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How To Stop The Dumbing Down Of Your Company

March 5, 2007
When you convert your dumbed down workforce into power thinkers you will retain your best talent, increase customer satisfaction and exceed your growth goals.

Our society is dumbing down. It's pandemic. And its effect on your bottom line should have you staying up at night. A lack of critical thinking skills results in product recalls, bumbled sourcing decisions, new product failures in the marketplace, plant implementations gone awry and the general torpedoing of sound strategies by flawed execution. This article explores the benefits of creating a smarter organization and how to make that happen.

The Benefits Of A Power-Thinking Organization

An organization staffed top-to-bottom with power thinkers will deliver a myriad of benefits. Here are a few you will see almost immediately:

  1. Fewer mistakes, more creative solutions, higher sales. The research is clear: employees who have their brain turned on develop better solutions and boost sales.
  2. Less inter-departmental antipathy. One advantage of a thinking organization is that internal customers become primary beneficiaries of ongoing learning.
  3. Less resources spent creating detailed processes. Thinking workers recognize flaws in recipes whereas dumbed down workers simply follow them.

Superior Thinking Drives Sales And Profit Growth

A study I conducted among 100 companies of all sizes to uncover what separates those which exceed their growth goals from those which merely meet or miss their goals revealed the most important driver of growth: "Employing people at all levels who are among the best in the industry at what they do."

If your current roster isn't staffed with the industry's best, what can you do? Do you fire everyone and start over? No. Experience shows what makes some people the best in their field is power thinking. They are not necessarily more experienced or better trained in technical skills. It is what they do with the three pounds of gray matter between their ears.

A large manufacturer recently called me in to "fix" a business planning process which wasn't producing the desired results. Investigation revealed the process worked just fine -- admirably in fact, but only in a few pockets of the organization. Those managers who were applying their intellect were getting excellent results. On the other hand, managers who were just trying to minimize their hassle found the process useless.

How To Create An Organization Of Power Thinkers

Throw away your training course catalog. Put 10 Steps to Solving Any Problem back on the shelf where it belongs. What your company needs is a steady diet of applied thinking over an extended period of time. This is what it will take:

Develop Thinking Skills

The center portion of Figure 1 highlights six key traits you should strive to develop in personnel at all levels of your organization. To do so, these pieces must be in place: a learning environment, a case study habit, and aligned goals across all departments and levels.

Create A Learning Environment

Power thinking involves challenging the status quo, looking beyond the obvious and learning from mistakes. In order for that to happen your company has to adopt two cultural commitments:

  • A belief that mistakes are distinct from demerits;
  • Open, problem-focused communication across departments and levels

Mistakes happen. We don't have to celebrate missteps, but neither do we need to fear them. For twenty years I have created a learning environment for those who work with me. As a result, my associates have striven to deliver excellence without undue fear that an error will lead to career damage. An employee in a learning environment can deliver A+ work while one fearful of mistakes will plod along with safely mediocre performance.

When your employees believe mistakes are distinct from demerits your company will have room to communicate dissatisfaction productively. Keep the focus on the problem, not the people. Something turned out wrong, not someone.

Create A Case-Study Habit

The most powerful practice you can use to develop power thinkers is to consistently work through live case studies. Put aside an hour each week to address something which did not go well and solve it differently. Don't hand people the answers --that defeats the purpose and feeds into the central cause of the dumbing down of our society. When people can skate by without having to come up with correct solutions themselves their brains atrophy.

The weekly exercise is simple at an individual or department level: What went poorly? What principles can we learn which will enable us to avoid future errors? Now, let's run it again!

Organizational Alignment

There is little point in creating a brigade of power thinkers if the platoons are pursuing conflicting objectives. I once saw a marketing group look on in disbelief as R&D presented design after design which did not have customer-requested features. Despite problem-focused communication there was little hope of getting better products because the engineering group was rewarded for minimizing new components in product designs.

The remedy is a single, overarching objective for the entire organization: efficiently increase sales. When everyone in your company is focused against the same ultimate goal, then every mistake can be discussed in terms of its impact on sales. Sometimes production line workers feel removed from that singular goal but, in fact, they are not. Every activity in the company can be traced back to sales and part of the case study habit will be learning how to do so accurately.

Consistency Over Time

Great thinkers aren't created with a 10-step technique or a 3-day seminar. Plan on at least six months of consistent coaching before the new habits take root. Also, identify some exemplars who can model the success of the case-study habit in action.

The good news is that learning and thinking are fun. Once people get the hang of it they find it's something they want to do. Not only that, great thinkers attract other great thinkers. Look at Google. They are known for being a bastion of interesting thinkers and now top minds are flocking to Google from academia and corporate America. A culture of thinking becomes self-perpetuating.

Smartening up your organization is like starting to exercise after New Year's. You will encounter resistance, apathy, negative inertia, soreness and some frustrations along the way. But the payout is enormous. When you convert your dumbed down workforce into power thinkers you will retain your best talent, increase customer satisfaction and exceed your growth goals. That's a pretty intelligent idea.

David A. Fields is managing director of Ascendant Consulting, LLC, a consulting firm dedicated to accelerating companies' top-line growth. This article is excerpted from Creating Smart Organizations, a free whitepaper available at Fields can be reached at [email protected].

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