Some of us start thinking about something just out of the blue. Thinking is similar to walking out of the door for a Sunday morning walk, without a plan or a destination. We are happy with what comes along, and sometimes we call it an insight or a conclusion. In my experience, thinking could be much improved. And it helps if we monitor our thinking and decide our destination. Thinking in groups can also be improved.
Usually the problems start at the beginning of the thinking process.
The focus of the thinking is the entry-point of the problem area. It decides what attention we will focus on, which thinking techniques we are using and ultimately it decides what idea, conclusion or solution we will reach. Perhaps focus is the trickiest part of thinking itself. Indeed, it determines the outcome, even before the thought has occurred.
A thinking focus consists of a topic and a goal.
Mostly, a situation is complicated, fuzzy, and blurred. There is a great risk for information overload, for wandering thoughts and confusion. Before thinking takes place it is important to be very clear what the thinking must cover – the subject – and the goal – what we want to achieve with the thinking. Complex thinking areas can be best divided in more, eventually overlapping, sub-foci, to be handled on another occasion.
When defining a focus area it is recommended to shift the attention. Could we look at the problem or challenge from another point of view or perspective? Could we look “behind” a problem or challenge our thinking?
A thinking focus is mostly far too abstract
Many times a stated problem definition is far too abstract to expect meaningful solutions. Sometimes the issue has the character of a meaningless “this must be solved”, often combined with an emotional and compelling call to do so “together”. Alternatively, the challenge is far too broadly stated, for instance vandalism should be banned. Many politicians, but also academics and officials may be guilty of this type of thinking. Many policy makers make the mistake of thinking that because a general solution must be general applicable; the problem definition should be stated in abstract terms. That is a serious misunderstanding.
A powerful tool, but largely unknown, is the concept fan, developed by Edward de Bono, a leader on thinking about thinking. With the concept fan, a thinking situation is mapped in broad directions of thought, concepts, and ideas. Thus, a map with three levels of abstraction arises. It serves as an agenda-setting tool for thinking.
There should be criteria in advance to guide and to evaluate the results of the thinking
How difficult it is, criteria must be made in advance to determine whether the thinking has been successful. It makes an objective evaluation of a solution or idea afterwards possible, but also acts as an attention direction tool during the thinking process itself. It gives guiding to the thinking,.”We want to improve our product on safety, make a design that is attractive for our clients and will cost no more than the existing product..”
The starting questions of the thinking should be challenging
Not only because to engage yourself and others in the thinking, it is important to formulate challenging questions, but also to get challenging results that you can work on. “How can we do better than our competitor?” is less challenging than “How can we become number one in our area?”. (But both are still far too abstract).
Before starting the thinking process, make a list of at least 15 definitions of the thinking challenge.
As we earlier mentioned, in what words the thinking challenge is framed, defines the outcome. If we say that the problem is that there are too few teachers in math, is an abstract frame. It does not give us any clue where to look for an answer. A problem definition like math teachers earn too little to be an attractive job, is a better one way of defining the problem. It gives some direction on what solutions to look for. However, alternative definitions of the problem could be more productive. The problem of too few math teachers could be the through problems with training, but it could also be that too many students and also that there are too few students in one class. Teaching time may be lost by having to spend time focusing on other tasks and there may be little use of modern tools and…
The effort to actually start thinking about a topic after writing down at least 15 possible problem definitions will really pay off.
Without a topic, a goal, and at least 15 concrete and specific definitions of the thinking challenge, which are challenges in themselves, thinking is mostly a waste of time.
Photo: 3d Head Concept by nattavut