5 Pointers on How to Think Clearly

Developing clarity in thinking is becoming even more important in a world that is constantly trying to distract you. Overload of information being pushed at us, contrasting theories about almost everything, our own unconscious biases, ego and fear hamper our ability to look clearly through the fog.

If we improve how we think, we also  improve how we lead teams, develop people, innovate, solve important problems and grow as individuals.

When I read this post by Charles Chu at The Polymath Project titled “A Few Principles on Thinking Clearly”, I realized that sometimes the thing that impairs our thinking is our own ego, fears and motivations. That we are not motivated to think clearly on issues where we don’t have skin in the game. That models are linear but reality is not. That we need to think across disciplines to solve important problems.

In this post, Charles offers some principles on how to think clearly from the Czech-Canadian polymath Vaclav Smil. I encourage you to read the full post and here are my visual notes outlining the key insights from the post.

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Being Conscious About Our Unconscious Biases

I attended a very interesting workshop a few weeks ago on the topic of “Unconscious Bias” facilitated by Smita Tharoor. I was interested in this topic because I explored the intersection of critical thinking and leadership a few years ago. This was a good opportunity to get back to the topic and add to my understanding.

What is Unconscious Bias

The term ‘cognitive bias’ was coined by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972 which quite simply means “our tendency to filter information, process facts and arrive at judgments based on our past experiences, likes/dislikes and automatic influences.”

How do these biases show up in Leadership?

A lot of leadership is about taking decisions involving group of people. Instinctive leaders often tend to decide quickly based on limited information or experience they have at hand. The result is that they end up taking wrong decisions (which may have worked for them in past but may not work in a different context), or discriminating with people of a certain color, race, sex or nationality based on their past experiences with similar people.  At work, biases (or the perception of bias) is the biggest contributor to people disengagement and cost of disengagement is huge. Lack of critical thinking also leads to short-termism where decisions are taken for immediate gains and solutions of today become thorny problems of tomorrow.

Some Ways to Deal with Unconscious Bias

Get Conscious. Be more aware about unconscious cognitive biases. Knowing that they exist is the first important step to tackling them. And they exist in plenty. Here is a list of all unconscious biases and what they really mean.

Ask questions, often. When considering a decision, ask questions that elicit understanding and clarify details. When you ask questions, you extend an opportunity to others to really express them. You are extending an opportunity to yourself to understand their thinking more closely. Encourage a culture where asking questions is valued.

Look for Patterns. Data over a period of time reveals patterns. Looking for patterns from the results of past decision can lead to important insights and learning. Sometimes data can blind us unless we learn to look at the pattern and story behind the data.

Look for the contrary. It helps playing a devil’s advocate and taking a contrarian view of things. It not only challenges others to think harder but also helps you in really understanding if they are just defending their own biases.

Embrace Diversity. This starts with hiring decisions. Don’t hire people whose beliefs are compliant with yours. You will tap into diverse ideas and viewpoints only when you have people with diverse thinking patterns on your team.

Attend to data and evidences. When you ask your people to bring data, evidences and trends, it does not mean lack of trust. It only means that you are intentional about serving them better by taking the right decisions.

Communicate clearly. Clear and accurate communication is a leader’s tool #1. Avoid using generic terms to describe people, situations and things. Biases are most commonly visible in how a leader communicates. Being mindful about our words is critical to thinking and communicating objectively.

Here is a sketchnote summary of the discussions during the workshop.

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Also Read at QAspire:

5 C’s for Great Talent

What do you look for when you look for talent?

Competence is the key to solving problems but competence alone is not sufficient for success. In current context, I would define talent as a combination of competence, commitment, learning agility, attitude/character, communication skills, ability to collaborate across different cultures, critical thinking and creative problem solving.

Back in 2010, I interviewed John Spence on this blog when he released his new book titled Awesomely Simple – Essential Business Strategies For Turning Ideas Into Action. The book offers great ideas to simplify work life which I often refer.

