Why Managers Need Stellar Contextual Thinking Skills

I often meet managers who think that the sum of being good at their job means delivering whatever results their boss has told them should be delivered. If I'm lucky, this manager might also realise the importance of engaging their team in these efforts. But I think we're missing out on the potential impact of managers, which is far greater than one happy boss or one happy team: it's a happy, healthy organisation. But, how? Well, it starts with contextual thinking skills.

Contextual thinking skills are the ability to accurately comprehend one’s context. Why is this important? Because literally nothing can be understood in and of itself: everything is a product of the way that its inherent nature responds to the context that it is in. 

Consider the blobfish, for example: it lives off the coast of Australia at depths of 600 metres to 1200 metres, where the pressure is 60 to 120 times as great as at sea level. As a result of its’ usual environment, blobfish do not develop the muscles that you’d find in a fish that lives closer to sea level. Thus, when a blobfish is removed from its usual environment and brought to the surface, they look like a pile of gelatinous pink goo. For a long time, no one understood what they were looking at. No one had seen a pile of gelatinous pink goo swimming around at sea level and fulfilling whatever biological imperatives it has. It wasn’t until scientists figured out that the blobfish they were looking at was, in fact, a deep sea fish that had suffered decompression damage, that everything became clear. That is, it wasn’t until they accurately comprehended the context of the blobfish, that they were able to decipher what it actually was.

The dominant Organisations As Machines paradigm I talked about last week leads us to believe that organisations are a series of parts (like the parts in a machine) that get put together to produce an outcome, rather than an inextricably linked series of subsystems (like the organs of a body, or the members of a tribe) that cannot be understood independently of each other. This paradigm prevents us from really perceiving the impact of external and internal context on organisational outcomes, and, because of this paradigm:

  1.  Leaders (and, as a result, managers) do not take the time to provide valuable context to the employees working in the organisation, because they undervalue the impact of the bigger picture on the operation of our organisations’ organs. That is, we don’t see how providing lots of information about the context that the organisation is operating in, and the way the organization is pieced together to create a particular outcome, as immensely valuable to the people working in the organisation. Whereas, for example, in our bodies, the brain is constantly feeding information to every single part of our bodies about the environment we are in, and the effect of that environment on other parts of the body. This enables each part of the body to adapt, and to support each other well.
  2. Managers are incentivized to optimize performance in their function, rather than incentivized to optimize cross-functional performance. This creates competition rather than collaboration. Again, you won't see your body cannibalizing itself by prioritizing the function of certain parts of the body over the function of others, unless you’re in extreme environments that forces that kind of behaviour in order to survive. 

Continuing with the body analogy, we might see leaders as the brain of the organisation, but managers are the major organs. If managers are not able to work well together, then the body will fail. But, in order to work well together, managers must first be able to appreciate how their functions have been designed to interface with and support each other. 

This is where contextual thinking skills come into management, and the potential for a happy, healthy organisation exists.

When a group of managers can each comprehend: 

  1. That their function doesn't operate in a vacuum (that is, they're each seeing the whole internal context of how the organisation is put together to produce a particular outcome); 
  2. Where the strategic objectives should take the organisation (that is, they're accurately comprehending the external context they're moving into); and
  3. That they, as a result of their role, have the potential to have a positive impact on more people than just their team (by prioritising cross-functional collaboration), 

then they will start to see (and be able to sell to their team): 

  1. the vital role that each function plays in the achievement of the organisational objectives (in an ideal world, this would prevent people in revenue-making functions and those in cost-control functions from being perpetually at odds with each other, for example); 
  2. how the needs of other functions might call for adjustments in their own function; and
  3. where new strategic objectives (that is, where a move into a new external context) might cause issues within the organisation, and how they might adapt and support others.

If you're anything like me, you might have times where your active mind leads you to feeling quite disconnected from your body... and yet, your body keeps on surviving even when you're not paying it much attention, taking care of itself as best it can despite whatever harebrained schemes your brain might lead it into. And I think organisations could be like this, if we had management teams that were full of people who could accurately perceive both the internal and external context they were operating in. They would knit together to create a safety net for leaders, and, simultaneously, an umbrella for employees. They would do a great deal for keeping an organisation alive and mostly well, even when dysfunctional leadership might be present.

Contextual thinking skills can be taught, and should be taught, if we want our managers to create great organisations.