Critical Thinking in Turbulent Times

By: Scott Dannemiller, Chief Learning Officer, Executive Development Associates, Inc.

My mother is a typical senior in her mid-70’s. Except, instead of sitting on the porch and knitting, she prefers attending big, crowded festivals and twerking with her grandchildren. You know, like most AARP members do. So, it seems only fitting that, for her 50th wedding anniversary, she asked for all of her kids and grandkids to go whitewater rafting in North Georgia, even though she doesn’t know how to swim.  We’re not generally the “outdoorsy” type, but Nana gets what Nana wants, so we obliged.

As we loaded into our raft, our expert guide gave us pointers on how to paddle, how to avoid hazards, and how to stay in the boat.  He also advised us what to do in the event we were thrown from the raft.  We listened intently, terrified for ourselves, yet confident in his abilities to see us through to our extraction point safely.

The early part of the excursion was wonderful.  The water was peaceful and the scenery beautiful, with a misty fog rising off the 48-degree water.  It was lovely.

Until the wind began to whip.

And the storm clouds burst open.

And the water turned white.

Soaking wet and shivering from head-to-toe, we were immersed in our task.  As our guide called out commands from the back of the boat, we sprang into action.  We just wanted the journey to be over, and we knew he would see us through.  That is, until we heard him scream, and then saw him in the water, floating next to our raft.

We reached down and pulled him into the boat.  He was embarrassed, and laughed it off as if he was just testing us.  But it wasn’t five minutes later when we hit another rough patch, and he was bounced from the back of the boat and dropped into the river once again.  Our fearless leader, sopping wet and red-faced.

It turns out that, even though he was in command of the boat, he couldn’t see everything around him.  And he was getting no help from us. Windy, stormy, turbulent and frigid, we were all distracted by the noise. And sadly, that’s how our organizations operate today.

KPMG recently published a study of global CEOs. And the results are shocking.  Though the majority listed “Innovation” as their company’s top strategic priority, only 23% of CEO’s say they are personally focused on that.  And, a full 86% of CEOs reported that they have no time to think strategically. Nearly 9 in 10.

Now that’s terrifying.

But there’s a lesson to be learned here.  If we are waiting for “them” to set the strategic direction, it will never happen.  Business today is too fast-paced and there are too many distractions.  And everyone, the CEO included, is mired in the short term, operating on intuition.  Here’s how we minimize the risk and keep moving forward.

Make Goals Vocal and Visible: It is rare that organizations have no strategy or long-term goal.  But even if that goal is a vague revenue target, speaking about it frequently and making it visible can 1) encourage us to re-examine strategy amid changing conditions, and 2) assure our day-to-day actions are aligned toward any long-term objectives.

Call Out the Context: For experienced leaders, intuition can be an effective decision-making tool, but only if the context is similar to what you’ve dealt with in the past.  When decision opportunities arise, be sure to call out any ways the business, market, customers, culture, or climate is different from past scenarios, so those differences can be factored in.

Manage Upward:  Be candid with your leaders.  Make them aware of this research and, if possible, offer to assist by taking on some of their portfolio of tactical work.  This will help free them up to focus on the bigger picture while demonstrating your propensity for proactive thinking.  And before you know it, you will be leading those strategic discussions as well.

*Originally published by Action Management Associates, Inc.

About the Author:

Scott Dannemiller is Executive Development Associates’ Chief Learning Officer and developer of our acclaimed Critical Thinking Boot Camp. A highly skilled facilitator who consistently receives exceptional reviews for his engaging, high energy workshops, Scott is an expert at teaching practical skills using interactive learning methods to help individuals improve their critical thinking, problem solving, and decision-making skills.