Innovation

The challenge of thinking for yourself in work

Do you ever stop to consider what it meant to think openly? Wasn’t that your basic education at school and what your parents told you to do? Whatever happened to that? The question is important because today, more than ever, we are urged to be creative in our jobs. If you cannot think openly, how can you be creative? Introducing the open-thinking movement!

January 20, 2017

The open thinking birthright

From birth our parents persistently encouraged us to think for ourselves. It was non-stop; a barrage of parenting tips that were designed to help us become independent, confident and open thinkers.

Whether inadvertently or not, life was a never ending lesson on Cogito Ergo Sum; I think, therefore I am. Indeed, as philosopher René Descartes maintained, we must first possess knowledge of our own existence for we are unable to think if we do not know that we in fact exist. Put less philosophically, our parents wanted us to know ourselves, and be ourselves, thus they insisted that we must think for ourselves first. 

Whether we attended university or not, we eventually graduated from our parent’s home to tackle the real world. We entered the working world, ready to make our mark. It was time to test our training. We were armed–with will and determination–to take on the challenges that waited for us in the organisation. Naturally we were open to think, in part because we knew that we existed.

At first the sheer excitement of working–of being in an organisation that gave you a bi-weekly pay cheque–was titillating enough. The new knowledge seemed endless. There was that first business trip, the first all-hands meeting, the first customer event and the first company-wide “reply all” email fiasco. Heck, there was even your first performance review, and it was as awkward as peers said it would be.

But it was during those first few months or years of employment where you thought, “My job is fantastic. I love this company. There’s lots to do, and I’m learning so much.”

Several months or years pass and then all of a sudden it hits you like a lightning strike.

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Crushing the spirit of thinking for yourself

What was once your ability and penchant to openly think has now been squashed by fear or corporate orthodoxy.

You dread spreading your ideas or suggesting alternate possibilities because reprimands are rampant at your place of work. The culture is so thick with rigidity and power that people are being terminated for speaking out. You end up ducking for cover. Your head is in the sand. The disengagement that hovers over your organisation’s culture begins to crush your inventiveness and judiciousness.

Conversely, perhaps your organisation has become too lethargic or inflexible. Because it takes too long for an idea to come to fruition–the organisation is monolithically slow and recalcitrant to change–why even bother raising your idea or suggestion in the first place?

Maybe it’s about laziness. Your laziness. Perhaps a sense of apathy has taken over you in your role at work. Where once you possessed unbridled enthusiasm for open thinking, it has been replaced by a form of indolence. “Why bother, it’s not worth it. I’ll just keep my head down, do my job, and be home in time for dinner.”

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once wrote, “At the centre of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.”

Sadly, many employees have forgotten their own answer for they have forgotten what they want and who they are. They have misplaced themselves and consequently they have lost the benefits that open thinking provides. A new adage has emerged: I am closed, therefore I am not. Descartes, Tzu, Aristotle among others are rolling in their graves.

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Being an open thinker

To be an open thinker one, is continuously being creative, making decisions and completing actions.

There is no off switch to subsisting as an open thinker. It is an endless loop of dreaming, deciding and doing. Open thinkers are unafraid to fail, but they take the learnings gleaned from a mishap, re-enter the creative thinking phase to eventually make another decision on what to do better next time.

As Professor Clay Shirky reminds us, “The imperative is to learn from failure, adapt, and learn again.” Organisations made up of open thinkers–and ones that employ an open thinking culture–are constantly rewarded with high employee engagement, innovative products or services, positive societal impacts as well as progressive business results. Companies such as Tesla, Pixar, Virgin and Salesforce are each leaders of the open thinking mindset in their respective verticals.

A closed thinker, if not affected by fear, corporate orthodoxy or laziness, however, is a person that might operate in a singular domain.

Closed thinkers are often satisfied by simply keeping or looking busy. Their busyness masquerades as effectiveness. They may look like an open thinker but in fact they’re simply an overly taxed closed thinker.