In the same year 2010, American Management Association released result of their Critical skill survey which outlined Creativity, Communication, Collaboration and Critical Thinking as key skills for future success.

In the book, John defines business success as a combination of culture and great talent, and further offers 5 C’s of Great Talent, which I found very useful. 

Here is a quick sketch note version of 5 C’s of Great Talent.

Related Reading at QAspire: Skills For Future Success in a Disruptive World of Work

12 Critical Competencies For Leadership in the Future

The rate of change in the business world today is greater than our ability to respond. In a world that is often described as VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and ambiguous), there are major tectonic shifts that demand a new mindset of leadership. First, let us look at these shifts.

In recent years, we have seen disruption of market leaders like Kodak and Nokia amongst many others. The average lifespan of an S&P 500 company has gone down from 67 years in 1937 to 18 years in 2011. With advances in technology, mobiles are becoming more of a convergence device that replaces so many utilities (calculators, alarm clocks, small digital cameras etc.) that we used otherwise. Generations at workplace are changing and new generations bring different values, expectations and mindsets at work. Rise in automation is resulting in heavy disruption. Right from purchasing stuff to booking taxies and filing tax returns, everything is increasingly being automated. The agents, middlemen and the whole supply chain related to these services is being disrupted. And, we are not even talking about automated cars yet – the next big frontier for the technology battle!

With a hyper connected workforce, organization cultures have become transparent. With opportunities abound, employees are “volunteers” who have global choices. In this world, having a compelling purpose is a mandatory pre-requisite for profits to follow. Traditional hierarchical structures are fading away to give way to purposeful networks and communities of people working together to achieve a shared purpose. The cumulative impact of these forces demands a new mindset and competences for leaders to be able to stay relevant and make a positive difference to people and hence, business. 

Having a compelling purpose is a mandatory pre-requisite for profits to follow

If you are a leader at any level in a modern organization or aspiring to be one, here are some of the critical competencies and skills you need to thrive in a VUCA world.

1. Develop an Adaptive Mindset: To navigate successfully through the maze of VUCA, leaders will need to be comfortable with unclear situations and travel into unexplored paths. This means leaders will encounter “first time” situations more often and they need to build their muscle to still deliver results. With “rapid prototyping” approach, leaders will need to constantly experiment to get early and frequent feedback that enables constant realignment.

2. Have a Vision: Vision is a perpetual force, a critical anchor that drives decisions, actions and judgments. With a younger workforce that is purpose driven, having a compelling vision for the future is also a key driver of engaging and retaining high performing team members. In fact, a compelling vision is an important pre-requisite for any community or network to succeed. Leaders who will thrive in future are the ones who have a clear vision of where they want their organizations and teams to be. 

3. Embrace Abundance Mindset: Abundance mindset sees possibilities where a constraint mindset sees challenges. A leader’s ability to spot the white spaces, unique problems and interdisciplinary intersections is as critical in the new world as their ability to “do something about it.” In VUCA world, leaders have to listen to the future by virtue of constantly scanning the horizon, being future minded and having strategic foresight without losing the sight of the current reality. When they do this, leaders build a unique ability to see through contradictions towards a future others cannot see. 

4. Weave Ecosystems for Human Engagement: One of the biggest leadership challenges is to create an environment that taps into intrinsic motivation of people. Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends 2015 reports that softer areas such as culture, engagement, leadership and development have become urgent priorities on a CEO’s desk. An ecosystem of human engagement is created when leaders understand the basic drivers of human engagement – the need for trust, the need to have a hope, the need to feel a sense of worth and the need to feel competent. At a time when most “engagement initiatives” are aimed at providing external motivation, we need leaders who can build trust through integrity and results, who can mentor and coach others, who can clarify the meaning of the work people do and build a positive influence. 

