Switching off in endless virtual meetings? Plug into critical thinking – Working Voices

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The rapid spread of coronavirus will have many unexpected consequences, not least in the way we think. Prior to the pandemic, managers would attend many meetings in the office, often harvesting information for no real reason other than to share it in other meetings. In fact, there were so many meetings that the supply of discussion was far exceeding demand. Knowledge was often gathered for the sake of knowledge. But all was okay, because at least people could point to busy work-lives. And then Covid-19 tore up the manual over night. Now, face-to-face meetings are a thing of the past, and for that matter at the moment so are offices.

Covid-19 has raised questions about whether we were spending our energy effectively. These days, staff – managers among them – work from home, in isolation. Meetings are run through Zoom or Skype etc, which require focused energy. They’re not the same as an easy chat in a room, they’re hard work sometimes. ‘Zoomed out’ is an expression now universally familiar. We are less inclined to take part in a call than we were to wander into a room for a chat. Now, managers more than ever will be thinking in isolation, less keen to sit and gather knowledge for the sake of knowledge, better at making independent decisions. That at least is the potential for a new post-virus business model, a structure where there are fewer meetings, more independent critical thinking, a structure where managers are more effective.

In truth, the post-lockdown training sessions I have run recently have been filled with people who are still attending too many meetings to actually get anything done. There is a whole swathe of hardworking, intelligent managers with huge energy and specific areas of expertise who are consistently taken up with discussions that are only superficially beneficial and which are overwhelming business productivity.

A typical group decision-making process looks like this:

1) Here is the problem

2) I think we should…

3) Okay, but I think we should do this….

4) Repeat step 3

Ongoing discussion dominates the process mainly because of a failure to adopt a hierarchy of ideas. For the last 30 years or more, from education right through to life at work, we’ve been rightly encouraged to accept equality and diversity. These values apply to people, but not to facts and ideas. Not all facts have equal weighting. Not all ideas, no matter how diverse, are of equal benefit. Unlike people, ideas and facts vary in value. Some are valuable, some less so – this is a hierarchy of ideas. The notion that facts and ideas have equal value is misleading and produces poor decisions.

Sometimes the hierarchy of ideas and a social hierarchy within a company are mistakenly believed to be the same thing. But expertise and popularity are not identical. In truth, we have not been comfortable in admitting that the experts among us have greater insight than others. Opinion might be regarded as informed if it comes from someone who is not only popular but also an expert in the field. If they’re not an expert, popular though they are, perhaps their opinion ought to be outweighed by someone who is.

In practice, the belief in an equal field of ideas makes everyone’s opinion valid, anything that anyone says is relevant. And in a meeting of a dozen people, that’s a lot of airtime, a lot of ideas, a lot of time away from critical thinking and effective productivity. If people were able to spend less time in a plethora of Zoom/Webex/Facetime/Microsoft Teams meetings, they would have more time to think clearly, more time to work purposefully on the matters that affect our immediate and medium-term future most dramatically.

Over time, this would lead to a bolder way of thinking. More decisions would be taken in isolation, managers would be more able to manage, relying on their expertise and experience. This is a bolder approach, than safely waiting for a discussion and hoping for a solution to materialise from a selection of misinformed suggestions.

Here are three changes that can take place to enable more dynamic working environments for people:

  • Uncertainty is here, it always has been, we must embrace it. We must not be intimidated by it. It’s not always a hole we’re going to fill with more information. It’s a part of life we must accept, consequently we must do anyway what needs to be done. We must stop believing that better decisions always require more information.
  • This in turn requires us to rely on clearer, braver, more essential communication.
  • Communication is a premium commodity, but supply is exceeding demand.  Classic supply chain dynamics – what is needed, what is asked for and what is delivered must be equal to maintain a progressive system.
  • Thinking critically about what is needed to make headway. What is it that actually needs to be discussed?

My colleague Andy Day offers a virtual masterclass on critical thinking which includes a brilliant framework:

  • Identify your goal – do you know precisely what problem you are trying to solve?
  • Investigate what you know – analyse the facts that are known and not known
  • Evaluate what we will do – understand the options including the advantages and disadvantages of each. Be aware of our own biases, agendas, needs, hopes and expectations as we compile these options
  • Let people know how we will communicate decisions.  Combine goal, knowledge and decision into one sentence.

Good critical judgement can be hard work. A first step is unlearning much of the uncritical thinking that goes on in teams at the moment.

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