Category Archives: Thinking Processes

Find a new angle – lateral thinking

This is the next post in the Thinking Styles Series

Lateral thinking

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, our thinking styles can often get in the way of moving forward, particularly in messy situations. Our natural instinct is to think about things in a logical and systematic way but often this can trap us into reaching inappropriate conclusions.

Edward De Bono

Lateral Thinking was first proposed by Edward De Bono in 1967 – I came across the idea a few years later. The concept is to come at your problem or situation from different angles, to challenge the [often unstated] assumptions built into your thinking and seek multiple alternative approaches.

There are strong parallels to some of the ideas put forward in Creative Thinking and it would be easy to dismiss this way of thinking as a sub-set of those ideas, but the concepts are stronger than that. I don’t propose to go into details here because the ideas are easily followed up via the author’s websites. Read Dr De Bono’s own explanation here.

It is, however, critical to recognise that logical thinking will sometimes get in the way and sometimes lead us inappropriate conclusions. This example demonstrates the differences between lateral and logical thinking – revealing a strategy for success which would never be found by conventional thinking.

Vaccinate your thinking processes

In his book, Dr De Bono quotes the case of the switch in thinking styles which allowed Edward Jenner to discover the route to vaccination against Smallpox. Whilst others focused on why sufferers got Smallpox, Jenner turned his attention to asking why milkmaids seemed to be immune to the infection. He postulated that the similar but less aggressive disease of Cowpox provided immunity against smallpox

That “simple” switch of focus allowed a means of preventing this horrific disease to be found and as we now know it has been eradicated.

So when you are faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem, why not stand to one side, ask some probing questions about what is and what is not and see if there is a new angle to attack your challenge.

Dare to be different

It is also worthwhile to build lateral thinking into your strategy development and marketing because if you adopt a purely logical approach, you are likely to do the same as your competitors!

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Project Planning as Map Making

This is the second post on the “Project Thinking” sub-theme which has emerged from the “Thinking Styles” theme.

Planning Importance and Experience

Anyone who has been involved with projects will be aware of the importance of planning and most will have war stories about what has worked and what has not. In my view, planning is misunderstood by many people and often fails as a result.
The key issues are:

  • You need to understand the “landscape” of the project before you can come up with a sensible plan and the ability to respond to what is discovered on the journey [project].
  • The process and the communication involved are usually more important than the plan.
  • The plan is a by-product of the thinking: poor thinking = poor plan.
  • The plan is the current best guess based on what we know now.
  • Reality will be different to what has been planned but forewarned is forearmed.

I aim to set the scene here and will return to the theme in a later post.

Planning and Understanding

To thoroughly understand the project you need to know its geography and perhaps the underlying geology. You need to be able to answer the following questions:

Plans as Maps

To be able to do this effectively there is a need for a series of plans of different types. This is similar to the different types of map needed to understand an area.

  • Broad picture – atlas style
  • More detailed – road map style
  • Detailed – street map / ordnance survey style
  • Specialist presentations – demographics / geological maps

The key difference in a project context is that you have to create each of these maps yourself! In many cases, the starting point and desired end point are known and often the journey time is specified [perhaps with little reference to what needs to be done and the prevailing conditions] but the terrain which needs to be crossed is not known in sufficient detail. Consequently, it makes sense to think of the journey ahead as an exploration. Most projects are one offs: the participants will have been on similar expeditions in the past but will never have been on this precise journey before.

The plan and the journey

To continue the metaphor, the expedition [project] leader will know where they are starting from and the height and location of the mountain they need to climb but not have any idea of how hospitable the terrain between the starting point and the destination is:

  • Are there rivers to ford?
  • Intermediate mountain ranges to traverse?
  • Deserts to cross?

There is also the potential for an imbalance between the route to be taken and the resources available, the fitness of the team and the tools available. There is a danger [see Project Planning – the 4th Dimension] that the timing will be set on the basis of optimum resources and the budget set on a less generous basis.

