Why Quality of Thinking Is So Important

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Some facts are chilling. Consider this one: the quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first. It is chilling because its implications are enormous. The critical takeaway is that there is nothing – nothing—more important in developing organizational effectiveness than ensuring that people think for themselves with rigor, imagination, and courage. Every day, in every meeting, and in every interaction.

It begs the question: In hierarchical structures often driven by the alternation between reward and reprisal, what does it take for people to think clearly and for themselves? And how do we find the time?

The answer is not in our innate intelligence, education, experience, or power. It is not even the amount of time we allot to thinking. The main factor in whether or not people can think clearly for themselves is the way they are being treated by the people with them while they are thinking. The impact of our behavior on people’s ability to think is, whether we realize it or not, that big.

The ability to hold our attention is a meditative and psychological tool that helps us perceive the subtle patterns continuously occurring between others and ourselves. These patterns determine our behavior and the automatic ways in which we react. When we do not hold our attention we cannot be fully aware of our impact, nor can we perceive the unconscious subtle pulls continually placed upon us by others.

When we hear or watch any story, our brains go wholly into perceiving mode, turning off the systems for acting or planning to act, and with them go our ability to see reality clearly. This is one reason why humans have such trouble recognizing lies. First, we believe what we are told. Then, we have to make a conscious effort to assemble facts and disbelieve. Only when we stop perceiving to think about what we have seen or heard, only then do we assess its truth-value.

In other words, we have to fight the tendency to form opinions immediately, work to deconstruct what we’ve learned, and reconstruct it through a more objective stance.


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Why Learning to Learn Well Is Fundamental to Our Survival

You can’t blink now without seeing articles on the pace of change, exponential growth, or the need to innovate. Over 60% of all executives now believe disruption will hit their industries hard in the next year. Artificial Intelligence will only accelerate this momentum. The majority of organizations have recognized that company culture, as it impacts decision making and strategic integration, is a major driver of successful transformation. People know change is coming, but do not have the skills and support to drive the transformation. It doesn’t matter the industry – management consultingfinancial serviceseducation. Everyone’s at risk.

Then, there are these old chestnuts…

  • The only constant is change.
  • People don’t resist change; they resist being changed.
  • Change before you have to.

The problem is that organizations of all sizes can be challenged on how to cope with change. All wrestle with their reality and go through denial about the need to change.

Enter the field of change management.

Change management has its origins in the 1960’s when business was much more predictable. As a formal discipline, it has been around since the 1990’s. However, references to change and change management can be found in the psychological literature more than 40 years earlier. Psychologists described “change” as the unfreezing, moving, and refreezing of thoughts or behaviors. These developments described how people internalized change and their experience with it, though the researchers did not apply these concepts to an organizational setting.

In the 1990s the topic of change and change management was applied to organizations, and managers and leaders took notice of the new groundswell of articles and books such as John Kotter’s “Leading Change”, and Spencer Johnson’s “Who Moved My Cheese”.

Most change models are still based on old-school thinking, tools, and techniques. No wonder 70% of all change efforts fail. In the past, leaders had months and years to implement change. Now, change needs to be understood and addressed at the moment while it is occurring. The response to change needs to be implemented in days and weeks.

Three Barriers to Learning to Learn Well That Impact Our Ability to Respond to Change

Here are three barriers to learning, common behaviors that lead to beliefs we all succumb, that I believe account for the failure of our ability to contend with change:

Barrier: We are biologically wired to be afraid of uncertainty.   Belief: Change is bad.
When confronted with the choice to continue with the status quo or accept change, few us will opt for change. We like to stick with what we believe works. Behavioral psychology explains why we think change is bad:

  • Change is a threat.
  • Threat leads to a loss of food.
  • Loss of food leads to death.

So you notice things changing in the world (the robots are coming, the politics are more polarized than ever) and you’re one step to it all being all over.

So we learn a trick or two that works and we use those tricks over and over.

Inertia makes it hard to turn. What gives us this momentum, gives us power: that’s the power of scale. Scale is a force. When we have committed our lives to going in a straight line, and a revolution comes along requiring us to take a turn, we don’t understand the new strategy and paradigms it’s creating, or the tactics it requires, we get left behind.

CONSIDER: What is shifting in our culture is the death of the industrial age. That is at the heart of all the shifts going on. Having a solid understanding of strategy (understanding the systems in play), tactics (the skills and capabilities required to manipulate strategy), and emotional labor (caring enough to really fail at something) are how we make a difference in the world. There’s so much confusion now in the business world, a world that 50 years ago had virtually no confusion, about these three concepts, but we rarely separate them into these three different groups of problems and work them together.


