Among the future skills that leaders will need in the turbulent years ahead, critical thinking – increasingly known as agile thinking – is the game-changer that will make you feel like the future has arrived already. As an approach to leadership and problem-solving, agile thinking can lead to near immediate benefits such as disrupting groupthink, managing cognitive limitations, finding certainty, and freeing your creativity. It’s not a Jedi mind trick, but it might be the next best thing.    

What is agile thinking? 

Agile thinking is the ability to break out of old habits in decision-making and problem-solving, and rely instead on more effective mindsets such as creativity, collaboration, and a scientific sense of analysis. Leaders skilled in agile thinking flexibly jump – or ‘toggle’ – between these mindsets, maintaining a swift and effective sense of agility in flipping between various strategies when tackling a problem.

Why is agile thinking important? 

Future skills are important amid ongoing change and uncertainty. Geo-political instability, technological breakthroughs, and the climate emergency will demand an agile, flexible approach to the challenges that businesses are likely to encounter through the 2020s and into the 2030s. Challenges demand creative solutions, which aren’t always easy to come by. When problems are hard to predict or define, conflicting interpretations, competing strategies and human vulnerabilities can feel like a dizzying journey into the Upside Down.

Underpinned by psychological research, skills in agile thinking can help leaders see problems in a new light and manage them through a range of strategies. In doing so, they seek out the talented individuals, the creativity and the solutions that might just make the difference.

Examples of agile thinking

Agile thinking involves stepping back and applying a critic’s discerning eye to your thoughts. Critical – or agile – thinking encourages leaders to look for meaningful solutions through four techniques.

Creative thinking

Creative thinking requires a specific psychological environment. This isn’t a fluffy frill around the edges, it’s a fundamental necessity. It’s the reason that creative SMEs – TV indies, ad agencies, design boutiques – have a different culture to, for example, FTSE giants, a culture that encourages innovation and inventiveness. Two steps are necessary for a creative culture to develop:

  • Suspend a ‘let’s get it done’ atmosphere of functional process.
  • Create an environment where people are allowed to playfully toy around with ideas.

In this environment, ideas and conversations veer off at tangents. Unless you have a supremo on your team delivering unbridled perfection, excellence won’t run from a tap. It will trickle out of unexpected thoughts, dead ends, and idle speculation – all of which must be permitted.

Divergent thinking such as this is only one side of the coin. The other requires converging ideas into tangible proposals, within deadlines and budgets. Leaders nimbly shifting between divergent and convergent ideas will be able to make the most of both in creating timely, effective solutions.

Scientific thinking

Creativity is a response to a known problem. Sometimes, however, the problem is not clearly defined. When your numbers are down on last year, asking ‘why’ can be the tip of a tangle that takes time to unravel. A scientific approach stops you leaping to false conclusions shaped by assumptions.

At first glance, perhaps sales are lower. This is a hypothesis that fits the facts. Immediately, you have a conclusion that feels like certainty, but beware – the brain craves clarity and, by default, will try to interpret something as 100% likely or 0% likely. This is related to flight or fight, action or inaction.

However, data might suggest that your sales figures are only a fraction of the bigger picture. Fractions are complicated for the brain, leading to anxiety about uncertainty and indecision, and prompting a temptation to grasp at straws. This urge is best restrained by scientific thinking, driven by an understanding of cause and effect, hypotheses and research, nuance and probability.

There’s not much point berating the sales team when on closer inspection the data reveals, for example, a complex mix of higher inflation, tougher export regulations and teething issues in hybrid working. By rigorously finding causes, you’re more likely to adopt appropriate reactions.

Collaborative thinking

In applying appropriate reactions, a natural response is to rely on teamwork. Unity is helpful, but not at the expense of creativity and honesty. Groupthink can transform individuals into a single entity that readily accepts the suggestions of the biggest personality in the room.

An alternative to this lies in collective, collaborative thinking, where individuals feel able to speak up in support of the strongest ideas, rather than the strongest voices. This leads to the intellectual diversity that genuine creativity depends on.

Feeling able to speak up is better described as psychological safety, which isn’t a buzzword to drop in at the start of a meeting but is something that leaders must nurture through intellectual humility. They must be ready to revise and even reverse their opinions in the light of new suggestions or updated information, a process that helps teams break out of silo thinking and make the most of the talent in the room.

Flexible thinking

Fundamentally, critical thinking – in any form – is about stepping back from first reactions, getting past a knee-jerk emotional response, and moving forward with agility towards next steps. In all these actions, it’s often necessary to get past a natural inclination to scream into a pillow, the feeling that usually comes from the sense that something, or someone, is wrong and needs to be corrected.

It’s a feeling that can lead to a low-level sense of frustration, similar to hearing a duff note in a song that hangs in your head long after it’s finished. Pretending to ignore it leads to cognitive dissonance, in other words it jars with your understanding of the song as it’s supposed to be.

This form of irritation can be problematic. In a meeting, it can overshadow a new idea that might be valid but may be rejected simply because it jars with the pre-existing understanding of things. Negative emotion such as frustration can influence the more rational side of your intellect.

The trick here is to recognise the emotions at play, step round them and allow yourself to take a more flexible approach to the new suggestion. In such moments, less familiar models of thought might be helpful. Mental models are a key feature of flexible thinking, so too is agility in toggling between them.

What are the benefits of agile thinking? 

We are all of us human and subject to cognitive limitations such as biases and presumptions. Emotions can get the better of us, not necessarily through outbursts and reactions but by hijacking an effective sense of reasoning. Agile thinking helps leaders get past emotions, consider the options and reach an appropriate response with the minimum of delay.

By equipping leaders with a range of strategies, agile thinking is an adaptable approach to problem-solving, rather than a single, one-size-fits-all solution. Think of it as a mindset to develop, or a habit to acquire. Doing so will pay swift dividends, including:

Accelerated decision-making – better ability to judge which considerations are decision-critical.

Flexibility of attitude and workflow – less reliance on dogma and bureaucracy.

Ability to tackle intractable problems – going back to fundamentals to assess what needs to change.

Innovation and collaboration – open-minded, curious and courageous in every element of your role.

Deeper engagement and support – colleagues are more closely involved and empowered.

Agile thinking is one of five core themes that support sustainable working practices, leading to stronger engagement, productivity, and retention. Replacing fixed mindsets with a fluid approach to problems and solutions, sustainable working relies on psychological safety in encouraging all members of the team to offer suggestions free from fear of shame, blame, or humiliation. For more on sustainable working, take a look at our guide to the Sustainable Human.

How to develop agile thinking

Agile thinking can be learned through a systematic approach. Our suite of courses in future skills includes four on agile thinking, covering the themes outlined above. These four courses equip leaders with options, giving them the confidence to move between them. Leaders skilled in agile thinking find that certainty is an end-point reached with others in their team, not a starting-point that excludes people and possibilities. Above all, they discover that agile thinking is a mindset as much as a methodology, an opportunity to put aside ego, and focus on what is right instead of who is right.

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