5. Anticipate and Create Change: When changes around us are constant and rapid, leaders have to use the wisdom from their future mindedness and strategic foresight to “create change” before an external change forces them to react. When leaders ride the wave of changes, they have to involve people in the change process, prioritize what’s important and execute changes in smaller iterations. Leaders nurture change by maintaining balance between the needs of the context, needs of others and their own needs. 

6. Self-Awareness: Leaders cannot succeed unless their personal vision and values overlap with organization’s vision and values. It is only when leaders are aware of their preferences, ways of working and possible blind spots that they can really bring their true authentic selves into the game and bring about a significant difference to the team, organization and hence the industry. 

7. Be an Agile Learner: Rapidly changing context is like a treadmill that compels leaders to learn constantly in a self-directed mode. Leaders have to be constantly curious and carry a “beginners mind” which is also willing to give up on familiar approaches (unlearning). Leaders need meta-cognition and awareness of the bigger picture. When thrown into unfamiliar situations, leaders need to learn immersively from those experiences.

8. Network and Collaborate: To make the sense of changing trends, practices and expectations, leaders in today’s world need to collaborate relentlessly within and outside the organization. A social mindset enables leaders to create, engage with and nurture purposeful business and social networks through social media and in-person communication. 

9. Relentlessly Focus on Customer: Customer centricity is and will remain at the heart of effective leadership. Helping customers navigate through the changes is as critical for leaders as it is to steer their own organizations effectively. Customer centric leaders truly “listen” to the voice of their customers, engage deeply and build long term relationship by adding substantial value to the customers. 

10. Develop People: Leadership in the new world is beyond external tags and titles. It is about serving effectively to the needs of the stakeholders – the most important ones being the people who make things work. Leaders, in this world, have to model the behaviors they seek, help people in building their skill set and attitude, create learning forums, design work to tap into potential and most importantly, lead through their influence and not through their authority. The primary task (and an obligation) of a leader is to build more leaders. 

11. Design for the Future: Leaders are designers of the systems for the future. They do so by building an emotional infrastructure, organization structures, methods and processes. If organizations are purposeful networks of people, leaders need a compelling purpose that people in the organization share. Leaders will have to pay equal attention to leveraging diversity and draw on multiple points of views and experiences.

12. Constantly Clarify and Communicate: When working with global work force, leaders will need an ability to communicate effectively across cultures. Like a location pointer on a GPS map, leaders have to constantly clarify the current situation with respect to changing external demands. Equally important for leaders is to re-iterate and reinforce vision, values and strategies. Finally, leaders have to help others in clarifying the meaning of their work. Communication and clarity are the currencies of effective leadership.

 

The hallmark of VUCA world is that there are no silver bullets. Successful leaders have always been adaptive to the context they find themselves in. The future is not a distant dream, it is here and now. Leadership today is all about shifting our mindset, values and organizations to a better place.

(This article originally appeared in People Matters Magazine, Dec 2015 issue)

Interdisciplinary Thinking

Technology and sociology are two different disciplines. But when technology transcended the boundary and met sociology (or the other way around) – social media was born. It completely transformed how we communicate, consume information and sell.

If you are playing a guitar, you are dealing with two disciplines. The art of dynamically arranging musical notes in a certain sequence AND the physics of how sound is produced – i.e. stroking the strings that create vibrations in a hollow space to produce music.

New ideas, knowledge, solutions and innovation happens beyond the boundary of one discipline. In a dynamic world that we live in, problems are never clearly defined and solutions have to evolve as the understanding of problem or context evolves.

In an evolutionary environment, possibilities are endless and to tap into these possibilities, we need more interdisciplinary thinking. We need to transcend the boundaries of our specialization and understand the whole system we operate in.

Only then can we create new knowledge, learn holistically, solve interesting problems and drive innovation.

