What does it mean to be good at thinking? Or more importantly, thinking strategically?
Most people answer this question by saying that in order to be good at thinking, you have to be knowledgeable. And while knowledge is certainly a critical input for good thinking, it’s just an input. It’s not the actual practice of being able to think well.
Good strategic thinking is the culmination of mental processes that enable us to analyze, reason, solve problems, make decisions, and generate creative ideas in an efficient manner.
In other words, it’s a skill. But we don’t treat it as one.
It’s something we can get better at and refine, a muscle that we can strengthen, and yet outside of our daily work, we do very little to develop that muscle. And it’s a special muscle, because thinking strategically demands that we employ all kinds of cognitive abilities at once.
In this house episode of Unseen Unknown, Jasmine and Jean-Louis break down his steps for how to think strategically, and to keep getting better and better at it.
Don’t take your ability to think strategically for granted. Many of us only do a fraction of what is possible with our minds, but there is a lot more power available to us when we start to cultivate our thinking skills.
OCTOBER 9, 2023
41 min read
HOW TO UNLOCK YOUR STRATEGIC MIND
Welcome to Unseen Unknown. I’m Jasmine Bina. I have a question for you. What does it mean to be good at thinking? If you’re in a thinking industry, meaning you get paid for your ideas or you get paid to think about stuff and come up with elegant solutions, how do you make sure you’re actually good at the act of thinking? Most people answer this question by saying that in order to be good at thinking, you have to be knowledgeable or smart, and while knowledge is certainly a critical input for good thinking, it’s just an input. It’s not the actual practice of being able to think, well, all of us thinkers here right now, whether you’re a strategist, a founder, a CEO, CMO, investor and so on, know that the quality of our outcomes depends on our ability to think critically and strategically. It’s the culmination of mental processes that enable us to analyze, reasons, solve problems, to make decisions, and generate creative ideas in a skillful and efficient manner.
In other words, it is a skill, but we don’t treat it as one. It’s something that we can get better at and refine, a muscle that we can strengthen, and yet outside of our daily work, we do very little to develop that muscle and it is a special muscle by the way, because thinking strategically demands that we employ all kinds of cognitive abilities at once. In today’s house, episode of Unseen Unknown, Jean-Louis, chief strategy officer and my partner at Concept Bureau breaks down his steps for how to think strategically and to keep getting better and better at it. Don’t take your ability to think or more specifically to think strategically for granted. Many of us only do a fraction of what is possible with our minds, but there is a lot more power available to us when we start to cultivate our thinking skills.
When we think about thinking as an activity, as something that we do, we often have a mental model that it’s a correlation with intelligence, that our ability to think is contingent on how intelligent we are, how smart we are, which is really a falsehood. Thinking is very, very much a skill and it absolutely can be trained and there are many components of that and as soon as you switch that mental model, it starts to unlock a whole world. What’s really interesting is that this is a huge discipline. When you think about the power of thinking, the power of strategy, how businesses are able to get ahead, it’s all contingent on the skill of thought, but we never really see that as a variable. We never look to how do you determine that? How do we measure that? We measure rote knowledge, but we don’t measure our aptitude and flexibility.
We just look at IQ and think, oh, that’s it. I think it’s a very, very interesting and incredibly essential ingredient of any successful business. The way I see it, there are really three key components. They’re fairly obvious, but actually there’s a lot of nuance in them. The first one is context. Are you thinking about the right problem in the right way? There are so many times where people put so much effort in solving the wrong problem. I mean the opportunity cost of solving the wrong problem can often cause a business to go under, especially as the market turns, you really find out who’s been solving the right problem and the wrong problem there. So context is a essential requirement of you putting fuel in the right engine even. Next thing is obviously you have the problem, presumably you have the right context. Are you actually solving it in the right way and you coming to the right kind of solution? And then separate from that I think is the expression of the solution.
Often we rope those together, but I think they’re very independent from one another of what is the solution and then how do you communicate that effectively. Those are two separate skills and within that there are different things that you can do to maximize. So it’s a framework for thinking about it. We’re thinking about thinking, which is really meta to start with, but context, solution, expression are the broad buckets of skills required here.
So let’s start with context, which I think is the one that probably most people want to skip over. You feel like you generally have a good idea of what the problem is. You don’t want to waste time really thinking like, am I answering the right question? Testing your own biases, whatever. Walk us through context setting. How do you make sure that you are defining the right problem so that you don’t regret where you end up down the line?
