How to Build Effective Teams through Critical and Creative Thinkingby J. Allyn Bradford
Just beneath the surface of polite behavior in most meetings there lurks a primitive---even savage---struggle for turf and power. Emerging concepts get lost in hidden, underground conflicts. Good ideas are attacked and destroyed even before they are understood. Useful thoughts are prematurely cut off by interruptions unconnected to previous statements. Most of what happens in meetings is a colossal waste of time and energy.
One exasperated manager told me recently that in most of the meetings she attends, 95% of the time is caught up in jockeying for power and other such activities unrelated to the purpose of the meeting. "All this stuff just gets in the way," she said. Another told me, "So often we spend more than half our meeting time just wandering. It's a wonder anything ever gets done !"
When people learn how to think intelligently together, a transformation takes place. Instead of wasting time in subversive power struggles, they begin to interact with mutual respect and stay focused on the purpose of the meeting.
This issue is of sufficient importance in the business world that several major colleges and universities are now gearing up to offer programs in Critical and Creative Thinking specifically tailored for the business community. UMass Boston has even created a special committee to bring the resources of their Critical and Creative Thinking Graduate Program to the greater Boston business community.
Critical and Creative Thinking
What is Critical and Creative Thinking ? According to Robert Ennis, a leading authority on the subject, "Critical thinking is reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do" (Ennis p.10). Richard Paul, another prominent leader in this field, says, "The elements of thought are clarification of purpose, use of probing questions, establishing a frame of reference (or point of view), verification of assumptions, stating implications and drawing inferences or conclusions" (Paul pp. 208-210). As for creative thinking, George Prince, one of the masters of this art, says that to have creativity take place we need to "be optimistic, assume valuable implications, protect vulnerable beginnings, give early support, share the risk, deal as an equal, temporarily suspend disbelief, share the burden of proof, focus on what is going for an idea and assume it can be done" (Prince and Prince p.12). Creative thinking is really an integral part of critical thinking and vice versa. They are like two sides of the same coin.
When people actively apply critical thinking concepts and constructively use creative behaviors, they develop more ideas, make fewer mistakes and reach better decisions. But when people act on beliefs they have not carefully thought through, they will shoot down ideas even before they are understood, or take action based on faulty assumptions. The result is often a business disaster.
We have all seen the business located in the wrong spot, the product nobody wants, the specially designed commercial real estate now empty and up for sale and the results of other bad decisions which came from lack of careful thought. When we see them we wonder, "How could anyone make such a foolish mistake ?" The solution to problems of this kind can be found in teamwork which allows for plenty of open and honest give and take, along with imaginative and free interplay of ideas, plus challenging responses which sharpen insights, clarify assumptions and test beliefs.
Teams Can Learn to Think
Teams, as well as individuals, can learn how to think more effectively. Of course, changes or improvements in the way teams think do not happen overnight. But with sufficient coaching and practice, teams can gradually change as they learn to apply really sound thinking concepts in meetings and in everyday situations. We have all seen how this can happen in team sports, as a team goes from the awkwardness of early training to high performance later in the season.
When such a transformation occurs in a business team, one realizes that good thinking requires good listening. That means not just listening for the flaw or weakness in another person's idea, but listening with empathy to understand the thoughts another person is trying to develop. When his or her ideas are fully understood, the strengths and weaknesses can be sorted out and perhaps built up into viable and useful strategies to the benefit of everyone involved.
Good thinking can hardly take place in an atmosphere that is rife with conflict and antagonism. If people shout accusations at each other, there is little chance for a reasonable approach. And though conflict usually happens more subtly than in a shouting match, the effect is the same. For reason to prevail, it is essential to have an environment which is conducive to critical and creative thinking. This requires a process which encourages high quality thinking and also prevents it from being stifled.
An Environment for Thinking
There are, of course, many methods to create such an environment. Here's an example of one which was used with a key group at a major art museum in Boston. The purpose of the meeting was to find ways to increase the museum clientele and to gain additional interest and support from the community. The process I used was designed to help this group think critically and creatively as a team.
I started by asking the members of this group to identify their goals and concerns by putting them on Post-it pads--you know, those little yellow "stickies"--writing with heavy, black pens so the words could be easily seen. The team members had many goals and concerns to write down. We then put them up on a board for all to see.
That process set out everyone's thoughts clearly before us. There was no nit picking or put-downs. As the inputs of each individual in the group became understood, an image of the total problem started to fall into place. We began to establish a point of view for this group.
The next step was to put the Post-it "stickies" together in natural clusters. At first the group's leader began to take charge of this part of the process, but I intervened and asked the whole group to get involved.
We then, as a group, named each of these clusters as they appeared in the constellation on the board and indicated with arrows how each part related to the others. Suddenly, there emerged a map of where we saw this organization going and how this group would like to bring about constructive change. In line with principles of critical and creative thinking, implications could then be clearly seen, assumptions checked out and ideas developed which were based on informed beliefs.
