Thinking Tools #9 – Avoiding the ‘we have always done it that way’ trap

Thinking Tools #9 – Avoiding the ‘we have always done it that way’ trap

Growing up we were told a story.

Every Christmas a woman would cut the leg off the turkey before putting it into a very large oven. 

When asked why she took the leg off, she said: “It is the way my mother taught me”. She had never questioned it. In her mind, this was just a normal part of cooking a turkey.

The woman’s mother had a small oven, and so needed to cut the leg of the turkey off so it would fit inside. Her daughter did not. 

In our work it also helps to understand the reasons why people do things rather than just focusing on what they do.

Yet again, Shane Parrish has surfaced some useful thinking skills in his book Great Mental Models v1.

 

“First principles thinking helps us avoid the problem of relying on someone else’s tactics without understanding the rationale behind them”

 

This week I am focusing on two ideas that help us use first principles thinking, both to do with asking great questions. 

The first technique is Socratic questioning 

This technique is useful for us both as we craft our communication and as we evaluate it, or potentially evaluate other peoples’ communication. Shane offers six questions for us to use:

  1. Clarifying your thinking and explaining the origins of your ideas. He suggests asking two questions: Why do I think this? What exactly do I think? In Clarity First we focus intently on these two questions, and particularly on articulating what we do think so we can explain that to our audience in short order.
  2. Challenging assumptions. How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite? These are two great questions to use to ‘freshen up our eyes’ so we can see through the substance of our communication rather than just the superficial presentation.
  3. Looking for evidence. How can I back this up? What are the sources? Again, this is something we focus on in Clarity First. We offer specific strategies to help participants test their ideas and the way they are ‘strung together’ to form a coherent piece of communication.
  4. Considering alternative perspectives. What might others think? How do I know I am correct? The way we recommend participants socialise their communication with key stakeholders addresses this point.
  5. Examining consequences and implications. What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am? Terrific questions to ask yourself when preparing high stakes communication in particular.
  6. Questioning the original questions. Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from the reasoning process? If we are talking about first principles, these last three questions are gold for those who want to stop relying on their gut and limit emotive responses.
Second: The Five Why’s method

If you have ever had much to do with young children, you will know where this has come from! 

We use this technique specifically when clarifying the purpose of our communication. It is about systematically delving into your purpose statement so you can eradicate inaccurate assumptions.

Are you sure you are going to achieve ABC with that specific piece of communication, or that one particular interaction?

We encourage participants to spend the time to become super clear about this as this single statement (which does not even appear in their communication) is key to cutting the number of revisions they will make after drafting. 

I hope you find that useful and look forward to sharing more ideas with you next week.

Davina

 

Related posts include:

 Past posts from this series …  

  1. A fabulous thinking tool to help you solve problems and communicate 
  2. Further thinking tools
  3. Thinking Tools #3 – Using inversions to identify gaps in our thinking
  4. Thinking Tools #4 – Getting out of your own way 
  5. Thinking Tools #5 – Avoiding Blind Spots
  6. Thinking Tools #6 – How to have a latticework of theory
  7. Thinking Tools #7 – Avoiding becoming a tragic tale  
  8. Thinking Tools #8 – How corporate templates can frustrate clarity 

PS – Our new kit for ‘pitching your manager' is now available. It includes an updated program brochure as well as a script you may like to cut and paste into your email or use to guide your conversation with your manager. Click here to learn more.

PPS – I receive a small commission if you click the link and decide to purchase a copy of Shane's book from Amazon.

 

Key words: critical thinking, thinking tools, design your strategy

 

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong. She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia.

Her clients include mid to upper level experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

The power of ‘why’ in getting more done quickly

The power of ‘why’ in getting more done quickly

This is what happened to Chad.

Chad is a software developer at a trading firm.

Although fluent, English is his second language and this makes him nervous about his communication abilities.

He has also had feedback that his communication can be too aggressive, which has heightened his anxiety.

However, when I meet with him I find a warm, engaging and enthusiastic person who does not seem the least bit aggressive.

So, what is going on here?

To illustrate, I will first outline the situation that led to a lengthy and frustrating email chain, then offer our before and after emails before offering two questions you can ask to avoid putting yourself in Chad’s position.

The situation that led to a lengthy and frustrating email chain

When Chad and I worked through an email chain between him and some overseas colleagues, the issue slowly became apparent.

His communication was polite and detailed.

But it missed one critical ingredient.

Instead of explaining why something needed to be done, he jumped straight into how the overseas colleagues needed to do it.

This, in turn, led to a ten-email chain debating the details of the task, with a heavy overtone of ‘do it yourself’ from the overseas team.

