How can we establish a thinking organization?

It is known that the organization that does not think does not develop, and if developed, its development would be temporary and random. Organizations are constantly looking forward to the ideas which help them improve, or the ideas that enable them to face the emerging challenges. But this aspiration is often lacking for sustainability. We see that the creation of those ideas is a limited and occasional process related to a number of employees or a result of non-proactive routine activities.

If we want to establish a thinking organization, we should pay attention to a number of practices that make thinking an authentic trait in the organization, and make thinking a familiar practice that generates direct outputs and allows it to grow.

Managers should think not just to run the business

In the thinking organization, managers take use part of their time in thinking. It is very easy for the manager to be busy throughout the day in the observation, guidance, and care that the work goes well, but this is not what is required. The manager should consider thinking as an essential part of his work, and practice it seriously and regularity. Many managers allege that there is not enough time to think, and that work tasks make them busy throughout the day. In this case, Professor Duncan Simester, a Management Science professor at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management, diagnoses their condition that they do not delegate their tasks in an optimal manner, as delegating work to their subordinates allows the managers to have enough time to think and also enables them to look for strategic options in a more realistic way.

The ways which the executive directors use to circumvent daily business are varied. One of those ways is what Bill Gates does, giant Microsoft’s founding partner and former CEO, as he dedicates a whole week which he calls “Thinking Week“. During this week, he isolates himself from the affairs of labor and avoids communication and other distractions to read books and reports, identify the latest trends in the world of technology, as well as deep thinking about the future of Microsoft and the available strategic options. Gates does that twice a year, as he confirmed that this practice gives him a push forward and the ability to accommodate and keep up with the global competition.

Collective wisdom in decision-making

The administrative structure is not the suitable method to make decisions in the thinking organizations, but it should be paired with what results from the interaction of the largest segment of employees or the public. The mechanism by which ideas are extracted after the participation of large numbers of people is called (Collective Wisdom). This method has been used successfully by global organizations such the giant well-known global company (IBM) that employs thousands of employees in different countries of the world. When the company wanted to rethink its organizational values, it invited its employees to discuss the current values and propose what they think new values through an electronic platform for three days. The result was amazing: contributions and dialogues were made among more than 10 thousand employees resulting in a consensus on the new organizational values. After this success, IBM has used this technique again but with the public in general, as it has provided a set of modern technologies which is still under experimentation on its electronic platforms for public in order to try them, give their comments on, and add new and innovative ideas. This initiative was called “Innovation Jam” and it could receive more than 150 thousand participations from 67 companies and organizations belonging to more than 104 countries.

In a related context, some Arab governments have tried to collect as many ideas as possible to help their organizations develop and modernize continuously, such as the Government of Dubai, when it launched Mohammed Bin Rashid Smart Majlis as a platform to exchange ideas and find solutions, as everyone can participate in promoting the leadership of Dubai.

A new perspective to ideas within the organization

The systems that attract traditional ideas within organizations invite the employees to submit their innovative ideas, and then they are evaluated based on agreed criteria. After that, the outstanding ideas are carried out and their owners are honored. This method lacks the opportunity to give the ideas a chance to demonstrate them, and to prove its eligibility for practical application. This is because the fate of the idea is in the hand of the direct manager or the evaluation committee based on what they see or think about this idea. To deal with this dilemma, Gary Hamel, a professor of Management at London Business School, suggests that the organizations allocate a specific budget for each employee. He can spend it annually studying and testing one or more ideas he thinks it is important. The employee can also share with other colleagues to test common ideas, or evoke his idea within the organization and the willing employees finance it from their own balance. Thus, the organization identifies the ideas after actually tested and considers the results. Therefore, the employee can often go beyond the difficult stage to start testing his idea practically and provide the cost involved.

This can be described as an internal investment which carried out by the organizations to encourage the employees to apply what they think and to ensure the flow of ideas within the organization, as well as creating a positive state of partnership among the employees.

Discovering the suitable combination between long and short-term thinking

It is common for an organization to develop a strategic plans extended for years, as well as to set short-term operational plans. However, you should be careful here of generalization, or the organizations convince themselves that one practice is the most appropriate and therefore must be applied at all times. As the organizations need long and short-term thinking differently according to the nature of their activity, their size, the characteristics of the market where they work, the nature of competition, the products quality and other variables. Therefore, what suits an organization is not necessarily appropriate for another organization, even if they are similar in several characteristics. In volatile sectors which are undergoing accelerated and radical changes, long-term thinking loses part of its importance and is not considered as an urgent need for the organization as is the case for medium and short-term thinking. The organization needs a conscious will and a great self-confidence to make the decision to modify the planning cycle there to suit its needs without falling under the influence of what other organizations do, or what has traditionally been marketed as ready-made solutions.

Finally, we can say that establishing a thinking organization cannot be achieved by creating a system to receive the ideas or honor the employees having distinct ideas only. The guided thinking should be adopted as practice especially for managers and decision-makers. The organization should find its identity when it comes to long-term and short-term planning. The thinking organization also finds innovative ways to enable the employees to test their ideas without undergoing the assessment guillotine. This is in addition to the constant pursuit to attract large numbers of ideas through involving a broad spectrum of the public.

* I wrote and published this article in Harvard Business Review Arabic.