Keeping in mind--and we could see it right there on the board--how important it was to maintain balance and harmony among the many interconnected parts of the organization, we then chose one of the identified clusters to start working on with a structured problem solving process.
The group chose to focus on one specific area. This was finding ways to reach out and bring in an important ethnic sector of society which was not currently visiting the art museum. One person volunteered to take responsibility for on-going work with the area chosen. I then asked the group to create "an environment of wishes" regarding this issue. The wishes gave us new perspectives on the problem.
Here we were following such creative minds as George Prince who said, "Giving myself permission to wish puts to sleep my judgment and negative caution and activates my courage to dare", and William Blake, the poet, who said, "What is now proved, was once only imagined".
We then selected the most promising wishes and looked for examples of how they have been fulfilled in other times and places. This activity led to new insights and new approaches and opened up new lines of speculation. From the early ideas, which emerged by dint of careful and constructive listening and building, we developed several new strategies. Among these were specific ways to open up lines of communication within the organization, develop support from community leadership outside and find methods for training mentors and guides to help bring in the potentially interested clients.
The implementation of these plans was to be spearheaded by the one who had agreed to take responsibility for the problem. Group members offered to lend their support to that person and stated specifically what they intended to do.
All this would not have happened without empathic listening and a systematic process designed to help people think together rationally and creatively.
Validation Builds Team Rapport
Productive meetings don't just happen. They require leadership which is sensitive to the need for a climate in which a rational and creative group process can take place. A team needs such leadership just as in a family, a parent is needed to keep the bigger kids from squelching the littler ones.
No matter how politely they are done, put-downs are put-downs and have a negative effect. These occur when people subtly pull rank, quietly disapprove, offer veiled threats, and so on. Negative responses reduce motivation and commitment. For example, when someone says, however nicely, "Tom, I'm afraid you just don't understand" Tom will resent it and withdraw because he feels invalidated.
When a team learns how to work together well by using behaviors that support a rational process, trust builds and along with it a sense of mutual acceptance, validation and support. Teamwork can then become meaningful---and even fun---because members feel accepted and valued. Creative and rational activity expand when people feel safe from ridicule and know they no longer have to keep a low profile for fear of getting shot down.
A Device for Suspending Judgment
One of the most effective ways to encourage good thinking in meetings was shown to me by Lori Kent, a graduate of the Critical and Creative Thinking Program at UMass Boston. It is a simple, but highly effective device that helps people suspend judgment in meetings so they can listen better. Anyone can put one together. It is made with a wire coat hanger, a piece of string, a block of wood and a strip of cardboard. You simply write the word JUDGMENT on the strip of cardboard in large, bold letters. Attach a piece of string to it. Straighten out the coat hanger and cut it, so it's a wire shaft about two feet in length. Bend the piece of coat hanger so it has a hook at the end of the wire shaft. Drill a hole into the block of wood and insert the bottom of the shaft into it. The sign is then suspended from the hook.
I keep one of these devices on my desk to remind me of the need to listen carefully and without premature judgment to my own thoughts as well as to thoughts expressed by others. I also bring these devices to meetings I facilitate and give these graphic reminders away to participants and friends.
Of course, "suspending judgment" does not mean "withholding judgment". It just means holding judgment back long enough to be able to understand what's being expressed. Good judgment has to be used in making intelligent, informed decisions. Tough decisions have to be made. But good judgment is most effective after issues have been clearly stated, fully explored and rationally understood, not before!
Perhaps at your next meeting (if you're willing to suspend judgment on this idea) you might bring out one of these devices and explain that you are asking your team members to "suspend judgment" as you place the sign on the wire hook. It's kind of fun, and it does a lot to prevent good ideas from being prematurely shot down as the message dangles before your team.
The use of critical and creative thinking enables teams to develop the positive insights and ideas that become the constructive basis for action. Not only will your team be happier and more motivated if you use these concepts and behaviors, but you will also have shorter and more productive meetings.
J. Allyn Bradford is a consultant, specializing in Team Effectiveness, who has worked with over 25 major corporations in the US and abroad. © Allyn Bradford
Robert J. Ennis, "A Taxonomy of Critical Thinking Dispositions and Abilities", pp.9-26, in Baron and Sternberg, Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice, 1987, W.H. Freeman and Company, New York.
Richard W. Paul, Critical Thinking, How to Prepare Students for a Rapidly Changing World,1993, Foundation for Critical Thinking, Santa Rosa, CA.
George Prince and Kathleen Logan-Prince, The Mind-Free® Program, A Group Process for Learning and Renegotiating Self-Imposed Limitations, Unit 4,1993,
The Mind-Free® Development Group, Inc., Weston, MA.