What about critical thinking?

This week I’m facilitating a workshop at the CIPD conference I submitted the presentation and materials a few weeks ago and now I’m looking at them to develop thinking I had then. (One of the issues of living in the VUCA world is that it’s very easy to forget things in past given the swirls of more things coming in).   Anyway, I’m relieved to see that I mention critical thinking and reflection as two of the necessary OD & D/change skills needed.

Critical thinking and reflection seem to me to be in short supply in many organisations.  In two forums last week I came across the puzzlement OD&D consultants feel when they realise that their clients are not interested in any ‘lessons learned’ discussion on projects. (See this article on organisational learning .  The consultants were equally puzzled by clients looking for ‘the answer’ when, in most cases, there isn’t one but several possible answers.  Each of these possible answers has pros and cons which require thoughtful discussion on what trade-offs to make in order to arrive at a wise choice given current understanding of the situation.  Sadly, the consultants said they didn’t feel that clients would invest time in this type of discussion, and several of the consultants said they wouldn’t feel confident challenging the client on this.

The question that came out of those forums was – how do we encourage critical thinking in organisational life?  It’s the right question to ask, I think.

I just read an article ‘Elon Musk is raising an important question about job titles:

‘This week, in a classic Muskian publicity stunt, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla, announced that he no longer had a job title at the electric-car manufacturer.

He had deleted his honorifics from his Tesla bio page, where he previously had been listed as chairman, product architect, and CEO, he said in a tweet . “I’m now the Nothing of Tesla. Seems fine so far,” he wrote.’

Many of us have heard of Elon Musk, seen reports of his tweets and behaviour, and formed an opinion of him.

In the same article reporting Musk’s action the author mentioned the Brightline Initiative’s Strategy@Work conference.  At this, Roger Martin outlined his view of several major shifts in the way we organize, or ought to organize, work.  ‘Let’s get rid of jobs,’ he told the audience, and instead give everyone a portfolio of projects.’ Someone in the audience asked Martin if this would just be a recipe for chaos.  ‘His response, in a nutshell: Companies already operate in chaos. They’re sprawling and multi-layered, communications break down between levels and departments, strategy becomes meaningless.’

Martin’s statement offers first, a challenge to the conventional idea of jobs (I’ve assumed a link to job descriptions and titles here, picking up on Musk’s action) and second makes a provocative point that companies operate in chaos.

It’s easy to respond to both Musk’s and Martin’s points with an immediate view, an opinion, or a soundbite response to either of these points. (See, for example, the responses to Musk’s tweet).

It’s much less easy to think, as the Foundation for Critical Thinking urges,  ‘open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, assumptions, implications, and practical consequences’.  It’s hard to explore open-mindedly Elon Musk or Roger Martin’s views if we cling on to our assumptions – the taken-for-granted beliefs about the world.

In their cases we might hold assumptions that job titles, and jobs/job descriptions matter, and that organisations are not chaotic.  As Stephen Brookfield says ‘Assumptions give meaning and purpose to who we are and what we do’.  He makes the point that we instinctively resist challenging our assumptions – ‘Who wants to clarify and question assumptions she or he has lived by for a substantial period of time, only to find they don’t make sense?’   (See also his article So exactly what is critical about critical reflection?)

In organisational life we are often busy leaping on or off burning platforms, looking across for blue oceans , trying to recolour ourselves teal and following north stars.   This activity not only doesn’t leave much time for critical thinking and reflection but also may well work against our own best long-term interests.

In his book ‘The Answer to How is Yes’ Peter Block shows that many standard solutions and improvement efforts, reinforced by most of the literature, keep people paralyzed. He ‘offers a new way of thinking about our actions that helps free us from being controlled by the bombardment of messages about how we should live and act’.

Both holding onto assumptions and jumping on bandwagons are blocks to critical thinking, and much of ‘normal life’ also omits critical thinking.  In the view of The Foundation for Critical Thinking, ‘much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced. Yet, the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.’

Given the context in which key socio-economic and earth system trends are ‘going exponential – for better and worse’.  (See the UN Global Compact Project Breakthrough )  we can’t afford shoddy thinking, but even as we recognise this we seem unable to do anything about doing enough criticial thinking in day to day organisational life to bring the adaptability, responsiveness, creativity, innovation and resilience to handle the exponential, messy, complex, and ‘deep craziness’ that we’re now in.

For well argued reasons why much more critical thinking is essential, listen to a BBC radio programme where ‘Mariella Frostrup and a panel of expert contributors discuss the value of critical thinking and how to nurture it in children and young people’.

As the BBC programme says, there is evidence that critical thinking skills can be learned and developed and there are many routes to this.  The Foundation for Critical Thinking has a series of miniature guides to it as well as a number of related resources.  FutureLearn offers short, free on-line programme Logical and Critical Thinking,  Coursera has Mindware: Critical Thinking for the Information Age  Or rather than a coures, look at the five TED talks related to critical thinking.

Earlier this week a John Scharr quote dropped into my in-box.

“The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”

We need deep critical thinking to create and make good paths.  Do we have enough critical thinking going on in our organisations?  If not, how do we get enough?  Let me know.