Project planning as a change process

As with any change process, involving the team in the process is really helpful both in terms of arriving at better solutions, reducing resistance and gaining commitment. If they produce the map and understand the landscape they are crossing then they will be both more focused on producing a good map [their success depends on it] and secondly, they will be aware of options on how to accommodate changes in circumstances. This will lead to greater motivation and less stress when the inevitable diversions become necessary.

It also is likely to lead to a more helpful understanding of the purpose of the plan and degree of confidence to be placed in the current plan. The mind-set becomes one of accepting the plan as being the current best [informed] guess of the best way forward and an understanding that some of the fine details of the route will only become apparent when one ventures into the unknown.

Remember, without involvement, there is no commitment; so, worry less about producing the plan and put more effort into facilitating the planning process and developing a shared understanding of the expedition.

All Systems Go! – Systemic Thinking for Understanding and Insights

This is the next posting in the Thinking Styles series: See Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking for an introduction to the series.

If you have a scientific background (and probably even if you don’t) you are likely to pride yourself on being able to think systematically. But, can you think systemically?

Systems Thinking

Systematic thinking with its logical, sequential and linear approach is very important and contributes to most of the thinking styles covered in this series. Systemic or Systems Thinking is much less prevalent but potentially even more important.

The approach looks at systems [dynamic entities with interactive elements that act as purposeful units] and their relationship to their environment [everything outside the system]. The concepts build on the ideas of Russell Ackoff, Peter Checkland and latterly, Peter Senge amongst many others.

Systems thinking starts with some relatively straightforward concepts and can provide insights into the most complex of natural and man-made entities.

Systems thinking encourages you to:

  • understand the system as a whole
  • to examine the interactions between parts
  • to see how the system interacts with its environment.

Getting Started

A great starting point to understand the subject is Gene Bellinger’s Website

There are also some excellent learning resources on the Open University Systems Websites:

Systems Thinking and Practice  and

Systems Thinking and Practice: Diagramming

Diagrams and Facilitation

The diagramming ideas are incredibly useful for helping you getting to grips with complex situations and can be particularly helpful to encourage dialogue, build shared understanding and tease out different perspectives from groups facing seemingly intractable problems. They should be part of any facilitator’s toolkit. [The Fifth Discipline Field Book by Peter Senge et al is also a very useful resource for facilitation techniques and I’ll return to this in a future posting]

Influence diagrams are fairly easy to produce and very useful for facilitating discussion. Producing the diagram encourages effective dialogue and this can be as, if not more valuable, than the diagram itself.Simplified Influence Diagram

Simplified Influence diagram for Selling Services

Influence diagrams highlight the interconnections between the various issues. By adding information on the direction of influence these can be developed into multiple cause diagrams  which can help you to identify reinforcing and self-sustaining loops.

Reinforcing loops, also known as virtuous or vicious circles (depending on whether they are positive) are often buried in the depths of real life issues. Self-sustaining loops tend to bring systems back to equilibrium and can sometimes explain why it appears to be impossible to effect change.

Peter Senge suggested a set of frequently recurring structures resulting from various combinations of Reinforcing and Balancing structures. These are often called archtypes: no doubt you will recognise these elements in some of the situations you come across.

Simplified Example for Coaching

The very simplified graphic below shows how two reinforcing loops [empowering and depowering circles] limit individual performance with a self-sustaining element of the notion of self-worth. This is an example of the “limits to success” archtype.

Empowering and De-powering circles in equilibrium To shift the balance between the two circles, the individual needs to develop a different perception of their own self-worth. The situation is naturally much more complicated than this as the causal loops (circles) are much more complex and the notion of “Self-worth” is itself part of a complex set of interactions. Nevertheless, this simplification can be of great help in coaching situations and can shift the focus from performance to beliefs, which can then be worked on.

Next Steps

This brief introduction has not even scratched the surface of the subject and if you would like to be pointed towards some additional sources of information on Systems and Systems Thinking, please let me know at jim@fulcrum-management.co.uk

Let us know if you’d like some help with systems thinking, facilitation or problem solving – call us today

Creative Thinking – get ahead by thinking differently

This is a follow-up post to: Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking

In some ways, creative thinking is the most critical of all of the thinking styles – if you don’t come up with something different from your competition, you’ll always be following in their footsteps. Creative thinking is about getting beyond the obvious,  seeing possibilities and generating options for success. As we have said elsewhere – however good the idea, it will only bear fruit if it is implemented so you do need to be able to switch into different thinking modes. [See Turning good ideas into effective action]

Creative thinking is a bit like that too, it is about selecting the right thinking mode at the right stage in the process as we will see later.

