How To Think Even Better

thinkingThis is an updated version of an article, which originally appeared in 2002. Most of the original thinking and the quoted resources are still very relevant to this day.

Many people spend much time thinking about thinking. Search the Internet for the phrase “How to Think Better“. Google will give you nearly 174,000 links for this specific phrase.
Check out some of these links. You will find a veritable host of people seeking or offering improved ways of thinking. Many methods have been suggested. Each one usually has several good points. How do you choose from all this good advice. You want to improve your thinking process. How do you home in on what will work for you? Two conditions are essential:

  • You must want to use it
  • It must help you get the best answers
Let’s examine these two conditions carefully.

A METHOD YOU’LL FIND EASY TO USE

Here are some questions to weed out less helpful methods.

  • Will I enjoy this process or does it require mechanical and repetitive mental activity?
  • Will I want to use this method for the next year or two?
Based on many years of problem finding / solving, I believe these questions are critical if a method is to work well. Two fairly popular methods are Critical Examination and Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats“.

Critical Examination was suggested for problem-solving over 50 years ago. It involved fully understanding a problem situation by asking successively What?, Who?, When?, Where? and How? for the problem situation. Checklists were available to help expand the information gained under each question word. Once this detail was developed, the question word Why? was used to develop alternatives to improve the situation.

People sometimes enthusiastically used this approach for a short time after attending a training course. Most participants rarely used it even 3 months later.

Six Thinking Hats is a novel concept and has received wide publicity. It brings out some important aspects of problem solving. It is even used in schools. But how often is it really used on a continuing basis? I know of one company in Montreal that even had the 6 different colored hats stuck up on the wall of their main conference room. I was told the process had never been used! If you have been exposed to the method, can you even remember the color of each of the 6 hats and what the color signifies.

Both Critical Examination and the Six Thinking Hats give valuable insights. Other techniques such as Mind Maps or Concept Maps can also be extremely useful tools. But do these methods get used on a continuing basis by real life people?  

One of the best such programmes is the Axon Idea Processor. This is a very developed system for graphically working on ideas and perhaps could be used effectively for sufficiently complex problems. However most practical people need something very basic. It needs to be easy to remember and to use if it will be used again and again. Two concepts to apply to choose such a method are:

  • Simplify, Simplify, Simplify (KISS) and
  • The Rule of Three (No list should be more than 3 items.)

A METHOD TO HELP YOU GET THE BEST ANSWERS

The other critical factor is that we get the best answers by using the method. This is much more difficult to tie down. The “Best Answer” is clearly a matter of personal judgment. One way to find out how to get best answers is to look at some major corporate bloopers. If we see what might have been missed in coming to a solution, then this may point us toward a better method. Here are four big commercial bloopers. Each of them was seen by many observers at the time to be obviously wrong:

  • Coca Cola‘s decision to launch New Coke as a replacement for original Coke in 1985
  • America on Line‘s decision to start offering fixed price / unlimited time access to the Internet resulting in massive litigation payouts after non-performance in 1996
  • The Nortel Networks meltdown as a result of an inability to see changed market conditions early in 2001 (see Newsletter #6 in March of that year)
  • The Ford Motor billion dollar inventory write-down on palladium early in 2002.
What are the features of these decisions or actions, which made them bad? They all suffered from two major limitations The decisions were taken about a particular specific problem when a more global view of the problem was needed. In other words, you must see the Big Picture.

In fact, Albert Einstein, physicist, Nobel laureate (1879-1955), seems to have had the answer for these corporations. One of his famous quotations is: “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.” Secondly not all the factors affecting the decision were considered. In other words, you should be aware of all key factors.

These two limitations on thinking seem to occur over and over again. They sometimes have major and even catastrophic implications. The method described here specifically addresses these two limitations. These key issues must be addressed at the start of the problem finding / solving process.

A SIMPLIFIED APPROACH TO BETTER THINKING

There are 3 steps in this simplified approach to better thinking, which is labeled SOS:
Survey like an Eagle as if from on high) Get the big picture, include all that’s relevant, see the boundaries, understand in a summary way what is happening.
eagle
Observe like an Owl (with all around vision) Be aware of all factors, even hidden or difficult to spot, which may affect what should be the real question. Measure what really happens.
owl
Solve like a Human (with ingenuity and wackiness) Use the full rein of your imagination to find the non-obvious solutions.
penseur
As you try to identify the real problem and develop the solution, spend time on each of these three steps. The nature of the problem will determine the best way to use the time available. However a very usual split would be 25% on Survey, 50% on Observe and the remaining 25% on Solve.

