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5 ways to promote a culture of smart thinking

3 min read


Art Markman is a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. His latest book, “Smart Thinking” was published in January.

Innovation has been a core theme in business over the past few years. The mantra is that companies need their employees to work smarter, not harder. As I discuss in my new book “Smart Thinking,” there are some straightforward things you can do to help everyone in your organization think more effectively. The more you know about the way your mind works, the more that you can improve the thinking of the people around you. I call this “creating a culture of smart thinking.”

Here are five things you can do to get the ball rolling toward a smarter organization.

1. Stamp out multitasking. The human mind simply isn’t designed to do more than one kind of complex thinking at a time. When people are working on complex material, give them permission to ignore the phone, shut off the e-mail and shut down instant messaging. When you bring everyone together for a big meeting, get them to “be here now.” Ban smartphones and Internet browsing during meetings.

2. Encourage openness. You never know where the next good idea is going to come from. So encourage people to try on new ideas for size before deciding whether to pursue them. Too often, people assume that the fiercest critic in the room is the one who looks smartest. But if you criticize before deeply understanding an idea, you won’t be able to use that knowledge later when you need it. Set an example by focusing first on the positive parts of a new proposal before finding potential flaws.

3. The company succeeds when “we” succeed. Our culture is one that prizes individualism. Ultimately, we reward people who make important contributions. Credit and publicity tend to go to particular individuals who make important contributions. History rewards great people, but rarely great groups. But an organization cannot succeed without a group contributing deeply to that success. Lead by promoting the value of group success and reward groups for their achievement. In the long run, that provides everyone with the incentive to learn and grow.

4. Create desirable difficulties. We use technology to make things easier for us. And, of course, there are lots of things that ought to be easy. It is wonderful that we can send documents across the globe in seconds and that we can get research papers with the click of a link. But technology cannot make learning easier. Gaining true understanding of complex situations requires effort. Don’t just provide summaries of key concepts to group members. If there is something that people need to understand, encourage everyone to dig in and work on it.

5. Support smart habits. There is a lot that we do mindlessly each day. We don’t have to think about where the light switch is in our office or how to find the gas and brake pedals in the car. Those habits are smart, because they allow us to focus our mental energy on more important matters. Similarly, don’t disrupt the habits of people in your organization without careful planning. Open workspaces, for example, don’t allow people to develop habits for where their desk supplies are and can cause disruption. Changes in internal websites and forms cause people to think about tasks that should be mindless. Change for the sake of change costs more time and mental effort than it is worth.