The term “creative” has been much misused and applied very narrowly: we are all creative, creative thinking can be applied to any industry and we all know [or once knew how to do it]. If you have ever seen children turning a few simple items into [imaginary] space ships, houses or fortresses  you will know what I mean. Somehow, it is educated out of us by the school and business systems [see Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk if you need any further evidence]

Creativity has a structure and you can apply processes and techniques to make it easier for you to generate new ideas. it needs effort and it needs to be taken seriously, it may be your only real competitive advantage. Most people jump to the obvious conclusion without really examining the issue they are trying to address [see the catalogue of stupid ideas and inane suggestions developed by candidates on the Apprentice for instance!]

Creative Problem Solving Cycle

I like to think of the problem solving process as a cycle which leads to better and better ideas and a better and better understanding of the issues the more times you go round the loop. It is usually better to have several “quick and dirty” cycles at the beginning rather than doing a lot of analysis. This also builds momentum and gets people involved.

Creative Problem Solving Cycle

Creative Problem Solving Cycle

Exploration

To stand any chance of solving any problem [if it is indeed solvable] you need to understand it thoroughly. That’s why you start with an exploration stage.

It would be a complete waste of time to come up with a fantastic solution to the wrong problem.

This means understanding the nature of the problem, its context and the standpoints of everyone who is involved. [Incidentally, some people feel that it is better to think of challenges rather than problems. If that works for them fine – I prefer to think that it is just a mindset issue and you might as well call it a “George”. The approach works just as well whatever you call your problem / issue / challenge …]

Generation

The next stage is to come up with some ideas – there are lots of techniques for this with brainstorming probably being the best known. The important issue here is to build on each other’s suggestions – “Yes and …” rather than “Yes but …”. You need to come up with as many and varied ideas as possible – quantity breeds quality. It is crucial that there is no judgement of the ideas at this stage as a seemingly unworkable approach could spark a better, more workable idea from one of the other participants.

Evaluation

Having generated lots of ideas, you will need to organise, cluster  and evaluate them to determine which are worthy of further development. Again, there are many techniques and approaches you can use. It can also be useful at this stage to return to the generation phase as the clustered, collated and reviewed ideas may well spark new thoughts.

Implementation

In early cycles, you are unlikely to actually put anything into action but it is a good idea to consider how you would put the ideas into practice. This will involve steps such as:

  • Stakeholder analysis – who supports, who is against, what are their views, what are they looking for.
  • Building a robust proposal – have you got the scope right, does it need extending or reducing, how will you market your ideas
  • Implementation planning – how will you move forward to take effective action, what are the steps …

Each of these steps has the potential of generating improved insights about the issues being addressed and may encourage further cycles through the process.

Current best solution

It is important to recognise that for most real life problems, there will never be an ideal solution, so what you leave the process with is the current best solution but at some point you need to take action.

There are two important implications of this:

  1. you may not be entirely satisfied with the outcome and
  2. someone may come up with an even better suggestion at a later date.

As we will discuss later in the Project Thinking stream, the desired outcome is the best solution by the required date – so don’t beat yourself up about it.

Divergent and Convergent Thinking Styles

An underlying theme here is that both divergent and convergent thinking styles are appropriate at different points in the cycle. Few people are equally adept at each style  and this should encourage you to get different people with different approaches, experiences and outlooks involved. Don’t worry if this leads to conflict and clashes, you need differences of opinion. The bigger risk is that everyone will think the same.

Convergent and Divergent Thinking

Appropriate thinking styles for each phase

Way forward

The creative thinking muscle needs exercise and the most important first step is to recognise when you are taking decisions without trying to find alternatives.

If you have only one option – you might as well be a robot: if you have two options, you have a dilemma: if you have more options, you have flexibility.

