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Structured thinking is the secret of highly effective people

“Your notes and mails need to be short, crisp and focused. You use too many words in your communication which reduces the clarity and effectiveness.” This was the comment from my European boss said ,in my first overseas assignment many years ago. The words hurt. I had been a reasonably good communicator in all previous professional roles in India and this comment in an area which I considered my strength, dented my self esteem But my boss did not let not let the matter rest with the first comment. When I asked him to help me improve, the real issue dawned on me. He said, “Your mails are too long, thoughts are not well constructed and many a times the sequencing in the communication is a little dis- jointed. As a result, the focus of the message is lost.

This set me off on a journey towards continuously striving to improve my communication skills. Its funny, in all my years of school, college and professional college, this was not something that was ever taught. True, in school, we were taught précis writing but I never really understood the true process to master the art of précis – clearly an outcome of structured thinking. It is a common misconception for students to write as much as they can in examinations, attach as many supplements to the response sheet but most of us do not fare well despite the volumes we write - as our thoughts are jumbled and not well structured in the first place. This hinders our ability to communicate a clear and holistic understanding of the subject . We often try and substitute words to fill up the gaps due to poorly composed thoughts. The result – verbal diarrhea and the results are obvious.

The legendary consulting firm Mckinsey and all other consulting units have made structured thinking a global business. Trainee consultants are first taught the technique of MECE (pronounce me-see) stands for Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive. This problem solving approach is literally pounded into the minds of employees .It essentially means that you need to draw up a list of separate and distinct points (mutually exclusive) and you also need to check that it also includes every issue that is relevant to the problem(Collectively Exhaustive).

Some of the best speeches / communications / leadership messages / notes that we come across are those that are well structured and then flow in an easy manner and helps us internalize the contents. Such communication is rarely forgotten. None of us can forget the dialogues of the all time classic – “Sholay” . The reason is not just the performance of actors on screen but has originated from the structured thoughts of ace dialogue writers Salim and Javed. Closely listening to some of the top broadcasters –Harsh Bhogle or Alan Wilkins or Barkha Dutt or Rajdeep Sardesai provide many clues to effective communication. When we obsere closely, is to evident that structured thinking is the key to their flow of speech even when they do not have a prepared script and are speaking extempore.

Some effective communicators use mind maps – a methodology which helps presenters assimilate all thoughts the MECE way and helps them communicate better. Recently, a friend working in a top notch financial research firm commented that they firm had made an exception to try out an internship of a couple of undergraduates from a Canadian graduate university for a brief summer project in India. The Indian firm is largely populated with MBA’s and other highly educated professionals and had never experienced an undergraduate intern before.

The experiment was nothing short of stunning. The two expatriate interns were not only good at their project work but exceptional in their communication. The way they put their points and perspectives across, my friend commented that the flow of thoughts and words could be compared to the top 10% of communicators and presenters of the organization. Needless to say, this came from a discipline of structured thinking taken up from secondary school overseas. My friend highlighted that such skills is missing even among the alumni of some of the highly rated professional academic institutions in India.

Students who work as an understudy to top professors overseas often report that during the first few months, they have been mentored tremendously and coached on structuring their thoughts as a critical skill to be effective communicators. Edward De Bono, the creativity guru also advocates a host of structured approaches which enable ordinary people to be creative. We know such techniques- Six thinking hats, Lateral thinking, Parallel thinking and many others.

Great leaders often mention that when a structured thought process meets with the art of connecting with people through a judicious mix of words and body language, the result is pure magic. Such a person is referred to as “Charismatic”. While some aspect of this skill comes naturally, most of it is learnt and practiced through various structured thinking processes. Most of our children, teenagers, parents, teachers, professionals and leaders are deficient in their ability to put across a view either effectively sharply and effectively. We also do not have this key skill taken up in academic institutions.

While, it is important for schools to teach structured thinking, all of us can benefit from training programmes on the subject and reading books and articles which are well structured. Improving this ability across ages will help make all of us much more effective in whatever we do. In the information age, the skill of structured thinking may often be the critical difference between success and failure.