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Managing How to Think, Not What to Think

Starting at an early age, the accepted standard, both of teaching and learning, focuses on what to think. In some cases, this approach proves sufficient and even appropriate. But it can fail spectacularly in the complex environments of today’s business world. In these complex systems, learning how to think – how the pieces fit together – is as important as (or more important than) the pieces themselves.
Understanding how to think is vital today. As organizations and workers, we are faced with complex problems and situations on a daily basis in which what-to-think solutions are no longer effective. Here are five practices that can help shift our thinking.
 
1. Seek to understand the big picture.
 
Most of the training and tools leaders receive are good at assessing and fixing a piece of the organizational system. Fixating on one thing may improve that one thing, but most likely it will create multiple new unintended issues.  Leaders who establish a big-picture perspective not only reduce unintended issues, they improve collaboration among their teams because they will work together to understand the system instead of finding someone to blame.
 
2. Seek to understand the underlying behavior.
The harder a leader pushes the system, the harder it will push back. The faster a leader goes the longer it will take her get there. Things tend to get worse before they get better and the cure is often worse than the disease. These underlying system principles explain why leadership is difficult and why those leaders who seek to understand them are better equipped to address their team’s needs in new and emerging situations.      
 
3. Seek systemic change.
If a leader tries to change something in the direct, obvious way, the system is going to treat those efforts like any other outside influence and do its best to neutralize them. Leaders should understand that genuine solutions require careful consideration of the possible short- and long-term outcomes to avoid the pitfalls that drain both the emotional and intellectual energy from their teams.
  
4. Seek to surface limiting beliefs.
A leader’s ability to make quality decisions and solve problems is directly proportional to her ability to suspend her judgment. If we look for the root cause of failed efforts or unproductive meetings, it is often tied to the biases, flawed mental models, or fears of those involved. The more that a leader surfaces her limiting beliefs, the more productive and supportive she will be at serving her teams and making the tough calls.
 
5. Seek to evolve a shared vision.
An idea can only gain momentum if others believe in it. That is, their hearts and minds need to be invested in the idea for it to take root and grow. Too often, leaders are moving too quickly and overlook the need for their team to evolve a vision together. When a leader seeks alternative perspectives and incorporates insights from others, only then do leaders realize the sustainable power of their team.
These practices are meant to help teams shed light on a situation by reframing it from different perspectives. Ultimately, these different perspectives improve thinking and increase the value that we—as a team or an individual—can bring to an organization.
 
Michael Vaughan is the author of “The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker.”He is the CEO and managing director of The Regis Company, whose leadership programs are designed to fundamentally change the way leaders think.