How well do you think?
There’s thinking and there’s thinking …
Doing what you’ve always done
Old Farmer McDonald’s animals used to shelter in the old barn in the corner of their field when the weather was bad, but it was getting old and leaked badly. So old McDonald pulled down the old barn and built a fine new one in a different corner of the field. A few nights later there was a rough storm and old McDonald got up to check that his animals were all right. To his surprise he found the new barn quite empty. Using his flashlight he caught a glimpse of the old pile of remnants of the old barn, and there were all his animals, huddled miserably beside it (thank you Gene Rooney via Suzie Smith for the story).
Shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted
When the Irish troubles were at their height and the IRA were threatening London (I beg you to remember those days, you buccaneering Brexiteers!), an IRA bomb secreted into the Tower of London – presumably in a “tourist’s” bag – caused many injuries and one death. About this time I used to take visitors to the Tower on a regular basis, and for months and years after the bomb blast tourists used to have to queue while officials implemented their new safety measure – to search every bag. Only bags though. You could have arrived wearing a huge coat with ample pockets like Fagin in Oliver Twist and they would still check only your bag.
The law of unintended consequences
Several years ago, the government brought in a new inducement for schools. Those that achieved good results were to be given extra funding. Those that did less well would be denied funding. As suspected by many, the thriving schools continued to improve and increase in student numbers, thus attracting further funding, while the schools denied funding declined even further and often ended up in special measures. “You could see it coming,” commented a teacher friend wryly. Not put off by the negative results of such a scheme, our current government has offered extra funding to hospitals that succeed in balancing their books. The hospitals in more needy areas that fail to balance the books are denied this extra funding, which of course makes it even harder for them to balance the books the next year, creating a continuous declining spiral.
Throwing out the baby with the bath water.
A farmer had a problem with pest insects eating the crops. She invested in some pesticide and – easy-peasy – no more pests. Only that isn’t what happened. The pests increased, and the more she sprayed the more the number of pests increased. This is because the pesticide was killing some of the problem pests, but also killing an even bigger amount of useful insects that would have eaten those problem pests. Moreover, her crops gradually became resistant to the pesticide, which necessitated a higher dose; and she and her family got sick when they ate the contaminated crops. In addition the local groundwater became polluted. One problem solved and ten new ones created.
These anecdotes are all examples of linear thinking – from cause to effect; from problem to solution. It’s the kind of thinking that was positively encouraged in education when school exams began to include a large proportion of tick box answers. Problem à one correct solution. Sorted.
Such linear methods are not just one but two levels below the kind of thinking that’s always been needed and never more than today. With linear thinking we make interventions in the world that are ineffective, inefficient, or have an array of unintended, perverse outcomes.
One level up would be two-dimensional thinking, where there is some sense of a map, with the idea that intervention A causes effect B as intended, but also causes effects C, D and E, each of which needs examination and resolution. More a chess kind of thinking, which robots have learned to perform quite efficiently.
Two levels up would be three-dimensional thinking, illustrated by a globe, where an intervention in any part of the globe creates disturbances in other parts of the globe that in turn affect other different parts of the globe and so on in increasingly complex patterns. Thus, intervention A causes expected effect B, which causes anticipated effects C and D plus unanticipated effects E, F and G, all of which then cause numerous supplementary effects negative and positive, each of which causes other effects and on and on. One example of this is the butterfly effect, where a butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico may cause a hurricane in China.
Having written so far, I reflect on the difficulties of working with such complex influences and ask myself what on earth any of us can do that’s useful in the circumstances. I’m helped as often by serendipity – in the shape of this morning’s Desert Island Discs interviewee, Dame Manouche Shafik.
Dame Manouche Shafik
Manouche Shafik is the product of a loving home and a challenging childhood, a pretty good recipe for high achievement. When she was four, her well-to-do Egyptian family lost everything in President Nasser’s nationalisation programme and fled Egypt to start again from scratch in the United States. She became the youngest vice principal of the World Bank and Deputy Governor of the Bank of England before moving to her current position as Director of the London School of Economics.
What are her thoughts on thinking and decision-making?
- There’s never just one answer to a problem.
Civil servants and politicians need to look at an array of options and the costs and benefits of each – i.e. consider babies and bath water, unintended consequences and the rest… three-dimensional thinking.
- We need to help the public recognise the difference between expert (3-dimensional) thinking and opinion.
Experts’ work is backed by the rigours of peer review, the publication of relevant data and a declaration of conflicts of interest, whereas opinions on social media are completely unsupported.
- Experts need to be able to explain their views clearly and simply. Manouche Shafik with her colleagues at the Bank of England studied children’s writer Dr/ Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat in a push to make their communications more succinct and understandable for the general public! As Steve Jobs said, ” Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there you can move mountains.”
- There’s always an element of uncertainty.
So humility is always a good thing. Beware people who are 100% certain!
Quite a useful list for any of us. It reminds me that there’s no point in shouting the views of my favourite newspaper against the views of someone else’s, and no point in putting my view more stridently than anyone else’s. That’s today’s political game, and to prevail we need a different strategy based on well-supported data. It means thinking better and teaching our children to think well. It has to include thinking from others’ point of view with emotional intelligence, thinking on different levels including time perspectives and decision-making that’s value-based as well as logic-based.
Elements of Good Thinking
Here’s my resultant checklist for good thinking:
- Look at the issue within a larger context – the big picture
- Look at the issue from the points of view of other people involved
- Examine it from a future perspective, and from past experience.
- Decide what matters – what really matters – in considering the issue.
- Take time out to allow time for deeper intuition to surface.
- Don’t insist on being right. There’s always more.
Whether you’re a leader, manager, consultant, coach, teacher or mentor – if you think better than others you hold the trump card … (Well, you know what I mean – not the same meaning as in to trump something up, which signifies to invent, fabricate, concoct, fake, cook up … funny that …).
Let’s celebrate our intelligent thinkers. Here’s a challenge. Who are the good thinkers of our day? In academia? In politics? In business? What’s your view? Let’s promote them! Who would you put forward?
Winnie the Pooh’s thinking on thinking
(with thanks to A.A. Milne)
“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”
“Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits…”
The Art of Conversation
What an important topic! Conversational skill isn’t really about being articulate and having a fund of things to talk about – though that’s what most books on the subject would suggest. It’s more about being at ease with who you are and knowing how to connect with others. Only then do you have authentic and satisfying conversations.
Butterflies and Sweaty Palms
This is a book about performance anxiety – offering 25 different strategies to perform with confidence. But it’s not just about presenting and performing – you’ll find its ideas useful for eliminating anxiety throughout your life.
Voice and Speaking Skills for Dummies
The perfect resource to discover the power of your voice, understand how it works and use it like a professional, whether in meetings, addressing an audience, or standing in front of a classroom.
Voice of Influence
“The body language of sound”. Like body language, your voice gives you away. Find your authentic voice, speak powerfully and influentially, and reach people on a deeper level.
What holds you back? You might think that your own particular set of difficulties, setbacks and doubts don’t fit any coaching model. But you’d be surprised how a simple conversation with a coach helps you to get rid of obstacles and move forward to what you really want from life. Six months from now you’ll be saying, as other have, I don’t know why I didn’t do it years ago! Email me or call on 01306 886114 if you want an initial conversation about what coaching might do for you. Coaching can take place face-to-face or via Skype or phone.
It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Do you realise what an amazing potential resource you have in your voice? How you come across depends on your voice and how you use your body AND your breath. Self-consciousness is the grand saboteur. You’ll experience positive results after even a single coaching session. Email me or call me on 01306 886114.
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