Thinking About Thinking
My approach to the role of special advisor...
Thinking Is Your Edge
An obsession of mine is one missed by most in the relentlessness of business. Thinking is free. It comes at no cost whatsoever, except for a small mental exertion and the time and space required to do it. It amazes me – no, being honest, it shocks me – that leaders don’t take more time to think because the best ideas win the day. Every leader wants better marketing, better sales, better product development, better everything… But shouldn’t that also include better strategic, analytical and lateral thinking? Better ideas can change the trajectory of an entire enterprise. This is not a manifesto for prevarication. When we act, we should act swiftly and wholeheartedly. But that extra bit of thought – How best to act? – is transformative. And yet time and time again I watch leaders plough ahead without thinking through their thinking. I am here to help you do what you were going to do, only better. I am here to sharpen your edge.
So… Why Don’t People Think?
Not because they are lazy, that is for sure. Certainly not because they are stupid. In my experience, it is because they are busy. But more than this, they allow themselves to be bulldozed by events. They do not believe there is “Time” to stop and think - they do not see the false economy in not doing so. ...You don't have time to think? ...Really? What, there isn't an hour a week? To stop and reflect with another person? Reflections that I have seen open up new ideas and possibilities and opportunities and value? It is a fantasy to think the world would not keep turning without us. It certainly keeps turning when we pause to reflect.
Thinking In Isolation
I always tell my clients that, like a therapist, I can only work with what they bring to the table, but there are times when a client calls me from the car, talks at me, thinks out loud about an idea, then puts the phone down. I might have squeezed in a clarifying question, I might not. But those moments are priceless. Any leader knows the value of a trusted sounding board.
I studied Mental Philosophy at Edinburgh University in the 1990s. I chose philosophy because I am interested in thinking about thinking – and the practical application thereof. This fascination with how to think better, to see further, has stayed with me all my life. Even as my career passed through various stages, it was the lateral and non-lateral nature of strategic thinking in business that fascinated me the most. Institutional thinking is inevitable in all and any industries - whether we like it or not, our thinking becomes boxed in. By staying outside of those boxes for most of my life, I have been able to forge my own intellectual path. Not necessarily better, but certainly different.
How To Think
Take comedy. A joke is the coupling of two logical frameworks, the second upending the conventions of the first. For example, Why did the chicken cross the road? No-one knows… but the road will have its revenge! Like all jokes, it upsets expectations, the expectations day-to-day existence - inevitably and necessarily - hardwires into our brains. But writing comedy challenges that paradigm with creative destruction. It teaches a way of thinking that has stayed with me in business and in life. A methodology that breaks my reasoning outside of the framework we typically work within and allows me to look at problems with a unique perspective. It is why in writing we have the rule: “There are no bad ideas in a brainstorming session”, because you never know what idea will spark that great idea you were all reaching for. Conventional thinking means a lot of people miss out on those ideas.
The Best Ideas
Another discipline a lifetime of writing alongside business has taught me is to not be tempted by the first idea you have. Good enough is never good enough in writing (and it shouldn’t be!). Pixar - the makers of Toy Story, Monsters Inc., and so on - have a rule of thumb that it is the sixth or seventh idea that is generally the gold they are prospecting for. Squeezing that last bit of value from an idea is the goal, always, both in business and in writing. Obviously, it is not practical to sweat every idea to death, but certain ideas, certain moments, can make a huge difference, can be pivotal in any venture, and they are worth that extra bit of cogitation. And just to be very clear: when I work with leaders, I never expect to provide any answers – I don’t need to, they always know them. Always. But it is a huge satisfaction to work with them to reach their best thinking.
When I was running my business, I always used to joke that my problems were “90% personnel and 10% personnel,” such was my charm. But we all know that with the right team, we can do more than make Steve Jobs’ “dent in the universe,” we can make holes in it. Of course, even if we find that dream team – or, more often, whatever team it is we have – we have to be able to motivate them, work with them, and, on occasion, bend them to our will. As a writer of novels, all you think about is character. (People think it is plot, honestly, that is entirely secondary.) Character drives all situations and all outcomes – and that is true in business as well. My lifetime of reflection on What makes people tick? comes into play in business every single day (it is why some of my clients call me their ‘Business Therapist’). When I was running my business, my team always gave me 110%. It made the difference between success and failure. Leaders often use me to think out loud about the characters they work with and how they can negotiate those relationships. And, as they should, they want to think about the main character in all of this – their own.
Thinking Is Fun
How many CEOs does it take to change a lightbulb? One, because if you want a job done around here…
My personal philosophy has hardwired me to be an optimist, to have fun in everything I do. Business can and should be fun – we only live once. As much as anything, I always want to leave the leaders I work with feeling more buoyed than when I arrived.
It’s tough making holes in the universe - so let’s have fun doing it!