How do you teach managers to think? A testimony
In this article, Jan De Visch reviews experiences he has made as a Critical Facilitator when working with teams in organizations (see his work at www.connecttransform.be). Jan’s gift of deep thinking makes him a very good listener who can intervene in team conversations because he “hears” and “understands” their thought form structure in the sense of DTF, Laske’s Dialectical Thought Form Framework (2008).
Based on his consulting experience combining both social-emotional and cognitive interventions, Jan is presently building an App in the domain of performance review centered on defining team roles realistically, in line with strategic objectives. He expands such reviews into deep thinking dialogues involving, first, a ‘problem owner’, and then an entire team, all of whom are changed in the process of reflection he triggers in them.
Many managers conceive of thinking as a kind of ‘information processing’, believing that better thinking consists merely of deleting logical errors.
Jan shows that that view of thinking is very limited, and why.
The above question, how to teach managers to think, might seem strange to the reader. We all tend to assume that managers are naturally able to assess situations and make decisions based on them. We assume that what they do is, to a large part, what we call ‘thinking’.
In the following article I will build on Otto Laske’s approach, arguing that few managers are aware of the limitations of their logic-analytical approach to reality, and consequently fail to deal adequately with the complexity that surrounds them. However, as organizations increasingly ‘flatten’, more and more managers are becoming aware of the fact that they are in fact reducing real-world complexity. Consequently, they are looking for tools to increase the quality of their thinking process. What tools might lend themselves to this is, however, not obvious. In the following text, I share some experiences I have made as a critical facilitator working with managers in organizations.
What does thinking mean to you? Content or form?
When I start workshops with this question, the answers I hear all circle around trying to understand what is happening. In our thinking, we process raw facts into information, by distinguishing between what is essential and what is not. This allows us to see patterns in what seems to be happening. With the help of thinking, we orient our thinking to these patterns. Since real-world patterns we notice are complex, in a first step we start simplifying reality to deal with them.
For example, when we think about the needs of a specific customer segment, it is relatively easy for participants in my workshops to draw up a list of them. Some items are not always agreed upon, but that does not initially matter so much. In drawing up this list, participants put forward concepts (such as user experience (of different touchpoints), functionalities, security, and much more …).
Since we express our thoughts in verbal language, we can point to concepts that come to mind for us. We associate thinking with having thoughts which become crystallized in concepts. However, rarely do we ask ourselves how these thoughts arise.
A list of customer needs looks very different from a simple list when you also think about the important contexts in which the customer group moves (and you soon realize that there is no apparent homogeneity in what we define as a customer segment). When you ask which needs on the list develop and change (and maybe within six months look different), or when you notice that often certain ‘needs’ hang together and thus cannot be separated from each other, the checklist that results has a different content.
By reading the list, it quickly becomes clear that the content of thoughts (like those leading to a list) is always the result of a major simplification of reality. The reason for this is that people typically look for relatively straightforward cause-effect relationships, which has little to do with how the real world works.
It is by no means an obvious step for managers to recognize that thinking is not just about perceptions and the content of what they ‘think’. There is a deep conviction that thinking is an information processing and calculation process. As we become better at information processing (and thus eliminate thinking errors), the quality of our thinking improves. And this is partly true. Thinking is compared to computers that are already doing much better than people in processing information and arithmetic. According to many managers, improving the quality of their thinking, therefore, consists in eliminating their thinking errors (which are suspected of not being made by computers). Computer systems function based on algorithms. An algorithm is a rule that prescribes that a process must be carried out in several carefully defined steps to achieve a manageable result, leading to problem solutions. Considered as a whole, algorithms are thought models based on a set of logical relationships. They do not describe how people think, but how they would think if they were to think “logically”.
What often remains hidden is that ‘information processing’ is only a very small aspect of the way people think. After all, to find solutions (not to speak of ‘truths’), we have to assume that some of our logical expressions relate to something real ‘out there’. However, it is the forms of thought we use that determine what comes to be seen by us as “reality”. In other words, what we call “reality” is our own construction, and different people construct reality differently.
