open to think | Book Review

“We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea
that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives
won’t catch up with us.”
(p. 23)

Dan Pontefract’s timely work, subtitled Slow Down, Think Creatively, and Make Better Decisions, is necessary reading for the manager/leader who typically feels rushed and mostly reacts to external events throughout the day.

Many of Pontefract’s observations coincide with knowledge sharing, reminding us of Pfeffer and Sutton’s The Knowing-Doing Gap. He reminds us that we should recognize that our thinking is only as good as our ability to continually challenge our thinking and question (p. 4). Pontefract delineates three phases of thinking: Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking, and Applied Thinking (p. 4).

This includes feedback:

“If I am not regularly asking team members for feedback on an idea,
what does that say about my own personal level of thinking?”
(p. 14) 

Pontefract illustrates the Open Thinking (p. 18):

open to think graphic .png

mindset as engaged, purpose-driven, and innovative (p. 16). 

David DiSalvo, author of What Makes Your Brain Happy, states, “We experience habits as patterns of thought and behavior imbued with automaticity. Automaticity – a sort of internal momentum that no longer needs overt, conscious fuel to keep going — is the result of learning…” (p. 19). Translation: We need to get out of our comfort zone by taking deliberate action. The alternative – stuck in the habit of vacillating – demonstrates Indecisive Thinking (p. 20). An incisive reflection is shared by Lisa Helps (mayor of Victoria, p. 33): “I do think the greatest barrier in our society is a lack of genuine dialogue and critical practice. There is a massive lack of empathy out there…”

Pontefract’s three thinking phases, and their connection to Academy Leadership development programs, form the basis of this review.

creative thinking | reflection | journaling | coaching

At the beginning of a typical Academy Leadership Excellence Course, most attendees become very quiet when asked about keeping a leadership journal. Likely this also indicates a lack of reflection. As leaders, we should consider the effect on employee engagement (including our own) when reflection and subsequent journaling do not occur.

Pontefract offers Chuck Noland’s (the main character in Castaway played by Tom Hanks) compulsiveness, obsessiveness and addiction to work as typical of so many people today (p. 41). Noland would score rather low, like most attendees, during the self-evaluation portion of our Setting Leadership Priorities workshop.

What can we do differently? Consider daydreaming, as researchers have discovered that when people are working on a difficult objective, it is better for them to work on something that promotes mind-wandering first (p. 52). Foster creativity. Musician Joel Plaskett teaches us that if we fail to capture the nonsense that pops into our heads, we are missing out on the possibility of new ideas (p. 87).

A positive, performance coaching mindset also helps. Research conducted in 2009 by academics Jim Nam Choi, Troy Anderson, and Anick Veillette and published in Group & Organizational Management found that leaders who demonstrate unfavorable behavior toward an employee end up repressing that individual’s ability to think creatively (p. 59). We shut them down.  Remember your worst boss? We’ve probably all experienced an energy loss from a negative interaction before. Pontefract shares: “…it takes five positive interactions to undo every bad one: ‘bad interactions have stronger, more pervasive, and longer-lasting effects.’” (p. 56). This is one reason so many leave lousy supervisors, rather than companies.

Imagine a positive, Open Thinking mindset permeating throughout a business. Peter Senge, author, systems scientist, and senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management (p. 70) offers a definition:

“A learning organization is an organization that is
continuously expanding its capacity to create its future.”

We love Pixar films, probably because Open Thinking is part of their culture. Ed Catmull explains how important this is: “Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization.” (p. 74)

critical thinking | leadership philosophy

At the beginning of a Leader’s Compass workshop, we emphasize differences between effective vs. efficient, and further that effectiveness results from doing the right things, in order of priority. Let’s take that a bit further and ask what guides our choices; or how do we know what the right thing to do is?

The answer lies in our individual or organizational core values. Interestingly, Netflix has nine listed values, and the first is concerned with Critical Thinking, and is referred to as “Judgement:”

• You make wise decisions (people, technical, business, and creative) despite ambiguity.
• You identify root causes, and get beyond treating symptoms.
• You think strategically, and can articulate what you are, and are not, trying to do.
• You smartly separate what must be done well now, and what can be improved later. 