Barrier: We accept artificial replacements for actual experiences   Belief: Change Is Fixed and Linear
In order to make sense of complex concepts, we use models to simplify our understanding. We seek templates, models, and prototypes versus gaining direct involvement with the problems we are trying to solve. In doing so, we give up proximity to the particulars in favor of distance and simplification. When describing complexity, most change management frameworks assume that the process of change is linear. Here are several examples. They all have a beginning, middle, and end because that is how we understand things.

Losing proximity to the nuances of the problem we are trying to solve and the need for simplicity in how we think run counter to the ongoing learning that needs to occur when reckoning with change. We can no longer give up proximity to the particulars of these issues in favor of distance and simplification.

CONSIDER: We need to remind ourselves to engage with the actual substance of a problem, not just a model. This requires us to revisit goals and strategies based on the learning that occurs from the process of intervening in the change itself. Moving fast requires creating feedback loops so you can adjust as needed based on what you see and experience – not by following a step by step approach with little flexibility. Like Design Thinking, it may be useful to jump back to a previous step and do it over based on what’s been learned.


Barrier: The values of formal education, advancing technology, and limitless expansion of global corporations stand between us and the learner’s mind. Belief: Change Has Clear End States
The values within the structures we embrace emphasize efficiency, mechanization, standardization, and automation—enabling powerful forces that drive production, convenience, and reliability. They seek the ‘right answer’ to a prescribed question. The inertia behind these values drives towards homogenization. Values of standardization tend to generate problems with relatively clear end states. If something isn’t efficient, troubleshooting persists until the wrinkle is smooth and systems run according to plan.

We have a bias to concluding what we start. We need closure. This bias runs counter to truly gaining the intimacy needed with complex problems.

While the systems designed to support us have enhanced our lives, they are breaking down. Systems of scale allow more of us to do more than any one of us could do alone. And, they also block. With convenience, we have less need to master feeling, judgment, and sensing. We don’t even see it happening. Slowly we lose the capacity to troubleshoot the machines that support us. Process replaces feel; rules replace judgment; policy replaces our need to think critically. When ambiguous questions arise, we have less practice with the struggle of finding solutions. In the name of stability and convenience, we lose the opportunity to engage the problem with any meaningful intimacy.

CONSIDER: When we address change, we typically focus on assessing the current state, defining the desired end state, and then bridging the gaps between the two via a gap analysis. This approach offers a logical end state. The ideal future is defined at the start of the change process and everything done from that point on hammers it home. But how often do people, or organizations, or economies freeze for the time you are working on your solution? In short, there is no closure. The environment you operate in is not fixed, but an emerging ecology that needs to be tended and responded to. Neither the pace of change nor disruptive technology will wait for you to implement your change. Customers don’t wait around either. Change processes that myopically focus on a pre-defined future risk having that future disrupted before it arrives.




Embracing the emotional labor of change, gaining proximity to the nuances of the problem we are trying to solve, and questioning the explicit and implicit values that guide the structures in which we reckon with tension, are the forces we need to embrace in order to learn to learn well. Change, real change, demands that we really integrate the idea of ongoing learning. Superbugs, homelessness, inequality, and global warming are all examples of ongoing, complex problems that can’t be solved without changing our beliefs:

OPPORTUNITY v Threat: We can learn to respond and not react. We can learn to reframe threats into challenges and opportunities. The threat-challenge idea and its effects may rest on the assumption that people are prone to consistently interpret situations as a threat or a challenge based on their life experiences. But that doesn’t mean that this tendency is a life sentence that we always think this way. If you actively re-frame stressful situations as challenges and your elevated heart rate as excitement, you can improve your health, well-being, and performance level, all at the same time.

ADAPTIVE v Fixed. Business as ‘unusual’ will not feel natural at first. At some point, we might even need new words to describe it. Eventually, we will need to reinvent what it means to lead or to work in an organization. To be as close to creative problem solving as possible you must learn to improvise and adapt. You can no longer pay lip service to these terms. To improvise means “to work with what is available.” It is the antithesis to preparation. To adapt means “to adjust to new conditions.” Both infer the need to respond to a shift in the environment around you. The opportunity for you is to be that agent of evolution. Waiting for the DNA to evolve will take too long. A random feature that is created when a strand of DNA, or an idea, is altered and then transferred creates a mutation. Seeking or creating positive mutations can increase an organization’s resilience to change.

INFINITE v FINITE:  Complexity needs to be managed, not solved. That means we need to get adept at managing and leveraging tension between two opposing forces: open/closed; stability/innovation, etc.  Leveraging is about getting more with less. When you go too far to one side, you lose out on the benefits of the other.

