Exponential Thinking

How do you teach yourself and your people to think exponentially? Exponential thinking is often referred to as “thinking outside the box” or “creative thinking”. While the phrase “thinking outside the box” has become cliché, the activity of expanding one’s paradigms and thinking creatively is a critical skill that powerful, positive leaders rely on to manage their organizations and to make a difference in their personal lives and community.

We live in a multi-dimensional, interdependent world in which events about which we may be unaware or that seem disconnected to us still impact our lives and businesses. The most effective leaders are tuned into the world around them, fully aware of the interdependencies. These men and women recognize how easy it becomes for people who are immersed in their daily work activity to lose sight of events taking place around them.

“Systems Thinking,” a term used by Peter Senge in his best-selling book, The Fifth Discipline , teaches us how to step back to a point from which we can examine our world, our lives, and our organizations as an integral whole. This perspective enables us not only to see the broad forces that influence our activity but also to see how what we do influences the whole in ways that may not be apparent to us. Under a systems thinking approach we are able to examine our basic assumptions about the world in which we live and work and about why we do the things we do the way we do them.

What all organizations must do is to periodically stop and re-examine where they are going and how far they have come. Is our mission still important? Are our goals and objectives still appropriate given the changes that have taken place in our industry, in our supply chain, or in our world in general? Have any of the things that have changed in our environment also altered the needs of our customers? That such changes, unnoticed, can have a devastating impact on a business organization’s future is bad enough. Just as importantly, these changes often create new opportunities for the alert and the innovative.

Creating an organization in which all members are engaged in a learning process, and in which they are encouraged to develop and share new ideas can pay enormous dividends. Senge refers to such entities as “learning organizations.” Many quality systems have been designed to function as an integrated part of the production process in order to facilitate continuous improvement. Only a special few, however, actually make the effort and investment to teach people how to think exponentially and then reward them for sharing.

What we have learned is that continuous improvement is insufficient for the dynamic world in which we live and do business. What is needed is “relentless improvement” in an environment in which people at all levels of the organization have been taught to accept responsibility for exceeding the customer’s expectations. Acceptance of such responsibility is the purest form of positive leadership. Most organizations are blessed with a small number of individuals who are natural leaders, irrespective of their titles and formal authority. The challenge of executive leaders who wish to infuse their organizations with positive leadership and exponential thinking requires, first, that those executives are, themselves, positive leaders and, second, that they make a relentless commitment to developing the leadership skills of their people.

Positive leadership is more than just a skill that people with titles keep tucked away in their portfolios. Positive leadership is a craft that must be practiced daily and one of the tools utilized by such craftspersons is exponential thinking. In one organization with which I was involve, we encouraged exponential thinking by including what we then called “continuous improvement” as one of the criteria by which employees at all levels of the organization were evaluated in the company’s “integrated performance management system” One of the best ways to build creativity into your organization is to be creative in developing ways to encourage, celebrate, and reward exponential thinking on the part of your people.

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