Well, there’s two examples that I absolutely love that set such a great frame for what context means. So there was an airport in Texas, it might’ve been Dallas Airport, and there was a lot of complaints around baggage claim times. It just took a long time to pick up the bags. A lot of people were unhappy about it. How do you go about solving that problem? Most people, when they think about the context of the problem, well this is an efficiency problem. We need to get people to the aircraft. We need to unload the bags faster. The problem itself is a system that you need to solve and that’s the efficiency of baggage claim. What they ended up doing, which is really smart because it really worked when you looked at passenger satisfaction, it went way up, was that the solution they ended up with. They moved baggage claim from being very close to where you leave the aircraft to being pretty far away.
So it’s a five, 10 minute walk. Most people are used to that. The point is, is that by the end of that five, 10 minute walk, your bags have arrived so you seamlessly, the bags are already here. Wow, that’s incredible. They’re so fast because it’s actually the context is it’s an experience problem that you need to solve, not a systems problem. And so that simple switch of solving the right problem in this case, understanding that you have to solve the experience, not the system efficiency really worked. There’s another example that I think speaks to this really well as well, the bullet train in Japan, passengers have to wait for the train to be cleaned. You have a cleaning crew, they come through, they clean, and the cleaning crew takes a little while. There’s a bit of frustration. Obviously Japan is world renowned for being incredibly fast and efficient.
So this, I think it was a seven minute wait, whatever it was, for a crew to go through the entire train and clean it, caused a lot of friction. How do you solve this problem? So they hired a famous designer. He instituted such an elegant solution to this that again really frames what problem you need to solve here. So the approach had historically been to make the cleaning crew invisible. They would go through, their uniforms would match the train, so everyone would be waiting and the train would just be sitting there. What they did, instead of making the team more efficient, instead of building new things, they gave them highly visible uniforms. That’s it. That’s all they did. But what happened is as a passenger waiting to get on this train that sat in front of me being frustrated, why aren’t the doors open yet?
Suddenly I can see, I can see in the train there’s a group of people they’re going through, they’re cleaning the train. So now I understand that there’s a purpose to me waiting here, but what’s really interesting is so you improved overall satisfaction because now they’re not frustrated because the doors aren’t opening, but the trains ended up cleaner because they understood why they were waiting and then they felt more responsible. And so you improve satisfaction and you make the system more efficient and you didn’t change how the crew cleaned the train, you changed the experience of it. So again, it’s so effective here that you are solving the right problem.
For both of these examples, it sounds to me like if you are just doing what people said they wanted, you would be solving wrong problems. So it’s really speaking to the fact that maybe you should always question what people say they want. When you think of the examples of when you’ve done context setting for our work or when you see it out in the branding world, does it usually start there by asking yourself if people even really know what they want?
100%. That’s always the approach we have with our clients is we gather as much information as possible, but we always start with zero. We make no assumptions early. At the very least, we label these assumptions and say, those are assumptions that need to be validated. Really what we’re describing here is first principles thinking, which is a whole methodology of start with zero. Can you describe the problem from the ground up with no external inputs? Can you create a model for how things should behave? A really simple example here, if you look at SpaceX, they have this mantra: the best part is no part. If you’re an engineer, I studied aerospace engineering and in my degree you’re constantly… You have a problem to solve. There is an engine, this is how it needs to be designed, and you are optimizing, optimizing, optimizing. You spend years and years and years optimizing at no point are you ever taught, does this part need to exist?
Your whole mental model, the frame is you’re kind of not first principle is you’re thinking, how do I make this part from being decent efficiency to maximum efficiency given the constraints, instead of am I actually solving the problem that needs to be done? So that the best part is no part, I think explains why as businesses get bigger, they become far less efficient. Everyone’s optimizing systems that probably a lot of them don’t need to exist. They’re not approaching what is the outcome and what is the first principles model of that. And so really to summarize what first principles is, is again, you’re just breaking things down to the most constituent components.
Am I describing this? Am I creating a model of how this works without any assumptions so that I’m actually accurately looking at this? Again, coming back to the bullet train or the airport example. When you look at it and when you start to understand the problem, again, a lot of options to solve it, but you realize the issue is a human experience issue and therefore you need a human experience solution presumably. And so that’s really the methodology required here.
First principles thinking can feel unnatural at first. Do you feel like this gets easier the more you do it?
You start to get an intuition for where to look for these things. An interesting example, we a while ago worked with a pretty large two-sided marketplace. So you’ve got vendors and you’ve got people buying services and you might assume they both think that they’re selling and buying the same thing. Essentially what that outcome is. But when we did the research, the people that were selling the services and the people buying the services we’re assuming they were getting two different things, or at least they were optimizing for two different outcomes. So there was a mismatch there and I think the more you do this, you start to have an intuition of where these misalignments might be. You kind of look at something and think, I wonder if that’s really not what we think it is or I wonder if there’s a mismatch here. So I do think it gets easier, but I think it gets easier with experience and you need the hard experience of just doing that and then proving it out.
