How to Create a Thinking Environment in Your Organization

Have you ever sat through an important meeting in which a couple of people dominated the conversation? There’s hardly an opening to get in a comment, much less challenge the drift of the discussion. This has been true for me throughout my career. A great demonstration of this problem occurred when I joined IDEAS, a former division of Disney, as the StoryAnalytics Master (yes, one of the great corporate titles of all time). Even though we had bought ourselves out of the Kingdom in a rare move, IDEAS was still situated in the Roy Disney Production building on the backlot of Disney Hollywood Studios.

It was an immensely interesting place to work, filled with visual and graphic artists, sound engineers, learning specialists, motion film experts, directors, and producers. We tackled all kinds of projects in the entertainment and corporate fields. As you might expect, a skull session to map out ideas for a new film, product, or service was meant to be an exciting, invigorating process. But when I arrived, they were anything but that.

A couple of people in the organization controlled the conversation. If I had anything to contribute, I felt like I had to fight my way in with my phasers set on stun to interrupt them and have a say. Most others just sat through these sessions passively. Needless to say, we weren’t getting the best thinking of everyone if they sat on the sidelines silently brewing.

Luckily, a few years previously, I had the good fortune to sit through training led by Nancy Kline, who has devoted her life’s work to helping individuals and teams think better. All the suggestions I’m going to share with you in this article are derived from her work—there’s a list of her books and other resources at the end of the article if you want to learn more.

IDEAS was no different than most organizations—no one had ever taught them there’s a better way. Fortunately, they were open to learning. What I’m going to share with you was transformative for the way we worked together. Hopefully, it will be so for you and your teams as well.

In her work, Nancy established some simple, yet profound principles to guide how any group meeting is run.

1. The quality of attention and listening a person receives is directly correlated with the quality of their thinking. Much like storytelling is dependent on the quality listening of the audience, thinking out loud requires an attentive audience. If I’m talking and you’re checking your phone for messages or typing something on your computer, I won’t think as well as when you put everything down and give me your undivided attention. 2. The mind works best in the presence of a question, preferably one that is formulated with the outcome in mind. This has enormous implications for how an agenda is fashioned. In a thinking environment meeting, agendas are always in the form of questions. If you’re the chair of the meeting, you must think deeply about these questions to ensure that the meeting produces the best results. It’s not enough to just have a list of agenda items like:
  • The budget
  • Staffing
  • New Policies

What is it about the budget you want people to think about? How we’re going to fill the shortfall projected in the next quarter? How can we reduce our fixed costs? See. Now you have something specific to think about.

3. Reality is at least as good as it is bad. The mind thinks best in the presence of what is real. Unfortunately, we have a cultural bias to only focus on what is wrong or broken. Therefore, to help people think well about any question, it’s important to initially create an environment that stresses the positive. Nancy discovered that a ratio of at least 5 to 1 is crucial for counterbalancing our unrealistic predilection for the negative. This happens to be in alignment with recent work on Appreciative Inquiry.

In the beginning:

1. Give everyone a turn to say what is going well in their work, or in the group’s work. Some examples of good questions are: “What is going well in your work or life?” “What successes have you had since we last met?” “What do you think is going well in our project?” This sets an important tone that has been demonstrated to improve people’s thinking when it comes to solving thorny problems.


2. Give everyone a turn to speak, several times, without interruption. I like going around the room sequentially. If someone has nothing to contribute, they can pass.

3. Give attention without interruption, even during an open and fiery discussion. This means showing an attitude of curiosity and interest even if you disagree with what someone is saying. This produces better thinking and improved results. The way a thinker knows that others are listening, at least in our culture, is through eye contact and good attention. That means that computers remain closed during the process (unless they have an instrumental use for the meeting). Phones and pagers should also be turned off unless someone is awaiting an emergency call, and then they should be set on vibrate. While those who have grown accustomed to using computers to capture and process ideas during meetings may believe that it helps their thinking, it has a decidedly opposite effect on those who are speaking. The fundamental idea here is: Attention that is not split and is recognizable by the thinker improves that person’s thinking and contribution to the group.