James Carse summarizes his argument in Finite and Infinite Games,

There are at least two kinds of games: finite and infinite. Finite games are those instrumental activities – from sports to politics to wars – in which the participants obey rules, recognize boundaries and announce winners and losers. The infinite game – there is only one – includes any authentic interaction, from touching to culture, that changes rules, plays with boundaries and exists solely for the purpose of continuing the game. A finite player seeks power; the infinite one displays self-sufficient strength. Finite games are theatrical, necessitating an audience; infinite ones are dramatic, involving participants.

We are slowly acknowledging that we are in an infinite game, playing by old rules. We will never solve the complex problems that plague us today with the tools that got is here. We have to build new tools, which require a different way of thinking.



Finding a Mentor



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Today I was working with someone focused on a job transition.  She asked a question I hear frequently from clients who know that mentorship is important to their careers but don’t know how to engage them.

She asked:

Thinking about THE job (not just any job), I have worked through all your recommendations but mentorship. I’m stalled out. When I look at peers with similar career goals, many are now big successes in the industry, but find myself hesitant in approaching them and asking for help. I don’t want to be perceived as needy. But my hesitation also stems from not really knowing the right phrases to use that would make them want to engage. I need your help in this area and so I can follow-through of this job hunting step.

This is an important question. So many people I speak to are struggling in their approach to finding mentors and are ending up disappointed, frustrated, or confused.

Here are some insights I can share about finding great mentors and making the most of the help you receive:

1. Work inside out. 

To find great mentors, you don’t want to reach out to people outside your network. That’s not how you’ll find them. Generally speaking, when you find the right mentor, it is obvious. Chasing or forcing a connection rarely works.

Start inside out. Find mentors among the people you’re already interacting and working with now. They need to be people to whom you have already demonstrated your potential. They know how you think, act, communicate and contribute. They have to like, trust and believe in you already (why else would they help you?). They also need to believe with absolute certainty that you’ll make use of all their input and feedback.

Strangers (or those who’ve become “big” successes, as the individual above mentions) will virtually always have to say “no” to mentoring requests from strangers. Why? Because their time is already spoken for, and they’re drowning in similar requests. Secondly, they don’t have a relationship with you, and therefore can’t know how you operate or if it’s a great investment of their time to help you.

Find your mentors among the people you know who are 10 steps ahead of you in your field, role, or industry, doing what you want to, in the way you want to. Connect with new people who you can help, and who will find it a mutually-rewarding and beneficial experience to support you. If you don’t know of any inspiring people that fit this bill, you need to go out and find them. Here are some great tips from Kerry Hannon about finding a mentor, and from Judy Robinett about networking that generates amazing results.

2. Connect

Develop a relationship. Start small.  Follow their work. Be helpful and supportive. Be generous. Tweet out their posts, comment in a positive way on their blogs, share their updates, start a discussion on LinkedIn drawing on their post, refer new clients or business to them, and the list goes on. In short, offer your unique voice, perspectives, experiences, and resources to further the action and conversation that these influencers have sparked. Understand that you are able to be of service to them, and go out and do it. Be a builder. Build on their foundation and extend it.

Don’t ask for mentoring directly.

3. Prepare.

Attracting mentoring has a lot to do with how you operate in your career and your life. Would you want to mentor you? Are you open, flexible, resilient, respectful? Are you eager to learn? Are you committed to adjusting how you interact in the world so you can achieve your goals?

You have to be in process. A car going 60 miles an hour is faster than one starting from 0-60. Be someone who is already actively building his/her career. Demonstrate that every day, to yourself first.

  • Be great at what you do; people want to invest in someone with momentum.
  • Ask for more responsibility.
  • Know how you can contribute.
  • Be prepared, volunteer.
  • Promote others’ successes.
  • Build a support network by learning what others do and how you can help them succeed.

4. Empathize.

Walk a mile their shoes. If you were in their seat, what would you want to see from this individual asking for help? If you had multiple requests for help every day, what type of person would YOU choose to assist, and why? Go out and become that person that others would love to support and nurture.

The bottom line?

The answers to all your networking and career-building questions aren’t as far away as they seem. They’re right inside of you. Sometimes that can seem like an unsatisfying answer since we look outside ourselves most of the time.

Imagining yourself in the shoes of those you deeply respect and admire, who’ve had fabulous success in the same ways you want it helps point you in the right direction. Then imagine your “future self” already achieving this tremendous success. Ask your future self what to do. And always conduct yourself — in life and in work — as one who is doing all that’s necessary to attract (and offer) fabulous, high-level help and support.