Why do teams find thinking so hard? And what can you do to get past the pain? The rewards of a team that excels at thinking are multiple, strategic and self-sustaining. Thinking underpins accountability and productivity. That team gets to set the pace, energy, and culture that directly generates business innovation, value creation and higher levels of performance.

Before science pinpointed the parts of our brain that fire up when we think, philosophers and scientists, among others, knew that thinking was tough.

The Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle told us “it is a mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Inventor and businessman Thomas A. Edison reckoned that “Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”

Thinking is tough because…

Thinking is tough because it requires us to over-ride our brain’s strength in recalling memories so as to run much of the time on auto-pilot. Think of the phrases we use and over-use in conversation: “barking up the wrong tree”, “your guess is as good as mine” and the runaway favorite “think outside the box”. They keep conversations moving without really having to think too hard.

To think hard is to engage, frequently and intentionally, two key parts of our brains responsible for our executive function: the anterior cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. (I won’t even try to pretend I’m a scientist, so if you want accuracy, try Wikipedia.)

What is Executive Function anyway?

Executive function is our ability to plan, make decisions, orchestrate our thoughts and actions so as to achieve our personal goals (a.k.a. motivation), access working memory, differentiate between conflicting thoughts, weigh up good and bad, make comparisons, determine future consequences of current activities, predict outcomes as well as regulate our emotions, moderate our behaviors, do abstract reasoning and other complex mental activities.

Scientists and historians spend a lot of time in this space.

For those of us that fire up this part of our brains infrequently – because daily work and life dictates as much – when we do have to think, it hurts or feels tedious.

“Too often we… enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
– John F. Kennedy, 35th US President

Thinking is a discipline. It’s not automatic and it’s not effortless.

“If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it.”
– Abraham Lincoln from his speech, “A House Divided”

(Great team facilitators know this feeling of being resented, in the moment, very well.)

Who has the time or patience to think?

Thinking takes time, sometimes a very long time. There are so many variables to work through and to hold in mind at the same time. Thinking means thinking many steps ahead through to their logical conclusions and then working it backwards to spot any anomalies, errors or opportunities.

It’s often difficult to know where to start and then what do you do when you are missing information? Do you even know that you’re missing information? How can you know you’re starting at the right place?

Thinking gets harder when we have to test our assumptions and our biases. Thinking in our own head is an emotional rollercoaster – sometimes it’s wonderful and sometimes it’s deathly.

Thinking with others requires us to get our thoughts out clearly and hope that others hear them as we meant them. But find people you enjoy debating and discussing with, and you can then spar with each other and build on each other’s ideas. And of course, their ability to listen actively or deeply is key and can be very powerful.

Thinking requires us to let go of boundaries, barriers and automatic thinking. Thinking requires a lucid mind. It requires creativity and imagination. Thinking is physically and emotionally demanding. This is where having a facilitator or team coach can make all the difference.

But what happens in teams where time is finite?

We do this: We think fast and shallow – enough to move forward and make some decisions. We take in only a few variables and make best guesses about the rest, if at all.

We respond to peer and cultural pressure, meaning we regurgitate the same old statements, comments and assumptions, or we say what we think everyone in the room expects us to say – annoyingly, we do this even when we are conscious of it.

Close behind that is our propensity, comfort and attachment to group-think. We avoid asking questions that might undermine our support for or relationship with that person. We avoid challenging our peers when our familiarity or political alignments make it awkward to hold others accountable.

We’re not done there. We excel at making decisions in silos so if ever there was an opportunity to collaborate, well… we’ll never see it.

“If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it.”
– Abraham Lincoln from his speech, “A House Divided”

Our starting point – that determines all other subsequent decisions and interactions – is based on a complex relationship between our own business goals and our own personal motivations. Under the pressure of unstoppable time, our starting point easily becomes the place that seems to resonate the most or that a leader says we ought to start with. It’s like trying to undo a horribly tangled fishing line. Sometimes it’s better to cut our losses and pick a new clean spot to start from.

And sometimes the only thing to do is just… start.

How do you get teams into a thinking groove?

There are so many ways to get teams practising the art or science of thinking. And if you strip away the expectation that it needs to be easy in order to be fun (rather than exhilarating) or that you want the team to like you, then you open up the possibility of elevating the team’s output and culture into truly exciting spaces.

Here are some of my suggestions. I would love to hear what you do to get teams thinking and how some of your efforts played out.

1. Warm-Up Exercises

Present an ethical dilemma and problem to the team to warm up the brain and get some lucid, free-flowing thinking going. Ethics is a highly neglected area – I’ve seen some of the best debates and conversations come out of discussing an ethical issue.

2. Get a Sparing Partner

Akin to debating, having someone whose role is to play devil’s advocate, with agreed rules, is a great way to surface our biases and different opinions.

3. Provide Teams with a Framework

Trying to hold our thoughts with all facts and ideas in our head in one thread of thought is tough – things vaporize and materialize unpredictably as our brain deems it. Having a framework means you can guide a team’s thinking because you have spaces for the team to drop their facts, ideas and questions into clearly labelled spots: definition, value, priority, level of effort, timeframes, concerns, dependencies, etc. There’s something compelling about information written down and our desire (or a team member’s desire) for that information to be true and accurate – that’s a good thing.

4. Remove the Distraction of Current Status

It’s alluring to begin at the point where you believe you have the most information. Try instead to start with the end in mind. Imagine and define what future state the team wants. Then compare that with the current status in order to name and identify the gap, or what needs to be done to get there.

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5. Dive Deep into Fact-Finding Mode, Early

Often solutions fall out much more easily during this process, at the very least options present themselves. Do it early and agree to park or put aside opinions in favour of collecting evidence that might reveal a different reality. Fact-finding also helps keep emotional baggage in check.

6. Linger Over the Dependencies

Don’t skip this because it’s essential to help people think about how important something really is and to test the validity of their assumption about importance or value. A wonderful by-product is that teams start to get beyond thinking only 2-3 steps ahead and can visualize and anticipate possibilities of 5-8 steps ahead.

7. Create an Artificial Risk

People engage with greater urgency when they are in a heightened state of awareness – presenting a team with a potential (though unlikely) risk can do this. A skillfully presented and carefully managed exercise may help create the right conditions to prompt a team to dig more deeply.

“Your mind is working at its best when you’re being paranoid. You explore every avenue and possibility of your situation at high speed with total clarity.”
– Banksy, street artist

8. Mix It Up

It’s well-proven that aerobic exercise stimulates ideas and thought. Don’t let things get stale. Mix up meetings and workshops with physical activity and fresh air. Also, make sure that team meetings have a way of switching tempo to elevate energy or slow down thinking stages. Think like a DJ.

9. Practice Asking Questions

Help the team find a balance between making statements and asking questions. Questions keep our brains open to possibilities while statements can often shut down conversations and make team environments ‘unsafe’ to ask dumb or challenging questions.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”
– Voltaire, French philosopher and historian

The goal with any of these exercises is to address the discomfort of thinking and help teams push past resistance and into a creative tempo. Teams that can flex their brains in this way as a collective are much more accountable, productive, engaged, committed, courageous and, yes, attractive.