Building Critical Thinking Muscle: An L&D Mandate

Last week, I was invited as a guest on PeopleMatters #TChat (Twitter chat) on the topic of developing critical thinking muscle within the organization and the role of learning and development. I was joined by Mahalaxmi R who is the CLO & Global Head Talent at Airtel and Rajesh Lele. It was fun contributing and learning a great deal in return from the Twitter HR community. Here are the highlights from the chat. (You can see more tweets at the storified version of the chat)

Q1: Why do you think Critical Thinking is an essential skill to be built across the organization in today’s context?

A1 Organization grows (or doesn’t) one decision at a time. Critical thinking is an enabler of effective decision making. – Tanmay Vora

A1. Helps in reducing risk in & raises quality of decision-making. Helps problem-definition & solving by testing assumptions. – Rajesh Lele

A1 It’s a VUCA world! Crucial decisions are needed to be taken at every level in the organization, everyday without much guidance – PearsonTalentLensInd

A1. The application of #CriticalThinking results in better decisions, fewer mistakes & improves d level of collaboration – Ester Martinez

A1. Today’s interconnected #VUCA world demands CT as a necessary competency. – Tanaz H Mulla

A1 Critical thinking skills are basic building blocks for higher level competencies like strategic thinking. – Tanmay Vora

Critical Thinking is identified as one of the core skills of 21st century workforce to deal with an evolving landscape. – Sahana Chattopadhyay

A1 Several important workplace competencies hinge on critical thinking – PearsonTalentLensInd

Q2:How can Critical Thinking be developed? Share interventions that work best to build Critical Thinking?

A2 Assessments are a good starting point – both for evaluating current competencies as well as when hiring talent. – Tanmay Vora

A2.“Clear thinking requires courage rather than intelligence.” ~ Thomas Szasz –Develop courageous conversations – Rajesh Lele

A2 When you need quick strengthening of CT skills, selecting critical thinkers during hiring yields faster results  – Tanmay Vora

A2 Self Assessment and Development of Data driven approach are some of the tool to develop #CrticalThinkingAkanksha Mishra

A2 Having leaders in organization who are critical thinkers sets the right precedence for everyone to think critically – Tanmay Vora

A2. Developing Critical Thinking requires skills like reflection, assessing assumptions and biases, evaluating options. – Sahana Chattopadhyay

A2. Projects that bring divergent thoughts and multi stakeholders together =best way to learn. – MAHALAKSHMI R

A2 Case studies, Simulations, Summary of past business decisions Experience, if not forgotten, can be a guide to the future. – Gurpreet Bajaj

A2/2 Leaders to encourage others to voice their thinking. Ensure employees have the ability to get to an answer by solid reasoning – Gurpreet Bajaj

A2 Beyond training, experiential learning sessions & workshops involving problem solving, thinking and writing helps. – Tanmay Vora

Don’t forget traditional problem solving tools –5Why, TRIZ, etc & go beyond. Build a “love for solving problems” – Rajesh Lele

A2 Developing CriticalThinking needs practice to train the mind to think in a certain way. RED model helps – PearsonTalentLensInd

Q3. Who is the owner and stakeholders involved in this process of infusing Critical Thinking across the organization?

Critical Thinking is every corporate citizen’s responsibility. Begins at the individual’s desk. Institutional approach secondary. – Rajesh Lele

A3 Senior leaders of the organizations are the first stakeholders in creating the culture of critical thinking. – Tanmay Vora

Most orgs now anyways look for leaders who can connect the dots +build strategy that’s inclusive which is a clear case for CT – MAHALAKSHMI R

Everyone, it is part of organizational culture – Subir Chatterjee

a) Leadership to Demonstrate open culture to challenge status quo b) L&D to Drive c) People to be naturally inquisitive! – Gurpreet Bajaj

Managers, leaders & each individual. Managers as coaches. Individuals as self-driven learners. It’s a life skill everyone needs – Sahana Chattopadhyay

It is the leadership teams role. If all decisions are data driven and not people dependant then it will percolate – Gautam Ghosh

Anyone who decides in an org context is a stakeholder – esp. senior leadership and middle management – Tanmay Vora

Q4: What are the road blocks that L&D practitioners & Managers are likely to face in implementing these change intervention?