You need to find ways to get a more diverse group of people involved and it can be helpful to develop a toolkit of simple techniques to get you started – you can find more sophisticated approaches later if you need them.

Creative Problem Solving Toolkit

Creative Problem Solving Toolkit

If you would like a copy of my recommended basic toolkit and links to useful sources of information, please drop me an email at jim@fulcrum-management.co.uk

Stand well back – strategic thinking for success

This is a follow-up post to: Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking

January is a great time to do some strategic thinking [but then so is any time!].

To think strategically, you need to stand back, look at the big picture, see the business as a whole and take the medium to longer-term perspective. You need the wide-angle rather than the telephoto lens.

Successful Strategies

Robert Grant suggests that successful strategies are based on four key elements:

Elements of successful strategies

Elements of Successful Strategies

  1. Simple, clear, agreed objectives. If everyone is clear about what you are trying to achieve they should be able to work out how to help make it happen,
  2. A profound understanding of the competitive environment. If you understand what is going on in the world and how it may affect your business, you know who you are competing with and on what basis then you can work out what you need to do to succeed.
  3. An objective assessment of your resources and capabilities. If you understand whether you are fit enough to compete then you can work out how to exploit your advantages and set up approaches to improve where you have disadvantages.
  4. Effective Implementation. Having good ideas is of no value if you can’t put them into action. This was discussed in a couple of earlier blog posts [Turning good ideas into effective actionOne small step – from good idea to effective action .

Are you well equipped to develop and implement effective strategies? If not, what are you going to do to move forward? [If you are not moving forward, you are going backwards!]

Focus on the real issues

Most businesses need to do several things to move forward, but may find it difficult to work out what to focus on. There are many things which warrant attention and effective action requires focus on the things which really matter – developments inside or outside the business which have a significant effect on the organisation as a whole. They are likely to impact the business’s ability to meet its objectives or to compete effectively. These issues are also likely to require the application of significant amounts of money, time and effort and are often bound up in decisions which are not easy to reverse.

I like to think that most businesses will have between 3 and 7 [5 ± 2] issues of this type at any time [this matches recent thinking on the number of different things individuals can consciously focus on at the same time].

Strategic Issues and Relevant Questions

Strategic Issues and Relevant Questions

The graphic above suggests some questions you might find useful depending on the number of strategic issues you have.

Structure your issues

Many businesses think that they have many more than 7 issues to contend with. In most cases, however, this is due to a lack of structured thinking. Often it is easier to focus on the symptoms rather than the underlying disease. In these cases, structuring these issues can make it easier to see what the real issues are. This requires standing further back and taking a broader perspective.

Structuring Strategic Issues

Structuring Strategic Issues

Start with Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking will help you to understand the underlying issues and focus your attention on what really matters. Structuring strategic issues in this way can reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed and the associated levels of stress by making it easier to see where attention should be concentrated.

Strategic thinking is a key component of pivotal thinking and needs to be spread throughout the business if you are to be successful. It is arrogant to assume that only the top people in the business can have the best ideas on how to move the business forward. In many cases, your frontline staff will have a much better understanding of what is going on in the world and what your real strengths and weaknesses are – so involve them in the process.

It is very easy to be drawn into operational thinking and focus on the details of the business – this can easily become the default thinking process.

There are many approaches to strategy and plenty of theory to structure your thoughts but the most important first step is to use effective strategic thinking.

Work at it

Effective strategic thinking needs effort and regular attention, it does not come naturally to most people and must be worked at. The strategic thinking muscle responds well to regular exercise.

Project Thinking – not your usual 9-5!

This is the first of several postings on the issues and approaches that contribute to Project Thinking. It builds on the ideas in the “Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking” posting. This issue has gathered a lot of attention as have some related postings:

Turning good ideas into effective action and

One small step – from good idea to effective action

So, I am publishing this material rather earlier than I intended.

There but for fortune …

Managing projects is not the same as managing production! Projects are not continuous; they have a start and [hopefully] an end. You only get one roll of the dice. This means that you can follow best practice, have a great team and do a good job of managing the project but still get a poor outcome. Your efforts influence your chances of success but you cannot rely on chance to even things out.