4. Scribes can capture key ideas to ensure that nothing is lost. If someone wants to make a quick note on a pad so as not to lose an idea, that’s fine. And if they want to input ideas during breaks, that’s fine, too. (More on scribing later in this article.)

5. Ask Incisive Questions to reveal and remove assumptions that are limiting ideas. Some examples: What might we be assuming that could be limiting our thinking here? If we assumed something more freeing, what new ideas might we have?

6. Divide into small groups when thinking stalls and give each person five minutes to think out loud without interruption. This is a great way to re-energize the group and get thinking flowing again.

7. Go around intermittently to give everyone a turn to say what they think now. As we listen deeply to others, our thinking often is changed, and we gain new insights that inform new perspectives.

8. Permit the sharing of truth and information. While we try to start meetings off with a positive focus, this does not mean that the negative is excluded from the thinking environment.

9. Permit the expression of feelings. If you don’t, sitting on a strong feeling will surely impede your ability to think effectively.

At the end:

10. People who feel appreciated for their contributions are more likely to want to contribute more and will think better the next time around. Therefore, at the conclusion, the chair asks everyone what they thought went well in the meeting and what they respect/appreciate in each other. This is usually done in a round in which we ask people to share what they appreciate in a person either to their right or left.

Setting the Agenda:

1. Ask: What are the essential items we need to address at the meeting? If we could address only one of them, what would it be?

2. What outcome(s) do we want from each item?

3. What question(s) would focus our thinking toward that outcome?

Moving Through the Agenda:

The agenda is addressed initially in rounds in which the first question on the agenda is addressed. Everyone is given a turn in sequence to speak what they are initially thinking. While I discourage timing everyone, if a particular time has been allotted for that aspect of the agenda, the chair can create some basic guidelines for how much time to spend in the round. A basic tenet is that everyone will be given the privilege to speak, and everyone has the responsibility for keeping their comments as concise as they can make them.

Following an initial round, the topic is opened up for discussion. A key here is that people are given the time to complete their thinking without interruption. If you’re familiar with the use of a talking stick in Native American communal rituals, she who has the stick has the floor with no interruptions.

Just before the closing round, ask each person: Is there a burning issue you want to flag up for discussion later?

Some “Thinking Environment” Guidelines for Scribing at Meetings:

First and foremost, scribing needs to support the thinking of people and not interfere with the thinking process.

Secondly, we must ask the question: What do we want to capture and why? It has to fulfill the purpose of helping us meet whatever objectives we have set for the meeting and for our purposes after the meeting.

Third, it’s important to capture the exact words of the thinker, or the words that they want to see captured. Paraphrasing doesn’t work. This means the scribe needs to listen before writing (and keep his or her eyes focused on the thinker), and not be writing while the person is thinking. Likewise, it’s important to encourage participants to keep their eyes on the thinker, not the flip chart. And it means that the thinker is responsible for ensuring that the words that are scribed express exactly what they were thinking.

Who should scribe? Never the person chairing the meeting, or that portion of the meeting. If you do an initial round on a question, I’d hold off doing any scribing. Then, do a second round and ask each person of all the things they have heard, what do they want to see captured. It’s often helpful to have the key question/outcome you’re driving toward to be put up on one of the easels. That means that you should have at least 2, preferably 3 easels available.

During brainstorming, be certain that when a person is coming up with ideas, time is taken before rushing to another idea to get it scribed. Thus, the thinker decides what gets put on the chart, either during his or her thinking or at the conclusion. This may seem to slow up the process, but we’ve found that it gives time for ideas to be fully contemplated and thought about by other members, ending up producing more and better ideas as a result. And, don’t be tearing off sheets once they’re full during the thinking session and taping them to the wall. It’s a huge distraction and usually requires 2 people to do well. Do that during a break.

Next month I’ll address how to make effective presentations in a thinking environment.

To read more about Nancy Kline’s work:

Books by Nancy:

  • Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind
  • More Time to Think: A Way of Being in the World