By Rex Huppke
(MCT)—I’m on record as being opposed to thinking. I find it distracts from the important things in life, like watching television or staring mindlessly at small flecks of dust drifting through the air.
But in those unfortunate moments when we’re forced to think—perhaps at work or when trying to figure out the quickest way to open a box of cookies—it seems we should use our brains sensibly and try to squeeze as much out of the experience as possible.
So let’s give some thought to thinking.
In the workplace, how deeply are we thinking about the tasks and problems we face? Are we running on mental autopilot, relying solely on the knowledge we picked up from classrooms or training rooms?
Michael Vaughan, president of a Colorado-based leadership training group called The Regis Company, has a new book—“The Thinking Effect”—in which he argues that most people have been trained to think in a linear fashion that doesn’t jibe with the complexities and constant change of the modern business world.
Through high school and college, we have information dumped into our heads. But, Vaughan writes: “Students are not encouraged to let their questions wander; subjects are segregated, few connections are made between courses, and their ability to think systemically is dulled.”
Our national obsession with testing doesn’t help, either: “Too often, test taking becomes a practice in rote memorization instead of an experiment in processing information and reasoning that leads to self-generated insights.”
In essence, our minds are not being trained to operate in a nimble fashion, yet we work in a world of endless data and lightning-fast changes that cries out for comprehensive thinking. This, Vaughan explains, leads to several problems: We focus only on our area of work rather than on how our work factors into the company at large; we fail to see how present actions might create problems in the future; and we struggle with situations as they become increasingly complex.
“Linear, reductionist-type thinking doesn’t prepare people for the complexities of the world today,” Vaughan says in an interview. “We once believed we were pre-wired to think a certain way, but that’s not necessarily true, based on the latest neuroscience. What we have noticed is that people can learn these skills. We have been seeing in our simulations that people can develop other patterns of thought that help them round out their thinking.”
To get there, however, requires introspection. We tend to engage in surface-level thinking, reacting to things as they happen without giving them deeper consideration. Granted, most workers are busier than ever, jumping from one task to another throughout the day. But occasionally stopping to reflect on your thought process isn’t a huge time commitment, and I’d argue that if it leads to better thinking, it will save you time in the end.
In his book, Vaughan lays out some guideposts that individuals or teams can use to disrupt linear—or, in some cases, lazy—thinking. These are a few examples:
—Make sure you “understand how a dynamic system actually works” and that you consider how your task can impact and interrelate with other parts of the company. Don’t just focus on your area of expertise.
—Try to avoid obvious solutions. Do the extra work needed to consider the short- and long-term outcomes of what you’re doing. You might avoid pitfalls or find a better approach.
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