In today’s complex, fast-moving and uncertain world, getting smarter about thinking is the starting point for leaders to achieve goals more confidently.

But smart thinking does not mean simply being clever or seeking to apply facts or be rational. At its heart, it’s about individuals not letting themselves simply react to or decide things intuitively or impulsively and instead reflecting more consiously about situations or issues they face, looking at things from different angles, adopting an open and flexible mindset, trying to avoid distortions or biases, and also seeking input or support from other people or their organisation, where useful. The aim is to think about situations with more consious awareness and ‘control’ and harness the contributions of different perspectives, and so reach better, different, or more original solutions or decisions.

Sadly, good thinking skills are not an area of strength of most managers. One reason is that education systems in Western countries – including at universities – have tended to emphasize the acquisition and application of (existing) knowledge (what to know), rather than how to think and develop different thinking.

But, to prosper in today’s world – where intangibles and intellectual factors play a greater role in competition – leaders need to get smarter with their thinking.

This is what interests and drives us at Owen Morris. We believe that all organisations fundamentally run on thinking: every idea, intention or action first starts with a thought! But, vitally, we also believe that good thinking needs to connect with good leadership: nothing much gets done without the need to influence other people! Starting in organisations, crucially, with the need to provide people with a sense of direction and connect their individual thinking with that of the organisation as a whole (‘strategic’ leadership).

A stack of scientific research – particularly from the growing field of neuroscience – now clearly shows that what counts is how individuals use their brain, not so much what they know or think. Smart leaders are more aware of and manage carefully how they do their thinking.

So, what are some key factors that contribute to smart, effective thinking? Briefly, they include:

How leaders can be smart at thinking

a) Being aware of how people form their thoughts: fundamentally, thoughts are built on what individuals know, their experience in life, and, crucially, what their values and beliefs are. As we all have different life histories, each of us comes with a unique set of thoughts and opinions. In turn, crucially, these unique thoughts influence how a person feels about a topic and how they will perceive or interpret any given situation. Smart leaders appreciate this basic framework of how they and others form their thoughts and how it leads to people seeing things differently – and how, therefore, solving problems and making decisions in organisations needs usually to be treated very much as a social, shared process.

b) Adopting an ‘open’ mindset and outlook towards life: in particular, being attentive to what’s going on around you, staying curious, maintaining a positive mindset, and valuing learning and growing as an individual. Other, useful pyschological traits include, for example, the abilities to tolerate uncertainty and deal with ambiguity.

c) Being aware of how the brain can naturally distort and cause bias in perception and processing of information: an example of perception distortion is how the brain naturally seeks to create patterns in what it ‘sees’, whilst two examples of ‘cognitive’ bias are ‘confirmation bias’ (interpreting information in a way that doesn’t upset one’s existing beliefs) and ‘groupthink’ (going along with the majority view in a group to avoid appearing as an ‘outsider’). Smart leaders know how humans use instinct and intuition heavily for shaping opinions and decisions, and so they seek to introduce more conscious, rational thought, where needed, to reinforce or adjust intuitive thinking, in order to make wiser and more suitable decisions.

d) Leaders working their ‘whole’ brain by tapping their full diversity of thinking modes (styles). There’s never one single unique way to view any situation, so it’s usually important – especially for ‘big’ issues – to look at a situation from a few different ‘angles’ before making a decision. There are actually many different modes of thinking, but three basic categories are: ‘soft’ (intuitive) thinking, ‘hard’ (rational) thinking, and ‘meta-thinking’ (thinking about one’s thinking i.e. self-reflecting). Within this range, examples of specific modes that are commonly needed by leaders include analytical thinking, conceptual thinking, critical thinking, systems thinking, creative thinking, design thinking and strategic thinking. All leaders usually have their own preferred (default) style but, for optimum decision-making or problem-solving, they need to call upon different modes to suit different situations.

e) Leveraging the different thinking of others: Smart leaders amplify the power of their own varied thinking by also tapping the different thinking styles and erspectives – aswell as knowledge and experience – of other people. Here the key issue is seeking a range of people with a good level of ‘cognitive’ diversity, rather than only ‘identity’ diversity (which refers to socio-demographic traits like occupation, gender, ethnic group, and age). Provided the group of people has at least some degree of familiarity with the subject or situation in question, overall, thinking by a diverse group of people can can typically come up with a significantly wider spread of ideas and better thought-out solutions than an individual working alone – but the group discussion needs to be well-facilitated to ensure a balanced input from everyone.

