Provoking Productive Thinking

Business leaders agree that human capital is the most important asset in organizations. Ironically, particularly in medium-sized and large companies, it is often the most underutilized asset. Although fierce competition is driving an increasing number of workers to put in long hours, the additional hours have not translated into optimal results in organizations where the traditional approach to work has not changed.

This approach disproportionately focuses on motor skills, leaving much of an organization’s brainpower untapped. Dutifully repeating the same tasks and routines is only a fraction of the capability of the worker. As a young sculptor, Michelangelo applied for a job at a commercial studio. The owner of the studio informed him that he knew exactly how long it took to carve each piece and that his deliveries were never late.

In his book The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone dramatizes the rest of the conversation between the two men: “Michelangelo asks what happens if a sculptor thinks of ‘something new … an idea not carved before.’ The owner replies, ‘Sculpture is not an inventing art, it is reproductive.’

“Michelangelo again asks him what would happen if a sculptor wanted to ‘achieve something fresh and different.’ The owner says, ‘That is your youth speaking, my boy. A few months under my tutelage and you would lose such foolish notions.’ “

Obviously, Michelangelo never worked in this studio. At a time when customers constantly demand new and fresh ideas, and when visionary companies identify and create markets to meet needs the customers didn’t think of, many businesses still operate like that studio owner.

The solicitation of habitual productive thinking in an organization is often limited to management, which is typically 5 percent to 20 percent of the workforce. When professionals, such as accountants, lawyers, and human resource leaders, are included in the productive-thinking process, that still leaves out more than half of the workforce.

Why is productive thinking critical?
Like all human accomplishments, every business begins as a thought. The inventions, innovations, and small improvements that differentiate winners from stragglers result from thinking. Productive thinking involves actively engaging the brain in seeking ways to improve the process and product of work. It seeks better ways of performing routine tasks. It applies talent and experience in generating novel and profitable ideas. As foresighted and innovative as management might be, the thinking that’s likely to have the greatest impact on improving processes, products and services emanates from the people closest to the work. Organizations that understand this fact include frontline staff in an organized productive thinking process.

Under Jack Welch’s leadership, GE caught on to the infinite potential of a thinking organization.
Initially, company culture did not allow workers to safely and regularly share ideas. But after conducting tens of thousands of workout sessions — during which employees in groups of 10 to 100 shared their opinions in off-site meetings — acting on employee input became a way of life in the organization. GE harvested hundreds of innovative ideas from non-management employees through these sessions. Welch provides additional detail on the workout sessions in Winning, a book co-authored with his wife, Suzy.

Toyota is perhaps the best example of how continuous productive thinking facilitates enduring success. Following years of steady growth, the company has surpassed GM as the No. 1 automaker. While GM closes plants, offers buyouts to workers and recently posted a $38.7 billion net loss for 2007, Toyota has been expanding factories and building new ones around the world to meet rising demand. How could there be so much discrepancy in one industry? What makes Toyota so audacious, resilient and successful? The efficiency, durability and freshness of its automobiles are a typical response to the latter question. But high-quality products are only a manifestation of the company’s success formula. Its efficient production system is a more veritable success factor. Then again, virtually every automaker implements a form of lean production.

In Jeffrey Liker’s book (the critically acclaimed The Toyota Way), independent research and public comments by Toyota executives suggest the key to Toyota’s success lies in two principles that are rooted in the company’s culture: The company relentlessly seeks ways to improve and it engages the entire workforce in a continuous improvement process. Toyota provides leadership, structure, incentives and an environment that motivates employees to constantly think of ways to improve business processes and outcomes.

In a 2005 presentation entitled Conflict in Time: Strategy for the 21st Century, Chet Richards, a lecturer and management consultant who teaches organizations how to apply successful military strategies to winning in business, used the German word auftragstaktik — which translates to missions and contracts — to describe the empowering relationship between management and staff at Toyota. Instead of assigning tasks, work teams are given a mission. The impact of each mission on the larger organization is clearly communicated. This enables the teams to understand the big picture and to function effectively as parts of a system. Contracting allows staff to challenge or question the feasibility of a mission, thus gaining commitment from each member.

