Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Thinking Critically Without Killing Creativity

Photograph by Lex Augusteijn

Critical thinking is wonderful tool for progress. It helps guide us to make better decisions and avoid pitfalls. But it can also be a destructive force for ideation and creativity.

The trick is how to harness it.

You're sitting in a meeting, eager to address the items on the agenda and get back to creating and executing. An idea is put forth, Joe Critical explains why it can't work. Idea dies.

Now, maybe that was a good thing. Maybe it was a bad idea. But what if it was not?

A smart person with a skill for critical thinking can find a potential flaw or pitfall in just about anything. That's a talent, and it's useful. More often than not, that same mental sharpness can be applied to more than critique. Essentially it just requires a change of perspective. That can be challenging, but we can use a trick to guide transition.

Putting on a Different Hat

When I was working in a small group of "A-players" on strategy development, we ran headlong into this issue of critical thinking essentially burning down everything. The team was composed of brilliant people with quick minds, so we had the resources to succeed, we just needed to channel them correctly.

To achieve this, I loosely adopted the Six Thinking Hats method. In this approach, there are six "hats" which reflect the following:

  • Blue - Meta/management: The "big picture" and executing the process itself
  • Red - Emotion: Feelings and gut responses with no focus on rationalization
  • White - Facts: Objective data/statements, no opinions or feelings
  • Yellow - Optimism ("Sunny view"): Benefits, good outcomes
  • Green - Creativity: Where could we take this? What other ways might we solve this?
  • Black - Critical: Apply critical thinking and pragmatism

Literal Hats?

Well, that's up to you. It can be very beneficial to have some tangible, physical indicator of what sort of thinking the group is focusing on at that moment. It can simply be a little paper hat that you can set in the middle of the table to remind people of the current focus. But you don't need to do that in order to apply this.

For example, I say I "loosely adopted" this in this case because I knew the particular audiences I had in mind would not take it seriously if presented with the explicit model of colored hats, likely dismissing it as a "goofy colored hat thing". They would be distracted with trying to wipe the smirks off their faces and that is counterproductive.

But you might have a group that would benefit from wearing literal hats while doing this and might even find it conducive to creative thinking.

Know your audience and proceed appropriately.

A Success Story

I had a team filled with brilliant people that tended to focus on facts and critical thinking. That's because 80% of the time they were explicitly being asked to do just that. But we needed to come up with a strategy and we needed to harness our thinking more effectively.

So, with that in mind, I put on the blue hat and explained that we would be trying something a little different, where we would be tightly directing our thinking in various phases. Then I simply walked up to the whiteboard and write a word or two describing the current focus.

No mention of colors or hats.

It was a bit awkward at first, but only for about a minute. As we proceeded through the rest of the hats, things moved more smoothly.

When we hit the White/Facts hat was when things started to get interesting. Our most fact-based person, let's call him Bill, quickly started ratting off a list of facts. Ruth, who was very skilled at critical thinking, started jumping in with critiques of the facts. 

This had two negative impacts. First, it derailed the process, reducing the effectiveness of the entire exercise. Second, and possibly worse, it discouraged Bill from presenting more facts. This latter issue is a common consequence of overly focusing on critical thinking.

So, I interrupted the process and restated the point of the exercise and our current thinking focus. When everyone conveyed clear understanding and agreement, we continued. And it was magical. Ruth, who is incredibly intelligent but usually focused on critique, turned on a dime, rapidly firing off facts; she even shut down a critique of a fact. She was not just embracing the process, she was enjoying the challenge of the constraint.

I moved on to the Green/Creative phrase and that is when the process really started to shine. The earlier stages had trained the team to channel their thinking and things really took off. You see, Ruth was always asked to wear Black/Critical hat in meetings which obstructed her ability to present creative ideas. But now we had one of our sharpest minds laser-focused on being creative. Creative ideas flowed like a river from Ruth, freed from the shackles of the Black/Critical hat she was always asked to wear.
Creative ideas flowed like a river from Ruth, freed from the shackles of the Black/Critical hat she was always asked to wear.
Yellow/Optimistic was also interesting, because this was usually a team asked to figure out why something would go wrong, not how it might go right.  

The process worked beautifully and we left the room with better ideas and people re-thinking how they approach problems.

It would be months before I mentioned the "Six Hats" model to them. By then, it was a valuable tool and not a "goofy colored hat thing".

Order Matters

The order in which you apply the hats is important and varies based on your goals. There are not any hard and fast rules; it usually comes down to logically considering your priorities. A common approach is to lead with Blue then White, especially with ideation processes.

Example 1: Getting a Critical Thinker to Open Up

This is the scenario I described above. In that case, I wanted to unleash a critical thinker's creative thinking. So my main goals were:

  • Lead with Red/Emotional and White/Facts to ease them into the concept
  • Have Green/Creative later in the process
  • Have the Black/Critical hat last

So I went with:
  1. Blue (minimal explanation)
  2. Red
  3. White
  4. Green
  5. Yellow
  6. Black

Example 2: Resolving a Contentious Issue

I was once walked into a political minefield of a project. Our customer, a large national chain, was unhappy with one of their enterprise systems. According to our team, the technology was flawed. According to the customer's business owner, our team's competence was the problem.

Every discussion was muddied by emotion. So, I applied the Six Hats, again without explicit hats/colors.
  1. Blue - Again, a very minimal explanation
  2. Red - I extended this until they had exhausted their feelings on the topic
  3. White - We needed to facts to understand what the actual problem was
  4. Black - This was mostly used to weed out the less relevant/useful facts
  5. Green - This was used to get people thinking about better ways forward
  6. Yellow - I wanted to end on as positive a note as possible
This turned our discussion from, essentially, an hour of complaining to the formulation of a solid plan with buy in from the team.

Why Does This Work?

Well, simply put most people wear one hat most of the time. They may even have been put in that role explicitly or implicitly. If Ruth shows up to a meeting and is asked how an idea won't work, it is not surprising if she carries that Black/Critical hat thinking into every meeting.

But then you have thrown away so much. People asked Ruth to wear that Black/Critical hat because she has a sharp, analytical mind that can see things from lots of angles. That brain is a powerful machine and to not apply it in other ways is just throwing away opportunity.

I feel that it's really the pairing of asking people to look at something in a certain way while preventing them from looking at it other ways. You are guiding that powerful laser focus of critical thinking through a different lens and utilizing it for another purpose.

It brings a clarity of thought that can be transformational.

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