f) Ensuring access to relevant and accurate information: Effective decisions can sometimes be made just by applying intuition or ‘gut’ feel – perhaps because time is very short or the individuals involved are very experienced with the issue concerned, but usually it is best to try and collect some actual information that can help guide leaders’ thinking. Information doesn’t have to be ‘hard’ data, of course, but can be ideas, opinions or feelings. Furthermore, it’s usually best to seek information from a variety of different positions or people (e.g. customers, employees, etc) relating to the issue: it can be particularly useful to consult people at the ‘periphery’, as their ‘outside-in’ anchor can often yield very different or original ideas.

g) Following a systematic approach for problem-solving / decision-making: Good thinking arises more likely when leaders follow an overall process that is reasonably structured and methodical and they make use, if they can, of relevant supportive tools and techniques to aid their thinking. A methodical process includes defined stages/steps for looking at and working through an issue – for example, definition of goal, analysis of the core issue, collection of data, development of options and so on. Examples of the vast range of possible thinking tools range from quantitiative statistical techniques to creative thinking methods.

h) Ensuring that individuals have a supportive working environment in which to think and make decisions: this means, for example, that individuals are given enough time, that they are able to meet up (if needed) in place that is suitably quiet and comfortable, and that they have the right type of support facilities e.g. computers, desk space, refreshments.

i) Following of generally supportive personal habits and routines: these include, notably, looking after one’s health well (e.g. getting enough sleep, exercising regularly); meeting regularly with different types of people (to come across different viewpoints); keeping up well with current affairs and key trends in society; travelling to different places and experiencing different types of situation regularly; and trying out new hobbies or interests (helps to keep the mind fresh).

Supporting all these valuable behaviours by leaders, there are various organisational characteristics which are helpful for aiding or fostering smarter thinking. One vital factor is having an organisational culture that values good thinking (for example, job descriptions refer to it; training/coaching is offered in thinking skills; and staff are recognised/rewarded for evidence of good thinking rather than just reacting to events). Another key factor is that the organisation is generous and open in distributing information across the organisation – about external as well as internal news and developments (e.g. market trends). Examples of other supportive features include: power and responsibility are distributed down across the organisation with staff being empowered to make decisions; multiple opportunities for staff from different departments to discuss ideas and work together, and flexible and agile IT systems and operational processes. Complementing such organisational traits are, obviously, various key management processes e.g. robust management performance reporting methods and extensive use of customer/market research.

Being strategic

For the senior managers in an organisation, thinking strategically is particularly important. By this we mean the ability to look at situations from broad, rounded and long-term perspectives and so identify issues and new opportunities for solving a problem or achieving a goal. Strategic thinking underpins, of course, organisational strategy-making and business planning: but equally strategic thinking can actually help individuals at all levels in an organisation.

Strategy at organisational-level was traditionally treated as a periodic, analysis-based exercise, handled only by top managers and resulting in a detailed ‘multi-year’ plan. But this approach, of course, no longer suits the pace of today’s world. Instead, strategy today needs to be a much more active, faster-moving process, and importantly, connect with and engage across many different stakeholder groups (centering usually around an inspiring framework of organisational ‘purpose‘, vision, values, and long-term goals, which leaders need to ‘sell’ to people by relating to hearts as well as minds and, ideally, matching individuals’ own purpose with that of the organisation). It’s definitely a case of leading people strategically, not just managing a strategy!

Some other key features of the modern strategy process include: anticipating customer needs rather than waiting to react to them; keeping strategy lean and flexible (a directional framework, not detailed plans); following a continual (often ‘agile’) process of trying out new ideas and initiatives; and close involvement of customers and other stakeholders along the way. Also, strategy itself crucially needs to link closely with ‘softer’ organisational and people issues, including: structure, culture, ‘meaningful’ jobs, communications, learning and change processes.

Owen Morris: strategic and management support facilitators

We can provide expert support across all the different areas of thinking and strategic leadership referred to above. At the same time, we’ll bring you that vital stimulus and input of an ‘outside-in’ perspective to complement and support your own team’s thinking and work.

Areas of ‘thinking’ support, for example, include: defining and structuring problems or issues to be addressed; designing an overall thinking and decision-making process; selecting and applying suitable cognitive tools and methods; planning and obtaining relevant data or intelligence; and, of course, facilitating group discussions.

On the strategy front, we can assist with the development, testing and implementation of all levels of strategy – from the corporate/organisational level down to individual business unit, function or department. Helping you also to ensure all the different organisational ‘threads’ and people issues are thought about and planned carefully together.

Complementary to these areas of support, we also provide 1:1 coaching and mentoring in thinking, strategic and wider leadership skills, together with advice and coaching to help the effectiveness of individual teams or groups.

Read more about us here on the Owen Morris website. We are confident we can be of strong value to your organisation’s thinking and strategic leadership.

Contact us today and open up your organisation’s thinking to a brighter future!