Image:  Critical Thinking, Ricardo Colugnatti


Think Banking

The phrase ‘think-tank’ is relatively familiar.  What a think-tank does, according to The Economist is ‘aim to fill the gap between academia and policymaking. Academics grind out authoritative studies, but at a snail’s pace. Journalists’ first drafts of history are speedy but thin. A good think-tank helps the policymaking process by publishing reports that are as rigorous as academic research and as accessible as journalism. (Bad ones have a knack of doing just the opposite.)’

But my interest today is not in think-tanks but in think banks.  Not the actual Think Bank accounts ‘mainly for customers with poor credit histories or who have struggled financially’ which changed its name in 2012 to Think Money,  but a think bank in terms of your own investment in your thinking.

Imagine we each had a think bank account.  We could then build up the capital gained from reflective conversations, questions and reading that were not aimed at ‘getting the world’s business done, or baking bread, or flying aeroplanes’.  Simon Blackburn in his book Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy argues for the value of ‘reflecting on concepts and procedures and beliefs that we normally just use’.

Invested in well, our individual think bank accounts would have the same outcome as a think tank – a rigorous and accessible point of view/thought process that we could draw on, as Blackburn says, ‘when the going gets tough: when the seas of argument rise, and confusion breaks out’.

During last week I added three things to my think bank account. I’m not sure when I’ll draw on them but they’re there and maybe getting interest.  The first was on ‘additionality’.  That was a term new to me but it made perfect sense as the discussion unfurled.  The person I was talking with defined additionality as calling into being what didn’t exist as part of something and being able measure what value it added to the original thing.

This led me to looking up additionality, and I found a more formal definition than my colleague’s in the Additionality Guide, ‘Additionality is the extent to which something happens as a result of an intervention that would not have occurred in the absence of the intervention.’   The Guide itself offers ‘a standard approach to assessing the additional value of interventions’.

So now in my think bank is info on additionality to mull over + 3 questions to prompt reflection:  What does this Guide offer that could help us measure the effectiveness of organisation design work?  Is subtractionality (I’ve coined this word, I think) as useful a concept as additionality i.e. is what we take away in our organisation design work e.g. policies, or reduction of levels of hierarchy, a value add and thus additionality?  What else can I learn from concepts of additionality?

The second thing that I’ve added to my think bank is from the pull-out section in the Economist: ‘The World if’.  It’s an annual pull-out asking us to imagine various future possibilities.  (Take a look at the 2016 edition that ask the question ‘If Donald Trump was elected’ which came out several months before he was.)

This year there are 10 ‘If’s’ all worth reflecting on.  One that I’ve added to my think bank is ‘If companies had no employees’.  The scene is set in July 2030.  when ‘companies that embraced the shift away from having employees have reaped big gains. They no longer need to pay people to be in the office when demand is slack. They can find the worker with the perfect skills for a task, not just someone willing to have a go. Because individual workers’ output is finely measured, and their proficiency at completing a task becomes part of their online profiles, no one can be lazy and get away with it. Productivity growth has accelerated since the mid-2020s.  Many workers have also benefited. For those with sought-after skills, it can be far more lucrative to flit from contract to contract than to work for a single firm.’

How likely is this scenario, I’m wondering?  At the moment, I think it’s likely and I should be designing organisations to head in this direction, but maybe I should leave the question lying for the moment – banking it for when I have time and information to examine it more closely.  As a thought though – it could form a very good basis for a leadership discussion – if the leaders were willing to give time to it. Many find it difficult to give time to a reflective discussion, even if they know the value of doing so – you may be able to persuade them with some useful tips from How to Regain the Lost Art of Reflection.

The third thing I added to my think bank account was a question:  What effect do protests have?  This was prompted by seeing the placards of the Homes and Communities Agency Unite workers beginning a strike over pay,  seeing the tens of thousands in London attending the anti-Trump demonstration, and reading, again in ‘The World If’,  If Martin Luther King had not been assassinated.  A group of us – with varied views – were wrestling with this question and it’s one that’s again relevant to organisation design – could organisational protests spark organisational change and redesign?

There seems to be some evidence that they can spark policy change – but maybe only in the wider societal context? (Think LGBT, or gender equality, for example).   Or maybe there isn’t any real evidence?  I’m not sure, and again it’s in my think bank for investing in further.

Those were the three major deposits into my think bank this week.  But I made a couple of smaller ones.  After a tech conversation I had with someone, he sent me info on Digital Humanism which sounds worth investing thought into as we work with more and more organisational technology and automation.

I got into a further discussion on why we have difficulty with systems thinking (ref my blog last week) and I’m still investing in that one.  Then I read a review plus sample chapter of Matt Haig’s book Notes on a Nervous Planet.  In the book he talks about fear and the way it manifests in society.   Fear is often present in organisations – particularly in risk averse cultures where people fear doing the wrong thing even if there are organisational mantras like ‘fail fast and learn’.  This led me to a question, what to do when I observe that tension in play?

So quite a few think bank deposits this week to ponder, reflect on, and invest in for future returns.  What have you added to your think bank this week?  Let me know.

PS    Thanks to James for the concept of a think bank.

Image: Ancient Roman Banking