Within defined, broad parameters, each team seeks out the most efficient way to execute its mission. The “seeking out” process, as well as the continuous-improvement culture, allows productive thinking to flourish. Identifying opportunities for improvement or coming up with ideas for new products is as important as meeting delivery goals. At all levels of the organization, there is no resting on laurels, no plateaus and no satisfaction with the status quo.

As Chad Buckner, a Toyota employee, told Fast Company magazine, “We’re all incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished. But you don’t stop. You don’t stop. There’s no reason to be satisfied.”
This is the Toyota way of life. As a result, a typical Toyota plant makes thousands of changes to its operation each year. These seemingly infinitesimal changes translate into invincibility in the marketplace. Employees gain dexterity from performing the same tasks over a long period of time. At Toyota, they also gain fingerspitzengefuhl, a Zen-like quality of intuitive understanding that results from cumulative productive thinking.

This sort of prodigious insight enables workers to “think without thinking” — to borrow Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink phraseology — and maximize their workday. What’s more, it produces the foresight and momentum that can propel any organization to the top of its industry. Considering that the creative potential of the workforce is infinite and because people closest to the work are actively engaged in the innovative and constant improvement process, Toyota will continue to reinvent itself long into the future.

In their book Seeing David in the Stone, James and Joseph Swartz cited a Stanford University study of public corporations. They concluded that “corporations with the largest performance improvements developed the cultures of entrepreneurs and the discipline of soldiers.”
Toyota’s business model will yield positive results for any organization that has the courage to implement it correctly. How long the results last will depend on whether the organization has the discipline to sustain the model over the long haul.

Productive thinking requires entrepreneurial acumen. Entrepreneurship thrives in an open, empowering and inclusive environment — an environment where fingerspitzengefuhl can be achieved.

Are productive thinkers made or born?
Productive thinkers, over time, begin to consistently deliver exceptional results. At the height of their achievements, they make contributions that change the course of history. Celebrated as geniuses and high achievers, Galileo Galilei, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Sam Walton, Bill Gates and countless others were productive thinkers.

In their research, the Swartzes found that each of these individuals spent at least 10 years in preparation, developing their thoughts and perfecting their crafts. They point out that by the time Edison discovered the fluorescent electric lamp, he knew more about the gas industry and the research of other electric-energy pioneers than anyone of his day.

As Louis Pasteur, world-renowned French biochemist, rightly noted, “In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” All types of workers can reap the rewards of productive thinking. While many may never achieve the fame of the greats, they will make contributions that can transform their organizations.

How do you improve productive thinking?
Learning is the fuel for productive thinking. The more relevant knowledge and information you absorb and process, the greater your chances of experiencing moments of illumination.
In addition to formal education, books, periodicals and daily business news, trade meetings and conferences are excellent ways to keep the brain sharp and stay on top of your trade. People who understand the competitive advantage of timely access to information seek and consume it voraciously.

The partnership that birthed Microsoft originated from a magazine article entitled “Breakthrough: World’s First Minicomputer.” Struck by the photo on the cover of the magazine, Paul Allen picked up a copy and shared it with Bill Gates. The following day, both men called Altair, the manufacturer of the minicomputer, to discuss the possibility of running their software on the machine, according to the Swartzes’ book. What happened next is history. According to Bryan George, a world-class executive coach quoted in HFN [Home Furnishings News] magazine, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies read, on average, four books per week. Busy professionals have others regularly scan news and periodicals for topics of interest. They can supplement reading with audio books.

Cross training or learning something new, such as an innovative way of performing tasks or a different language, will help keep the brain stimulated.

