How team members interact with each other creates environments for decision making. In examining environments, the focus is neither on the steps that a team might use to reach a decision nor how the various individual positions will be combined to reach a decision. The focus is on how team members listen to each other, how they formulate and ask questions of each other, and how they present their positions. An environment in which everyone on the team feels comfortable in sharing his/her ideas and proposing solutions raises the quality of the decisions.
Classroom Activity Before examining other ideas about high-quality decision-making environments, consider involving students in conversations about the attributes of decision-making environments that would lead to outstanding decision making. Ask each team to describe at least five characteristics for a high-quality decision-making environment.
What is a Thinking Environment?
Nancy Kline is president of Time to Think, Inc. and, as a consultant, has observed and reflected on conversations and meetings for over twenty-five years. Based on her observations, she has created the concept of a Thinking Environment, which starts with the self-evident statement:
“Everything we do depends on the thinking we do first.”3
A Thinking Environment would be constructed to raise the quality of thinking by each person in the room. In her book, Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind, Kline presents the ten components of a Thinking Environment, each of which increases the quality of thinking by every participant.
1. Attention: listening with respect, interest and fascination to your team members
The first component of the Thinking Environment is constructed from the second underlying assumption:
The quality of our “thinking depends on the quality of our attention for each other.”
From this assumption flow suggestions to listen respectfully, wait when the speaker is quietly thinking without saying anything, avoid interrupting the speaking, and avoid infantilizing the speaker. Each of these actions is based on derogatory assumptions about the ability of the speaker to think for herself/himself, and each of these actions reduces the ability of the speaker to engage in quality thinking.
2. Incisive Questions: removing assumptions that limit ideas
Between the thinker and a good idea may be a limiting assumption. The limiting assumption can be removed with an Incisive Question that attempts to replace a limiting assumption with a freeing assumption. Example: “If you knew that you were intelligent (freeing assumption [to replace the limiting assumption that you are stupid]), how would you talk to Neil ([your boss], the goal of the [thinking] session)?” Incisive Questions, as opposed to advice, help the speaker think for himself/herself.
3. Equality: “Knowing you will have your turn improves the quality of your listening.”
Equality is treating each team member as a thinking peer. Giving each team member equal time and attention and keeping agreements and commitments with one another raise the quality of thinking of each participant.
4. Appreciation: practicing a 5:1 ration of appreciation to criticism of your teammates and their ideas
Appreciation is just what is says—appreciating your teammates and their thoughts and opinions. A five-to-one ratio of appreciation-to-criticism helps people think for themselves. When we are valued by our teammates, then we are comfortable thinking for ourselves instead of working to “say the right thing.” “Change takes place best in a large context of genuine praise.” The practice of Appreciative Inquiry also recognizes the value of appreciation for cultivating quality thinking and improvement. With change comes the opportunity for ideal decision making to take place.
5. Ease: “Ease creates. Urgency destroys.”
“Ease is the space a Thinking Environment needs in order to stay intact.” Ease contradicts the increasing emphasis on action and speed. Furthermore, as Peter Block notes, “If we decide to act on what matters, then we shift our consciousness about pace. There is always time to do everything that really matters: If we do not have time to do something, it is a sign that it does not matter.”4
6. Encouragement: moving beyond competition with your teammates to collaboration
Encouragement is the antidote to competition. If you compete with the thinker, “you may do any number of things to prevent her/him from being brilliant.” If you encourage the thinker, you reinforce his/her confidence in the quality of his/her thinking. “When people are not competing with each other to be best, it is possible to think all the way to something good.”
7. Feelings: allowing sufficient emotional release to restore thinking
Expressing our feelings when we are upset restores our ability to think carefully, thoroughly, and deeply. Ignoring our feelings leads to lower-quality thinking.
8. Information, Sometimes: providing a fuller, more accurate picture of reality
“The mind works best in the presence of reality…. Conversely, the mind seems to lose its edge when having to work in pretence, denial, or fabrication.” Providing information in a thoughtful, timely manner can raise the quality of thinking. “Withholding information from someone can be an act of intellectual imperialism ….”
9. Place: creating a physical environment that says "You matter.”
Places may convey unworthiness because they are squalid; others convey the same message through opulence. Several innovate ad agencies promote creativity through thoughtful design.
10. Diversity: adding quality because of the differences between us
Homogeneity “is a form of denial.” The world isn’t all the same. The degree to which a team mirrors the world’s diversity, which enables it to more closely model solutions for the world, is the degree to which the team is willing to confront the challenges raised by its diversity.
Classroom Activity Ask each team to select four components of the Thinking Environment. For each component, ask each team to describe several ways that they could include that component in their activities.
Practicing these ten components, teams effectively communicate and collaborate. Through effective communication and collaboration teams can make powerful decisions. Through powerful decision making teams can thrive with regard to what they can accomplish as a team and for their organization.