Thinking Skills
June 1, 2023

Developing your thinking skills – why change your environment?

By Ty Francis

Building on all that has been shared recently on technology usage & developments, let’s turn our attention to thinking skills. How can you hone these and does your environment matter?

I’ve shared before on this blog how important I believe it is to develop such capabilities. Book reviews have been shared on resources to help develop your Critical Thinking & Statistical Thinking. Prof Nick Radcliffe also reminded us of the importance of maintaining a sense of scale. To build on this I asked our panel of guest bloggers to again share their experiences.

First out of the blocks on this challenge is innovator, filmmaker & Gestalt coach, Ty Francis. He has shared with us before the use of filmmaking to enable change projects, playing to win & adaptive change. In this post, Ty draws on his many years of experience to help us think through both basic principles & how to create a Thinking Environment.

Different types of Thinking Skills

Thinking skills are the mental activities we use to process information, make connections, create new ideas and support decisions. Skilled thinkers see possibilities where others see only roadblocks. They can develop unique solutions to problems.

It can be useful to think in terms of analytical thinking skills and creative thinking skills. However, these are not as polarised as people often assume. Good thinkers synthesise both analytical and creative approaches and seem to ‘shuttle’ back and forth between these modalities in the act of problem-solving. This supports recent brain research which dispels the notion of the left hemisphere (logical) and right hemisphere (creative) activity. Both hemispheres seem to be involved more collaboratively in higher-order thinking and problem-solving.

Analytical Thinking Skills

Analytical skills are usually convergent in character. That is, they are about bringing together facts and information from related sources and then applying logic to make informed decisions. This involves deductive reasoning, which follows a time-honoured process that looks something like this:

  • Identify a problem
  • Collect information
  • Decide cause
  • identify possible solutions
  • Select the best solution
  • Plan solution
  • Run solution 
  • Conduct a review

Creative Thinking Skills

By comparison, Creative Skills are more divergent in character. They bring facts and information from unrelated sources and draw more on intuition and emotion. Thus, creative thinking requires experimentation and trying out new things.

Creative thinkers are usually at the forefront of developing new ideas, driving change, encouraging learning and introducing innovation. However, given our cultural and commercial bias towards analysis, the question is, how do you get started with more creative forms of thinking?

There are so many approaches to creative thinking – so many techniques to try. But in my experience, they all come down to some basic principles:

  • Saturate yourself in what is currently known
  • Have an openness to exploring alternative perspectives and looking outside the immediately obvious
  • Engage in new experiences
  • Hone observational skills to support pattern recognition
  • Work collaboratively across disciplines
  • Mix periods of dialogue and activity with space for ‘incubating’ ideas and time for private reflection
  • Don’t dismiss early ideas and options prematurely – nurture them before applying reasoning

Applying these basic principles in practice

I’ll share a story to illustrate these principles in action in a commercial context. Some years ago I worked with a household chemicals manufacturer who wanted to improve the time it took to develop ideas that could support product innovation. The senior chemists on the project team were ‘stuck’. So we formed a special task force comprised of 4 chemists and an equal number of people from different disciplines including marketing, commercial, project management and design.

Next came a one-day team-build to form relationships and explore the need. We steered away from the company’s usual process of forming problem statements and then brainstorming and prioritising potential solutions. Instead, we spent a day in a nearby zoo! The brief was to take 2 hours to wander individually or in pairs around the zoo and note anything that was interesting and exciting. Anything which intuitively connected to the project need. The team needed reassurance that they did not need to ‘head-crunch’ anything – simply to switch off their cognitive thinking for a short while, and notice their level of interest and engagement. They were encouraged to play rather than work!

We reconnected after two hours and spent time debriefing their experience. This focussed on looking for patterns of experience between individuals and pairs. What emerged for the group was the excitement of the Batcave experience… Everyone at some point had gone into the Batcave and people reported feeling repulsed by the smells of rotting fruit and bat excreta, or scared by the bats flying around in the darkness, or struck by the contrast of the summer warmth and light outside and the darkness and coolness inside… In different ways, this experience was an emotional highlight for people. They realised that the Batcave was an ecosystem where elements interdepended on one another. This enabled the team to think of something they had never thought of before. How could they develop an ecosystem of interdependent cleaning products which were environmentally friendly? They took this breakthrough in thinking back to the laboratory and began a more analytical thinking process of product development

Creating a ‘Thinking Environment’

There are many other ways of improving thinking skills. Author and consultant Nancy Kline developed a process called a ‘Thinking Environment’ for helping teams think more productively together. Her core realisation was that the quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first. Plus, the quality of our thinking depends on the way we treat each other while we are thinking.

This highly relational approach is simple and practical and depends on adhering to 10 behaviours:

  1. Attention – listening without interruption and with interest
  2. Equality – giving each other equal time to think and respond
  3. Ease – getting rid of internal urgency and preventing ‘rush’
  4. Appreciation – noting what is good and saying it
  5. Encouragement – replacing competition among speakers with the active encouragement of one another
  6. Feelings – welcoming the release of emotion
  7. Information – using full accurate and relevant facts
  8. Difference – prioritising diversity (of perspectives)
  9. Incisive Questions – challenging assumptions
  10. Place – producing a physical environment (your body, the room, the listener) that says ‘you matter’

These principles support the kinds of relationships that many teams – and especially very senior teams – do not always find easy. But they are principles that are so often more productive and joyful!

Einstein is quoted as saying, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” In this mould, sometimes the best ideas and solutions come from fields and disciplines outside of our own. By considering how someone with a different skill set and experiences to your own would solve a problem or deploy solutions, you can often find ideas and techniques you may never have considered.

What could you do differently to hone your Thinking Skills?

Many thanks to Ty for sharing his experience & wisdom. I heartily agree with both the importance of developing those thinking skills & the power of a Thinking Environment experience. I hope Ty’s examples & principles have also sparked your thinking.

What could you try doing differently as a result? Where could you experiment with trying a different location for your team to think differently? Who could you collaborate with to share thinking outside of your specialisms? How could you create a Thinking Environment for your team? On that latter point also see my book reviews of Nancy Kline’s two books following her initial classic (More Time to Think” & “The Promise that changes everything“).

I look forward to hearing the breakthroughs & sheer fun that such experiments bring you.