How do you become a thinking organization?
Assessing the level of your employees’ involvement in shaping your operation, products and services is a good starting point. The following questions might be helpful in this process:
* Are you utilizing only a small portion of your organization’s brainpower?
* How effective is your organization’s process in eliciting ideas for improvement and innovation from your entire workforce?
* How critical is continuous improvement to your organization? How is it operationalized?
* Are your creative and critical thinking skills rusting from lack of use?
* How often do you feed your brain to keep your productive thinking skills sharp?
Your answers to the above questions will determine the degree to which you implement any or all of the following recommendations:
* Cultivate a culture that’s not only safe for employees to share ideas, but that motivates them to do so. Organizational norms, structures, systems and processes should be designed to facilitate ongoing improvement-oriented input from all strata of the workforce.
For instance, thinking skills should be assessed during job interviews and employees should be given the freedom to innovate. Employers should provide necessary resources, encourage experimentation and define acceptable levels of mistakes and failure. Performance management and reward systems should facilitate creativity and innovation.
* Infuse your organization with a continuous-improvement mentality.
Continuous improvement must rank in the top 10 management cliches. However, its relevance as a catalyst for growth is not diminished by time or frequency of mention. A mind-set that incessantly questions the way things are with an eye to bettering them is the most relevant ingredient in engaging the intellect of your workforce.
* If your organization is unwilling to embark on large-scale transformation, practice positive disobedience.

No, this concept is not a recipe for a pink slip. It’s a term used by the Center for Creative Leadership to describe the action of subcultures that model a behavior for the larger culture. It’s behavior or action that yields superior results, even though it might differ from the mainstream.
In the 1950s, a malaria outbreak killed thousands in a small town in West Africa. Smack in the middle of the town were about a dozen families who were not affected by the disease. These families took steps such as avoiding stagnant water around the house; burning leaves, which repelled the insects; and shutting their windows at night to avoid mosquito bites.

Their neighbors sometimes mocked them for refusing to grow certain plants — plants that attracted mosquitoes. But these actions preserved their lives. To suggest that the vast majority of the workforce is underutilized might be counterintuitive to many workers and employers. Some might even find it offensive. But as Toyota demonstrates, there’s more to the line worker than performing a task by rote or making the monthly or quarterly numbers.

Employees whose minds are actively engaged in improving processes, workflows and results are unlikely to suffer from boredom or the drudgery of repetitive work. In fact, countless worker-satisfaction surveys highlight the lack of inclusion in decision-making processes as a major source of dissatisfaction. Engaging the intellect of all your workers is not only a smart business decision, it is a demonstration of respect and recognition for what they have to offer.
Published by permission of LRP publications 2008.

Research-Led Teaching: A Personal Perspective

The fact that candidates for jobs in the United Kingdom higher education sector (UKHEs) are continually asked to make presentations on topics such as ‘What are your views on, and experience of, research-led teaching in education?’, ‘How will your research contribute to the delivery of the University’s Learning and Teaching strategy?’ and ‘Describe how your research will contribute, over the next 3-5 years, to the international teaching profile of this University’, indicates the importance and perennial need to link teaching and research in the UKHEs. Additionally, those employed are encouraged to make their teaching ‘more research-led’. From this perennial desire locally, emerges coined phrases such as ‘research-led’, ‘research informed’ or ‘research enhanced’ teaching, which have now become established jargons in the sector.

One University in its learning and teaching policy defines research-led teaching as that which introduces students to the latest findings in their subjects and develops students’ powers of critical insight and intellectual synthesis. This idea is supported by writers such as Tushman & O’Reilly (2007), Anthony & Austin (2008,) Prichard (2000), and Paul & Rubin (1984) who see the role of research and its connection with teaching as enabling knowledge growth and improving practice and/or teaching.

Embedded in this definition is a reason for engaging in research-led teaching that is, to keep students informed of current developments in their chosen field and to aid the development of a cognitive skill. Another reason for engaging in research-led teaching in education and related careers, include the fact that it enables students to effectively function in many educational and related roles such as (Teaching, Educational Management or Administration in schools, Youth work, Community and Charity work, or the caring professions generally) which require:

  • the skill of critical analysis
  • critically evaluating knowledge
  • making rational judgment in light of good evidence
  • gathering and reflecting on the evidence
  • being creative in light of rapid change and uncertainty (Brew 2010 and Brew, & Boud 1995).

