One of the more surprising issues we come across in our coaching is that many senior professionals and managers appear to have lost their capacity to think deeply about their domain and their own leadership practice. This shows in many different ways, depending on their individual circumstances, but it usually involves the proverbial losing sight of the forest for the trees. For example, they may complain about having too much work on, but will take on a new, ‘high priority’ project without negotiating what can be stopped/delayed. They will similarly fail to see patterns of, say, poor decision making in themselves or others and instead engage in expensive email wars to pass the blame. You might not feel that any of these behaviours are connected, but we feel that they are. They all come down to a lack of reflection. In the race to keep up with ever increasing demands, reflection is no longer valued. Business today is primarily about doing more, faster. Whether that doing creates value has become a secondary question.
Only reflection enables us to do deep thinking and only deep thinking will lead us to new answers, innovative solutions and better outcomes for customers and employees. We happily fall into a pattern of chasing immediate rewards – the instant gratification of making a snap decision or ticking off a customer complaint – but when we don’t make time to reflect, we stop learning. In order to take advantage of opportunities you need to be able to recognise that those opportunities exist. In order to recognise them, you need to reflect on the past and ask hypothetical questions about the future. If you haven’t got time for that, you are not just missing opportunities, you are missing the point of management.
Everyone we talk to in our coaching has a litany of complaints about the inefficiencies at work, the time wasted on projects that go nowhere, meetings that achieve nothing and dealing with 300 emails every day. The thing is though, this environment is of our own making. Either because as managers we are in charge of a part of it or because we are complicit through unquestioning acceptance of what is going on. If nobody has the guts to say ‘no’ or ‘enough’, then nothing is going to change. If nobody says ‘can we stop for a minute to see if this actually makes sense/delivers value’, then each person will simply continue to work through their ‘action items’ with no thought as to how what they are doing benefits the business and its customers.
We recently convinced a General Manager to have a monthly 1/2-day meeting with his management team to do nothing but reflect on their work and their interdependent tasks to see what can be stopped, what can be delayed and how they may be able to eliminate work that isn’t part of their groups purpose. The result has been a surge in engagement as useless projects got cancelled, excessive reporting got scaled back and resources got shifted to help in the areas that needed them most. After four of these meetings the team felt that the trees had parted and the forest became visible for the first time in years. The team has now started to ask some more interesting questions – like ‘Is what we do actually what our stakeholders really need and want from us?’. That question had never been on the table before. ‘We are the experts and we will decide what’s best’ had been the motto.
Once your reflection and questioning has progressed from How to What to Why you are on the right track for unlocking the power of deep thinking. Deep thinking is not a collective process, though. Culturally we are currently conditioned to overshare and overuse the ‘team’ approach. The team can be a great help with asking the right questions or seeing patterns that you are blind to, but the team does not innovate collectively. In order to come up with truly new ideas an individual needs to make intuitive links in their mind based on extensive knowledge of the domain. That requires ‘mulling over things’ – quiet reflection.