Categories
Chapters

3. The Power of Facilitation for Critical Thinking

Today, the speed and volume of information can be overwhelming. Critical thinking skills give people the tools they need to actively listen and critically consume information. Critical thinkers challenge assumptions and zero in on the information that leads to the path of innovation rather than complacency.

The process of becoming a “thinking organization” begins with the organisation’s engine— its people. In order to gain the benefits of being a critical thinking organization, collaborative critical thinking needs to be embedded into the culture of the organization.

Organizations that want to move in this direction will need to make changes on several fronts to establish the needed processes and open up the benefits of enhanced collaborative critical thinking. The power of facilitation can help with this shift in corporate culture. But maybe, more importantly, critical thinking can amplify the power of facilitation by helping individuals, groups, organizations and communities examine all information, all points of view, and all perspectives, in a way that enhances their ability to think better together.

This chapter will examine how critical thinking, in concert with communication, collaboration and creativity/innovation, can amplify the power of facilitation.


What is Critical Thinking & How Can It Help?

In 2005, the Korean Journal of Thinking and Problem Solving published a paper titled “Current Developments in Creative Problem Solving for Organizations: A Focus on Thinking Skills and Styles”.i In this article, the author presents a number of studies that examine how organizations and employees who trained to solve problems creatively increased organisational successes. Outcomes like cost savings, improved decision-making, increased employee motivation and heightened learning attitudes were all attributed to increasing the Critical Thinking skills of both the organization and the workforce.

Inspiring a workforce to think critically requires three key organisational elements: effective and open communication, a willingness to collaborate at all levels of the organization and a culture that embraces creativity and innovation. This allows the collective intelligence of the entire organization to grow and expand.

Organizations that encourage critical thinking develop operational dexterity. They are nimble and adapt easier to unseen forces in their future. Research has shown that organisations implementing these processes can “… expect to capture 20 per cent more of their future revenue from new sources than their more traditional peers”.ii

How to Become a Critical Thinker

There are three core elements needed for a critical thinking mind-set: curiosity, scepticism and humility.

Curiosity focuses people on the ‘why’. It helps to discover the root of the discussion/problem/issue. Curiosity also makes us wonder about the motivation behind the information we consume. A curious mind will consider why this information is being provided? Why are they expecting me to agree? What assumptions must be acknowledged about the information?

Curiosity develops the desire to actively listen to others, inquire as to what they mean and engage in a meaningful inquisitive dialogue. Curiosity builds
listening skills, which are always on the alert for misunderstandings, biases, assumptions, hidden meanings, etc. Curiosity leads to a willingness to listen and consider alternate points of view. It allows us to consider information before judging its validity or relevance.

Critical Thinkers qualify information “inflows” which helps to ensure the quality of idea “outflows”.

Along with curiosity, scepticism is a necessary part of critical thinking. Scepticism builds the ability to be nimble with ideas, opinions and information. Scepticism doesn’t mean that everything is automatically questioned and discounted until proven beyond a reasonable doubt. It means that you are always on alert for information that is unreliable,
misleading, biased or born from singular experiences. Scepticism allows individuals to zero in on the validity of information and its use to define the thinking logic. For example, trying to decide what type of landing gear a rocket needs to land on a moon made of cheese focuses on the landing gear debate. Scepticism refocuses the discussion first on the likelihood the moon is made of cheese and where we got that information. It empowers critical thinkers to qualify information “inflows” which helps to ensure the quality of idea “outflows”.

The last element of a critical thinking mind-set is humility. Humility allows us to realize that being wrong can be a positive thing. Humility allows us to expect that our ideas, thoughts and assumptions “can” be misplaced. It gives us the ability to recognize that if we hold on to “wrong” information we may use that information to make bad decisions. The quicker we can let go of “wrong” information, the faster we can move away from incorrect knowledge paths. Critical thinkers are not in a constant state of worry about being proven wrong, they become open to seeing different options and opportunities. They become prepared to weigh new information on its merit, rather than on its ability to support foregone conclusions. This behaviour frees them to pursue, gather and critically consume new information.

It is sometimes hard to openly admit we are wrong. However, holding on to information, ideas or assumptions that are wrong is a burden on our thinking. A willingness to accept that we “may” be wrong, opens up the potential to see things from a different perspective and overcomes the functional fixedness of our ideas. We cannot think together
better, if we are unwilling to challenge our own ideas and assumptions.

Of course, curiosity, scepticism and humility are not just needed to build a critical thinking mind-set. As the other chapters of this book have espoused, a healthy dose of curiosity, scepticism and humility are also requirements of thinking together effectively.