So what exactly constitutes research-led teaching?

To answer this question I pull on personal experience ‘in the field’. My experience in this area involves:

  1. Sharing research with students. I do this in four ways:

One, I use personal research reports as teaching material during classes to enrich both postgraduate and undergraduate students’ learning. For example, my 2001 research on the church school relationship in the Cayman Islands resulted in the publication of a book with a similar title. This book is required reading for a module I teach. During specific sections of the module, the work is discussed and students are encouraged to critically think about, evaluate and challenge the claims made.

Two, during teaching, I utilise personal experiences and anecdotes/stories related to my own research to convey points of interest to students. For example, I might tell of interviewing a research participant and her responses, which betrayed her true belief about an educational issue.

Three, in addition to using personal research publications and personal stories during teaching, there is a list of required and recommended readings provided for all modules I teach. It is my responsibility to research the local archive, libraries, journals, and to order text books for all these modules. These readings are discussed during lessons and used to guide and broaden students’ thinking about the subject being studied and to actively engage them in critical examination of literary sources.

Four, I utilised the knowledge gained and data from own research on reflective teaching to construct face-to-face, online and hybrid modules for undergraduate teacher education students. Examples of my research used are:

  • Reflective Teaching and… (Paperback and Kindle Edition)
  • Reflective teaching: Properties, Tool, Benefits and Support (Paperback)
  • Reflection and Reflective Teaching, A Case study of Four Seasoned Teachers in the Cayman Islands (Paperback).
  • Reflective Teaching as Self-Directed Professional Development: building Practical or work-related knowledge.
  • The Role of Reflection in the Differentiated Instructional Process.
  • Valli’s Typology of Reflection and the analysis of pre-service teachers’ reflective journals.
  • A Reflective Approach to Teaching Practicum Debriefing.

  1. Engaging students in enquiry based learning

Firstly, this involves encouraging students to engage in research by making it a required element of modules I develop and teach. By engaging in a small research project, they develop an understanding of the research process; examine the literature; pass judgement about what counts as evidence, and reflect on the evidence (Brew 2010 and Brew, & Boud 1995).

Secondly, I involve students in personal research. For example, undergraduates were involved in searching the literature which contributed to the production of the following piece: Reflective Teaching, Critical Literacy and the Teacher’s Tasks in the Critical Literacy Classroom (A Confirmatory Investigation).

Thirdly, students are required to produce a final thesis as a course requirement in a department of Education for which I was in charge. This further facilitated their induction in to research, for their involvement in the actual production of a high quality research thesis results in a greater appreciation for, and involvement in the research process.

  1. Researching and Reflecting on own Teaching (Scholarship of Learning and Teaching.

In this approach I am involved in researching and reflecting on my own teaching and the students’ learning via action research or applied research, which involves identifying a learning/teaching problem, researching the problem, applying the solution to my teaching and publishing the results. Current examples of this occurrence are:

  • Encouraging Secondary Students’ Deep Reflection-on-learning: a case for a Reflective Approach to Student Learning Evaluation.
  • Reflective Teaching and Disruptive Behaviour in Regular High School Classrooms in London, England.
  • Teaching Tasks and the composition of a ‘piece’ using music technology in the classroom: Implications for the education and training of teachers.

I reflect on or critically think about my own teaching. Via this process, I reflect on what steps need to be taken to improve the learning and teaching process, using a variety of evaluation methods (i.e., reflective journals, students’ evaluation form, and personal and peer observation) and then act on them in practical ways.

Here are a few strategies for encouraging and enabling research-led teaching

The development of a culture of research is one way of encouraging and enabling research-led teaching in a HEi. This can be achieved by developing and facilitating faculty’s professional development, which enables and encourages them to engage in the ‘scholarship of teaching’. This may include instituting awards /incentives that recognize outstanding teaching, based on researching and/or studying ones’ teaching; developing policy and criteria for this recognition scheme; facilitating in-house training in the area of the scholarship of teaching, and organizing a special lecture series by noted scholars to address the idea of the scholarship of teaching.