Let's have a deeper look at the issue by reviewing the original email and an alternative.

Our before and after emails

Even though the information is technical, I think you’ll see what I mean when I show you the original (sanitised) ‘so what’ message versus the revised one:

Original – We need your help to come up with the implementation that supports System A in filtering the symbols and foreignID.

Revised – Given our own ABC filtering mechanism leads to a configuration that is hard to maintain, we need your help to implement ‘System A’ in filtering the symbols and foreignID.

Interestingly, the rest of the email changed dramatically too. 

It no longer consisted of a list of reasons why the suggestions from the overseas team were wrong, it included a list of reasons why he needed their help.

On reflection, he decided that if he had drafted this email in the first place the whole chain of about 10 emails would have been avoided.

And the problem would have been fixed much sooner.

So, how to avoid this happening to you?

Two questions to ask to avoid putting yourself in Chad’s position

This experience raises an important issue for me that I hope will help you also.

Before ‘smashing out' your next email request ask yourself these two questions so you are sure about your audience's situation:

  1. Are we certain that the people we are asking to help us know why we need their help, not just how we want them to help?
  2. How much time would we get back each week if we routinely slowed down and stopped to think about our audience's situation before we hit send?

I hope that helps.

Have a wonderful week.
Davina

Keywords: strategy, emails, ESL

 

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong. She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia.

Her clients include mid to upper level experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

Hacks for becoming more strategic

Hacks for becoming more strategic

I am usually not a fan of completing audits.

Keeping records of minutiae has never been my strength.

But, wow.

Even though I have by no means kept a perfect record of what I have been up to over the past couple of weeks, the insights have been powerful.

They have certainly helped me get out of the weeds so I can become clearer about ways – to quote today's interview guest – multiply my impact.

Richard Medcalf of Xquadrant specialises in helping successful people magnify their impact.

He offers a number of terrific ideas including how to:

  • Harness your curiousity to increase your influence
  • Lead strategically when there is already too much to do
  • Use a concept called prisons and fortresses to make sure you get to the things that really matter

And plenty more too.

>> Click here to access the interview as well as some other practical takeaways, including a checklist to help you lead strategically when there is already too much to do.

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong. She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia.

Her clients include mid to upper level experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

Do facts change minds?

Do facts change minds?

Changing other peoples' minds is central to having influence in business, however in his new book Atomic Habits James Clear offers some new insight into this vexing challenge.

He starts by referring to two notable minds which point in the same direction:

J.K. Galbraith once wrote, “Faced with a choice between changing one's mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy with the proof.”

So true.

Leo Tolstoy who was even bolder: “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.” I hunch women behave similarly!

So, if that is also true, how do we get any kind of progress in business?

We must frequently persuade people to change how they think about things and, even harder, get them to change their behaviour.

Here are six suggestions from James's new book to help in that regard:

Understand why we hold our tongues when we know something is not true. He claims we don't always believe things because they are correct, but rather because they make us look good to people we care about it. This speaks to the power of the reward we all get from belonging to a tribe.

Focus on friendship first, and facts second. Given this tribal nature, he suggests that people will hold onto false beliefs long and hard if that means they can sustain their membership of a group that matters to them. So, finding a way to engage people in a new idea, a new process or a new behaviour is best achieved when you have already built a relationship and when you can frame it in such a way that adds to rather than contradicts the beliefs of the community that people belong to.

Find areas of agreement and build on those. If someone you know, like and trust believes a radical idea you are more likely to give it merit. After all, if you like them already, there is a greater chance of liking their ideas. So, use this to your advantage. Find your . friends who also have strong relationships with the people who disagree with you, and engage them in your ideas first.

Where disagreement is likely, find a way to introduce the ideas without confrontation. Interestingly, James suggests providing people with something to read – he suggests a book, but in a business context a report or paper might do – rather than going first for a conversation. This provides people with an opportunity to absorb and reflect on the ideas in private so they can incorporate the information into their own view before having a potentially courageous conversation from scratch. In sum, warm them up gently.

Avoid giving people opportunities to complain about things they don't like. This gives them an opportunity to talk about – and reinforce – their dislike for an idea, giving it more airtime than it deserves. James calls this Clear's Law of Recurrence: the more often something gets mentioned (even in a negative way) the more it is embedded into the psyche of the speaker and the listener. After all, how much air time does Donald Trump get? Instead, spend your time championing good ideas so they get the airtime they deserve and the others fade away from lack of oxygen.

