“Open to Think” – An Interview with Dan Pontefract
Dan Pontefract is Chief Envisioner at TELUS, a Canadian telecommunications company, where he heads the Transformation Office, a future-of-work consulting group that helps organizations enhance their corporate cultures and collaboration practices. He is the best-selling author of THE PURPOSE EFFECT: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization as well as FLAT ARMY: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization. A renowned speaker, Dan has presented at multiple TED events and also writes for Forbes, Harvard Business Review and The Huffington Post. His latest book is OPEN to THINK: Slow Down, Think Creatively, and Make Better Decisions.
What made you write this book?
While it may not occur to us on a daily basis, there is a widespread cultural tendency toward quick decisions and quick action. This pattern has resulted in many of society’s greatest successes, but even more of its failures. Though the root cause is by no means malicious, we have begun to reward speed over quality, and the negative effects suffered in both our personal and professional lives are potentially catastrophic. This applies to all spheres of life and work, including business strategy and marketing.
Life is far too short for fridge magnet advice. Speed, busyness and multi-tasking have all become weapons against thoughtfulness.
So this book is about thinking differently about thinking?
My goal is to give the reader tangible, actionable strategies to improve the way we think as organizations and individuals.
In the modern world, our senses are bombarded daily by political propaganda and fake news. We fluctuate between high filtering and gullibility. The truth is becoming harder and harder to discern. This situation introduces another important factor. Speed has become a weapon against thoughtfulness. Time to market, time to innovate, and time to exploit have become bullets in the gun. And that gun seems perpetually cocked. In a world governed by growth, we are under stress to complete things as quickly as possible. Indeed, we now scamper from task to task or action to action in a continuous peripatetic state. We are unable to pause and reflect to make better decisions.
Many of us have forgotten how to think. Worse, some have surrendered the responsibility to think. In the process, minds have closed to the potential an improved form of thinking brings. For some, thinking has been outsourced in favor of artificial intelligence like Siri or Alexa. Consequently, some people have outsourced both Creative and Critical Thinking. Professor Tom Nichols of the U.S. Naval War College insists “we are witnessing the ‘death of expertise’: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”
That’s what this book is about. That’s what I’m calling Open Thinking.
The World Economic Forum recently announced that creativity will become one of the top three skills workers will need in the future. Your book is an answer to the question – how do we think more creatively? Open thinking – can you describe what that means?
“Open Thinking” is a cyclical process in which creativity is encouraged, critiquing leads to better decisions, and thoughtful action delivers positive, sustainable results. It’s a return to balance between the three components of productive thought: dreaming, deciding, and doing.
The major block to Open Thinking is influenced by two factors: reflection and action. These factors must be balanced to become an Open Thinker. If the levers between reflection and action are misaligned, we end up in one of three bad habits I call Indifferent, Indecisive, and Inflexible Thinking. In the book, the three types are defined using a graphic to illustrate their relationship to Open Thinking:
Some of us become so accustomed to a previously learned habit we simply refuse the opportunity to try something different. Whether it is a routine, process, or system, once we have mastered something and become comfortable, the habit becomes hard to break. We like it. Why change when things are perfectly fine as they are?
This is the tragedy of indifferent thinking.
Those of us unable to ever come to a decision—stuck in the habit of vacillating—demonstrate Indecisive Thinking. When the default habit is to take an extraordinarily long time critiquing or coming up with options, one can run the risk of employing what author H. Igor Ansoff called “paralysis by analysis.”
Indecisive Thinking not only accentuates a world of endless dreaming, it is a blatant disregard for making progress. If you demonstrate a proclivity to sit on the fence and ideate ad infinitum—refusing to either make a decision or move forward—you wind up affecting not only yourself but those you work with or lead.
When we demonstrate Inflexible Thinking—the third and final blockage to Open Thinking—we tend to immediately jump to action without properly reflecting. We demonstrate an inflexibility to reflect, focusing instead on getting something accomplished. People will choose activity over a weighted blend of ideation, pause, consideration, and response. They relinquish breathing space because it takes too long. There is more joy in firefighting than fire prevention.
