It’s 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. Or maybe it’s 10 a.m. on a Wednesday. Or maybe your team meets on Thursdays around 11 a.m. It’s that time of week where a group of smart go-getters sit down for their weekly data-dump meeting. Everyone goes around and shares what’s happening in their world. They give a progress report, share a few details and anecdotes -- some more succinctly than others -- and while they make their way around the conference room table, people are scribbling furiously. Not because they’re taking notes -- nope -- they’re writing down what it is they are going to say when it’s their turn to share. No one is all that engaged, no one is really listening, but it’s company protocol. Sound familiar?
Too many team leaders and their teammates are slogging their way through the day and working hard but not necessarily thinking hard. We optimize our skill sets and strengths, master our tasks and then become automatons who engage in critical thinking too infrequently.
Related: How to Be Smarter
It’s time to wake up our brains. A classic example that reveals how quickly we settle into habits is the following math exercise. Begin by adding a few simple numbers together in your mind. No need to write anything down -- this is easy.
Start with 1,000.
Add another 1,000.
Add another 1,000.
Add another 1,000.
What do we get? Most people answer 5,000. Some shout out 6,000, others say 4,700, some guess 5,100. Very few say, 4,100. Yet, 4,100 is the correct response. Don’t believe it? Please, do it again. It’s the last addition of 10 that messes with our mind. Most people get stuck adding 4,090 plus 10. They jump to 5,000. It’s basic brain behavior and one of the biggest barriers to greater productivity and profitability.
Our brains like patterns, ruts and routines. What number is repeated in the math problem? A thousand. So when the brain is asked to add ten it’s already tuning out the request by jumping into the pattern of thousands instead of stopping long enough to say, “What’s really going on here?”
Our brains are already moving on to other thoughts because of our assumption about the pattern. We’re thinking about another project or an incident, an email we need to respond to, a cup of coffee we should have poured before starting this article. Our brains consciously leave the moment to go do other things, because they assume they’ve picked up the habit of one thousand and all is well.
Our brains are smart enough to say, “Oh, I don’t really need to pay attention right now. I can multi-task mentally, because I know where this is going.” The problem is that it’s often not smart enough to come up with the correct answer.
This math problem serves as an analogy for a phenomenon that is taking place in thousands of businesses across the country. We have conversations inside our organization, where we hear 5,000 from our colleagues all day long, and 5,000 sounds good enough, close enough, right enough, except that five months down the road, the project’s gone sideways, or five months down the road enrollment isn’t as high as we expected it to be, or our market share and margins are shrinking, or our sales pipeline isn’t as solid as we forecasted. Why? Because 5,000 is not right.
Brilliant leaders raise the level of critical thinking.
Leaders are responsible for creating high-quality conversations that require team members, board members, colleagues, direct reports, vendors, client partners and consultants to raise their level of critical thinking, ensuring that everyone gets 4,100 instead of settling for 5,000.
How do we start raising the critical thinking skills of our teams? In a world of differences -- gender, generational, socio-economic, political and more -- begin with something we all have in common: Our brains trigger on questions. Ask the brain a question, and what is it naturally wired to do? Answer it.
Many of us have attended the leadership conference, webinar or class wherein some speaker espouses the merits of interrogation tactics. They encourage leaders to pepper spray some innocent employee with 1,001 questions in response to their question. That’s not what we’re talking about it. That’s not the goal, and it’s not helpful. In fact, it’s annoying and often downright obnoxious.
Asking 1,001 questions is not improving the quality of thinking. But asking the one or two better questions to raise the level of critical thinking in the conversation is brilliant.
For example, what’s one of your goals? What’s one of the things that you are supposed to accomplish sometime in the next 90 to 120 days?
You might respond with, increase sales, hire more people, spend more time with my kids, move into new office space, install a new software system, or lose ten pounds. Your brain responds quickly. It serves up an answer to the question above without engaging in any critical thinking. It’s not your fault. It was a lousy question. It was a low-level recall question, essentially asking your brain to spit out an answer to a question that you already know the answer to without doing any critical thinking.
But, what if we changed a couple of words? What if instead of asking, “Hey, what’s one of your goals?” we asked, “How are you going to successfully accomplish your goal on time and under budget?” What shifts? Your brain actually starts to think.
Now, you’re going to have to reflect on what’s worked in the past, evaluate your current energy level, current resources, current dollars, current skill set, and then you’ll need to create a plan to get started. By just changing a couple of words to produce a much more thought-provoking question, the quality of thinking goes up.
If we prepare for each conversation by developing one or two better questions, we can now raise the level of critical thinking and yield a much better outcome in every single conversation.
The scary statistic, for those of us who love stats, is that 92 percent of the questions that we ask, 92 percent of the questions that leaders ask in organizations are low-level recall. Where are we at with…? What’s the status of…? Can you bring me up to speed on…? They are what we affectionately call download-data-dump questions.
Yes, there are critical pieces of data that we all need to know. There is just a better way to share them. The problem with this download-data-dump meeting is that your best and your brightest, smartest minds are in the room, and nobody’s actually engaged, and nobody’s thinking, because no one’s brain is involved.
In a world of limited face time, it’s imperative that we change the dynamics of these meetings. First, let’s use technology for what technology is meant to be used for -- a tool to really help us be more efficient, not suck up more time. So here is one quick, practical idea to ensure we raise the level of critical thinking in our meetings.
Ask meeting attendees to send out a critical-data email the night before the meeting. Within the email or in a separate attached document, have them bullet-point all the data and information that they think is most important for everyone to be up-to-speed on for the next day’s dialogue. When the meeting starts, the opening question is no longer, “Hey, Laura, what’s going on in your world?” It’s, “Hey, Laura, what was it about David’s report that’s going to have the biggest impact on your projects / your people in the next 30, 60, 90 days?”
Laura can only say one of two things. She either confesses, “Oh, shit, I didn’t read it,” or Laura looks at the team leader and she says, “Actually, I read all the reports, and it isn’t David’s that I need to address today, it’s Sandy’s. Sandy’s got a deadline for this Thursday, and we’re supplying her with the marketing materials, but my deadlines for the sales team’s input are next week -- after our next copy deadline, which bypasses Sandy’s. The work flow on this project doesn’t make sense, so we need to sit down with Allen and his sales team and we need to figure out a new schedule for deliverables.”
Now what are these team members doing? They’re thinking, and they’re engaged and they’re collaborating. Oh, wow -- they’re awake! They’re not just sitting there waiting for their turn. They’re taking responsibility. They’re ensuring a 4,100 response.
A leader’s number-one job is to set people up for success. We can easily help others be more successful by sparking how they think through decisions, team dynamics, conflict resolution, operational systems and efficiencies, cash flow, culture and strategy to name a few.
The next time leaders have a critical conversation with an individual or group, bring a few questions designed to raise the level of critical thinking, and stop the download-data-dump. High-level questions change the way everybody plays.