Developing or facilitating faculty’s engagement in research and publications is another way to encourage and enable research-led teaching in a HEi. Strategies to encourage this may include: building time in the teaching schedule for faculty to engage in research; providing funding for faculty attendance and participation in local and overseas conferences; developing policies to regulate faculty attendance and participation in local and overseas conferences; providing internal forums for faculty to showcase their research, for example, a lunch hour series that is broadly advertised, where faculty can talk about and present their research ideas for discussion, and present research that they have completed; encouraging internal review of publications that faculty are planning to submit to journals or conferences, and encouraging students’ research by requiring (where appropriate) the completion of a thesis or portfolio.

Other ways to encourage and enable research-led teaching in a HEi is to encourage consultancy work by faculty by showcasing to the local university and wider community their credentials, experiences and achievements; hosting and organizing annual or biannual conferences at the University to address issues relevant to education; and using the University’s website to display faculty research and scholarship achievements.

References

Anthony, E. K & Austin M.J. (2008). The Role of an Intermediary Organization in Promoting Research in Schools of Social Work: the Case of the Bay Area Social Services Consortium. Social Work Research 32(4) 287-294

Brew, A. (2010). Imperatives and Challenges in Integrating Teaching and Research. Higher Education Research & Development 29, 139-150.

Brew, A, & Boud, D. (1995). Teaching and research; establishing the vital link with learning. Higher Education, 29, 261-273

Paul, C.W and Rubin, P.H. (1984) Teaching and Research: The Human Capital

Paradigm. Journal of Economics Education 15(2), 142-147

Prichard, R. (2000) Future Directions for Research in Caribbean Higher Education Institutions. Chapter 11 in Higher Education in the Caribbean: Past, Present & Future Directions. 251-265, ISBN 9789766400798

Tushman, M & O’Reilly III, C. (2007). Research and Relevance: Implications of pasteur’s quadrant for doctoral programs and faculty development. Academy of Management Journal 50(4), 769-774

Meeting Facilitator – Now Performing As Director – Conductor – Coach and Choreographer

Imagine an orchestra without a conductor; the strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion all reading the music on their own could result cacophony instead of symphony.  What if The Producers had no director or choreographer; those little old ladies would be knocking each other over with their walkers.  A football team without a playbook would be little more than a sandlot game.

The same holds true for a planning meeting without a facilitator. We’ve all sat through countless meetings that went nowhere. Even with an agenda and knowing essentially what you want to get out of the meeting, it often takes a skilled facilitator to get everyone participating, keeping them civil and driving the discussion to a clear result.

The facilitator is more than just a meeting guide.  Much like the orchestra conductor, a theater director/choreographer or football coach, it is their responsibility to plan, run and bring the meeting to a clear conclusion.

It is not the facilitator’s job to solve problems or to push their own agenda (no matter how well-disguised).

It is the facilitator’s job to simply allow people in the group to work through their thoughts and feelings through the process of discussion by actively listening and creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable participating.

So what should you expect from a good facilitator?  Here are the 8 qualities and skills that a good facilitator must use to extract the best ideas and thoughts from even the most reluctant participants: 