SURVEY LIKE AN EAGLE

eagle
This step requires you to stand back from the problem. It is often dealing with strategy rather than actions. Make sure you see the wood, not just the trees. The Shell Group used to define this as “helicopter vision” in trying to find management people who were good at it The “big picture” cuts through all the messy detail to define the key problem that must be solved. It looks at the boundaries of the problem. It makes sure that some important sector of the problem is not neglected.

This important first step has not received the emphasis it deserves in many problem finding / solving approaches. Unless done well, all the rest of the effort may be misplaced or ineffective as the wrong problem is tackled. When working with a team where each member is at ease in expressing opinions, this “big picture” review can ensure that everyone agrees on what is the real problem.

OBSERVE LIKE AN OWL

owl
As some may know, many owls can turn their heads through a full 180 degrees turn without moving their bodies. Snowy owls can detect the sound of small animals moving under the snow as they fly over.

The same degree of awareness must be maintained in problem finding / solving. Once the problem has been defined, it is important to find all the factors, which may influence the solution. This is why multi-disciplinary teams are so good. People with different training or experience will look at situations from different perspectives.

This was the basis of the Operations Research teams, which started during the Second World War. They included not only military experts and engineers but also psychologists, mathematicians and scientists. Within a company, people from different departments will be looking at the problem from different angles. There is no need to have very elaborate ways of trying to catalogue all the variables affecting the problem. A good open discussion in which all points of view can be represented, discussed and recorded may be the best approach.

Even the simple Crawford Slip technique, where participants write their ideas anonymously on cards, can help more disruptive or outrageous ideas to surface. You should not rely on anecdotes or people’s assumptions on how things might work. Seek actual measurements of what is happening and how things might be improved.

If a team wants to use some of the thinking tools then several are available. For some problems, a team may wish to use a technique such as Critical Examination or Mind Maps to fully define all important aspects of the problem However the method must be one in which all team members are equally at ease. Ideally they should even be enthusiastic about the process.

SOLVE LIKE A HUMAN

penseur
The third and final step in problem solving should allow the full application of all the strengths of the human mind. Of course if a problem can be solved by the application of logic then this is one way to go. It may even be possible to programme a computer to come up with the right answer. A human being is hardly necessary.

However even where logical answers seem correct, a better answer may be found by some intuitive leap of the imagination. Logical answers are there for anyone who cares to work out the logic. Many people may come up with the same solution. This can be disastrous in a competitive marketplace.

The intuitive leap may well be better and, in addition, is less likely to be thought of by others. As Mike Vance would say Think Out of the Box. The mind is very powerful in making intuitive leaps. Perhaps the team can sit around and brain storm. Perhaps they can use one of the more elaborate tools of Creative Thinking, such as the Six Thinking Hats.

In addition, other aspects of the thinking situation can be set to maximize effectiveness, as is done in Accelerated Learning techniques. Positive thinking techniques and ways of allowing the subconscious to play its part can also be useful. Charles Cave has amassed a host of useful links in this sector at his Creativity Web site.

CONCLUSION

Given the concern to “Simplify, Simplify, Simplify”, this is not the place for a bible of all you ever wanted to know about better thinking. Here instead are the central principles of a better way to think. Readers can link this to other tools that they may already be using. However the central message of this note is simply to suggest a better way of using your thinking time – SOS.

  • SURVEY LIKE AN EAGLE
  • OBSERVE LIKE AN OWL
  • SOLVE LIKE A HUMAN
Good thinking.

Postscript

Here are some additional pointers which readers may find useful in improving their thinking processes:

  • Do not jump to conclusions.  Watch out for that Intelligence Trap.
  • If possible, involve others with diverse backgrounds in any serious thinking you are doing.
  • When you have come to a solution, sleep on it. Your subconscious is still active while you sleep and may well suggest improvements that you can incorporate.
Photo credit: Courtesy of ores2k via photopin cc

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