The fact that there is no “reality” without our constructing “it” based on the concepts we use is an incredibly difficult insight for most managers to reach. Managers have no inkling that in addition to content, a thought also has a form. This means that a specific thought can take many different forms. The form of thought chosen by a thinker/speaker/writer determines the kind of canvas on which the content of thought “appears”.
Taking form of thought into account, we can think more complexly: we can think about customer needs (1) from a broader perspective, (2) as an evolutionary process, or (3) as a set of essential relationships. These three different forms of thought will create different contents. In order to come closer to the real world’s complexity – which as a ‘content’ is in unceasing motion related to other contents — we use a multitude of forms of thinking, which in their combination form the essence of the thinking process. These different forms of constructing real-world content account for human’s ability to develop a higher degree of realism about how the world works.
Otto Laske has made it his life’s work to make people aware of the relationship between their thought forms and what it is they experience. Becoming aware of different forms of thinking essentially creates an awareness of how you (often unconsciously) delete important aspects of reality, and how you can, by reflection, undo these deletions in order to be more adapted to, as well as critical of, reality.
For instance, if you know that recognizing relationships (which is a form of thinking) helps you define customer needs more realistically, and are aware that you can use different forms of thinking to describe and reflect upon them — for example patterns of how customer needs evolve — then contents you have not thought of before will make the list of contents you care to think about. Someone who consciously uses forms of thinking and can recognize them as different from each other, increases the complexity of his thoughts, and thereby the complexity with which the world is going to show up for him.
Learning to think is unpleasant
Increasing the complexity in your mind is not something that feels comfortable. We usually focus our thoughts on a very limited slice of reality. For example, I recently had a manager who got excited about the lack of planning in his teams. This framing led to several initiatives to encourage employees to improve their planning. Investments were made in all kinds of planning tools and processes. Little changed. The manager attributed this outcome to ‘resistance to change’ which is, all in all, an example of simplification and strictly linear interpretation of what was happening. When I asked him about the elements his environment that influence this planning (a contextual way of thinking), what he thought was changing and was relatively stable, and which systems and processes informed the planning approach he followed, he became very uncomfortable.
It is very difficult for all of us to think about something without having a feeling about it at the same time. On the one hand, this feeling is related to how we perceive ourselves in contrast to how we would like to be seen. In the case of the manager in question, we could interpret his stance by saying that he likes to have things under control. On the other hand, the feeling is also related to the experience of coherence and consistency in the way our thoughts unfold. If a manager feels an absence of coherence in a situation and/or his thinking about it, s(he) is going to feel uncomfortable.
The discomfort is also related to the burgeoning awareness that most concepts, presumably all concepts one uses, are not well defined. Their borders with other concepts are blurry, and we are only too happy if our interlocutor seems to understand them in the same way. But to think that others see something the way we ourselves do usually turns out to be an illusion once we make the effort to continue asking what the other person means by the concept in question. Working with blurry concepts makes it possible to exclude thoughts, and thus give fake stability to what is being thought and talked about.
Learning to think is unpleasant, and therefore, there is a great risk that the learning process will be disliked and rejected. This can easily be done by presenting oneself as a ‘pragmatist’ and saying that delving further into a concept, or a set of concepts, is “too academic or theoretical” an exercise.
What strikes me in such ways of cognitive behavior is the thin line between, on the one hand, the subliminal awareness of the structure of one’s thinking and, on the other hand, the commitment to maintain it unaltered (defensively). In every group, you will always find several participants who experience learning the forms of thought by which they produce speech content as strongly “theoretical” and defensively call it “academic”. As a result, their enthusiasm about clarifying forms of thought and concepts that represent them rapidly decreases over time, so that in the end, no learning takes place in them, and thus in the entire group.