Something else that I noticed about your examples, the first two, the airport one and the bullet train one was that so often we do feel, and I think this is such a ingrained way of thinking in startup land, that if there’s friction, it has to be removed, the friction is the problem, but those examples show us that the friction is actually the solution. Leaning into the friction was the best way to actually solve the problem or recontextualizing what that friction actually meant for people.
Yeah, there’s that analogy of friction and fuel and definitely it’s so much easier to add things to the solution again, to add more, add more systems, add more people, add more, but in the long run, that’s really not… Maybe it’s a solution, but it’s certainly not a strategic one and there’s certainly better options when you look at things more holistically, 100% and that’s really the essence of first principle thinking really.
So first principle is a great starting point for defining the problem, building context, what’s the next layer of this?
There’s one other really, really important part of setting the right context and that’s building intuition. I kind of mentioned intuition already in terms of how things get easier, but it really can’t be understated how important having intuition for these things is. What kind of strikes me as interesting, there was a fantastic podcast with Diana Chapman on The Knowledge Project a while ago, all about intuition, especially within business leadership. It’s kind of interesting. You have people who have been very successful in their career, they’ve been working for 20 years solving the same kind of problems, dealing with the same people, ostensibly they have a fantastic intuition of the kinds of solutions, the kinds of people that need to be dealt with, but in businesses, we don’t give that intuition room to breathe. Somebody has to prove out their decisions with data or it’s an IQ thing, it’s an intelligence thing.
We don’t give the space for, hey, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I really don’t feel like this is the right solution and here’s my experience of why. It’s hard, we don’t have systems that really recognize that and honor the value of intuition. I think when you are building solutions, especially dealing with complex ones and more than that, dealing with human problems, which are the real problems that typically need to be solved, you don’t understand the solution until you understand the people. You need to understand the world that they live in. You need to have an intuitive model. A good example of this that I think really brings it home is I remember listening to a therapist a long time ago giving a talk and they were saying sometimes around the holidays, get a hotel room, don’t stay with your family. One of the frictions that people have when they’re with their family is that their family sees them as the person they were and they’ve changed.
And so when you go home to your family, there’s this tension of like, hey, I’m not quite the person you thought I was. I used to be like that, but I’m not anymore. What’s happening is that they haven’t updated their worldview, they haven’t updated their model of who you are, and so there’s this friction between the reality and the model that they have of who you are, and I think that’s exactly the same in business. We often have a model of our customers, our clients, our audience that isn’t really up to date with who they really are, and until that intuitive model is built, it’s very hard to have high conviction in a solution. You can think the data says something, but do you really have a high conviction and does the business because of the leadership have a strong conviction that this is in fact the problem that needs to be solved?
That’s one of the reasons why a lot of the times businesses, they solve a problem, but then they’ll go back and they’ll change the solution and then they’ll change the direction again and then they’ll have a different approach. And by not having conviction, because you don’t have a strong intuition with your leadership, you’re missing a key piece of foundation in any strategic solution.
I’m going to admit, this all feels very Rory Sutherland to me. It really rings of his book Alchemy and all of this stuff that he does. I think his program is MAD//Masters and he’s been on this podcast before too, this idea of just questioning what we know and then in some ways trusting what we think we don’t know, stuff that might sound like intuition, but really it’s the culmination of so much experience and having a sixth sense for what you need to look at.
Well, we’re not defined by the quality of our answers really. We’re defined by the quality of our questions, and I think that’s what a lot of people just like Rory Sutherland speak to is that often it’s not the answers that’s the solution, it’s the problems.
Now intuition, let’s dig into that a little bit more. What can you tell me about intuition? It feels like such a abstract thing and I think most of us think it’s just something that kind of emerges from experience, but what is the nature of intuition, especially the kind of intuition that you should follow?
Intuition is such a powerful thing here in terms of setting the right context. I don’t think you can really have a particularly high conviction on the solution for something until you have kind of a worldview that you’ve built within yourself and you’ve built some intuition from real experience. There’s a fantastic podcast with Diana Chapman on The Knowledge Project where she talks about IQ, EQ, BQ, this model of, of course we know IQ, intellect, EQ, this emotional intelligence, but BQ, which she sort of calls like the body quotient or just this, again, she’s really referring to the gut feeling here. And when you think about businesses, you hire senior executives, you hire people with 20 years of experience solving these particular kinds of problems. They’ve had so much experience that they intuitively know what the right answers are, but businesses often don’t create the forum to listen to that intuition.
It’s not a vocabulary that a lot of businesses are willing to speak in of how does this feel? Does this feel like the right solution? I think that’s the mark of someone who’s done the job of world building here. Obviously a long tenure does that, but also just talking to people really does that. There’s this great framework of the four unknowns, the known knowns, the unknown knowns, the things that we don’t know that we actually know. A lot of things that when you present it to people, it’s like, oh yeah, of course I see that, I recognize that. I see it that way. The known unknowns, the things that we know we need to figure out. That’s often where you want to start looking for these intuitive truths, but the real quadrant is the unknown unknowns. What are the things that we didn’t even know that we didn’t know?
And that’s the challenge when you are doing the job of world building, it just requires a deep sense of curiosity to get to the unknown unknowns, to be able to tease into people’s emotional experiences, and that’s what you’re doing here is understanding the emotional reality that people are going through. Again, when you go back to the airport or the bullet train example, it’s not the fact that they were waiting for seven minutes, it’s the fact that they didn’t know why. It’s the perception, it’s the frustration. It’s actually really the emotions. And so how can you solve the problem when you don’t know the emotions that you’re really addressing and so you just have to talk to people, you have to build that empathy. But more than that, you have to build a system where all of your leadership are exposed to people who are listening to people actively and are asking the right questions over time, that you’re building a deeper base of knowledge that’s really important.
And so when you’ve done that job, when you’ve set the right context, when you’ve asked the right questions, uncovered those unknown unknowns and understood the emotional reality, not just the behaviors but the perceptions that they have, and you are able to make a prediction of how they feel, that’s what allows you to create high conviction and that’s what allows you to create a critical mass of effort and resources behind a problem that needs to be solved. And I’ll give you a great example of this. We worked with an AI learning product, and this was before ChatGPT, and one of the reasons why teachers were hesitant to use this tool is because it was perceived as cheating, and that was a huge barrier for them to overcome to get the support of a key audience for this product.
When you talk to people and start to do the job of world building and building an intuitive truth here, what you find is that cheating is not about the level of support that you get. It’s not even about presenting the answer. It’s about how much effort did the learner put in. That’s actually the question. The problem of cheating is a question of effort, and when you understand that you understand how to speak to teachers, how to present the product and the product experience in a way that is understood that this actually adds value and here’s why and here’s how we can measure it and prove it to you.
So what you’re saying is that cheating wasn’t a matter of getting the right answer, it was a matter of it being too easy to get the right answer. Is that right?
Yeah, that’s exactly it. It was just not enough effort. So that’s really it. Understanding first principles, setting the context, and then being able to build a prediction of how you should behave. There’s a great analogy for this that I think really summarizes what we’re talking about. I heard a talk from a therapist a while ago and they were talking about how when you go home for the holidays sometimes get a hotel room, don’t stay with your family because there can be a lot of friction because you might’ve changed, but sometimes your family members don’t see that. What’s happening is that their worldview, their world building doesn’t recognize how you’ve changed and that creates a lot of tension and it’s exactly the same in business. If your worldview of who your customers are isn’t up to date with who they really are, there’s going to be a lot of tension there. That’s exactly what you need to remove in the system here of just keeping an up-to-date model of your audience.
So we have the context now. It’s a lot of work just to make sure that you are thinking about the right questions and not falling on some models that actually might lead you astray from what the solution is. So that’s a whole bunch of work before you even start the work. But let’s talk about getting to the core of it, which is where most people start in finding the solution. So how are we doing this wrong? What’s the right way to find a solution?
So assuming you’ve done all that foundational research, and again, don’t forget that most people have a mental model that the solution is just a matter of intelligence. So they’re not even thinking about am I asking the right question? And it’s worth remembering that mental model is really such an issue here. A big challenge is with that much information, with that much intuitive knowledge, with that much of a database of you’ve built of really trying to frame and understand the issue, you have to organize the information. You’re going to have a lot of information. What often happens is you get all this information and you take the most surprising thing or you take one of the loudest variables or the loudest data points, and that becomes the underpinning of the strategy. What you’re not doing is accommodating all of the information, and that’s such a critical issue that again, a lot of problems our businesses have.
This is one of the issues where you have a big company, they have a really good research division. They do tons and tons of research, but the leadership just sees the Cliff Notes. They just see the couple big picture stats of like, oh, that’s great. Oh, that’s really concerning. They don’t organize all of that information into themes, into mental models, into a structure to really understand it. The way I like to approach this is a little mathematical is to look at what are the variables and what are the dynamics and how are they changing? So what I mean by that is we’ve talked a lot in our team and even on this podcast about relatability for example. When you try and predict that future, if you were to go back in time, what are the signals that would’ve helped you predict that and build a mental model of that if relatability is where trust is going, then that creates a framework for what a solution might look like let’s say.