Be kind first and right later. Here he quotes the brilliant Japanese writer Haruki Murakami who once wrote, “Always remember that to argue, and win, is to break down the reality of the person you are arguing against. It is painful to lose your reality, so be kind, even if you are right.” Enough said.

Click here to read the full article. And, no, I don't get anything from James Clear for blogging about his article. I just like what he says and thought you might too.

Keywords: design your strategy, leadership communication, learning and development

 

Please note, this post contains Amazon affiliate links, and as an Amazon Associate I earn a small amount from qualifying purchases. This helps me cover the costs of delivering my free content to you.

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong. She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia.

Her clients include mid to upper level experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

Kurt Vonnegut had some great things to say about patterns that are relevant in business

Kurt Vonnegut had some great things to say about patterns that are relevant in business

I found something wonderfully useful this week that I wanted to share with you.
Revered American writer Kurt Vonnegut penned these seven storytelling tips that reinforce not only what a wonderful writer he was but also that it is possible to communicate complex ideas while remaining deceptively simple.
As a structured thinking fan, I love the humour and simplicity of his gutsy list of seven parallel ideas.
He recommends that when writing we focus on seven simple things

  1. Find a subject that we care about
  2. Avoid rambling
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Have the guts to cut
  5. Sound like ourselves
  6. Say what we mean to say
  7. Pity the readers

While he's not providing you with a way to achieve these seven things, they are useful reminders of what we need to do. Here are some places you can go to learn more:

  • Watch this short slideshow fleshing out Vonnegut's points further
  • Download these clarity checklists to learn more about the missing structure element
  • Watch out for our book, The So What Strategy, which will be published soon

So, which structure was that? …. Click here to learn more.

As always, feel free to email us at hello@claritycollege.co if you have any clarity questions that we could help you answer.

Regards,
Davina Stanley

Keywords: design your strategy

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong. She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia.

Her clients include mid to upper level experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

Ironically, writers need to educate readers about what ‘reader-focused’ means

Ironically, writers need to educate readers about what ‘reader-focused’ means

The Minto Pyramid Principle is a widely lauded approach for preparing clearer business reports.

Developed by a McKinsey & Company team led by Barbara Minto in the 1960s, ‘pyramid’ helps people use logic and structure to organise their ideas into a logical and coherent reader-focused argument.

At Clarity First we love this approach.

It enables us to think top down, draw out insights quickly and communicate complex ideas clearly.

However, despite much evidence from our own work and its popularity across consulting and business strategy teams in particular, very little formal research has been undertaken into its actual effectiveness.

Perhaps it was enough to say “It’s McKinsey: It’s good”.

However, Dr Louise Cornelis (another ex-McKinsey communication specialist) recently changed this when working with a series of Masters’ students at Groningen University in Holland.

She undertook a qualitative study to understand whether preparing a business report using a ‘top-down, reader-focused pyramid structure’ was actually helpful to the reader.

Dr Cornelis’ findings demonstrate some irony.

Writers and readers don’t always agree on what is ‘reader-focused’ unless the writer first educates the reader about what ‘reader-focused’ actually means.

Here is why that seems to be true.

#1 – Audiences are hard wired into their old habits

It seems that our readers are hard-wired into what they expect and can be confused by a new way of doing things unless it is explained to them.

In the case of business reports, many people are accustomed to receiving reports written with titles such as ‘Executive Summary’, ‘Background’, ‘Issues’ and a ‘Conclusion’ at the end and are quite lost when these are absent.

They can be confused by Pyramid reports that ignore these section titles, preferring to instead have customized titles that reflect the content of the report: a bit like newspaper headlines.

#2 – Consultants and others using the approach often forget to explain how their approach works

When, however, the approach is explained they not only like the Pyramid Principle approach much better, but can read the documents significantly more quickly.

Readers who were provided with a short description of the structure before reading the documents were able to grasp the main message from a document almost five times faster than those with no preparatory explanation.

Dr Cornelis found that people very much appreciated the Pyramid Principle report-writing approach but only when they understood what it was trying to do.

So the next time have a good idea: remember to ensure your significant others understand the benefit, even when the idea is specifically for the them.

 

 

Keywords: design your strategy, develop your storyline, research

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Louise Cornelis is a communication consultant based in Rotterdam. Louise specialises in helping her clients use structure and logic to communicate clearly, having learned her craft at McKinsey & Company and honed it by working with a wide range of clients since.

She particularly enjoys grappling with complex challenges that relate to helping others not only communicate clearly, but want to do so. The Clarity First team very much enjoys thinking about these challenges in collaboration with Louise.

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong. She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia.

Her clients include mid to upper level experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US.