Four ways to maximize how you and your professional colleagues think together
Before you and your colleagues make consequential decisions together, before you forge ahead with substantial plans, before you initiate joint actions, you must do something that is rarely understood and acknowledged: You must think together constructively. This crucial and fertile activity sets the stage for the good work that follows.
Make the most of every opportunity to think together with colleagues by attending to four key dimensions: relating, intending, exploring, and creating.
To think together well, you must relate together well. Good thinking among colleagues depends on trust, shared respect, and the ability to connect meaningfully with one another. None happens automatically.
Sometimes, the way to build relationships with colleagues is to get to know one another personally, beyond the boxes of participants’ defined roles, or the narrow topic of the joint-thinking activity. This technique was used successfully by the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network, a consortium of 19 diverse organizations in California that formed to improve land stewardship in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco. Among other activities, participants spent social time and meals together to allow relationships to develop naturally among representatives from government agencies, researchers, a Native American tribal band, and a timber company. Positive connections ensued: A technique called “network analysis” showed that the number and strength of connections among Stewardship Network members grew dramatically in just a few months, the result of intentional, designed opportunities to build relationships.1
Even when the gathering to think together is less elaborate and happens in less time, good relationships are vital. For participants to contribute their best thinking, they need to believe that what they offer will be received and respected; and they need to show genuine respect for, and interest in, what others put forward. Stronger relationships can make that happen. As a report on the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network described, “connectivity … is one of the primary outcomes of a collaborative effort, and the invisible glue that holds it together.”2
Establishing a purpose aids attunement among participants and minimizes confusion. What is the topic we are thinking about? Why are we gathering? What outcome do we seek? Whether you are meeting just once for an hour, or embarking on a multi-session thinking journey over weeks or months, a clear, agreed sense of purpose focuses both the time together and each person’s contributions.
When setting intentions, clarify the topic, the desired outcome—and the structure. Are we meeting only to brainstorm? Do we intend to evaluate ideas? Do we have the right people involved? How do we want to communicate together to elicit the best thinking? Discuss the structural components early to establish the conditions so you can think well together.
Now, should you establish the purpose first, and then build the relationships—or vice versa? In some cases, the purpose determines who should be involved and how relationships are managed. In others, relationships come first, after which an energizing purpose emerges. Use your judgment about sequencing, but attend to both early in the process.
When you think together, worlds converge: Your beliefs, assumptions, experiences, and aspirations intersect with those of your colleagues. Many times, however, those perspectives remain unexpressed and unexplained. They influence the interactions nonetheless.
For instance, I may believe that the topic we’re discussing is very simple and straightforward, based on an experience I had years ago in another organization; as such, I aspire to resolve the topic speedily. This is so obvious to me that I don’t express my thoughts, because I assume others think the same. All of this affects how I show up in our meeting. As it happens, a colleague believes the topic is complex, nuanced, and requires more time, for different reasons that are perfectly obvious to them. Unless we each expose and examine our thinking, we may talk past each other—and the group may never benefit from our diverse perspectives and experiences.
To explore world views as you think together, do the following:
- Ask each person to consider any beliefs, assumptions, experiences, and aspirations they may hold that are salient to the topic.
- Invite them to express their thoughts and the reasoning behind them.
- Ask and invite questions with genuine curiosity, to deepen everyone’s understanding.
- Listen attentively and reflectively.
- Be willing to be influenced.
- Show humility. Adopt the point of view that “This is my perspective. It is based, in part, on the information, data, and experiences that are currently available to me and that have shaped my thinking. Together we can generate ideas and answers that may be better than what I can generate on my own.”
- Commit to collective learning so everyone can become smarter together.
Social and emotional intelligence are also essential when you explore together. Demonstrate respect for others as they share ideas. Challenge thinking to make it better, but assume good intentions among your colleagues. And thank everyone for contributing.
Together, you can create new possibilities through words, images, and ideas to open pathways that will set a superior course for subsequent decisions and actions.
Whether your thinking together is wide-ranging or focused, applying rigor and a structure to your creative ideation will improve it. Entrepreneurial innovators like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos use a “first principles” approach, by asking questions such as: “What is the most efficient way to solve a problem if you started from scratch? If you look past humanity’s [previous] attempts to solve [the problem at hand], what is the best approach if you reason back up from its fundamental principles?”3 Questions like these focus joint thinking and unleash it.
To elicit creative contributions as you think together, diversify your communication practices. People communicate and contribute in different ways to align with cultural norms or to suit their personal thinking preferences. Vary your communication methods to invite different types of thought and to welcome everyone’s active contribution. (Hint: Whether you’re thinking together in person or virtually, introduce multimodal opportunities for people to express themselves and engage with each other. Invite contributions that are auditory; visual; and kinesthetic, which can include co-creating models or exploring a topic’s emotional / ethical dimensions.)
Thinking with others is an intricate act of attunement, similar to the way members of an orchestra come together to contribute to a creation that is different from, and bigger than, what any of them could make happen alone. To get the most from each thinking session, tend to the four factors of relating, intending, exploring, and creating, and you’ll be rewarded by better ideas and stronger relationships. Do so repeatedly, and you will establish a culture of superior thinking that is essential to outstanding decision-making and excellent actions.
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