Simon Blake: Some thoughts on thinking

The charity chief executive gives five tips for improving your pondering

Simon Blake
Simon Blake

Over the past couple of weeks I have run both the Brighton and London marathons. I have run about 1,000 kilometres in training and swum a whole lot of lengths. That is a lot of time to think.

Last month I published a blog that set out some thoughts about working well. I suggested that we needed to think differently about thinking in the workplace. That particular part of the blog hit a chord with several people and stimulated some interesting conversations about how we can encourage thinking cultures at work. In a context where doing the same things and getting the same results just won’t work, and where most of us don’t have resources that allow us to use expensive consultancies creating thinking environments at work is vital.

There are five common themes from the conversations.

Talk about and facilitate quality thinking in the workplace

We can be more explicit about the importance of good-quality thinking. Our experiences and personality traits will drive how we think best. If we grew up thinking with flipcharts and pens, that approach might generate our best thinking. But if we grew up with iPads, our creative juices might get going in different ways. Understanding different ways of thinking helps to develop ways of working that get the best thinking from your teams.

Set up relevant meetings with the explicit aim of generating the best thinking possible

We can help colleagues to think by simply encouraging playful exploration, which is especially important when someone says they have a silly idea. It is obvious, but smiling, nodding and looking interested helps thinking (this is hard if we are looking at our phones or iPads, but the case for banning devices in meetings is a whole different discussion).

Stare out of the window

Lots of the discussions reflected on the changes of the past 20 years. When I first started working I didn’t have a work email address, a mobile phone or social media accounts to get distracted by. The working day was spent focused on the things I decided were important. Travel time was spent drafting documents. Other than that I spent most train time looking out of the window and letting thoughts come in and out. Now it can feel like wasting precious time in which emails can be sent or calls can be made. On the rare occasions I do stare out of the window – normally when all devices have run out of juice – it is time well spent. I am determined to get better at it. 

Turn off the beeps

Many of us sit working with a range of devices around us. Email notifications pop up in the bottom corner, our phone beeps and the iPad tells us that someone has liked a post on Facebook. If we want to concentrate, turn off the beeps, turn off the devices. Give ourselves the chance to concentrate on the work in hand by turning off the beeps.

Create meaningful time out of the office

Awaydays continue to be commonplace and are important. The breaks are as important as the work time. If good-quality thinking is to happen throughout the day, maybe this is the time and place to limit the use of phones.

When it comes to developing knowledge, we often book courses, which sometimes deliver. More and more I think shadowing, visits and exchanges with other organisations doing relevant work, operating in different contexts and with different regulations can generate excellent thinking as long as they are set up well. Meeting people who work in different countries to learn about different contexts can be immensely thought provoking. And although some travel is expensive, some international travel is as cheap as going to Manchester in peak time, so it doesn’t have to be prohibitive.

Focus on outcomes not bums on seats

This is perhaps the hardest one for many of us. If some of the best thinking is done in a café, or while running or walking, that must be something we encourage. Senior staff often have greater flexibility than more junior staff to work from home. Creating space to think in different ways requires trust across the organisation to move away from the perception that if you are not at your desk you are not working. It also requires a focus on outcomes and a performance management system that matches.

There are lots of good books about creating a thinking environment. A personal favourite is Nancy Kline’s Time to Think.

Simon Blake (@Simonablake) is the chief executive of the National Union of Students, but is writing in a personal capacity

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