In this case, you have to look at how is the information flow changing? That’s a variable, and the dynamic is it’s moving from institutions to people. We’ve known this for a long time, but if you could go back in time and start to pick out the signals of when Facebook started coming around and when the first influencers, you started to see, okay, we’re really moving in that continuum, and with that, you look at another variable of trust. How has trust changed? Well, as social media’s evolved, the visibility of people’s lifestyles increased, and so that became a proxy for trust. So super high visibility was trust, but then you had inauthentic lifestyles, and so the authenticity became the bottleneck and therefore we moved to higher commitments, which is around the topic of conspicuous commitment that we’ve talked about. My point here is that by isolating some of the variables and understanding what are the dynamics and how are they changed, you’re starting to organize a lot of information into simple systems and for example, just the flow of information from institutions to people.
It’s such a simple thing. We kind of know that, but when you build that mental model and you say, okay, if this continues happening, what does that mean? You start to be able to build a predictive device by understanding the variable and the dynamic. So that’s always how we try and organize the information with so many different signals because again, the market’s changing, the flow of capital is changing, the advertising platforms and incentives are changing, the audience is changing, culture is changing. Our cultural languages are changing so many variables, and you do need to understand these depending on the scale of the problem you need to solve. Again, it’s such a critical thing to just… Do you have a model and so simple things of like what are the incentives in a system? What is the friction, the inertia to these systems? Do you have a model for that?
What’s the curve? There are different curves that you can look at the J curve, for example, where things get more effortful or they get worse before they get better. An S curve where there’s a slow up ramp and then things start to jump and then they slow down at the top. So there’s this kind of middle curve, a bell curve, these simple things of just is this moving linearly exponentially or incrementally? Understanding these behaviors, again, it helps you predict what the future looks like and often to have a solution, you need to have a sense of not where we are today, but where are we headed? That’s the kind of challenge that you need to solve.
What I’m hearing is that the solution isn’t in the data as it’s presented because that is reflective of today and it’s a snapshot, but rather if you zoom out, it’s in the patterns that a bunch of different inputs create that gives you a direction that then gives you a projection of the future. It’s data, but in movement and in aggregate, that’s where the solutions lie is at this higher level.
I think the key word to describe that is when you zoom out, you start to see where the leverage in the system is. As you get these variables, you realize that a lot of variables are connected to something. There’s a root cause underlying a lot of these things, and what you are looking for in any solution that you’re trying to find when you organize the information this way is where’s the leverage? What are the independent variables that separate from everything else are driving the bulk of the change? In a lot of markets right now because of AI, we are moving from a supply constrained or a demand constrained model to a supply constrained model or vice versa. So for example, in digital artwork or in the art industry in general, for the longest time it’s been supply constrained. There’s only so much art, but there’s so much demand for it.
And now if you look at, obviously we’re well past NFTs, but if you just look at generative AI, all of a sudden we now have infinite supply of art essentially, or at least we’re starting to be there, and so now demand is the constraint. And so obviously as that model changes, the behaviors of those marketplaces need to respond to that. Again, it’s a really simple thing, but supply and demand, the dynamic has changed. And so when you understand the dynamic and realize that’s where there’s a lot of leverage in the system, that unlocks where you need to focus the solution on. And so again, it’s just so critical of like have you organized the information? Okay, you’ve collected it, can you present it back? Can you find the 80/20, the 20% of inputs that create 80% of the outputs?
That’s what’s required here and finding that tipping point, that’s why it’s the research, but then the understanding of the research and when that’s separate, again, one of the challenges here is that you can have a really good insights team, but if they’re not involved in the solution, then you don’t have the full picture in a larger company, especially the flow of information and the ownership of that and the real do you feel it? Have you spent time with this? That’s such a critical question to do you have what it takes or do you have what you need to solve the problem?
When I think about this second step of solutions, I think of mental models that comes up a lot in our work at this stage, we go about it a certain way. Can you talk to that a little bit? How do mental models come into play when it comes to the solution stage?
So absolutely, I think mental models is such a critical part of how you solve this. So let’s say you’ve done all the work as you’ve done the foundational thinking, the first principles, you’ve built an intuition for what the solution is. You’ve organized that information, so now you can find the point of leverage, the key variable that you need to understand to unlock the behavior that you want to create or the solution, the perception that you want to create. Then you have to present it as a mental model. And really when you think about a mental model, I kind of think about it as like a zip file.
