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Posts tagged ‘Critical Thinking’

Idea for reflection – 27

The world we have made, as a result of the thinking we have done thus far, creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them.
Albert Einstein

Idea for reflection – 26

Light in the darkness

December is often refered to as the “season of light.” There is no small irony in this as we in the northern hemisphere live through the shortest days of the year. It is a time when many organizations stop to re-vision. As goals and roles are reviewed and renewed, here are some questions to jumpstart the process:

  • Why are these goals important for our organization? For you as a team member?
  • What is included in our vision for success?
  • What about these goals inspires you to give your best?
  • How will you and your team take the first steps toward embracing and realizing our vision and supporting goals?

One of the organizations I’ve associated with this year has an internal tagline (I paraphrase), “We act as if our vision were already reality.” Each of us must choose to act, even with imperfect knowledge, exercising good judgment and believing in the possibilities as we re-vision and enter into 2011. May light shine in the darkness.

Needed: more data or the right question

Here’s a quote I’m turning around and looking at from all directions today:

The most important maxim for data analysts to heed, and one which many statisticians seem to have shunned, is this: Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise…
  – John Tukey

The key is finding the right question.

Visual meetings

Tom Wujec gave a short  TED talk: 3 Ways the Brain Creates Meaning. His point is, “We make meaning by seeing.” Here is a summary of how the brain makes meaning with the brain subsystem activated in parentheses:

  1. Use images to clarify ideas. (ventral)
  2. Interact with images to create engagement. (dorsal)
  3. Augment memory with persistent and evolving views. (limbic) 

Using images to create shared mental models leads to better communication, learning, thinking, problem solving, and collaboration. He uses Visual Strategic Planning as an organizational example of the idea that we are all visual developers and learners.

As I consider what this information means for organization development, I go beyond his example to considering how we run meetings, communicate information, and deliver training. How can we increase the visual component of what we do in order to increase the building of shared mental models and shared meaning?

Goldberg’s Rule

In Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, Neustadt and May* tell about their encounter with Avram Goldberg, CEO of Stop and Shop in New England. He told them that his approach to problem solving is, “When a manager comes to me, I don’t ask him, ‘What’s the problem?’ I say, ‘Tell me the story.’ That way I find out what the problem really is.”

Once the story is told, it’s time for the conversation participants to use critical thinking skills:

  • Use the reporter’s checklist for inquiries: who, what, why, when, where, how, with what effect?
  • What is the story advocating and assuming?
  • What is the central concern or challenge and the corresponding opportunity?
  • What is the history of the situation? Who are the key players? How have they interacted through time?
  • What new facts, if presented, would cause you to change your assumptions, direction, or decision?

Beginning with a story and following with these clarifying questions works can develop a deeper awareness of the factors influencing the situation at hand. Collaborative conversations that look deeply at a situation allow for learning and good decision-making. And, beyond improving performance, research by Dr. Richard Boyatzis* from Case Western Reserve University demonstrates that leaders who spend time coaching and mentoring others reduce their own stress levels.

*Neustadt and May, p. 106.
*Boyatzis, R. E., Smith, M. L., Blaize, N. J. (2006). Developing Sustainable Leaders through Coaching and Compassion (pp. 8-24). Academy of Management Learning and Education.

The power of critical thinking

For one week at the end of July, we were privileged to be in Missoula, Montana where Jon attended a course at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. Jon learned about photographic technique and composition. But every time someone asks him about the experience, his emphatic comment is, “It was the best educational experience I’ve ever had.”

If you know Jon, you know that he’s spent thousands of hours in the classroom, both sitting in the seats and teaching. Such a statement coming from him is significant. So the question is, “What made it so excellent?” His response, “They taught me to think critically about how and what I photograph.”

I’ve written often about the importance of critical thinking. Jon’s exceptional experience is personal confirmation of its value. Some of the critical thinking his instructor asked them to do:

  • What factors do you need to think about when approaching a scene?
  • Are you identifying things in the scene that would connect with the viewer?
  • What will you choose in composing and framing the shot that will draw the viewer into the experience?
  • How will you exploit the technology in your camera to contribute to a memorable photograph?
  • What speaks to you from out of this space?

The structure of the course included classroom lecture and demonstration, field photography, and group critiques of the field work. Exposure to new ideas and processes, followed by applying the new knowledge in the field with an instructor alongside facilitating critical thinking, and finally reflecting on and examining the results led to an exceptional learning experience.

Although only an interested bystander, I found it inspiring to watch growth and development happen for everyone who engaged in this course. I continue to consider how to best apply critical thinking when I facilitate learning opportunities. Can you recall an experience where critical thinking made a significant impact?

The value of mistakes

Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of living out of the ordinary. Today, I’m going to take the neuroscience a step further by applying it to learning environments. To review:

Neuroscience research demonstrates that when we break out of the routine and enjoy something new, our brains reward us with a dopamine flood.  We essentially give ourselves a pat – not on our head, but inside our head. If we continue to do the same thing over and over, the dopamine flood recedes and eventually dries up – the routine deadens the response.


The research shows that the same reward response – dopamine flood – is produced when we make mistakes and errors. Why? Because our brain is stimulated by surprise, by the unexpected. Our brains are built to detect errors; they really go nuts when something unpredictable occurs. We are immediately motivated by the dopamine surge to seek out new solutions and ways of understanding. As Stephen Hall says, “Success breeds habit and failure breeds learning.”

In a learning environment, this is an argument for the importance of actively engaging participants through a variety of methods – including learning from mistakes. The dopamine system fires in surprise not only at new information, but at any moment when information doesn’t fit our existing patterns of understanding. Our brains drive learning when we encounter the new and unexpected – and make mistakes.