Critical Thinking & Communication

Institutional knowledge is that hard-won experience built up over years of experimentation and learning in the organisation. It’s the lessons staff learnt from “doing” the business of the organization. Becoming a critical thinking organization means that we continuously share the wisdom of the organisation. A big part of stopping knowledge drain from organizations begins with ensuring institutional knowledge is not stored by a few but is shared by all. Organizations with a critical thinking culture ensure this knowledge is treated as an organisational resource.

Teams will quickly assimilate this new “knowledge fuel” into their own idea and decision-making engines.

Organizations committed to cultivating critical thinking take active steps to ensure all business meetings, discussions and processes are treated as learning opportunities. Regular ongoing discussions about what went well, what failed, how we can do better, what we won’t do again and how we can change are important. Distributing this learning to everyone strengthens the collective intelligence of the organization. Often, I suggest to managers that they embed Focused Conversations into every meeting, for every project, to encourage reflection, learning and sharing among team members.

Activities like Focused Conversations spread the learning from all points of view, ensure staff take the time to reflect on and think about what they have learned and acts as a catalyst for engagement by everyone. These collaborative processes should be designed to spread the institutional learning through information sharing, transparent evaluation, reflection and continuous improvement. This process has the secondary benefit of allowing new staff to acquire years of learning in a very short period of time. Spreading lessons learnt from “the individual” to “the organization” allows everyone to problem-solve, learn from mistakes, contribute to new ideas and examine business processes together.

Treating institutional knowledge as a shared asset allows groups to learn from their own experiences by sharing their own reflections as well as learn from others’ experiences across the organization. Whenever you gather staff, introduce a few facilitated critical thinking conversations to encourage people to share and expand their institutional knowledge. Encourage storytelling of how trial and error processes led to new techniques. Promote discussions regarding learned experiences, adversities and wins. Pose “what if ” scenarios to encourage deeper thinking and advanced learning. Conduct Agile type design sprints to solve problems and consider alternative processes. Teams will quickly assimilate the knowledge they gain, as well as the process of how to think together better. They will then incorporate this knowledge into their own ideas and use it to make better decisions.

Critical Thinking & Collaboration

Open communication leads to sharing of ideas and is the basis of collaboration. Collaboration leads to organisational learning and the development of innovative solutions. As collaboration becomes the norm, collective intelligence builds, innovation flourishes and employees become enthused and engaged.

For several years, Gallup has been surveying the American workplace to quantify the level of employee engagement at work. In 2017, Gallup reported that only one-third of employees in the US were engaged at work. These numbers hold up across each generation—Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials—dispelling the myth that disengagement is just an issue with the younger crowd. The research shows similar results across educational levels (high school to postgraduate). Gallup went on to report that “disengaged employees cost the country somewhere between $450 and $550 billion each year”.iii

Critical thinking combined with collaboration is the inoculation staff needs to move from a state of disengagement to engagement. An atmosphere where employees are encouraged to collaborate and share their ideas, stimulates employee growth and a sense of worth. Collaboration affords employees the time to test their judgements, ideas and reasons with others and openly contribute to real change.

Critical thinking organizations support their people to brainstorm through problems and think together using collaborative processes. Employees begin to take a more holistic view of the organization. Cross-organisational collaborations transform discussion from, “I just do this every day,” to enthusiastic exchanges about who does what and why. Meetings become discussions that flush out new ideas, smooth out process backlogs, stream-line business practices and reduce duplications. Business processes across the organisation become disentangled as staff finds ways to work together better. Ideas that don’t work are quickly revamped because the lines of communication are opened. Most importantly, employees take ownership for proposing their ideas, they feel free to experiment and are interested in trying out new methods. In a short period of time, employees become engaged in executing best practices they helped author and they are invested in making their ideas work.

In order to nurture collaboration, organizations need to strengthen the pathways for authentic conversations among staff and across staff units. Formalized processes need to be put in place to encourage the gathering and sharing of ideas. It is more than just putting people in the same room. Organisations need to embrace the power of facilitation in both formal and informal settings. Leaders need to provide the time and space for staff to engage, interact, exchange ideas and experiment. And as was discussed in the last chapter, develop facilitative competencies and skills across the organisation.

People say some of the best innovations happen on the back of a paper napkin, but what really ignited that innovation was the collaborative dialogue that happened around the table.

More and more people are reporting to me that the velocity of work doesn’t give them time to stop and think through the numerous problems they face every day. Employees are busy “doing” with no time to “think” about options or discuss alternatives. More and more people are forced to make snap decisions, on their own and with limited information. They make choices on the fly, without input from others, because of the rush-rush mentality that is prevalent across the organization. Consequently, the threat of making wrong decisions often leads to procrastination. Pushing decisions down the road or ignoring the need to choose is often preferred to that of making a wrong decision. Staff I have interviewed tell me that they would rather be criticised for not making decisions than be known as a poor decision-maker. But the idea of taking the time to collaborate with others to make better decisions is not even considered.

