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The need for transformational thinking in business leadership Published: Sunday, September 12, 2010 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Today’s business environment, at all levels from the local to the global, presents opportunities and challenges unknown just a few years ago. Increasingly, in order to take full advantage of those new opportunities and adequately meet the new challenges, we need to engage in a kind of thinking we are culturally not very used to: transformational thinking. This is a way of thinking that takes into account three ‘principles’: Principle of Change: unceasing change is the rule, not the exception; Principle of Contradiction: due to unceasing change, conflicts, oppositions, paradoxes, and anomalies are continuously created; Principle of Holism: nothing exists in an isolated or independent form but is connected to a multitude of different things.

 Put briefly, we can say that human thinking is trying to keep up with a reality that, as a transformational system, is unceasingly changing, subsumes isolated entities within its holistic scope, and is based on the relationship of forms (rather than entities) leading to conflict, reversal, paradox, and unforeseen consequences (Bhaskar, 1993, Laske 2008). When we think of processes, contexts, and relationships, we are already presupposing that the world is an organized transformational whole. These three aspects are mere abstractions from a more encompassing reality of which processes, contexts, and relationships are just moments or elements.

How can this be grasped? When you begin thinking of reality as a transformational and open, rather than a closed, system, you naturally acknowledge that: 1. There are processes instilling constant change, however hidden they may be, that make each day different; 2. These processes give rise to always changing contexts, however stable, outwardly, they may seem to be; The contexts are based on elements with close relationships among themselves, which are the carriers of processes. “THEREFORE,” it is unreasonable to assume that tomorrow will be like today. Only ‘closed system thinking’ will lead to such a mistaken assumption.

It is here that adult cognitive development, in particular epistemic stance, comes into play. Your stance, always in perfect balance with the cognitive tools you use, determines how much uncertainty you are able to accept without being overwhelmed by anxiousness (Martin, 2007). Stance is not something you make a conscious choice about. It is, rather, determined by the level of your cognitive development (your mental age). Beginning in late adolescence, cognitive certainties fall apart at the same time that transformational thinking gradually emerges. Your ‘epistemic’ insight into the limits of your knowledge is broadened by entering the world of abstract hypotheses that permits true thinking actions to occur.

The fundamental difference between post-formal (transformational) and formal thinking, according to research at the Kohlberg School at Harvard (Perry, 1968; Basseches, 1984) is a sense of dynamism and fluidity leading to a larger mental space in which to operate. Formal operational thinking is based on static objects having attributes and together forming closed systems: A equals A, and B equals B. The world exists as nouns. By contrast, transformational thinking sees a dynamic and constantly changing world, forms in transformation, verbs instead of nouns, A becoming A’. Since exercising transformational thinking is a matter of level of adult development, the question every manager and leader should confront is: “have I reached the optimal level of my cognitive development?”

Basseches’ research showed persuasively that transformational thinking can be learned and exercised in terms of clearly identifiable elements called ‘thought forms’ which our logically schooled mind can appreciate one by one. He also demonstrated that the degree to which transformational thought forms are used by an individual can be precisely determined through structured interview, and acted upon through interventions such as coaching, mentoring, consulting, training and education. Due to this research, we are in the possession of a new technology called transformational thinking that can support our insight into physical and social reality as an organized whole and the incessant transformations it is subject to.

Adopting transformational thinking is not a moral issue but an epistemic one. It has to do with a person’s developmental readiness to let go off illusions of security as well as fear of taking risks in their thinking (Martin, 2007). This readiness is a complex issue. It involves not only knowledge of limits of one’s knowledge (epistemic position) but also presupposes reaching a certain social-emotional stage. Stance, Tools, and Experience form a coordinated whole in which one element reinforces the others. A thinker’s stance and tools are always in balance.

One of the overriding effect s of transformational thinking is that it creates a new culture of collaboration. People suddenly discover that others’ point of view, while seemingly in opposition to their own, is a fruitful antithesis to their own views, and can be used as a launching pad of synthesizing opposing views. Now able to transcend their own splendid isolation, and more observant of their own thought processes, managers learn to internalize and hold others’ perspective, thereby enriching their limited viewpoint. By taking up others’ point of view and internalizing it, team members create new synergies and work with others with a new kind of fluency and respect.

It is a truism that today’s business environment is dynamic and fast-changing. What is more, this environment is radically interconnected in a myriad of ways: through people, organizations, ideas, communication, technology, materials and products, transportation, and countless others. These conditions create complexities that require a fundamental shift in how we approach and manage our work, and such a shift is contingent on how we think. As the financial crisis in the USA shows, getting stuck in formalistic thinking in which vital connections and a holistic perspective are missed can have catastrophic consequences.

Copyright 2010 QBS, Inc.
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