Let’s consider a scenario at work in which your boss presents a series of customer service issues to solve. Ideally, you enter a state of reflection that should transition into a decision and, finally, action. You should consider the possibilities, deduce what will work, make the decision, and then act to fix the customer problem in a mutually acceptable timeframe. If you spend too much time white-boarding the possibilities and/or overanalyzing your options—or you immediately dive into action without devoting thinking time to being creative or critical—that is akin to eating a 12-pack of donuts for lunch every day of the week. Inevitably, the result is unhealthy. At some point your habit becomes set. In this case, the customer remains dissatisfied. Poor thinking has won.
A different example. Your team wishes to improve how its members share information with one another. In a perfect world, everyone gets together to first think of some new ideas, critique them, decide what will be used, and then move to implementing the ideas. Hopefully, the process is iterative and weaves in any new feedback or thoughts. But for many teams, either the leader mandates changes in a top-down fashion, or the team itself doesn’t spend enough time on the various options. Inescapably, any so-called improvements that were applied miss the mark because a version of closed thinking is applied. It is not open. It is not engaging. Time is not invested. Consequently, the result is unsatisfactory. Everyone loses.
In my place of work, if I am not regularly asking team members for feedback on an idea, what does that say about my own personal level of thinking? Closed or open? In fact, thinking is tied to your attitude or behavior. If you are closed-minded and fixated on dominating at all costs, what does that say about your ability to think openly, let alone being viewed as a respected leader?
Open Thinking comprises three key categories:
- Creative Thinking: the generation of new ideas, unleashed from constraints. Do you reflect?
- Critical Thinking: the thorough analysis of ideas and facts to make an ethical and timely decision. How do you decide?
- Applied Thinking: commitment to execute a decision. Will you take thoughtful action?
I love the example you have at the end of every chapter – the Open Thinking practiced by Lilliput Hats and Karyn Ruiz…
You know, if an organization is focused entirely on profit or in some cases maximizing shareholder return, there may be a large swath of employees unwilling to be creative because they do not believe in the organization’s “bad” or misguided purpose. We are robbing ourselves of our future.
I discovered that Lilliput Hats has a team constantly dreaming, deciding, and doing.
Using only the finest materials and the time-honored traditions of millineries from days past, Lilliput Hats has remained in business since the late 1980s because of its Open Thinking culture. Karyn and her associates are accustomed to simultaneously thinking creatively and critically, all the while under the pressure of client deadlines. Hats must get made. Incomplete action is not an option. But creativity and critical decision-making is where the art meets the science. As I observed the milliners working in their eclectic shop, I felt so moved by their Open Thinking habits that I came up with the idea of closing each chapter in this book with an observation or two from Karyn and her team.
Karyn Ruiz said something quite profound to me during one of my visits to her Lilliput Hats store. “Most people don’t have creativity in their jobs, and some don’t want it either. Either way, when customers come into our shop they are surrounded by creativity. We open up Pandora’s Box, providing them with the ability to dream.”
This is what we need in the enterprise today. A way to understand and realize the dreams of our customers.
Can you share with us a selection of the questions you ask organizations on creative thinking?
- Is your organizational culture one that promotes reflection and dreaming as a core behavior?
- Are the leaders across your organization demonstrating command-and-control management practices, suffocating the chance for Creative Thinking to take place?
- Are team members permitted the time to think creatively, or do you espouse an organizational culture of constant busyness?
I would also add that critical thinking, that is, the thorough analysis of ideas and facts to make an ethical and timely decision, is just as important.
Here are three questions to ask in that domain:
- Where does Critical Thinking sit in your values or leadership model? Is it there at all?
- How is Critical Thinking woven into the organization’s leadership development programs? Is it a part of your onboarding or new hire orientation program?
- Does the organization possess a decision-making model, one that is both collaborative and purposeful? How does this Critical Thinking model get used by senior leaders when coaching team members?
Thanks so much. We’ll let readers check the book out to learn what the questions are for Applied Thinking. I also loved your hat-tip to Bertrand Russell at the end of the book. Thanks again.
INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar