Managers are busy every day flipping from text to text, email to email, meeting to meeting and reading report after report, rarely having time to think about events, activities or decisions at your fingertips.
Their work environment is full of information, meetings that last far too long, requests, semi-annual reorganizations and interruptions. Managers are engaged in a frenetic balancing act every week. This process becomes especially daunting when faced with making a complex decision that affects a myriad of stakeholders.
Managers must have a set of fundamental mental skills that provide a structural foundation for their approach to thinking. Without these skills, their management style can be haphazard at best. There are eight mental skills that successful managers employ in today’s fast-paced environment:
- Systems thinking
- Critical mind
- creative thinking
- Environmental perception
- Stakeholder awareness
- Ethical framework
- Avoid dichotomous thinking
Managers must be able to see opportunities, challenges or problems as systemic entities. System entities have inputs, processes, outputs, visible and invisible factors, unintended consequences and multiple stakeholders. A problem to be solved may seem simple, but may involve intricacies that will become quite apparent later. Pausing to consider the big picture, that is, the systems view, can serve a manager well.
Critical thinking does not refer to being critical, that is, being judgmental or negative when examining a problem or receiving information. Critical thinking involves the ability to be able to read or listen objectively, to consider the source(s) of information in terms of credibility and reliability, and to be able to exercise careful judgment based on current information or event. It is an ability to reflect on what is being discussed and avoid quick fixes.
Managers need to be creative in fostering new ideas and approaches in their work and decision-making. Creative thinking involves looking at issues differently and sometimes through the eyes of other stakeholders. It also means encouraging the creative thinking of the whole team.
A manager must allow “open space,” which in this case refers to physical space and freedom to think. The open space can be a common room, an atrium, or a cafeteria/kitchen area where employees, including different departments, are encouraged to go during the day to foster their creative thinking and innovation. It is an open space that encourages discussion, idea generation and knowledge exchange, as well as “what if” questions to be asked and debated respectfully. No boss allowed during chats. Open space can create time for employees to understand the work of others and its meaning to them.
Managers have technologies, measures and reporting mechanisms to maintain control of a function, an activity or a team. Loosen the reins a little. It can be a healthy exercise for employees to pause and reflect on their work and the company. When this situation occurs, ideas and questions can emerge. About once a month or so, management should take the time to listen objectively, without attribution, to questions or ideas that arise; some of them will contain nuggets. Management must listen to the nuggets; they can be invaluable. (Give this concept time to develop, as employees aren’t used to being asked for their candid ideas and feedback.)
The term environment, in this case, refers to the external environment of the company, its market and its industry, it operates within the non-ecological framework. Environmental scanning (ES) is an obscure sub-function of marketing. SE is a methodology for dealing with external competitive, social, market, economic or technological problems whose impact on the firm is difficult to understand but which cannot be ignored (Stoffels, 1994). ES involves how a business perceives its external environment, brings selected information into the business from the external environment, and then acts on that information. SE has multiple dimensions which may include: customers, competitors, technology, financial markets, government as regulator, social, ecological, ethical, suppliers, research industry and more.
Market research, SWOT analysis and scenario building are sub-components of SE. Over time, companies, especially successful ones, tend to become insular. Few companies in our industry have formal ES systems or methodologies for monitoring the external business environment. It is in this context that managers must have an environmental perception of events, information and developments occurring outside the company to inform their judgment. Managers need to be aware of what is happening in their market and industry; not just events, but above all trends. Every manager can develop a “personal” ES system to keep abreast of the world outside their company.
Stakeholders are the people who are affected by the decisions and actions of your business, and those whose decisions and actions affect your business. Companies have many stakeholders: customers, partners, contractors, competitors, government, suppliers, financial entities, community and environment. Management decisions and actions affect many people and can have a ripple effect for a long time. Managers must be attentive to the company’s stakeholders in their daily work.
Managers must have an ethical framework or lens through which they view their work and that of those around them. Having an automatic sense of right and wrong is an essential management attribute. Companies have been destroyed and the brand equity that has built up over decades has been wiped out because of a manager’s poor judgment.
Avoid dichotomous thinking
It is tempting to reduce issues, problems or questions to simple propositions: yes or no, left or right, black or white, free or expensive, etc. Most problems have nuances whose resolution defies binary categorization. It is the manager’s responsibility to avoid the temptation of dichotomous thinking and deliberately consider gray areas by thinking of third and fourth alternatives when possible.
When the data, information, events, changes, rumours, politics and partial pictures that managers face every day are mixed together, management needs to be able to tap into their intuition to make sense of the chaos. Common sense, insight, and experience underpin intuition and should be applied when making decisions, especially in situations where time is a luxury.
These eight attributes of managerial thinking are fundamental to being a good manager. Managers, regardless of their level in the organization, need to hone these managerial thinking skills. They will serve you well.