The age of Twitter has people wired in and thinking in 140 characters or less. The development of corporate social networking tools has honed the focus of department heads on the minutiae of an organization. And the advancement of technology has made this narrowed thinking easier and more efficient.
But all of this may be crippling managers’ ability to make critical decisions that will brew benefits on a larger scale. Perhaps, amid the hectic pace of the new business environment, managers and leaders are losing sight of the bigger picture. While they may be focused on the finite goals of their department, leaders are ignoring critical decisions that could not only pay off for their department but the organization as a whole.
“Leaders just aren’t thinking with the right mindset these days,” said Catherine J. Rezak, chairman and co-founder of Paradigm Learning Inc., a training and communications firm that specializes in the design of business games and simulations. “Things are so fast and furious and there’s so much information coming at them all the time that they’re scattered in their thinking.”
This is the argument she scribed in a recent white paper, “Developing Critical Thinking in Today’s Leaders: No Room for Old-School Leadership Development in the New Normal.”
In it, she challenges corporate learning leaders to adapt and implement more active learning systems to change this behavior. Rezak writes: “Critical thinking enables leaders at every level to understand the impact of their decisions on the business as a whole and ensures both alignment with organizational goals and accountability for results.”
In other words, managers are too bogged down and most learning programs designed to fix issues related to critical thinking simply scrape the surface. “We’re going too much in the direction of cutting our training short, doing things in little bits and bites, and not really developing the kinds of critical thinking skills that our leaders need,” she said. The good news is that a deeper level of critical thinking can be taught — although the process isn’t simple.
Rezak outlines five steps learning leaders can take and questions they should be asking themselves in relation to these steps:
1. Take an objective look at your curriculum offerings: “Are they clearly aligned with the organization’s strategies? Will leaders understand how the knowledge and skills being developed fit into the overall context of organizational success?”
2. Enhance leadership development by getting learners actively involved in thinking and discovery: “Are there able opportunities to engage in real-world application exercises [during training sessions]? Are learners led to discover relevant insights that connect to their responsibilities? Is there time for reflection and thinking?”
3. Redesign offerings to incorporate small-team activities, challenge scenarios, game techniques, post-session action projects and other discovery learning exercises: “Are your offerings engaging learners? Are learners actively participating in their learning experience or passively receiving it?”
4. Expand the use of simulations that place learners in situations where they have to employ critical thinking; analyze consequences: “Are the simulations closely aligned with real-world issues? Can learners see a clear connection between their decisions and actions and the success of both themselves and their organization?”
5. Incorporate business acumen development into a curriculum to ensure leaders understand the business: “Are leaders able to tie their actions and decisions to the company’s success?”
Paradigm uses Zodiak, its own business simulation game, as a means to impart these steps to various corporate clients. A one-day, classroom-based learning tool, Zodiak is a business simulation board game meant to enhance the business acumen of executives, managers and team leaders. During the course of a simulated three-year period, the training participants handle events and make decisions around issues such as capital investments, staffing, pricing and new products. They’re then required during the session to analyze results and answer to investors.
The game is designed to make learning hard, which Rezak said is an element corporate learning programs sometimes lack. It’s important to have learners “struggle a little bit,” she said. By forcing trainees to actively cope and struggle through the learning process, leaders are better equipped to think on a deeper and broader scale once they’re back on the job.
This is the standpoint Rollins, a pest control services company, undertook when it decided to implement Zodiak as part of its manager training program. By having soon-to-be regional managers take part in hands-on, active learning, critical thinking becomes a prerequisite for success, not an afterthought.
“They [prospective managers] understand the value of formulating logical, purposeful solutions that achieve results,” said Shaun Hallaran, Rollins’ training program manager.
Yet measuring success of this type of active learning is still a challenge — an area of the critical learning process that many organizations stills struggle with. “It isn’t like you have numbers that would measure success,” Rezak said, “but there are ways to work with leaders.”
One of those ways is to implement follow-up action plans after training, which is something Rezak recommends. Using follow-ups to measure the success of an active learning program may be more work, but the dividends of clearer and deeper decision making make it worthwhile.
“It’s a whole additional process to put into place,” Rezak said. “[It’s] more work to do those kinds of evaluations and not enough companies do it. I think when they do, the learning department [will] get a lot more credibility among senior managers.”
Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.