In the context of our leadership philosophy, this single core value contains operational principles, expectations and (possibly) commitment to feedback (improvement).

Doing the right thing often means overcoming conflict avoidance, and internal pressure to “look the other way.” Pontefract showcases whistleblower Tyler Schultz’s experience at Theranos:

“Fraud is not a trade secret. I refuse to allow bullying, intimidation,
and threat of legal action to take away from my First Amendment
right to speak out against wrongdoing.”
(p. 102)

Besides committing to a written leadership philosophy, how may we improve upon “doing the right thing?” Author Daniel Goleman explains in his 2013 book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, that improving executive function can assist attention control, self-discipline, and temptation (p. 114). Pontefract calls out four key attributes as executive functions (pp. 176-177):

• Be Mindful: Taking the time to regularly jot down impressions, observations, and analyses of actions and projects currently being worked on will serve as useful reminders at a future date (pp. 180-181). 
• Be Attentive: Jesse Sostrin (Harvard Business Review) Reflective urgency is “the ability to bring conscious, rapid reflection to the priorities of the moment – to align your best thinking with the swiftest course of action.” (p. 184)
• Be Ruthless: It becomes impossible to prioritize key actions if we allow any or all actions to invade our schedule (p. 188). 
• Be Humane: Three types of empathy can assist you in reaching the desired goal: rational empathy, emotional empathy, and sympathetic empathy (p. 195). The Center for Creating Leadership (CCL) found: 

“The research shows there is no other single leadership skill
that is more important and yet, in today’s culture, empathy
is near extinction.”
(p. 198)

The more we practice these four attributes, the better leader we will become. We should endeavor cultivating curiosity, and the earlier the better. Pontefract finds that if young people are not exposed to Critical Thinking skills from an early age, they progress from formal education to the workplace quick to judge and eager to act but ill-equipped to reflect and make informed decisions (p. 118). How often do we encounter (or become) the opposite: The arrogant and ignorant boss?

applied thinking | purpose-driven leadership

As a fourteen-year old working as a dishwasher (elaborately called Dish Machine Operator, or DMO) at a Sambo’s restaurant, I noticed that the most effective waitress, Jeanine, moved the slowest, interacted most with customers, and also received (by far) the most tips. Edward de Bono, author of Six Thinking Hats, wrote (p. 163): “Activity is not the same as effectiveness. A skilled sportsman seems to have more time and to do things more slowly than the less skilled one.”

This seems counterintuitive, until we consider priorities. Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less captures the process well:

”Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying
to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your
highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”
(p. 165) 

When completing the task overtakes the things that really matter, such as safety, bad things may happen, as Pontefract vividly retells the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster story. 

Pontefract equates Open Thinking with “flow,” (see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) since an Open Thinker may appear to be working effortlessly but behind the scenes they are continuously balancing effort versus output. They are examining the requirements to be a productive Applied Thinker (p. 175).

open thinking

Pontefract found Open Thinkers were always learning, (p. 209) and that their curiosity seemed almost infinite. It’s as though we need to teach ourselves to slow down, stop reacting all the time, and ask questions first. John Dalla Costa suggested the secret to Open Thinking lies in our ability to spend less time fixated on “what we do” than in investing time to understand “why we are doing what we do.” (p. 217) 

Dalla Costa recommends Open Thinkers demonstrate the following three traits as they work with others throughout the Open Thinking cycle (p. 217):

• Courage: to escape the timidity of what we know to bravely connect the new thinking of others to our own heart and insight.
• Responsibility: the ability to respond with integrity and care to new data when working with others.
• Fairness: to balance appreciation with critique, and to accept or forgive failures as the cost of innovation and experimentation. 

We can think of these traits as a Dalla Costa leadership philosophy.

Pontefract summarizes ten essential guidelines on pages 232-233 to finish the book, with the last one offering an appropriate closing:

“Open Thinkers continuously dream, decide, and do, for it is those
who close themselves off that suffer the ignominy of regret.”
(p. 233)

Note: Dan Pontefract generously provided a copy of his book for review.

JE | December 2018