You take all of this data and you compress it down to a really simple idea. A perfect example of this is clean products. When someone sees a clean product or they go to a clean product website, the word clean captures so many layers of value. There’s a cultural narrative that the FDA has failed us and that Europe has better standards. And so a lot of clean products talk about using European standards. There’s a moral question of what the right kind of product is. Often it’s correlated with being eco-friendly and those kind of narratives. And so when you see the word clean, it’s a mental model that encompasses so much information.
I think what’s important to remember about that mental model and why it’s strong is that it also provides a model for its opposite. So if you’re not eating clean, you’re eating dirty and clean and dirty, it’s a very instinctive concept to us. It’s very biblical. The idea of what you put into your body, either your body being like a temple, you can go on and on unpacking what clean food is or clean beauty, clean whatever, just from that one word.
Yeah, I mean what we’re talking about when we’re talking about mental models is really the act of framing, creating that simulation of do I now have a conception of the solution? And as you say, in opposition of the problem, do I understand the rules of engagement like a sport? Do I know the rules? Can we present an idea? And that’s such a challenge to do that because it needs to be highly specific. If it’s not specific, then it’s probably not defensible by you or anyone else, and you are probably not creating all that much value because if it’s such a general truth, then you’re not really shifting perspectives as much as you could. And so great solutions, it’s understanding the leverage and compressing all that information to one idea that I can just grasp and keep hold of. We obviously know that people’s attention spans are shrinking, and so these mental models are so critical to get right.
So I can give an example that maybe bring this down to earth a little bit. So we worked with a financial services company that really helped customers, or at least the perception was that they helped customers who were… This was a last resort who really needed help, who felt helpless, who felt in trouble basically, and this was a really strong negative emotional truth for their audience. And there’s this whole adjacent category of people who could be just as supported, just as benefited by this product, but didn’t respond to the narrative of needing help, that wasn’t an idea that was relevant to them. And as we talked to these customers, what we found, and this was so fascinating, is that the financial benefit of the product was actually less than the emotional benefit of the product. Again, this is a financial services offering, but the outcome emotionally was so deep and it hit so many of their relationships and how they saw themselves in the world.
That hit their mythology of who I am, that it became clear that we can at least present the act of using this service as an act of taking care of yourself, which is a very different thing than an act of desperation, an act of lost resort. And so when you start to present it that way, you get this whole contingent of people who would never relate with the idea of needing help, but they do relate to the idea of taking care of themselves. And so that simple mental model of what am I doing here? What is this act? It opened up a new mental model of behavior and a new way of relating to this, and that company has gone on to market that narrative to huge success in terms of the outcomes and the reach that they’ve had of reaching that new audience because they’ve reframed the proposition of what they’re doing and what they’re speaking to. So again, it’s a very simple thing, but that perceptive value that you’re creating changes when you give it a new mental model.
So you say that the solution is only step two, there is a step three, which is the expression of the solution or the refining of the idea. So just like if you had a lot of heavy pre-work with context setting, you have a lot of post-work with expression refining. Let’s talk about this a little bit. You have a good idea. You have the concept or the mental model in our business and brand strategy you obviously then need to refine it because it needs to be translated and expressed in different channels, in different ways, different touchpoints. Branding’s not just a visual or website layer. It’s everything down through the products, through the company culture, all that. Let’s talk about this a little bit. Where do you begin to refine when it comes to the expression of the idea?
I think the first thing is we talked about first order thinking, there’s second order thinking, which is and then what? And then what? And then what? Ask that a number of times, ask that five times, see what happens, what happens if an audience hears this message? Can we run the simulation of what happens if the market hears this message? How will they behave? Just really understanding the world in which this is in just, again, you’re really just running a simulation, even if it’s just a thought experiment of what that looks like. The key tool that I think is really helpful here is separating sentiment and semantics. So often I’m sure if you’ve worked in a large team or a large company and you need to come to a big decision, the expression a horse designed by a committee is a camel. The idea that with many people in the room, a lot of people add value by taking away or by criticizing and saying, “Oh, I don’t like that.”
It’s more rare and it’s often a really good green flag of a great leader who is adding value or questioning in a way that is additive instead of subtractive. And so when you separate the sentiment, what do you mean, but from the semantics of how do you express that meaning, then it kind of makes it much easier to be more precise. Because again, what happens is people say, “Oh, I don’t like that word.” And then over time, over the iterations, the meaning changes and so you’re not actually solving, you might not end up with a meaning that is relevant to the leverage that you found when you were organizing the information. And so that’s such a critical thing of separating that and first of all, figuring out what is the sentiment, and that’s why you need to get really precise. What exactly do you mean? What expectation are you creating?