Conversely, sometimes the worst organised and managed projects will succeed.

The trick is not to be disheartened by the first case or fooled by the second!

It’s not personal, it’s business

Often project managers forget that their project, however important it is to them, is a means to an end, the owners do not want the project; they only want the outcome, asset or capability. This means that you need to maintain a focus on the business objectives as well as the project objectives. A project that meets its internal goals without meeting the business objectives cannot be a success – it may become a “White Elephant”.

Project and Business Objectives Matrix

All change!

We live in a highly dynamic world today and the business environment can change very quickly, so keep the business objectives under frequent review. Things will change dramatically over the lifetime of most significant projects.

As discussed in earlier postings, it is crucial that everyone involved is doing the same project. Without agreement on aims, objectives and scope there can be no concerted effort and factional pressures will hamper progress.

Don’t forget the process

Similarly, project managers are likely to focus on the content of the project: what is to be delivered or developed. To manage effectively, it is also necessary to focus some attention on the process and the context. In structured project management environments, the preferred methodology may set the process but a wise PM will keep this under review and keep evaluating whether the default approach remains appropriate in the light of developments.

Project Thinking First Steps

So, the first element of project thinking is:

  • Think about risk and probability – there is no average
  • Focus on objectives
    • Project
    • Business
    • Bear in mind the rate of change in the business environment
    • Think about
      • Process
      • Context and
      • Content

Critical Thinking – First step to effective decisions

This is the first of the series of follow-up posts to Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking. This post covers Critical Thinking.

Let’s start with what we mean by critical: unfortunately, the word critical and the related idea of criticism have gained an implication of negativity – this is not helpful. Critical thinking is about getting beyond the obvious, adopting a probing, challenging and investigative stance, not taking the information provided at face value but looking at both the evidence and our thought processes objectively.

Often in business, as in other walks of life, information is assembled to justify decisions and stances adopted based on personal biases, cultural norms and “rules of thumb”. The “Ladder of Inference” originally proposed by Chris Argyris and developed by Peter Senge and his colleagues [The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook] illustrates how these biases can be built into our thinking.

Important decisions should be based on careful consideration of the needs, facts and situation.

One of the most accessible examples of the required process is that referred to in the original post, the film “12 Angry Men” – in which one Juror in a murder trial dissented from the views of his colleagues who wanted a swift guilty verdict.

The “obvious” conclusion.

Juror #8 [Played in the 1957  Sidney Lumet Film by Henry Fonda] was unconvinced of the defendant’s guilt and wanted to explore the evidence in more detail. He pressurised, cajoled and browbeat his fellow jurors into a comprehensive review of the evidence.

  • Could the elderly witness have really reached the top of the stairs to view the defendant’s exit?
  • Could the woman witness have really made an identification from distance, across a railway line without her spectacles?
  • Could the defendant have delivered the fatal blow given his stature relative to the victim?

He also brought into question the motives of his fellow jurors for making a rapid decision:

  • Tickets for a baseball game
  • A business to attend to
  • Escaping from the stifling heat of the jury room

Gradually all the jurors came round to the view that the young man was innocent of the murder and they returned a “not guilty” verdict.

This illustrates the power of a sceptical, challenging and probing approach and the willingness to confront your own biases, faulty thinking and ill-founded theories.

The approach is to:

  • Challenge assumptions
  • Scrutinise and test the validity of the evidence *
  • Examine the thinking processes

Applying this  to your business decisions will reap rewards.

You need to be particularly careful when there is apparent unanimity of thought without thorough discussion of the topic. I am reminded of Alfred P Sloan’s famous quote when confronted with such a situation in the boardroom of General Motors:

If we are all in agreement on the decision – then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.

Failure to engage in effective dialogue when considering important discussions is a route to “Groupthink” – but that is another story!

So don’t be afraid to force a critical approach, to encourage dialogue and to challenge the majority view. Play the “Devil’s Advocate” if necessary and bring in an independent facilitator if you feel it would help.

* The BBC and Open University joint production radio show “More or Less” is excellent at highlighting biases in the presentation of information and statistics.