Collaborative organizations embrace corporate face-to-face (or screen-to-screen) activities, which give people the opportunity to verbalize their problems, seek alternate ideas and gather useful intelligence. Collaborative organisations nurture critical thinking in a way that supports this process. As illustrated in other chapters, collaboration expands collective intelligence. But it is not only the collective that benefits. Each individual within the group is able to add the wisdom of other group members to their personal “data bank”, which advances their own critical thinking, allowing them to make better decisions. This process gives people the time to dissect their problems, discuss alternatives and test solutions with others in the moment. This helps staff gain the confidence to more easily decide on a solution and they are more apt to make and execute decisions. People say some of the best innovations happen on the back of a paper napkin, but what really ignited that innovation was the collaborative dialogue that happened around the table.

Many management teams I deal with talk about organisational size as a barrier to collaboration and engagement. In fact, the Gallup report, noted above, found that around 1,000 employees is the “tipping point” for employee engagement issues. But as seen in other chapters, size should not be considered an impediment to collaboration or engagement.

My colleagues who authored earlier chapters in this book, all provide excellent examples of facilitated processes that have resulted in high engagement and significant outcomes across nations, communities and large organisations. The power of facilitation in an organisation with a culture that is built on critical thinking trumps concerns over size every time.

Cultivating critical thinking within the organisation not only empowers employees to disentangle and streamline the business process, but it is also good for the business bottom line. According to a study by Kenex, engaged companies had five times higher total shareholder returns over a five-year period than less engaged companies.iv A 2011 study by Towers Perrin found that companies with engaged employees had six per cent higher net-profit margins.v Striking a critical thinking culture in the organization engages employees by practising open information sharing, valuing the contribution of everyone at all levels of the organization and involving employees in the decision-making process. It instils a sense of belonging, worth and satisfaction that is just what disengaged employees crave.

Critical Thinking & Creativity/Innovation

Strong critical thinking organizations train their employees to be flexible and help them build the skills needed to adapt and change. Rigid corporate cultures don’t bend or flex with shifting demands. Their set-in-stone business processes signal to employees that choices are limited, and new ideas are not welcome. Rigid organizations have little interest in building the skills employees need to innovate or adapt to shifting requirements. When faced with even minor deviations from the business norms, these organizations “buckle” and staff become unable to deal with rapid priority shifts or accelerated business needs.

Critical thinking organisations embrace creativity and innovation. Through open lines of communication and by encouraging collaboration, critical thinking organisations support and encourage staff to be creative and innovative. Encouraging staff to explore new ideas, propose alterative solutions and challenge current practices leads to a solution-focused ‘can-do’ attitude across the organization. This leads to a culture where employees are increasingly able to action and execute new solutions/ideas because they are practised problem solvers who are change ready.

When organizations embrace and encourage creativity, they open the door for staff to collaborate and solve problems in new and better ways. When employees realize they have the authority to be creative, and that management supports this behaviour, they begin to look at problems not as obstacles but as challenges. This creative stimulus not only leads to new and exciting ideas but sets the stage for employees to be fully engaged in organisational change and transformation initiatives.

Creativity produces innovation. The corporate struggle to find ways to innovate, drop outdated approaches and explore new ways to predict and tackle future risk is globally interconnected. An organization that embraces and nurtures critical thinking, facilitation competencies, open communication and collaboration enables employees to not only be aware of the challenges facing the organization, but to also be part of the solution.

I joined Chrysler Corporation as a young graduate. Chrysler was just emerging from a very difficult time and was clawing its way back from near death. I was first trained in one of their “learning branches”, then transferred to their largest North American branch. My new branch was paralysed with escalating losses and a growing level of delinquent accounts. Delinquency rates had climbed to 12 times the corporate average and we were leaking money from all business operations. The week I arrived at the branch so did the new computer system, which was designed to support account services.

With a computer background from my undergrad studies, I decided to see if the system could be leveraged to mass communicate with the ever-growing list of delinquent customers. I quickly found a way to produce form letters for all past due accounts, so an automated reminder went out to customers. At the same time, I produced a stern warning letter for severely delinquent accounts. My immediate manager assumed all the time I was spending working on this new project was just “fiddling” with the new system. He told me to drop what I was doing immediately and get back to my “real” job. However, my branch manager overheard the conversation and asked me to explain what I had been working on. He asked questions and listened to my answers thoughtfully. After a long discussion, he encouraged me to pursue the idea.

Within weeks we were generating hundreds of customized letters and reminders automatically and delinquency rates fell dramatically. Within a month I was assigned two helpers and together we began generating automated reminders as part of the ongoing business model. The success of the automated system echoed across the entire organization and similar systems were set up in other branches.

