Power Up: 3 ways to get teams thinking better by thinking more about thinking.


Just before the Christmas break our VP asked for a handwritten letter from direct reports. The letters had to include three things: 1) identify one main goal for the year and its purpose 2) how you would know this time next year that you have achieved your goal and 3) what resources and/or support you will need or roadblocks removed in order to achieve your goal.

Seems simple enough.

I have to say, it was one of the more challenging exercises I have had to complete but took away several valuable insights.

First was that I hadn’t used my brain properly in a while. As crazy as it sounds, hear me out.

As a project manager, I often type up project charters and communication plans and gather baseline and result data. Although my team spends time hypothesizing, forecasting and predicting, its most likely done in a few hour-long meetings, which focus on action and implementation of a project. We often neglect to take the time for deep project reflection and how our own thoughts, decisions, and roles played out during the process.

The second thing that opened my eyes, and probably the most important, was when I had to identify resources I needed and barriers I wanted lifted to achieve my goal. I have access to top PM programs and leading technology at my fingertips. Our processes aren’t perfect but for the most part are solid. What I found myself listing as resources and barriers were people. I needed buy-in and support from certain team members and also a shift in the way I interact with the team. I was a barrier too, whether it’s giving up control of certain aspects or improving my approach to decision-making.

At the end of the day, how we think is the key to success (as totally cliché as that sounds). In both our personal and professional lives, the way we approach thinking can make a positive or negative impact on results.

Critical thinking is a muscle that needs to be exercised. It is also one of the most sought after ‘super powers’ for employers. I say ‘super powers’ because many employers feel it’s a rare quality. In fact, 60% of hiring managers feel candidates lack the ability to think critically and problem solve. But unlike a super power, critical thinking is attainable by anyone and, much like creativity, needs practice and work.

Imagine a team comprised of individuals each bringing a unique skillset but all possessing the power of effective thinking and problem solving.

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Okay, while you may not be the Avengers, here are 3 things you can do to get your teams thinking better by having them think more about thinking:

Identify how each person in your team thinks

While streamlining processes is important to achieving goals, interpersonal skills within professional settings are detrimental to success. Often times it is not the process but the relationships that create roadblocks and silos despite having outlined strong action plans.

Much like a personality, we all have a different way of thinking or looking at a problem. Have team members take the time to identify what type of thinker they are. Remember, there isn’t a wrong way of thinking and understanding how you and individuals in your team think will create more productive and effective interactions.

There are several theories on thinking styles out there. While all concepts are different, the point is to identify how your brain processes, interprets, and reacts to information.

This is not a plug for Whole Brain® Thinking but this brief intro gets to the core of why you need to identify and understand each team member’s thinking style.

Make critical thinking a habit

We all come to the table with our own opinions, life experiences, and intentions. What teams can work on together is how to think critically when it comes to approaching situations. Critical thinking requires observation and the use of facts for objective decision-making.

While in an ideal world we would like to take the time to deeply think about each project, that just isn’t reality. I believe in being honest with expectations so start with two key projects this year and exercise your critical thinking skills as a team.

Before putting together a charter or A3, sit in a room and work through the Elements of Thought.

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Assign the scribe role to someone that has no investment in the project to take notes or record so your team can focus on the thought process. The first time may be difficult but eventually, it will become second nature and hopefully habitual. Team members will soon know the right order of thought and questions to ask for every situation they face.

Get out the paper and get personal

Emotion has no place in the workplace! Right?!

Actually, emotions play a huge role in our day-to-day work lives, good and bad. And if you work with humans, I have news for you, you are in the business of dealing with emotions whether you like it or not.

Even Spock has an emotional side.

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Get your direct reports a journal. Yup, do it. Next employee appreciation month you know exactly what you are going to gift them.

Not only will it be an invaluable tool but it also shows your team that you value their thoughts and emotions in the workplace. (FYI, this is never for you or anyone else to read.) This is purely for your team members to use as a way to get out opinions, thoughts, and emotions on paper and serve as a private reflection tool.

A mid-year review, a huge client presentation, or an amazing team win – encourage team members to journal. You can provide a writing prompt or have them come up with one of their own. Journey Cloud breaks reflective writing down into three simple steps:

Source: Journey Cloud

While journaling is helpful no matter the method, I can’t stress enough the benefits of writing by hand – deeper comprehension, creativity, focus, stimulation, and mental clarity.

Crossing out phrases, revising, erasing, tearing out/crumpling up paper, and starting again are a physical representation and investment of meaningful thinking. Hand writing your thoughts is crucial to the process, and has a powerful impact on your train of thought. It forces you to really zone in and absorb what you are thinking and feeling. Plus, it’s great to unplug.

I know you and your teams are super busy and you may not be able to go fully into deep thinking about thinking better. But I encourage you to implement at least one practice as we enter our new normal and power up your teams with ways to think more productively. 

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