  1. Knowledgeable researcher: Before the meeting starts, the facilitator gathers as much information as possible to ensure they understand the topic enough to guide the exploration of issues, ideas and thoughts. Often the facilitator will request to interview key participants to uncover any potential issues or information that could help to keep the discussion productive.
  2. Objective, patient listener: Generally, the less connected the facilitator is to the participants, the better; making it easier to ensure that every one is heard equally.  It is the facilitator’s job to make sure that all participants feel comfortable participating, and to encourage everyone to engage in the discussion. Perhaps the greatest skill of a facilitator is an ability to patiently listen to sometimes rambling ideas or thoughts and then capturing them clearly, without losing the emotion or intent. It can be hard to not turn one person’s thought into what you think it should be rather than what they meant it to be. 
  3. Organized choreographer: The facilitator either prepares the agenda for the meeting or works with the meeting sponsor to outline areas to be covered. Then, it is the facilitator’s job to keep everyone on track and to document the discussion as it unfolds.  Using whiteboards or flip charts, the facilitator often papers the meeting room walls with the notes, charts and ideas, regularly tracking all of it back to the original agenda.
  4. Focused conductor: Any creative discussion will naturally wander. It’s on these detours that the best ideas often emerge. While the agenda may not be followed in order, the facilitator always knows the way back. They can quickly adapt and encourage a creative discussion, ensuring that everyone gets their say. Then document the ideas or issues as they guide the discussion back on topic.
  5. Devil’s advocate: In every meeting there is at least one elephant in the room; that question or issue that no one wants to mention. This is where pre-meeting interviews and topic research help a facilitator become aware of these issues so they can safely and subtly bring them forward for discussion. They can also push back on ideas with flip side thoughts that can encourage broader, more creative discussion.
  6. Coach and mediator:  Every group has different dynamics, with standout and reluctant participants. If executives are part of the group, they can sometimes inhibit open participation. The facilitator must break down barriers with humor, insights and direct questions. If confrontations or arguments do erupt, the facilitator must quickly regain control, make sure both sides are heard, and then get everyone back on track.
  7. Face and body language reader:  It takes practice and sensitivity to notice the silent signals when people become unhappy, angry, distracted or upset. A good facilitator listens for what is not said and finds ways to engage these people in a positive and supportive way.
  8. Great closer: Tying is all together at the end and making sure there are no issues hanging, nothing left unsaid, and no one feeling left out is perhaps the most critical skill of a facilitator. Recapping the topic by running quickly across the wall charts, then outlining next steps and any assignments gets everyone on the same page to move forward.

Think about bringing in a skilled facilitator to orchestrate your next critical meeting. The results can be amazing and the process can be much more fun than you imagine when you get to sit back and participate. 

A Meeting Facilitator Should Come From Outside the Organization

Organizations of all sizes have meetings. These gatherings are a way to get different members of the organization on the same page; and they are also a great way to evaluate current strategies or brainstorm new ones. However, unproductive meetings cause the company to hold even more meetings as resources are continually wasted. By some estimates, the average American worker spends 100 hours per month in meetings. Companies can avoid wasting expensive labor by making a commitment to holding more productive meetings. The best way to make this commitment is by bringing in a meeting facilitator.

When a company works with a facilitator, it sends the message that these meetings will be productive. The first thing that a facilitator will do is sit down with organizational leaders to determine why the meeting is necessary. In some cases, this research might show that a meeting is not the best way to address the problem. When the meeting facilitator determines that this type of gathering will benefit the company, the professional will begin planning the gathering.

A well thought-out meeting is a more productive meeting, so every facilitator will prioritize the planning phase. He or she will work with organizational leaders to outline objectives that need to be met during the meeting. These objectives can then be used to structure the rest of the meeting, by deciding: the types of questions that a facilitator asks, or who is asked to take part in the discussion. Once the facilitator has determined who needs to attend the meeting, he or she should make sure that each individual is able to attend. When a key decision maker is busy, many companies opt to hold the meeting without them, but this is a huge mistake. The end result is that employees will waste time in a meeting that will not produce a final decision.

Next, the meeting facilitator will distribute a summary of the information that he or she has learned. This information might include meeting goals and background information that will be used during the meeting to make decisions. By giving each organizational member access to this information, the facilitator ensures that everyone will be on the same page when the meeting starts.

During the meeting, attendees will understand why it is best to outsource the task of facilitation. The meeting facilitator must: lead the group discussion, ensure that each individual has a chance to speak, and direct the group to discuss certain ideas. A facilitator who comes from within the organization is likely to sway the direction that the discussion takes due to his or her own biases. Additionally, some team members will be reluctant to share thoughts or go against the leader’s opinion if they think that they are jeopardizing work relationships. An outside facilitator focuses on the problem at hand, and guides the group to a solution by asking for a consensus and ensuring that everyone is given the chance to speak. This ensures that meetings are more productive, which means that less meetings are necessary in the future.