Recognizing that staff can develop the next new way of doing things, define a new process or develop a new product is only part of the critical thinking process for the organization. Training organisational leaders to listen for and be open to that next new “thing” allows creativity to flourish and innovation to take hold. Managers can no longer wait for creativity and innovation to come—nurturing innovation is the new role of 21st century leaders.

Committing to enhance critical thinking within the organization is only half the battle. The other half is to strengthen the pathways for more collaboration across the organization. This collaboration growth brings the organisation huge advantages. With processes in place to encourage gathering and sharing ideas, individuals naturally begin to explore job issues with others, both formally and informally. This process brings groups together, often across organisational lines that don’t usually meet, interact and exchange ideas. Employee dialogues that slice across organization silos bring deeper and richer understanding for innovators and problem solvers.

Conclusion

Using facilitation to help the organization develop a critical thinking culture is a win-win. While the facilitation process guides the group interaction, those in the group are free to work the “problem” and learn from each other. Using a facilitated engagement allows the group to not only tackle the problem but to also begin the process of developing the skills needed for critical thinking. The facilitator works on guiding the group and establishing processes to heighten the collective intelligence via collaboration, open lines of communication and creative problem solving. The main task of the facilitated meeting is to find a solution to the problem at hand. However, the facilitator takes the extra step to introduce critical thinking tools that over time become embedded into the group’s everyday business processes. Individuals are encouraged to ask questions, understand and challenge their assumptions and contemplate the implications of the feedback they receive. Interactions are organized to tease out bias, explore different perspectives, think creatively and isolate areas where the group needs more information. Groups are coached to listen, digest information, consider options and probe ideas for more details. Teams can “work the problem” across the organisation responsibly in order to identify roadblocks that can be tackled and solved.

Planned group interactions like this expose people to alternate points of view and new ideas from across the organization. The heightened interaction ensures that employees understand the “whole” situation, and everyone gets the opportunity to explore and contribute to the evidence from a different business perspective. Groups are encouraged to explore any prejudice openly, examine their assumptions and look for new and innovative opportunities. They are encouraged to break down barriers that keep them from innovating and explore “what if ” opportunities to open new roads to best practices. The normal “ho humm” problem-solving meeting is elevated to an event that not only produces solutions but also becomes a powerful positive experience that inspires teams to want to “engage” again and again.

The facilitator’s role is to heighten the opportunity for increased dialogue, draw out ideas, help the group through conflict, provide solid processes to reach consensus and document the results. The facilitated process strengthens the group’s ability to leave old ideas and travel new roads. In the end, the group learns to use collaborative processes to develop solutions, cultivate ideas and innovate. Before long, critical thinking skills and processes are woven into the business culture and begin to motivate individuals to deploy the same skill set in their everyday interactions and decision-making.

As groups become better and better at thinking together, the processes experienced become a recipe for future collaboration. People become more adept at examining the assumptions and ideas of others. They become better at listening and using new learning to enhance their own ideas. They find new ways to engage colleagues on a continuous basis. They begin to review their points of view and ideas in a way that makes them better contributors and skilled problem solvers. Finally, they become comfortable in an organisation that matters to them and that they feel confident investing in because they can make a difference.

Critical thinking processes within the organization can enhance communication, collaboration and creativity among the workforce. It is evident that these “learning organizations” foster and teach employees to deploy higher-level thinking processes, which has many benefits. As has been evidenced in this chapter, critical thinking organizations can expect positive ROIs in areas like employee engagement, reduced corporate risk, profitability and lower costs. Additionally, these organizations are creating intelligent nimble work-forces that will be crucial to tackle 21st century business demands. Organisations who empower their workforce with a critical thinking mind-set, coupled with collaboration and enhanced organization wide communication, will surely be the next creators, innovators and leaders.

Visual summary by Debbie Roberts

References

i. Puccio, G. J., Murdock, M. C., Mance, M. (2005). Current Developments in Creative Problem Solving for Organizations: A Focus on Thinking Skills and Styles. The Korean Journal of Thinking & Problem Solving, 15(2), 43-76

ii. IBM 2010 Global CEO Study: Creativity Selected as Most Crucial Factor for Future Success. (2010,
May 18). IBM. http://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/31670.wss

iii. Gallup, I. (2021, March 22). State of the American Workplace. Gallup.com. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/238085/state-american-workplace-report-2017.aspx

iv. Forbes: Critical Thinking Skills Propel Organizations Forward https://www.kepner-tregoe.com/blog/forbes-critical-thinking-skills-propel-organizations-forward/

v. The Power of Three by Willis Tower Watson (2011) www. willistowerswatson.com

By Martin Gilbraith

Certified Professional Facilitator | Master, ICA:UK Associate, #FacPower author, FRSA.