Friday, 21 November 2014


When it comes to creative thinking most of us get blocked by inner voices asking “what if?” or posing the question “just suppose x happens...” The fear of rejection looms larger than the anticipation of success and so long as it does we are driving our creativity with the handbrake on.

And here’s the hardest question of all that I once saw – “if whatever you decide to do next could not fail what would that be?”  The terrifying thing is you have things like “create world peace” and “end of all disease” to beat and then you wonder whether either of those might have an explosive impact on  population growth so terrible that the expression “be careful what you wish for” would come home to roost rather smugly. Creativity needs a bit of grit in the oyster to achieve really great results. Human beings handle perfection uneasily.

In fact most people are lacking in confidence when it comes to creative thinking. They think they are reasonably intelligent but weak at creativity. In self-assessment tests respondents scored themselves at 7/10 for intelligence but only at 4.5/10 for creativity. In removing the most obvious blocks we have to realise that our brain has a habit of lying to us. Yes inside our heads is a congenital fibber.

In research tests where people are asked to solve a problem involving moving a weight from position A to position B and the answer is to swing the weight on a rope pendulum (an obvious solution once seen) they will deny having had any help to get there despite the questioner brushing the rope and giving strong hints.

Yes, I’m sorry to say the creative muscle in our head tells great whoppers. It’s also a brilliant film editor cutting and editing our memory so our “honest” recollection of history is (how shall I put it?) especially favourable to us. We are heroes in our own memories. We are tolerant, kind and liberal. By the way if you want to find out what you really are deep down try the “Implicit Association Test” (‎). You may be a little surprised.

Creativity is massively impeded if we meet a cynic. There are a variety of terrible expressions cynics have mastered which act like a right hook on our ability to think lucidly, imaginatively and come up with ideas:

 “Well, anyway…”, “in the meantime…”, “mind you…”, “let me think about it”… (that means “no” in plain English), “suppose for the sake of argument…”, “with the greatest respect”…, “that’s all very well but…

Assumptions stifle creativity; assumptions that our ideas won’t meet approval, that the audience won’t laugh or assumptions that the worst will happen.  This also happens in institutionalised bureaucracies where the assumption exists that creativity is a bit flippant and “not for us.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson

Thursday, 20 November 2014


We know how important our emotions are - that our instincts are the powerful engine of our thinking. We think we are coldly rational whilst it’s our intuition in charge.  This makes for a more interesting but less predictable life. Decisions are reached by our working hard trying to get emotions and logic aligned. But here’s what’s really going on.

Our sub-conscious is making the decision that is fed to our conscious and there’s a time lag of ½ second between the two (Benjamin Libet started this work at the University of California over 50 years ago). This suggests that when this happens the decision we are seeking arrives in our mind (unannounced as it were). So we’d do well to think “let’s question again whether this is the right or the only decision.” In other words rigorously question ourselves.

A key to good thinking is always going to be to strengthen our resistance to taking our own feelings for granted. Trust your gut but then say: “hang on…can I find a better solution…is this necessarily the best and only decision?” Never dismiss first impressions but park them as a useful start and then re-examine all the data you can. Life needn’t be a lottery if you’re smart (but don’t tell Camelot that).

When we’ve decided what we need to do we still have to carry others with us. Marketing our decisions is the really hard bit, much, much harder than making the decision itself.

Because a decision isn’t going to be a real decision until it gets buy-in.

Emotion drives decisions. Emotion conditions receiving decisions. This is why presentation matters. How you wrap up a present says how much you care. How you deliver a message is critical to how it’s heard.

if a surgeon tells you either that a given procedure gives you a 10% chance of dying or tells you that it gives you a 90% chance of surviving (and rationally you know that these are exactly the same thing) the chancGeorge Bush, es are you’ll see the latter option as being much superior. (And, unsurprising, in research the comparative approval scores are respectively 50% and 84%.)

Not everyone thinks making decisions is that hard. Here’s what George Bush said: “I don’t spend a lot of time taking polls around the world to tell me what I think is the right way to act. I’ve just got to know how I feel.

I hope, if nothing else, that remark underlines just how important rigorous thinking really is when making decisions. Emotion is fine. Trust your gut. Yeah but shucks there must be more to the most important job in the world than that.
Richard Hall's book "How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions"

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson

Wednesday, 19 November 2014


A good friend, adventurer and guru of the human soul, John Scott, sent me a book he thought I’d like, the sort of question-asking book that has you exasperated, excited and being turned into a compulsive liar.
Sorry….my diary is packed today …maybe tomorrow” Well it was packed, packed with the story of Mae and the Circle.

Let’s talk about the author Dave Eggers. He wrote “A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius” aged 21 and with the proceeds set up a non-profit writing and tutoring centre for kids ages 6–18 in San Francisco. He set it up as a pirate shop selling pieces of eight, peg legs, and pirate impedimenta. Already you have to love this guy.

And so to “The Circle” which is a remorselessly involving story of a dystopian world. Think Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” meets Facebook. I’m not, I think, alone in speculating about growing older in a society where not being an inveterate Tweeter and user of Tumblr is to make one as socially inept as not having a phone.

Judged out of touch and incompetent, we’re a generation of two fingered typists who haven’t heard of One Direction let alone Pitbull and DJSnake.

Mae gets a prized job at the Circle, a multifaceted corporation that’s a cross between Amazon, Google, Facebook and Enron.  Life on the campus is a re-enactment of the best of university life added to living in the heart of downtown San Francisco (a nearby city) with the best chefs and music groups in constant, suppliant attendance so influential has the Circle become.

Her journey is one from a newbie in customer service, where she excels, to becoming the voice of the organisation. Life is busy on-line and offline but mostly the book deals with and dramatizes the claustrophobia that a perfectly engineered social existence would become.
The importance of the book described as follows by the critics:

Prescient, important and very funny” (The Guardian),
Witty and troubling” (The Washington Post),
A timely warning of of the perils of the internet age” (The Sunday Telegraph),
Prescient and scary” (The Times).

Take an idea and apply the principle of “reductio ad absurdam” and you create the Circle. But the scary bit is Eggers manages to get the reader from time to time to agree with deluded Mae. It also seemed weirdly true to life.

Unlike “The Hunger Games “which depicts another more violent vision of the future this has the protagonist not a victim, for once, but in control of her destiny. She applies teenage logic to the complexities of life. The results are populist and chilling.

By the way if you want a great send up of HR read it now. It’s compelling satire.

We could end up like this but not if we’re thoughtful and critical about technology. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean that it’s right. And just because progress seems seductive it doesn’t follow that the end justifies the means.

Still…read it and worry.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014


I wish I’d known all these earlier in my career. Decision making which varied from the timorous to crassly rash could have been avoided.

Avoid thinking like an ass. An ass was dying in the desert equidistant from food and water. Unable to decide which way to go to satisfy his needs he died. If you know that you have to make a decision and it’s a 50:50 choice about what to do, assess both options and then make a decision. Do not be an ass.

Avoid making up your mind prematurely. The single most common cause of bad decisions is deciding what to do before hearing all of the evidence. It’s hard to resist as our instincts are at work before we are even aware of it. Listen to what the whole story is first.

Avoid inappropriate prevarication. “Stop and think” is good advice. But in a crisis or if you’re in the middle of a motorway with traffic hurtling towards you, rely on your instincts, trust your gut and get a move on.

Avoid being that man in the ivory tower. Do not decide without conferring from others if you want good results from those around you.

Don’t be a dictator. The Duke of Wellington, who led the British Army at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 became Prime Minister 13 years later. Asked by a friend after his first cabinet meeting how it had gone he said:-  “Extraordinary thing but I gave them their orders and they wanted to sit around and discuss them.” The day of the autocrat is over.

Avoid being hungry. As a young man Daniel Kahneman worked in Israel with the Israel Parole Court. He found judges were more likely to allow parole after lunch than before they’d eaten. So do not make big decisions on an empty stomach.

Avoid small numbers. The use of anecdote and small samples “The law of small numbers” is bad practice.  How often in the middle of a seriously argued case will you hear someone who’s otherwise very sensible say “well that’s all very well but I recently saw…”?

Avoid being smug about success. Success can confuse thinking and decision making. We remember when we made a great call that really paid off. We always (being human) want to repeat that.

Avoid reducing your chances. Making decisions when you are very tired, jet lagged, drunk or are working in a foreign language is best avoided

Avoid shortcuts, sleeping on the job and short changing – the brain has a brilliant way of taking the easy way out. By:

  • Asking ourselves a different,  easier question
  • Or moving on to something we like doing not this difficult thing
  • Or going  into mental hibernation like  “I’ll sleep on it”
  • Or failing to look hard enough. Magicians rely on our faulty eyesight. We see pretty clearly dead in front of us – things that are in the spotlight – but there’s darkness on the periphery of our vision.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work)
published by Pearson

Monday, 17 November 2014


Everyone is talking about “Big Data.” It’s transforming the way we think and analyse stuff. We have discovered that correlation has become more important than causality. That what happens is more important than why it happens. The book by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier published last year - “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think” is highly recommended.

We know the increase of information is accelerating. For instance all the information and data that currently exists will double in the next three years. With more information we need less exactness. Nowadays the equation 2+2= 3.9 is good enough. We don’t need to be exact if we can see the big

Today social media and CCTV may be more useful research tools than anything else we have. Google Translate has extraordinarily proved to be the best translation service around. The software uses “corpus linguistics” techniques, where the programme "learns" from professionally translated documents, specifically UN and European Parliament proceedings but increasingly from all kinds of documentation – lots and lots of sources – big, big data. (In passing how it is nice that the forest of paper produced by the UN and EU can go to such good use.)

Intriguingly they say the service improved since the linguists they’d hired when they started up (well you would want linguists in a translation service wouldn’t you?) left the business because they wanted linguistic perfection whereas this being a product of big data is not that subtle. This is one of the few examples I’ve come across where big trumps clever.

The existence of robust data obviating the need for the tabloid use of anecdote allows us to spend more time using our brains to think rather than using them as pickaxes to mine for information. Anyone who tells you that guessing is more fun than knowing hasn’t come across the thrill of irrefutable information.

Its application is critical in the medical field where the speed of big data via social media allows a disease to be detected before it becomes an epidemic (and because detected early it can never become a pandemic.) We hear less about avian flu today in part thanks to big data.

So the big data  boom is happening and we have however sufficient glimpses of the future to see we’ll be doing less intellectual “grunt-work” in the future and more intellectual “stunt-work”.
To be sure there can and will be issues of data protection that arise from increasing access to data but the excitement lies in big data allowing us the freedom to think more clearly.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson

Wednesday, 12 November 2014


Most of us find it really hard to change our minds once we’ve come to a conclusion even when events seem to suggest we might have got it wrong. It simply goes against our psychological grain. Deep down we’ve invested too much time and effort championing an idea or point of view to lightly discard it.  

Well, try this if you’re stuck in your opinion. John Maynard Keynes, the iconic economist, asked “when circumstances change I change my mind. What do you do?

Another good tip to help open your mind and broaden your thinking is for you to see how easy it would be for you to change your mind about something you believe in. I recently heard a story about the late William Rees-Mogg, a man with a brilliant mind who edited the Times a long time ago. He said that he thought, no he was convinced that a given Times leader should say “x”. When politely told that his grasp of the facts were shaky and that in fact “y” was the case, he said, without pausing for breath - “quite so, which is why we must espouse the cause of “y” for the following reasons”.

Now that response is open-minded, flexible and extraordinarily clever (although some might say cynical).
The human race when it feels well informed tends to overconfidence which leads us to nearly all the economic crises we have. It’s overconfidence not greed that’s the enemy of the bank balance.

We tend to forecast boldly but make timid decisions.  Think about this the next time you are sitting in front of your forecast spreadsheet. Most of all think this – does my plan match my hopes, expectations and (most importantly) my resources. I bet it doesn’t.

And finally reserve you hardest questions and spirit of scepticism for those regarded as most clever. Often the cleverest are the most intractable. Iain Martin is a political commentator, and a former editor of The Scotsman and former deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph. He is the author of” Making It Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS and the men who blew up the British economy”. It has the immortal line in it:  ”the assumption was that the ‘new thinking’ made the world safer because it had originated from such clever people.

In a messy, paradoxical world, nimble mindedness matters more than ever.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson is coming out on November 12th 2014.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson is coming out on November 12th 2014

Tuesday, 11 November 2014


Today our memory is on our iPad or smartphone. Today children at school are not taught to memorise things. Today we’ve forgotten about our memory (how ironic is that?) Yet memory today is still a vital thinking tool.

Joshua Foer is a journalist and writer (“Moonwalking with Einstein: the art and science of remembering everything” is the book he wrote). He became interested in memory and especially the feats of memory some achieve in remembering hundreds of numbers in sequence or the cards in several packs of cards.

So he visited the USA Memory Championship where his interest deepened. So much so that in 2006, just out of interest, he trained for and entered the championship.…and he won it. Jonathan Foer became US Memory Champion almost by chance. How? In his book he explains how techniques invented 2,500 years ago still work today.

In around 500 BC the Greek lyric poet Simonides had a wonderful memory.  During the excavation of the rubble of one Scopas' dining hall that had collapsed in an earthquake, Simonides (who’d luckily left before the disaster) was asked to identify each guest killed. Although their bodies had been crushed beyond recognition he successfully finished the task by remembering who was who from their positions at the table before his departure. He used what became known as  the 'memory palace', a system for mnemonics widely used until the Renaissance …when things we needed to remember were printed so our memories weren’t called on with quite the previous urgency.

Imagine a lawyer who can’t cross reference relevant cases. Imagine a writer who couldn’t remember the references that enrich his assertions. You cannot busk when you have poor memory. And in business you occasionally need that memory-friend to remind you of a piece of evidence or of something that needs doing.
One of our biggest problems is that our mind attic is stacked full of rubbish that we don’t need. So, in specific areas we really want to focus on, we need to do a “Spring Clean”. Learn some stuff by heart, put some structure around a subject in which we have a keen interest and see what happens.

Look after this, one of our precious assets. Having a good memory makes us so much more efficient, impressive and productive.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson is coming out on November 12th2014.