The Thinking Challenge: The Trap We Willingly Walk Into – Part 1
Over the last 30 years, having been part of many discussions and meetings at various levels and forums, I have often wondered about the quality of thinking in these discussions. The ones where I found it to be of high quality, it almost always had the following:
A well thought out proposition on the table.
Carefully distilled information (not the whole database) that helps to comprehend the proposition.
Arguments which support the proposition – not Bullets; Bullets are used to kill people and discussion.
Distilling out and framing of issues/themes for discussion.
Attentiveness, if not prior preparation by the participants.
Quality gate keeping, where the focus was on one issue at a time, instead of the discussion going all over the place.
Alternate propositions or ideas.
Challenging engagement on every proposition and alternatives to test and further develop them.
Integration and synthesis of the thoughts which had emerged.
Making a decision or choosing a direction or commitment of resources.
In this article, I have offered a few hypotheses, on what these thinking challenges are and the traps into which most of us fall repeatedly.
The killer presentation:
When I participate in discussions, I find the thinking space shrinking. A group of people assemble together purportedly to collectively maximise their thinking power. However the meeting is quickly reduced to slide gazing and slide pushing. There are other times A3 and A4 sheets with rows and columns become the focus of attention.
The presenter is obsessed with moving the slides frenetically: Every presenter comes with 60 slides for a 30 minute time slot. Is it a wonder that no one else, save the chair can meaningfully get in a word, leave alone an observation/idea/view/suggestion?
The chair, pressurised for time, puts pressure on the presenter to finish the presentation. Then the charade which we witness in all conferences plays out in the meeting: Nervous breezing through the slides, followed by 5 minutes of checking around for top of the mind views or those with lung or position power muscling in with their pronouncements or directions.
The film show is over and for a brief moment eyes meet and hands reach for the mobile, only till the next show starts. If a 10 slide presentation did not warrant at least 2 to 3 issues framed well and put up for discussion and decision, why should so many assemble together? A rough thumb rule is any issue requires at least a 20 minutes discussion. If they are serious issues, 3 issues will demand an hour of discussion. In how many discussions/meetings have we experienced this?
Even when not in a meeting, when we are by ourselves, we have lost our quiet thoughtful reflection space. We are intruded by the cacophony from the television, music pumped directly into our ear drums (serious road accident risk notwithstanding), distractions from the notifications/alerts from our mobile devices, fear of missing an e-mail or SMS in real time and twitching fingers which crave for the cold screen touch.
A generation of humans are being afflicted by a new disease called “attention deficiency”. This disease makes us poor listeners. It affects our focus and concentration leading to poor grasp. It makes us switch off in the middle of a discussion and re-join when the mind recovers. This makes us irritable when the discussion prolongs. We want to be done with a quickie. This illness afflicts us in our bathroom, by the bed side, when driving, walking on the road, places of worship, hospital room and meeting rooms.
So is it a wonder that nowadays the space for thinking and hence discussion, is limited to the time, our minds are freed from its pre-occupation to compulsively satisfy our sound, sight and touch craving, demanded by our mobile life partner?
Processor in the hang mode:
Added to the attention deficiency is another illness. When in a meeting or a discussion, we frequently retract into our world and call this thinking. Little do we realise that speaking or listening does not qualify to be called thinking. We think when we process information (not data), discriminate, identify connections, make meanings, make propositions or test them, see alternatives, visualise possibilities, set out choices and decide. Listening is the in-port of the computer and speaking is the display screen. Neither is thinking.
There are those who believe that being quiet is being deep in thought. But their minds are not quiet. They are agreeing or rebutting in their minds to what is being stated by others. They do not feel energised to speak. The best they do is, seek a few clarifications or provide information when asked for. These people slowly drift away from the discussion on hand because they find it difficult over long periods to stay quietly engaged, especially when they get tired of listening to others and are reticent to articulate. The quality of thinking here is questionable. Because their thoughts seldom are offered for review by others, hence they have no clue on the power or usefulness of their thoughts. They almost never shape thinking or decisions. This at best is sterile thinking which creates literally no value for anyone. In fact most often they are quietly judgmental.
There are the others who cannot wait even a moment to jump in and articulate. They prejudge practically everything or cannot absorb anything until the load on their mind is poured out. They are constantly in a debate mode: For or against. Consequently they absorb very little. Hence the speech part of the brain is more active than the thought processing part. They lose interest when they are not actively engaged and drift away only to wake up and rejoin and interject abruptly. Here again the value created frequently is suspect. A volley of words and noise, but very little thought. They often end up being thinking disrupters for others. You will see these people are incapable of articulating anything in a logical string of points. They most often lose the thread and struggle to string together the points into a logical proposition.
In both the cases, we will very rarely hear any proposition or constructive challenge. Instead the mind is constantly in an input or output mode. They also get caught in the tyranny of agreement and disagreement. The mind is in information storage or retrieval mode and not in processing mode. In this mode the mind is incapable of critical acclaim. It is neither analytical, because of poor information processing nor is it capable of conceptualisation, because it is not making the connections.
Stuck in the mire of Data – The Availability bias:
The new world of analytics driven by computational power anchors us to data. It imprisons us to the only view that analytics show us. To an already attention deficient and presentation tools addicted people, data obsession makes them thinking challenged. You might ask, does data not help us think; it does, provided we use it as a launch pad for thinking and not as incontrovertible facts or means to make decisions.
Analysis or arrangement of data directs us towards engaging and comprehending the world through: The ‘as is’ lens. It is the reality as gleaned out from disaggregation. It helps diagnosis, rarely leads us to solutions. It makes us restless, with the reflection based perception of the world. It struggles to see disparate connections since synthesising is not its wont. This is like a photograph.
If the computational rules do not see two sets of data relatable, it will not attempt synthesising. This ready-made fast food numbs and dulls our thinking faculty called conceptualisation: The lens which helps us see ‘as things can be’. This is like finding a form in a marble, as Michelangelo would have.
In simple words when applied to our discussions, data and analytical thinking roots us to where data takes us and no further. It is consumed by a compulsion to root everything into, what data reads as reality or realistic. This is called by Daniel Kahneman in his book, “Thinking fast and slow”, as the “Availability bias”. So proof or confirmation with the stored database is what this thinking limits us to. It largely focuses our thoughts and vision to very short time frames.
When in this mode driven by the obsession for concreteness and correctness, it thwarts exploration or any abstraction of thought. In other words this mode is the enemy of looking for possibilities or anything outside the box. The data obsession constantly pushes us inside the box.
The outside the box world does not have reliable data and hence appears dangerous and full of gaps. It generates the same fear that ancient mariners had about the open uncharted oceans or those who went into the jungles and had to do the back breaking work of clearing it and making it habitable and arable.
A mind caught in attention deficiency, pre-occupied in one mode, absorbing or speaking and fooled by availability bias, feels challenged to venture out, explore, experiment and envision the future. It is a trap we set for ourselves. We become comfortable with it. Our thinking becomes constricted. Eventually our thinking atrophies.