Danger in focus only on tool/ methodology without behavioral anchors in implementing critical thinking skills – Rajesh Lele

Biggest challenge: aligning every single decision making individual to the critical thinking agenda. – Tanmay Vora

Roadblocks in the form of established processes, drive for productivity/speed over quality, mindset of what worked in the past – Sahana Chattopadhyay

Biggest roadblock would be if CT becomes a HR agenda instead of biz demand – MAHALAKSHMI R

When obstacles arise, you change your direction to reach your goal, you do not change your decision to get there, Zig Ziglar – Ester Martinez

Failure to take real problems of the business in the intervention. #ActionLearning & real projects best teacher – Rajesh Lele

A4. Fixed Mindset is the biggest challenge. Leaders, by majority, have a bias towards action. CT hence lags behind – Tanaz H Mulla

A4 Over reliance on best practices and past experiences without aligning them to current context can be a major roadblock.Tanmay Vora

Managing resistance – Critical thinking isn’t easy and doesn’t come to everyone naturally. – Tanmay Vora

A4 a) Conflicting Cultural Hypocrisy- Open vs Closed; b)Training Program vs Change? c) Limited business grounding for mentoring CT – Gurpreet Bajaj

Q5. What are the benefits that organizations can derive from these training interventions?

A5 Better decisions and planning. Better problem solving. Improved analytical skills. – Tanmay Vora

Resilience and ability to deal with change, agility over rigidity, growth over fixed mindset when #criticalthinking is adopted. – Sahana Chattopadhyay

Thinkers at all levels; Empowered and engaged employees who can see their impact on bottom line,Transparency,Respect,Innovation – Gurpreet Bajaj

Sustained biz success due to a.Well thought through strategy. b. Higher thought diversity & inclusion c. Long term view – MAHALAKSHMI R

A5 An organization with critical thinkers is likely to be more collaborative, strategic, innovative, make better decisions & grow well. – PearsonTalentLensInd

Critical thinking and creative problem solving are intricately linked – drivers of innovation. – Tanmay Vora

This is the reason why I love tweet chats – in just about 30 minutes of time, so many diverse perspectives came to the fore from equally diverse participants – talk about the power of community in learning!


Also read: My article series on critical thinking at Pearson TalentLens Blog.  

Dealing With Analysis Paralysis Versus Death by Instinct

When it comes to decision making, there are two extremes.

First one is analysis paralysis. Large organizations, multiple layers of management and risk averse culture breeds over analysis of facts, data and information before making a decision. Too much analysis paralyzes progress. Even when progress is made, it is often reactive and slow.

Analysis paralysis is a sign of over-management and is, quite clearly, a huge waste in many organizations large and small.  Analysis, reflection and sufficient critical thinking is definitely required to make better informed decisions. It provides direction to the process of decision making. But when search for direction stalls forward movement, it is a waste. In a constantly changing and fast environment, analysis paralysis can be a real disabler.

The other extreme is death by instinct. At this end of the spectrum, decisions are taken on the fly, instinctively without any systematic study or thinking. Any failure, small or big, is a huge waste of time, energy and efforts.

We need a balance between these two extremes. Between the rational and the emotional.

We need a system where internal checks ensure that folks think through their ideas before deciding.

We need just enough analysis to have all information at hand to avoid major disasters.

Once we decide based on just enough analysis, we need short bursts of implementation – pilot runs may be, to gain early feedback on the decision.

We then need constant loop of diagnosis and realignment of our approaches.

Managing anything is never a binary process but often something that swings between the two extremes. The key is to strike a balance and draw a line between the two depending on problem at hand and the context of the decision.


In the Pic: Shooting the empty beer bottles, Kufri, Shimla, India – via my photostream at Flickr.