Engaging managers in starting to think differently
To avoid declining enthusiasm, I have taken to asking team members to speak about problems they have recently encountered in their business context that left them very unsatisfied with the answers that were provided, either by themselves or others. The best way to start investigating one’s own thought processes is to start from a real problem experience. Within this problem experience, it is important that the problem owner himself chooses the type of questions along which he can start to analyze his thinking. For this I use the rethinking game (De Visch, 2019). When it is used in a group, each team member selects a possible question from a series of dialectic questions of which he believes that an answer to the question could open up the perspective. However, it remains the problem owner who chooses from the formulated questions the one that is most useful to him. This is followed by a brief brainstorming about possible answers to the question selected. In this way one can immediately experience the power of mind-opening questions, and lowers the threshold considerably in order to start thinking about one’s own thinking structures.
By first confronting participants with mind-opening questions (and letting them choose between questions they find useful for broadening their perspective at that moment), and then letting them think about it together, I let them experience the added value of increasing fluidity of thinking on the spot. Based on what unfolds in participants’ thinking, I can then deepen their ways of thinking by pointing to different options of framing a situation or concept. I have found that the perceived usefulness of opening up a perspective being followed at a particular point in time is an essential ingredient in setting up a dialogue about the limitations of one’s thinking and how to deal with them.
Since different levels of thinking structures are interwoven in the mind opening questions, it is up to those involved to choose how much complexity they wish to add to their perspective. This reduces their reticence.
Of course, the question always arises for whom the experience of more fluid thinking is a good one. In practice, I notice that when you do the exercise in a team that works together in practice, there are always team members who will convince their colleagues of the need for a broader, different perspective because previously formulated solutions do not work or work only partially. By itself, this procedure changes the entire group’s perspective; it creates a mutual incentive to invest together in the further exploring forms of thinking and structures of thought. This is a process that is equally essential in learning to be aware of one’s train of thought (as a sequence of contents generated by the diversity of thought forms one uses).
Managers and deeper thinking: a not obvious combination
Managers think and use thoughts to build an understanding of what is relevant and what is related. Proceeding in this way results for them in a set of thinking models and frameworks (such as the business model canvas, SWOT analysis, innovation evolution maps, user response analysis, behavioral prototyping, solution storyboarding, etc.). But the same mistakes tend to be made over and over. Managers choose something that is ‘real’ for them, something they can substantiate with facts, for example) and conclude based on their (rather arbitrary) choice that they have found the model of reality. This conclusion becomes possible only because they focus on the content, the “what” of a subject matter, but not its “how”, its change over time, its relationship to other matters, etc.
Most frameworks provided by science and management consulting do not make explicit the forms of thinking through which they initially arose so that the frameworks provided are subsequently (unconsciously) reinterpreted based on the forms of thinking by which the users of such frameworks happen to interpret reality (given their degree of cognitive development). A SWOT analysis in which only ‘context’ is considered is poorer than when emerging changes and structures in relationships are accounted for as well.
I have pointed to some frequent fallacies of logic-analytical thinking that are used to ‘get things done’ efficiently, and to make solutions efficiently. Given the experiences I have shared, my conclusion is that it is essential to consider one’s thinking as a process that may be too narrow and thus mistaken.
Thinking consists of grasping (one’s own and others’) thoughts, and this is achieved by using just a few or a multitude of thinking structures. Thoughts are structures to which we assign a certain reality value, but what has a reality value does not have to be true yet but can only be true (??). The pinnacle of the development of thinking is that we can form thoughts by using many different forms of thought. Our actual thinking processes are, therefore, always incomplete. They are nothing more than vague search processes.
Thinking more deeply consists of becoming aware of how a person’s train of thought is developing both over time and within a specific situation. This unfolding of thought is a process for the sake of which one needs to accept personal discomfort and must be able to make oneself vulnerable. And the latter is something that is not given to many managers. Also, it becomes the harder the more power one (thinks one) has.
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