Trying out a Thinking Environment

I blogged recently about Nancy Kline’s book Time to Think and what a profound impact this had made on me. I was so inspired by it that I wanted to try to create a thinking environment in the office. One of the things I have been saying in my current role is that I am only as effective as those I am working collaboratively with and I also know that we are all experiencing a huge amount of pressure at the beginning of the academic year, as well as many transitions – return to campus, changing roles, changing leadership and so on. I thought a thinking environment might be a great way of enabling those I work with closely to let off steam, create an environment of trust, enable us to listen and build relationships as well as collectively problem solve. So I decided to set up a thinking environment format for a meeting of the 5 other Directors and leaders I work most closely with in the education and student experience space.

Inspired by Dahl

I scheduled an hour and a half for the meeting and gave the team some information about Kline’s book in the initial email invite. I said we would do it as a trial for a few weeks and that I really wanted feedback. Given that we are all returning to campus, meetings are offered face-to-face and online using some swanky new tech we’ve got in one of the meeting rooms. For the first meeting, we were all face to face and I introduced the concept as well as Kline’s 10 characteristics of a thinking environment. I also bought in some snacks – oranges and M&S bleeding brains (which turn out to be a bit controversial according to that link!)- although none of these got eaten so were returned to my very grateful kids. We’ve got out of the hang of eating in meetings and were too busy listening!

I created a MSTeams space as well for the ETE – Education Thinking Environment – where we could share files etc and put the agenda for the meeting there. The format was 30 minutes of listening where each of us talked, uninterrupted for 5 minutes about what was on our minds, 30 minutes picking up the topics from the listening section, 30 minutes on a core topic.

I started with the listening session and talked for 5 minutes, with a timer, about everything on my mind, including getting used to the kids being back in school, juggling new work schedules and all the issues arising from us being back on campus. We then each went around the team and made a note of any issues on a whiteboard. We asked people if they wanted to add anything to the list – and ended up with a long list! We then went through the issue list and discussed the topic of the day.

Me at my desk …. thinking

At the outset of the first session I felt a little awkward at first, I was quite nervous about it for some reason, but actually really enjoyed it. Everyone was able to talk for 5 minutes, sometime with a bit of prompting and we covered a lot of ground. People felt comfortable to share both personal and professional challenges which created a positive atmosphere of trust. For the second meeting, I had to be online as two of my children were ill and one other team members was online too, which made me feel less guilty! The other four were in the meeting room and the format still worked well. It was more tiring to be online for me and I did wonder how helpful it was to have my huge head being beamed onto the meeting room wall but the tech worked!

Thinking in a coffee shop

We ran out of time in both sessions, though, as we started late – having everyone face to face gave more opportunities for informal chat which is really important and I needed to factor this in. Taking the issue list after the listening session meant that we did get rather involved in the issues and had less time for the core topic. We need to work on this in terms of timing although I’m not quite sure how to manage that as taking the issues after the core topic would break the flow. Maybe be very strict on time in relation to the issue list. Another idea came from feedback which was to keep the issue list as a rolling list and this might enable people to keep a track of what we are discussing as well as feeling like things can be picked up later.

I sent out a feedback form afterwards – well I did it on MS Teams and it took me a while to actually publish it sigh – and feedback has been positive. The team have enjoyed having the opportunity to speak and share what is on their minds. Personally I found a freedom in just talking, knowing that taking that time has been “legitimised” and just sharing the tangled ball of wool that is my head helped me feel calmer. Feedback has also been that we need to keep a focus on time so that is something to work on. I would like to have some training or support on using this environment as I think it can be very powerful and there are probably ways in which we could develop it further. We definitely need to keep a focus on actions too, which was some helpful feedback too.

I’m really happy that I had the courage to try this though and will certainly think about how to use this format elsewhere as well as adapting this as we progress towards Christmas.

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