What feeling is this relating to? What kind of connotations does this have or associations, that is figuring out exactly what that sentiment is. You should have very high conviction that that sentiment is what needs to be communicated. Making that a separate thing. We agreed that this is the meaning we want to convey, and getting buy-in there first is such a good insurance policy against that drift in meaning. Once you’ve agreed on that meaning, then you’ve got a much more narrow problem. We just need to express this in the right way. The word I often use there is poetry. Poetry has many meanings. It kind of has many connotations. Often when you have a mental model, it needs to be true for multiple audiences, it needs to have a truth for your internal team. If you’ve got a two-sided marketplace, for example, it needs to be true of both sides.
It needs to be a shared thing with some nuances in its interpretation. And so that’s where exploring semantics and getting that nuance is a different exercise. I often use this phrase with our team when we’re brainstorming of hitting the end of the dictionary, it is very frustrating because you have this great meaning, but there are only so many words in the English language. And so there is definitely a struggle there in terms of conveying things with the level of depth that you’re looking for. But there are some tools, there’s fantastic thesaurus tools. I think actually of all places in this thinking process, this is one of my favorites, to use ChatGPT to explore language, to explore words, to explore phrases and metaphors and things like that. It can be a very creative tool of going wide and then kind of going in. I think often the creative process here is very much you diverge and converge, you come up with many, many options and you whittle it down. Many, many options and you whittle it down.
You need to do that cycle multiple times to come to the right output, the right phrasing. But again, that just separation of sentiment. What do you mean to semantics of how do you express that if you lock the first one in of, what do you mean it makes it so much easier to get the second one right. And that is honestly the biggest issue I see often with thinking is that you may have the right solution, but you don’t have the systems in place to leave the room with the right solution in hand. So that’s one of the challenges here in carrying that through.
I think another important thing that we have to cover here is how do you actually stress test all of this stuff? A lot of times there’s a fair argument that if you’re creating something new in the world, you can’t ask people if they want it. You can’t do focus groups and tests because people will not know what they don’t know. But there are other ways to stress test your ideas, especially if they’re big breakthrough new ideas. Let’s talk about that a little bit. What are some things that you think are a good starting point?
I think the first thing is just recognizing that often with strategies and strategic thinking, you can be stuck in a local maxima, meaning that if you deviate from your strategy a little bit, your results might get worse, but if you deviate a lot in the right direction, they could get a lot better. And it’s that trap of thinking that incremental change… Sometimes you cannot increment your way to a new strategy. You need to fundamentally start from a different spot. And that fundamental shift is a risk. It’s absolutely a risk, and that’s why you need such strong conviction on these things. But the first thing is to recognize that in making sure and fine-tuning the outcome of that strategic decision, there may be some inefficiencies. You may see some dips in numbers, but the commitment to that solution done right can lead to great results.
And so I think that’s the first thing of even your mental model of what the solution can look like. But you’re absolutely right in that you have to stress test these ideas. The first thing is just to ask yourself what if we’re wrong? And just running that scenario through, often what we talk about with our clients is a pre-mortem and just playing out the idea of, okay, let’s imagine that this strategy failed. It’s two years from now, we’ve spent $10 million on marketing budget and we just haven’t quite seen the results, or we haven’t quite built the perception that we wanted to get. Why did it go wrong? And then to run that simulation now of asking was it an organizational thing? Was it a systems thing? What are all the reasons we could have gone wrong? What are their likelihoods and what is the likely impact of those things?
And just stack rank them and say, okay, these are the top five reasons why even with the right idea, even if everything is right, we still might fail. And here’s why. Are we onboarding the team? Are we educating our team to use this right, are we actually committing the resources? We might change our message, but are we changing our product to meet that so that there’s a consistency there? All of these small things that pre-mortem exercise is so important just to play out because often we don’t, we’re afraid to explore those things of, hey, why might this fail? And I think that’s the most important thing. It’s kind of like blacksmithing. You put it on the table and you smash it with a hammer, and if you could really break it, then maybe there was something wrong to begin with. And actually that’s kind of a perfect analogy.
Many, many years ago, earlier in my career, I helped run a Google startup accelerator in London for early stage startups. So it was like a week long intensive program where startups would come through and every day we’d address a different part of the business. And over doing that a few different reps, what we found is the best way to help startups was to basically try and break them. So over the course of the day, we’d see, can we find a critical flaw in the product? Can we find a critical flaw in how they understand their market or their audience? Can we find a critical flaw in their marketing approach or whatever it was. And just by trying to destroy them, if you could find something by applying that pressure and that intensity, often it left companies being far more resilient or walking away and going, “Okay, we need to do something else.”
