Moving Towards a Thinking Environment


I’ve been learning about the Thinking Environment (TE). An environment where everyone is listened to, diversity is encouraged and everyone is treated equally. In this environment innovation can flourish.

‘Hold you horses!’ I hear you cry.

‘We don’t have time to listen to everyone. Everyone has an opinion, we just need to get things done’.

I shared this attitude but on listening to Linda Aspey I was intrigued. I went on the two day foundation course to understand the practicalities of the TE in the office. We learned a huge amount in two days. Practical sessions helped us both understand and remember how to run meetings and have dialogue in a more effective way. The key being that everyone listens to each contributor. Suddenly I believed this could work.

Back to the office I went, excited about using a new approach both to running meetings and in general conversation. My first application of TE arrived quickly. One of the team came to me with an issue he was having with what he was working on. He explained the problem and asked me what he should do.

I stood and listened to him quietly, with no interruptions and all my attention. Normally I would have advised him, pointed him in the direction of who to contact or escalated the problem. This time I asked him for his thoughts. After all, he is working closest to the problem and has more knowledge of it than me.

He paused, looked at me and then shared ideas of how he could solve the problem. After a few minutes he stopped talking and asked me what I thought of his ideas. I said they were interesting and asked him what other thoughts he had. He resumed talking and ideas flowed. Within 10 minutes he had a solution that he was confident would work. He thanked me for all my advice and went and solved the problem. I smiled, glad that he had managed to solve the problem with me just listening and asking questions that were not loaded. Part of me also felt like a fraud. I had not given him advice. I just listened.

Then to the first meeting. Typically meetings just didn’t work as well as they could. The confident louder people tended to get heard. Few of the quiet people contributed. Engineers are passionate about engineering, which often lead to a huge number of interruptions as ideas flow. The problem being that no one listens to what the others have to say. There is no lack of enthusiasm for getting things to work better and solving problems. We just needed to change the environment.

So, I got to the meeting early and wrote the schedule of the meeting on the board along with the question I was looking to answer. I explained how I was introducing a new approach to meetings and that we needed to focus on attention, diversity and equality. These are just three of the ten components of TE.

I started with an opening round where I asked what had made each of them smile over the weekend. Initially they looked at me like I was mad. Then they shared what had made them smile, there was laughter and I could feel everyone relax. Then focus came back to the question I needed their help to answer. A new thing to me was the way of phrasing the question so it always starts with “What do you think …?”. This is a small thing that helps people relax and feel freer to share ideas and thoughts. I spent a few minutes explaining the background to the question and why I needed an answer. A few questions were asked to get real clarity and then we settled down to start thinking and listening.

We started with a round, where everyone takes turns sharing their thoughts for five minutes. I had asked everyone to sit still, look the speaker in the eye and give them their undivided attention. Many were uncomfortable looking directly at the speaker and the urge to interrupt was strong. This is not surprising with such a change in interactions.

It was interesting that the quieter members of the team came up with ideas that were totally new to me. After the round, I exchanged my fresh thoughts with everyone. We then had a new round where everyone had a couple of minutes to share new thoughts they had following everyone else’s input.

I was happy with the input I had received and let everyone know I would think on their input and get back to them on what I would do next. We had achieved so much more than we usually did in a meeting. Ideas were heard and built on. Left-field answers were totally accepted and appreciated.

Thoughts were still flowing and everyone was keen for an open discussion. Things had gone well so I thought, why not. I reminded them to be succinct so that everyone got a turn and not to interrupt. I had to remind the first few contributors to be succinct. Then interruptions began and listening stopped as enthusiasm overrode TE. Quiet team members just sat quietly unable to be contribute. One move too far. I should have stopped sooner, or moved to thinking pairs. Lesson learned.

So Day One of the Thinking Environment was not perfect but I was relieved to see it does actually work in practice. I got more answers to my question than I ever would have done using our old approach. I’ve been working to encourage more TE behaviour in the office. It’s progressing. There are a few tricky parts to resolve. There is discomfort at not being allowed to take notes when someone is speaking, even with breaks every five minutes for note taking. TE isn’t yet working with conference calls. Those are subjects for the future!

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