Not Invented Here

Organizations, teams and individuals are obsessed with doing things themselves when a similar or better solution is already available elsewhere. Thinking that if you have to get it done right then you have to do it yourself is no less than some kind of obsession.

I have seen people rejecting better ideas just because they did not contribute in the ideation. Organizations spending enormous amount of effort in developing internal systems when a majority of what they want is available off-the-shelf. Teams trying to solve technical problems themselves when a solution is available already in other teams sitting under the same roof!

One of the possible reasons for ‘not invented here’ syndrome is that people find it hard to accept (or trust) something that they have not created or contributed to. Fear (and insecurity) of using someone else’s solution may also be a reason. Sometimes, people just don’t know that better solutions are readily available.

In any case, valuable time is lost, money is spent and opportunities are missed just because you choose to invest your effort instead of reusing what is already available.

In lean terms, this is a huge waste.

Because “not invented here” is almost the same as “lets reinvent the wheel”, unless there are strong and legitimate reasons to invent a newer kind of wheel.

Insights and Lessons on Critical Thinking, HR and Leadership Development

 

In American Management Association’s critical skills survey 2012, respondents emphasized on 4 C’s (Critical thinking and problem solving, Effective Communication, Collaboration and team building and Creativity and innovation) as their key priorities for employee development, talent development and succession planning.

I have been exploring the topic of critical thinking with respect to HR, Talent Acquisition, Leadership Development, Communication and Training via series of posts at Pearson’s TalentLens Blog (@ThinKritical on Twitter). The premise is simple – if we improve how we think, we will improve how we develop people, innovate, solve problems and grow as individuals and organizations.

Here is a round up of all posts (with excerpts) written on this important topic so far.

Why Hiring Critical Thinkers is Absolutely Critical for HR

With people being at the core of an organization’s greatness, it is extremely important for HR professionals to pay attention to two things – that existing people are trained to think critically and people are hired based on their ability to think critically.

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Problem Solving in Organizations: A Diamond or a Coin?

Leaders are expected to take right decisions after considering various facets of a given problem – just like an expert jeweler looks at a diamond. Logic looks at problems as a coin with just two sides where as critical thinking is all about looking at the same problem as a diamond with multiple facets.

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10 Most Important Traits of a Leader Who Thinks Critically

Ability to think rationally and critically is one of the most important leadership skills and for the leader, thinking objectively is not just a skill, but also an obligation to the people they lead.

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Training and Development: 4 Ideas to Build a Culture of Critical Thinking

The reality is that training middle managers on critical thinking skills is much like teaching an adult to ride a bicycle. It takes patience, training and practice to be able to master the art of critical thinking which, in turn, leads to good decision making.

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3 Ways Critical Thinking Improves Emotional Quotient of Your Leaders

The fact is that a leader needs a fine balance of emotion and rationality to succeed. They need to connect with their people using emotion and decide what is best for them using rational thought. Critical Thinking is the connecting link between emotions and intelligence.

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Critical Thinking – Leaders, Know Thy Biases

Critical thinking is an antidote to cognitive biases. When we think critically, we recognize our own assumptions, evaluate arguments and draw conclusions.

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How Critical Thinking Helps in Effective Conflict Resolution

The truth is that conflicts, if managed well, are an opportunity to understand better, get to the root causes, introspect, improve and learn. A well-managed conflict often leads to improved clarity, better relationships and win-win situations.

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Creativity and Critical Thinking: Friends, Not Foes!

There is a difference between creative thinking and creativity. Creative thinking is the process of ideation (thinking). Creativity is about bringing that idea to life (execution).

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Critical Thinking: The Soul of Effective Communication

If communication is defined as a meaningful exchange of information, thoughts and feelings between two living creatures, critical thinking is the engine that provides this meaning.

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BONUS: Don’t miss the guest post “Environment is Everything” written by Mr. Gurprriet Siingh, Director and Head, YSC India, an executive coach, blogger and a social media influencer. His Twitter handle is @JoyandLife.

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