I always remember there was this company, they’d spent two years working on a connected dog collar, and they found that people really care, they’re very concerned about their dogs when they’re at work. They wanted to feel connected to them. So we just said, “Have you talked to people? Go on the street, talk to people.” And what they found is that yes, people really are concerned. No, this product does absolutely not alleviate these concerns. And at this point, they’d spent a lot of time, a lot of R&D on the market, but they didn’t find the success that they were looking for. And this kind of spoke to that, and it was just a very, very simple exercise. But again, just have you really stressed tested it. It’s such a simple thing. A lot of these things, we’re talking about thinking it’s incredibly simple, but it’s so critical that you do that hard work of not just coming up with that idea, not being precious with it, but really putting it on the anvil.
People wanted to be connected to their dogs, but they didn’t like the idea of a connected dog collar, why?
They were anxious about how their dog felt while they’re at work, but they felt that the connected dog collar didn’t alleviate their anxieties because while they could see how their dog was doing, they couldn’t connect with the dog. And often when the dog wore it, the dog was confused if they tried to speak to the dog, because they were like, “Okay, where are they?” And so there was kind this challenge of they were addressing a real anxiety, but the product wasn’t providing the emotional security or the emotional comfort that it was intended to. Put another way, all the extra insights and information of all this data that you were getting from your dog made you more anxious, not less
Classic example of people not really actually getting into the minds and bodies of their users to see what the real need was, which was not data, but rather some sort of emotional easing or respite.
I think there’s a trap in all of this. There’s something called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is really helpful to keep in mind, which is that often the less you know about something, the more you think you know. A lot of people use the word quantum for a lot of stuff. I’d hazard to guess that most of them don’t really know the intricacies of quantum physics. And so there’s this kind of U shape in terms of the vertical axes being the perceived knowledge that you have, and then the horizontal axis being how much knowledge you actually have. And so people who either are incredible experts, who spend their entire careers in quantum physics and people who have read a handful of articles often present with the same… They perceive themselves at the same level of expertise when in fact there’s this huge gap.
The main point here is that the more you know typically, the less you realize you know, and that’s part of it in terms of having that humility and just keeping an eye out for that of like, am I on this curve? Do I know just enough to be dangerous? Do I know just enough to think I know more than I really do? And so again, it is kind of dealing with your own sort of confirmation bias and your own perceptions. And that’s all part of stress testing of not just stress testing the idea, but stress testing yourself too. Am I seeing this correctly?
I don’t want anyone to feel overwhelmed by the sheer fire hose of information that we just went over. These were things that took us many years to kind of develop as part of our process. And some of it’s formal, some of it’s informal, and it’s taken time to get to where we are, build our own intuition. I think it would be good to end with this. If somebody who’s listening to this, who’s trying to uplevel how they think and really develop that muscle, that skill, what’s the big takeaway that they should walk away from this conversation with?
First thing, thinking is the skill, and there are many constituent components, and it’s not even just a skill, it’s a whole class of skills. And so if you think about it thinking as a category, and now you can have all these different skills within thinking of just again, expressing that idea of stress testing, of organizing information, there are many constituent components. So first thing is realizing that all of those are variables and you can train on all of them and you should be, that immediately helps build fidelity there. The second thing is often, I think often people are fairly good at coming to solutions. I think it’s the first and the last point here. We forget how important it’s to set the right context and make sure that while we may be good at solving problems, are we solving the right problems and then stress testing them and really doing our due diligence in making sure they’re the right solutions. I think those are the two main things to take away from this.
Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Unseen Unknown. If you’re new here and like what you’re listening to, do us a favor and leave a review. Those reviews mean a lot and they help our audience grow. And don’t forget, you can always get more of our brand strategy and culture articles, videos, podcasts, whole bunch of great content at Conceptbureau.com. And while you’re there, you can also sign up for our awesome newsletter that will deliver valuable thinking to you twice a month, and I promise it’ll be the best thing you get in your inbox. Thanks for listening. We’ll catch you next time.
Interesting Links & More Reading
- The issue at Houston Airport — Occupied time & design. (Caus)
- Episode 369: Wait Wait…Tell Me! (99% Invisible Podcast)
- The Truth Behind Japan’s “Seven Minute Miracle” (BBN Times)
- Episode 130: Diana Chapman: Trusting Your Instincts (The Knowledge Project Podcast)
- Known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns & Leadership (Andrea Mantovani)
- Conspicuous Commitment Is The Next Era Of Status (Concept Bureau)