whenever we want to think well together.

Finding time to think for yourself

  • Agree with a colleague to commit to a 10-minute meeting, Skype or phone call once a week – Monday morning is ideal.
  • Take a turn of five minutes each to be the Thinker.
  • The Thinking Partner asks the Thinker: What would you like to think about, and what are your thoughts?
  • While the Thinker is having their turn, whether they are speaking or thinking in silence, the Thinking Partner gives complete attention with no interruption, just full, interested, easeful attention.
  • Only if the Thinker tells you they are finished, ask them: What more do you think, or feel, or want to say?
  • Switch over when the time is up.
  • It’s best not to comment on the content of the other person’s thinking and refrain from giving advice or offering your own experience unless asked. The freedom and independence of the Thinker is based on knowledge that they will: i) not be interrupted and ii) not be judged.

By establishing this practice as a regular thing, you will quickly see the value, and it will become easier to incorporate setting aside time to think (even in short bursts) in the day-to-day.

Five tips for transforming meetings

  1. Turn every agenda item into a question.
  2. Establish rounds, where everyone speaks in turn, at the beginning and end of each meeting, and at any point where the discussion gets stuck or where some voices are becoming over-dominant.
  3. Begin with something positive, such as What’s going well on this project/for this team? or What are you most proud of in the past week/month?
  4. Make a group commitment not to interrupt, ever, when someone else is speaking. The balancing commitment is to be succinct.
  5. Practise listening with full attention, eyes on the person speaking, no devices.

The best way to start to create a thinking culture is to have teams learn the techniques together and put them into practice in real time on topics that are important to them. Here are two examples from very different organizations:

Global law firm: Hogan Lovells

Hogan Lovells is an international law firm which prides itself on its straight-talking approach and ability to ‘think around corners’.

The Thinking Environment approach was introduced at the firm's senior leadership development program which was attended by all members of its executive team, including the CEO and Deputy CEO. The group learnt to use the practice of rounds and thinking pairs and became skilled at deploying these techniques to develop fresh thinking about real leadership challenges. They were then able to take these skills into their regular executive team meetings. Using rounds enables the leadership team to generate fresh and innovative thinking and promotes an inclusive team culture.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School for Girls

EGA is an Ofsted Outstanding senior school for girls in Islington, London. The school’s maths faculty used the Thinking Environment approach to transform their team meetings from good to great. The entire faculty team undertook a ‘transforming meetings’ training program at which they learnt to conduct their team meetings along Thinking Environment principles. As a result, they found that there was a more consistent level of contribution from all members of the team, with increased engagement from the most junior team members, and an empowerment of others which enabled the Head of Faculty to delegate responsibility. Re-crafting agenda items as questions produced more focused thinking, and moving routine tasks out of the meeting left more room for deep and innovative thinking face-to-face, including developing their subject knowledge.

Application of the Thinking Environment approach ensures that everyone’s contribution is heard with attention and without interruption, enables the whole team’s best thinking to be encouraged, particularly when difficult decisions need to be made, conflicting views are present, or complex issues need to be evaluated. It is also a great way to sense-check the feelings of a group or to get things back on track when discussion gets stuck or diverted.

Barriers to change

What gets in the way of creating a thinking culture? Embedding new behaviours at a team or organizational level always requires the three elements of leadership, changing habits and aligning systems with the desired change. In addition, we need to be sure we authentically support the efforts to enable people to think independently. Always start with the question: do we want people to think for themselves around here? Issues of trust and safety are paramount.

The combination of the insights of brain science with the practices and principles of the Thinking Environment is transformative. Carving out space for real thinking to take place can seem like one more thing on the to-do list. The reality is that it can save enormous time in clearer communication and more effective meetings, as well delivering quality decision-making, a more inclusive culture and more productive relationships.

At a personal level too, becoming someone who creates around them an environment in which others can think well brings benefits in unexpected ways. It is a way of being, as well as of doing, and can lead to deeper and more frequent listening, better relationships and personal growth.

The Saïd Business School is Europe’s fastest growing business school. An integral part of the University of Oxford, it embodies the academic rigour and forward thinking that has made Oxford a world leader in education.

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