Worse, perhaps, are the closed thinkers who refuse to make decisions. These individuals sit on information, data and other pieces of feedback that have previously been presented to them, or that they have unearthed themselves. Instead of openly thinking how this might negatively or positively affect a situation, they sit on the fence of indecisiveness.

As a result, the opportunity is lost and the competition gains a leg up on their organisation. Firms like Blackberry, Kodak, Nortel and Firestone have all suffered the fate of retaining a closed thinking DNA.

COLLABORATIVE-CULTURE

Creating the conditions for open thinking

How might an organisation create the conditions for open thinking? There are a few techniques I would recommend employing.

Collaborative Culture: If an organisation is laden with hierarchical power structures, a closed thinking mindset is probable. But, if senior leaders encourage an organisation-wide culture that demonstrates collaboration between employees of any rank or business unit, open thinking is far easier to contemplate. Culture change is not easy, nor is it quick, but if the behaviours to act collaboratively among one another are inculcated across the organisation, open thinking will more likely materialise.

Dream Time: Much has been written about Google and its engineers using the organisational discipline known as 20 percent time. The program relieved employees from their normal job duties to work on projects of their choosing for roughly eight hours a week. If an organisation wishes to truly introduce an open thinking culture, it might want to consider allowing employees time to individually dream…at work. It could be, for example, Friday afternoons where the organisation institutes a ‘no meeting’ policy to permit employees time to creatively think about new ideas, concepts, and so on, on their own.

Decision Making Matrix Training: Paralysis by analysis, a term coined by Igor Ansoff in 1965, is a crippling disease in closed thinking organisations. Often it comes down to an employee’s inability to make a decision, yet this is easily remedied by providing employees with decision making matrix training. Put simply, if employees are provided with the background on formal decision making–how to establish criteria, pros and cons norms, timing impacts, etc.–or informal decision making, the fence-sitting of indecisiveness could be cured, or at a minimum vastly improved.

Healthier Time Usage: Open thinkers know there are only 40 hours in a workweek and 168 hours in a week itself. Open thinkers are particularly conscious of how they spend their time. An organisation that is mindful and respectful of each other’s time is far more likely to be open in their thinking. Use an organisation-wide calendaring system, invoke meeting rules, and don’t use your rank in the hierarchy to impact someone else’s calendar. These are but a few examples of healthier time usage.

Town Halls: Open thinking requires honesty, transparency and unremittingly sought after feedback. If we are not continuously asking for opinions on dreams and decisions, we are not open thinking. Organisations would be wise to institute regularly scheduled town halls–whether in person or virtual–to solicit such advantages. Ideas and new concepts come from employees. So too do criticisms, disapprovals and analyses. The firm 1-800-Got-Junk, for example, schedules an organisation-wide 15-minute team huddle every Monday morning to share company news, and to open the floor to quick questions, ideas and comments from all employees.

Think Tanks: Purposefully organised events called “Think Tanks” are an opportunity for employees and leaders to get together and ideate future possibilities for the organisation or a team. Decisions are not made, nor is any action assigned. They become sessions dedicated purely to creativity. Of course the discourse is recorded, but the “Think Tanks” are used as opportunities to dream with no holds barred on what those ideas may be. They become fruitful exercises that stretch our brains, and our thinking, without the pressure of having to turn any new suggestion into action, revenue or profit.

In summary, open thinking is not new. What is relatively new, however, is the magnitude of closed thinking by individuals and organisations across the world.

I am reminded of British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s 1951 piece in New York Times Magazine where he created a list of commandments for thinking. In particular, each of us might pay attention to number three:

  • Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.

It seems to me we are discouraging open thinking opting instead for closed. If we truly want to return to an era where we think for ourselves–to build innovative, trustworthy and purpose-driven organisations let alone engaged employees–we must do much more to encourage and enact open thinking.