How to Use Activated Thinking to Lead Teams and Influence Development

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Dear Leaders, Managers, Directors, and Entrepreneurs,

We’re doing it wrong. We’re not building the next generation of creatives.

But, I have an idea to fix it. It’s called Activated Thinking -- a method of showing the brushstrokes hidden behind our work in order to teach the creatives around us not how to be better, but how to think better. It’s based on the unconscious high-speed activation of answers and ideas when we’re faced with a problem we’ve already experienced in our careers. The fact is though, you, as an expert, are already using it for yourself. You just don’t know it, and you’re most likely not yet teaching it.

How You Use It:

The concept of Activated Thinking was realized recently when my team had a single client with five video productions occurring simultaneously. All had their own crew, their own schedules, and their own reasons to exist. But, while moving forward casually and confidently on all of these projects, I noticed I was making a big mistake. Here I was, doing my job and getting work aligned under a common creative vision on time and on budget, but I was teaching nothing and leading no one, because I wasn’t showing my work to the team. I was looking forward to outputs and not showing them what questions had to be asked, and answered, long before they could get to the work. These were questions they didn’t know needed to be asked, so they certainly weren’t asking them. And every unique project would raise new questions, like:

Which will be motion graphics and which will be live action? Will this one have a voice-over or not? Will this one require us to work this weekend? Can we get away with an unlicensed audio track? Should this be fifteen seconds, thirty, or longer? What can we do this internally, versus hiring production partners? How does the client prefer seeing the idea come to life? Treatment, boards, animatics?

The reality was, I wasn’t showing my work and taking them through the questions that needed to be considered because I didn’t know I even asked them. I was just enjoying the fact that I knew what I was doing, and I wasn’t showing my work to them, or myself. It all happened unconsciously.

It’s easy to forget to show your work when you’ve been doing it a long time, because you yourself stop thinking about the process. We’ve done it so much, our brains stop asking the questions, and instead, leap forward to the answers learned from asking so many times. Projects become muscle memory, and we have solutions without really considering how we got there.

When the task is laid out, you don't ask "What now?" or "What's next?" because your brain immediately activates and answers the questions. The client says we need a three-minute video, and by the time we leave the meeting, we know how we'll make it, who we need, who is available, and if we're working this weekend. It’s years of experience and wisdom moving us as directors beyond the boring managerial stuff and onto the fun, creative thinking by quickly solving problems we’ve already faced and solved over and over again.

To understand where our experience places us in this thought process, consider a graph with four quadrants. The vertical axis being knowledge, and the horizontal axis being awareness. In the top right, with high knowledge and high awareness, you're a Pro. You get paid well to do what you do and you hopefully do it well. Meanwhile, with high knowledge and low awareness, you are an Expert. And what I mean by this is you are so far advanced in your learnings and skills that they fall back into your subconscious only to be activated when needed. You do things without thinking, answering questions you didn’t ask. You're Miles fuckin’ Davis.

Low knowledge and high awareness is a Future Pro. They know you don't know everything, so they're more willing to work for it. These are the members of the team that might be more eager to learn, and more open to seeing your brushstrokes, because they are likely the ones trying to take your job.

Low knowledge and low awareness is a true Amateur. These employees don't know what they don't know, and without proper guidance and mentorship, they’re likely to stay there, because they don't even know they're there.

How to Teach It:

Utilizing Activated Thinking for your team helps you go beyond focusing on the output to focusing the outcome; seeing not if they did the task, but if they actually changed, learned, and grew because of effort. It requires us as leaders to not just manage or delegate, but to stop, think about where we are and how we got there, and then clearly define it for our team. So, gone are the days of dropping a vision and taking a six-martini lunch (yeah yeah yeah, six. Shut up, I like to drink), because the truth is, we still have work to do. This new approach to managing a creative team results in more consistent, thought-out deliverables, as opposed to varied outputs developed through repeating trial & error periods.

Our range of knowledge and awareness requires us to lead by understanding ourselves and our team so that we can effectively teach them not just what to do, but what to think. The reality is, while we create a checklist in our brains after years of experience, and then execute on it without needing to even recall the list, the team we lift up and promote haven’t been reading the checklists in our mind. They will have to learn on their own. That’s wisdom for you, and the traditional professional learning model, or at least the one I grew up in, was based on getting tossed into the deep end, head first. Some will survive, some won't, and that’s the way it’s designed to be.

Those who survive either asked the right questions, or they were quick to figure out how to activate the right questions in their brains. With the right ones aligned and ready to answer or solve, they are breaking away from the pack, and often leading those left behind scratching their heads. Thus, a manager is born.

Our model for creating managers used to be:

  1. Throw them into the deep end and let the winners rise to the top.

Meanwhile, we really should be:

  1. Teaching them to swim,
  2. Telling them about getting thrown into the deep end from our own experience,
  3. Jumping into the deep end with them,
  4. Having them “activate” by leading the next pool session.

While they may think and operate differently, by understanding your proven methods, your team may be able to better adapt to challenges and develop their own expert style of managing problems. We all swim differently, so as long as they understand the scenario thoroughly, and the different ways to move through it, they’re more adept at getting out alive.

But, we don’t teach Activated Thinking. Usually, we rely on reflex and we don’t know or consider that we aren’t sharing our expertise. Other times, it's because we're greedy jerks. Call it selfishness, mindless ignorance, or maybe even fear -- fear of giving away everything we've worked so hard for. Regardless, if we consider the process of work as a solitary learning opportunity, we might rationalize it as a managerial tactic of making them go through what you went through, because it worked for you, and it gives value to our experience and output, sometimes making us look like fast-thinking creative geniuses.

Ultimately though, we hide the steps not because we like to play creative genius, but because we don't even realize we took the steps. Sure, we can let the outside world think we are great geniuses who came to the brilliant work with no effort, but inside our agency’s walls, we need to walk our teams through each step so they can build off of the work, and not always have to recreate it or play with trial & error.

Another way to look at it is the battle between X and Y theories of management. Theory Y states that our teams thrive on challenges, and are open to and excited about improving their performance, while X basically, if I can paraphrase, assumes developing employees are dumb and lazy. Y relies on our ability to care for them personally and professionally, and our desire to see them grow. Meanwhile, X relies on our belief that no one can do the job like us because we’re better trained and have more experience.

So, let’s start managing, directing, and leading better. Let’s go from X to Y, stop assuming that the person with the most experience should do the job, and instead teach the person with the least how to do it. Let’s not just explain what we do, but why and how we do it. Let’s have our teams see the action behind the ideas, and see how one simple question can affect everyone from a producer to a PA and every aspect of the budget in between. Let’s also never forget that one of the best ways to learn is by doing. To put it bluntly let’s start taking our feet off of their heads and start teaching them to take our jobs. Let’s use our Activated Thinking as wisdom that can be shared, not as something we earned and own.

That’s when we become better leaders.

Ipse dixit,

James Dowd

Activated Thinker, sometimes.

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