Recently I had the pleasure of working with a leadership team to facilitate their strategic planning. Since all strategic planning in my view is focused on a particular organisation, its characteristics, markets, opportunities etc, my approach is tailored this is informed by a discussion about the business and its development needs.

At that meeting I recommended that we spend time during the strategy sessions encouraging people to think more deeply about their own bias, assumptions and beliefs. Apparently this wasn’t needed.

Lost in the woods and crippled by flawed thinkingFast forward to today when I received a call to ask if I would be willing to design and deliver a strategic thinking event for the same team, who described their progress as “Lost in the woods and crippled by flawed thinking”

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. —ALBERT EINSTEIN

Teaching people to overcome the games our brains are hardwired to play on us takes time.

The embedded patterns of tricks, shortcuts and fast thinking that may be effective when faced with routine problems and quick-fix situations, become traps when we need to invoke our best thinking and see things in a new light.

During the original sessions with this team I had constantly challenged assumptions and beliefs that were unsubstantiated and went unchallenged. In fact I accumulated a secret flip chart full of examples of the following:

  • Leaping to solutions before framing the issue properly – a preference for brainstorming which has a place in encouraging out of the woods thinking but tends to produce shallow strategies.
  • Ideacide or the act of killing great ideas because they represent changes that are just too difficult to contemplate
  • Over thinking complicating matters by adding unnecessary layers of complexity
  • Awfulizing or describing an event / suggestion as horrific and terrible before thoroughly thinking it through

It doesn’t surprise me that they are lost in the woods.

Shifting Perceptions

Henry Mitzberg said, “Every manager has a mental model of the world in which he or she acts based on experience and knowledge. When a manager must make a decision, he or she thinks of behaviour alternatives within their mental model.”

This is single-loop learning.

A recent example: while conducting a workshop for a public sector client in a bureaucratic and hierarchical organisation, I used the marshmallow challenge to prove the point about actions before thought. These managers have worked their entire careers in this particular organisation and have been institutionalized into an analytical, linear, mindset. They may be open to learning new methods or techniques that support their present management practices (i.e., single-loop learning), but they become defensive when questioned about the assumptions that lie beneath their current practices (double-loop learning)

Strategic planning and thinking is one of the most important development programmes an organisation can purchase. My role, like it or not is to influence people’s thinking and behaviour to become more effective leaders. Leadership is about transformation and transformation isn’t always comfortable..

The intent of double-loop learning is transformation; the transformation of deeply held perspectives of the world in which we work and act. Double-loop learning can be viewed as a distinctive developmental strategy that aims to shift the perceptions of learners. The usefulness of the strategy of double-loop learning is its potential to extract tacit knowledge from individuals and convert it to explicit knowledge.

Double-loop learning is supported by active listening and effective questioning it requires a “drill down” into a topic in order to identify and expose the taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs of the learners to the surface taking learners past the obvious ideas that no longer serve us well in our evolving world of work to the non-obvious notions to think outside the presumptions and limitations that we have, perhaps unconsciously, constructed for ourselves.

We’ll be out of the woods soon uninhibited by fatally flawed thinking.