In practice this demands that the facilitator or instructor be well-prepared. Pre-tests or pre-course surveys can stimulate participants brains with questions before the session begins. Dividing participants into small groups to brainstorm stories and ideas stimulates their thinking through encountering others’ patterns and solutions. Using a variety of media, activities, and props can make the experience memorable as brains sit up and take notice. When mistakes are made, use critical thinking questions and techniques to further stimulate the brain’s drive to make new connections.

What other ideas do you have about creating an environment that wires participants’ brains to learn?

Orbiting thought – Over and out

You may agree or disagree with Gordon MacKenzie’s ideas from Orbiting the Giant Hairball that I’ve been posting. Personally, I find his stories cause me to consider what works and what doesn’t work in organizations as well as my own life. I’ve been asking myself what the unspoken rules and systems are which create the hairball cocoon where it is safe to measure and plan based only on the past. And asking myself just what is invisible leadership?

Jon and I had lunch with one of our Friesen Group advisors last week who told me, “If you’re not a little uncomfortable, you’re not going to grow and make progress.”  He is right. It is time to try something new, push the boundaries, and, just maybe, achieve Orbit.

… if you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.
  – Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Orbiting thought – 7
Orbiting thought – 6
Orbiting thought – 5
Orbiting thought – 4
Orbiting thought – 3
Orbiting thought – 2
Orbiting thought – 1

Orbiting the Giant Hairball

The subtitle of this book, A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, brings this memoir into the realm of organizations. I am, by far, not the first person to discover this book. Originally self-published in 1997, it is now in its 19th printing. Bob Sutton’s frequent mention in speeches, articles, and his blog provided the impetus for me to get a copy.

I was pulled right into MacKenzie’s orbit and read the book in two sittings. The hairball is “that tangled, impenetrable mass of rules, and systems, based on what worked in the past and which can lead to mediocrity in the present.” While not suggesting that any organization can rid itself of that hairball – afterall, we all have boundaries including cash flow and government regulation – he recommends that from time-to-time we extract ourselves from the hairball and tap into our imagination and creativity.

The memoir asks both sides of your brain to engage. His stories are mingled with drawings and diagrams, which inspired my imagination. From an organization development point of view, there are stories about facilitation methods, perspectives on organizational paradox from the viewpoint of the orbit and hairball, and opinions on leadership. He certainly is not boring! And he will challenge your thinking and imagination.

I’ll conclude with a quote from a 1997 interview with MacKenzie in Fast Company about the obstacles to escaping the hairball and getting to orbit:

Attachment to outcome. As soon as you become attached to a specific outcome, you feel compelled to control and manipulate what you’re doing. And in the process you shut yourself off to other possibilities.

I got a call from someone who wanted me to lead a workshop on creativity. He needed to tell his management exactly what tools people would come away with. I told him I didn’t know. I couldn’t give him a promise, because then I’d become attached to an outcome — which would defeat the purpose of any creative workshop.

Feedback: When performance is poor

If feedback when performance is positive or somewhat less than 100% is challenging, giving effective feedback when someone has done poorly or failed is even more difficult. I suspect that the reason for this is that the emotional tension goes up dramatically – for the person delivering the feedback and the one receiving it. In my experience, the difficult work must be done before the encounter by the person delivering the feedback.

Let’s look at what doesn’t work so well first. To immediately access the emotional charge on both sides of the conversation, try starting the conversation with, “Well, why did you do that? What happened?”  Neuroscience tells us that both people will create a physical and mental reaction to the emotional charge. One way of thinking about it is fight, flight, or freeze. The delivering person will be in fight mode, which does not allow for clear thinking let alone good processing of incoming information. The receiver of emotionally charged feedback may fight back directly with anger or frustration, fight back indirectly with self-recrimination, freeze in fear and distress, or run from or avoid the encounter.

As with challenging feedback, the question I ask is, “What am I trying to accomplish here?” As I suggested in a recent post, if the answer is learning, growth, and change, then a frustrated, critical response will not provide success. This requires planning for meeting when both people are fresh and less likely to be reactive. Again, it is important to begin by acknowledging that the conversation might be uncomfortable and that you appreciate the person’s willingness to take time out to talk. Be clear that your goal isn’t to dissect what happened, analyze the problem, or put their job in jeopardy. State that your goal is to help them do their best, learn, and build their potential.

Follow with a good opening question that asks them to reflect, “How can we discuss what happened in a solutions-focused way?” Or, “I’m interested in how you think you did in this situation. On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate work?” You can follow with some other questions and statements, making certain to keep the conversation at the learning level – not in the details. Remember, avoid the impulse to suggest a solution, give advice, or tell your own story. Your role is to lead the person to their own “aha” moment of insight.

Some example questions and statements were listed in the recent post. Here are a few more that can help guide the conversation:

  • What is the biggest insight you’ve had about yourself from what’s happened? About your team?
  • What have you learned overall from the situation?
  • How committed are you to working to create a new approach?
  • Are you clear about what needs to happen next?
  • What resources or training will assist you in creating the new approach?

The bigger the emotional charge for both people, the more important it is for the person delivering the feedback to allow the other person to discover their own solutions and answers. Not only does learning take place, but the potential for ongoing growth and transformation increases. It’s time to consider eliminating “constructive feedback” and begin intentionally creating a climate of open communication and learning by asking people what they are thinking and discovering. This shift has the potential to deliver value to the organization and to the persons involved in the difficult feedback scenario.

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