RENEW Strategies

Developing Critical Thinking Skills

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Matthew Davis, CFA
| November 26, 2008

Observations here in Uganda continue to confirm our thoughts about the value addition RENEW offers to businesses in Africa. Our ability to provide management consulting expertise to growing enterprises is not only sought after by our partners, but by the local leaders whose businesses they fund. Many business owners and local executives are desperate for a management-class workforce here in Uganda — managers that understand and apply analytical thinking to solve the many problems that arise daily in the developing world as a business grows. Electricity shuts off, orders change, a machine breaks down or a customer asks for something other than what is exactly on the menu of offerings. When this happens you will almost always see operations and customer service come to a screeching halt. An innovative solution or answer to either fix the problem or meet the needs of a customer is hardly considered and rarely conceived. The result? The hallmarks of “brand Africa” — poor customer service, poor product quality, inefficient operations and missed deadlines.

One could argue that part of this problem starts very early in the development of the working class. Local education often requires students to memorize information, including tables and equations. Rarely are students pushed to understand the why and how behind the information they are given. Students are rewarded on standardized exams. There is only one right answer, never partial credit for understanding the logic needed to get to the answer. Years later, these issues show up on the streets of Kampala. It is very common to find ten identical businesses operating side-by-side one another; always eager to replicate, rarely able to innovate.

Instilling analytical thinking and problem solving skills in management teams will undoubtedly increase a company’s ability to provide excellent customer service in a world where meeting the needs of each customer can make the difference in a company’s success. These thinking skills can no longer be confined to the front office, but must find their way to the production floor. When this happens, middle management will gradually shift away from acting as task drivers over their staff, to focusing their time on developing ideas and plans for improving numbers, beating targets and developing their employees.

But there is a paradox. The answer to “how does an executive instill analytical thinking into middle management?” points to the management systems. The executive and his or her team must move away from putting out daily fires and reinvent the management systems. If this is done properly, you will no longer hear “if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself,” or “when I leave everything stops. I can’t get away,” coming from the front office. A true management system anticipates problems and develops options for middle management to follow in order to meet them. Middle managers become empowered to make decisions, while executives focus on creating and enhancing the systems. Their focus becomes increasing on gaining market share and meeting new customer needs. Analytical thinking doesn’t develop overnight. Entrepreneurs that start successful businesses have it. They must use that thinking to develop systems that allow the managers to operate in an environment that anticipates problems, provides options and allows the business to live. Thus the paradox: like local education, the executive must shift their focus away from providing their staff with the answer, and move toward developing a system that empowers them to choose options given a number of variables.

Helping executives to accomplish this shift is RENEW’s passion. More to come…