Thinking Environments

Update: The Greek Cream Bun

Many years ago I went on holiday to Greece. We were young and skint, we had enough saved up to drink beer, eat cheap food, party a little and sunbathe. Every day, on our way to the beach, we passed a bakery with tantalising cream cakes in its window. The cakes were nine times more expensive than anything else in the village, so every day we walked on by, promising ourselves a treat at the end of the fortnight.

On our last day, we had a few drachmas left so we called into the bakery, each emerging with a cream horn. We bit into them with relish…to discover they were actually made of bread, with some sort of synthetic Dream Topping inside. Not even Angel Delight! They’d clearly been made by an enthusiastic baker who had seen a picture of English Cream Horns, without having an actual recipe.

It’s exactly the same with the Thinking Environment. We call each process – Ideas Room, Time to Think Council, the basic building blocks of rounds, pairs, dialogue – an ‘application’ because the facilitator applies the Ten Components (or values) of the Thinking Environment to that intervention. It’s a deal-breaker. As Sophie Stephenson said, so much more succinctly than I do below, it’s not enough to do a Thinking Environment. For it to properly work, you have to be it, and that means an intentional practice of holding the components in place, even when that’s resisted.1 If you apply the rules, without the components…well, it’s just a Greek Cream Bun.

Here’s the original article:

Reaching the Third Horizon

I began my Thinking Environment training nearly 25 years ago at the Centre for HIV and Sexual Health in Sheffield. I know precisely when it was because I was still on maternity leave, in fact my baby was with me that first day.

He’s a man now, is Fraser, raised in a Thinking Environment and regularly coming to the #SolidaritySpaces I’ve been opening up for working class people like us to think, feel and just be ourselves in a challenging world. Thinking Environment spaces where – sometimes for the first time – we can breathe a sign of relief just to be there.

Thinking Environments online have been a revelation.

Witness, too, the exponential success of the #JoyFE💛 Ideas Rooms, a new application of the Thinking Environment which has emerged in lockdown. English Further Education is re-making itself (in some places) because of the ideas people have explored and incisive decisions they’ve made in those efficient spaces.

If you’d asked me at the start of the year whether Thinking Environments could thrive online, the answer would have been a qualified ‘yes’. I coached regularly via Zoom and I was no stranger to online spaces. I knew the processes would be helpful. But I could certainly never have guessed that Thinking Environments could be better online, and not just because of the possibilities afforded by lockdown to hold them regularly with people who became familiar with deepening their ideas. There’s something about the stripped down intimacy which really works.

There’s a critical mass of interest now and Thinking Environments are about to have their moment. To borrow a Three Horizons notation, useful for leadership in uncertain times, the disciplined space afforded by Thinking Environment processes allows for future horizons to be explored, current horizons to be scrutinised for the best they can teach us, and what’s within reach to be planned for and achieved.

If you have started imagining unicorns, please stop. This is robust, efficient, rigorous stuff. There are rules and they are applied with firmness and discipline.

Thinking Environments can’t be subverted. They can be sabotaged, but it’s really obvious to all (and can be dealt with). Any Thinking Environment session leaves role, rank (and hopefully ego) at the door, meaning that the people who resist are:

  • those with power and airspace who don’t want to give any of that up
  • those who hide behind lack of power and don’t want to step up and be counted
  • those who refuse to be disciplined in their encounters with others

I trained with the best. After Thinking Partnerships training at the Centre for HIV and Sexual Health, I learned to be a Coach, Facilitator and Consultant with Nancy Kline. I studied alongside Ruth McCarthy and Linda Aspey, two leading lights of the Thinking Environment world. My coaching practicum was supervised by Anne Hathaway (and I didn’t pass first time, either).

I trained for approximately 30 intensive days, plus a significant practice requirement, and regular quarterly attendance at the International Time to Think Collegiate. Had I paid for it all (which I didn’t, thanks NHS, EU Objective 1 and the generosity of Nancy Kline) it would have cost me something like £15k even back then.

So when people tell me I make it look easy, that’s why.

I am absolutely not being protectionist. Because of their growing popularity, the #JoyFE💛 Ideas Rooms are also practice spaces for facilitators. Thinking Environments are changing things and we lack facilitator capacity. The moment is now and we need to seize it. But it takes more than a trip to an Ideas Room to be able to hold the discipline in place and this is how I know…

I was using Thinking Environments in all my practice – and my parenting – from 1996 onwards. It was my pedagogy, my community work, the way I chaired a meeting and managed a team. But there was resistance in my organisation and when I finally got the chance to take the processes to a staff meeting, I mucked it up. I wasn’t skilled enough at that time. And so the saboteur had his moment, the process was discredited and the culture of that organisation did not change.

This is my warning, offered to you with love and respect. If you want to use Thinking Environments to change the culture of an organisation – and you are likely to meet with some resistance – get the experts in and get properly trained yourself – however you do that. I’m advocating practice, and starting small. Gather your allies around you and learn together. Work on the building blocks of rounds, pairs and dialogue until your facilitation is word-sharp and you have your own bank of stories. Practice forming incisive questions. Try your first Council out only when you feel safe with the people around you. Don’t try mixing ‘n’ matching with other approaches – this is a different paradigm. Learn why it’s so important to follow the rules (I still remember the times I didn’t, with a deep blush of shame).

The Time to Think Collegiate founded by Nancy Kline has some fabulous teachers on its books – Bryony Croft in Shropshire, Ruth McCarthy and Anne Hathaway in London, Linda Aspey in the Cotswolds and Sophie Stephenson in Sheffield. Nancy still keeps her hand in and her gentle, intensive style is unforgettable. I will be running some practice groups on a pay-what-you-can-afford basis via Patreon and the Ideas Room provides facilitation opportunities for regulars. I have #JoyFE💛 colleagues who are more than capable of facilitating practice groups too. However, that’s for individuals. Where organisations want consultancy, it’s only fair that they pay.

Thinking Environment processes can transform cultures, there’s no doubt about it. But they are not a magic bullet, particularly in cultures where discipline is lacking and has to be learned. As ever, strategic implementation is what makes change happen and, although the time for change is here, slow and steady will still win the race. Let’s do this together, and do it right.

1I was horrified to read in an evaluation recently that someone practising the Thinking Environment had omitted the component of Appreciation, “because people don’t like it.” Yes, the giving and receiving of appreciation – especially in teams or organisations where trust is low – can be squirmy. But if it’s sincere, specific and succinct, it virtually is a silver bullet for building trust. Plus, the opposite of appreciation is criticism. Practice appreciation to criticism in a ratio of at least 3:1 and you’ll find that when you have to challenge someone, they’ll actually listen to you with an open mind.