Here’s a thought: Think about work

Chicago TribuneApril 9, 2014 

Let’s give some thought to thinking.

In the workplace, how deeply are we thinking about the tasks and problems we face? Are we running on mental autopilot, relying solely on the knowledge we picked up from classrooms or training rooms?

Michael Vaughan, president of a Colorado-based leadership training group called The Regis Co., has a new book — “The Thinking Effect” — in which he argues that most people have been trained to think in a linear fashion that doesn’t jibe with the complexities and constant change of the modern business world.

Through high school and college, we have information dumped into our heads. But, Vaughan writes: “Students are not encouraged to let their questions wander; subjects are segregated, few connections are made between courses, and their ability to think systemically is dulled.”

Our national obsession with testing doesn’t help, either: “Too often, test taking becomes a practice in rote memorization instead of an experiment in processing information and reasoning that leads to self-generated insights.”

In essence, our minds are not being trained to operate in a nimble fashion, yet we work in a world of endless data and lightning-fast changes that cries out for comprehensive thinking. This, Vaughan explains, leads to several problems: We focus only on our area of work rather than on how our work factors into the company at large; we fail to see how present actions might create problems in the future; and we struggle with situations as they become increasingly complex.

“Linear, reductionist-type thinking doesn’t prepare people for the complexities of the world today,” Vaughan said. “We once believed we were pre-wired to think a certain way, but that’s not necessarily true, based on the latest neuroscience. What we have noticed is that people can learn these skills. We have been seeing in our simulations that people can develop other patterns of thought that help them round out their thinking.”

To get there, however, requires introspection. We tend to engage in surface-level thinking, reacting to things as they happen without giving them deeper consideration. Granted, most workers are busier than ever, jumping from one task to another throughout the day. But occasionally stopping to reflect on your thought process isn’t a huge time commitment, and I’d argue that if it leads to better thinking, it will save you time in the end.

In his book, Vaughan lays out some guideposts that individuals or teams can use to disrupt linear — or, in some cases, lazy — thinking. A few examples:

 • Make sure you “understand how a dynamic system actually works” and that you consider how your task can affect and interrelate with other parts of the company. Don’t just focus on your area of expertise.

 • Try to avoid obvious solutions. Do the extra work needed to consider the short- and long-term outcomes of what you’re doing. You might avoid pitfalls or find a better approach.

 • Don’t become overly confident. “When people are sure of something, they usually don’t look elsewhere for something new that may provide insightful guidance.” If you don’t seek “the council of many,” you might miss something important.

Kelly Goldsmith, an assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, believes it’s critical for workers to think more expansively. But, she said, it’s often going to fall on the individual to embrace that style of thought, as it’s not something companies are actively encouraging.

“It’s very easy to just live in the moment and put one foot in front of us and not really think about what we’re learning and how it could be applied across different industries,” Goldsmith said. “People don’t realize how it can benefit them. Even if your firm doesn’t incentivize you to think that way, do it for yourself.”

Vaughan’s view on thinking actually ties in nicely with my personal workplace mantra: Be a decent human being.

By pausing to consider the work we’re doing more deeply, by weighing how our actions might affect others, we’re inherently behaving in a way that’s more collaborative and helpful.

“It’s recognizing that you’re just a tiny part of something better,” Vaughan said. “This is all about figuring out how we can better treat each other and co-create things and make things better for everyone.”

Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at or on Twitter, @RexWorksHere.

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