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Encourage deep thinking on your team

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The late Tony Athos would sometimes sit on a bench outside the Harvard Business School and think deep thoughts. Asked what he was doing, he’d say, “Nothing.” Only later would the business professor offer his profound insights.

Remembering Athos, the business school posed some questions on an online forum asking chiefly, “What is your organization doing to combat the absence of deep thinking?” Here’s an encapsulation of 136 answers from around the world.

  • Not their job. It seems managers don’t need to think; they’re hired only to carry out their leaders’ ideas. “Troublemakers” get punished for independent thinking (see related article).

    Managers describe their roles as providing answers, not raising questions, with the prize being a promotion. In such a stifling atmosphere, kowtowing wins. One response: “There’s constant gaming going on to look qualified and ready for anything.” Anything, that is, except deep thinking.

  • No time. Reasons vary from daylong meetings to the tyranny of e-mail. Responses include “overwhelmed with the task at hand” and “too swamped.”

  • No respect. “Why would any manager-level person … want to be identified as a deep thinker? That’s a death wish. Problem-solver, yes. Quick decision-maker, yes. Bias for action, yes. Deep thinking? No.”

  • Too hard. (1) Change agents are likely to become scapegoats. (2) Nobody wants to risk short-term performance. (3) There’s not enough brain power. (4) There’s too much disruption. (5) Changing your mind is not considered good form.

  • Promote and protect independent thinking among your employees. Share ideas, don’t steal them. As for yourself, you don’t need permission to think.

  • Pursue every thread of thought to its logical conclusion, factoring in the huge emotional freight.

  • Focus attention on adapting to change, particularly in large organizations. Welcome outside opinions.

  • Curb your enthusiasm for attractive up-and-comers. A snappy, confident candidate does not necessarily make the best hire. Consider the quiet, contemplative thinker.

  • Give employees a block of time every week to turn off all devices and think deeply.
—Adapted from “Why Don’t Managers Think Deeply?” Jim Heskett, HBS Working Knowledge, http://hbswk.hbs.edu.

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