How to size your thinking box

(Speaking Notes presented to the monthly luncheon of the National Management Association, Rockwell Collins Chapter, Richardson, TX (September 2000)

In the mid-80s, I clipped a Gary Larsen “Far Side” cartoon that, at the time, reflected my disenchantment with my then-current management. The cartoon depicted a dinosaur addressing an auditorium of other dinosaurs:

dinosaurs meeting

“The picture’s pretty bleak, gentlemen … the world’s climates are changing, the mammals are taking over, and we all have a brain about the size of a walnut.”

Over the years, the significance I draw from the humor has changed from an expression of frustration with managers to one of insight for managers.

For example, it’s pretty easy to pick up on the importance of diversity. With a roomful of “gentlemen,” absent any “ladies,” no wonder this company of dinosaurs went out of business, so to speak.

And although they deserve high marks for their assessment of the situation, simply becoming aware of their plight didn’t result in an appropriate change in their ability to adapt. Perhaps it had something to do with that walnut-sized brain. Could it be that, in this craniological context, size does indeed matter?

Thinking boxRegardless of size, it behooves us all to regularly practice with and exercise that three-pound organ between our ears. In short, we need to practice better thinking practices.

Now, I’m not referring to that trite cliche, to “think out of the box.” Of course management wants us to “think out of the box.” Have you ever been told, “Betty, I really need you to think inside the box on this project”? You might as well say, “I’ve never had an original thought in my life and I don’t plan to start now,” as to say something like, “I pride myself on my ability to keep my thoughts well within the boundaries of my thinking box.”

Instead, I’d like to use the six-sided structure of a metaphorical “thinking box” to suggest six dimensions or constraints that shape how, and what, you and I think.

1. The Base: Your Environment

Define environment to include everything around you — people, things, situations, relationships, customers, suppliers, friends, family, etc.   Everything within this environment is changing, all the time. Sometimes these changes are not noticeable or apparent.

So we ought to keep an awareness of looking for these changes:

  • Among customers, suppliers, programs, employees, etc., no two are the ‘same’ — Customer(1) is not Customer(2); Supplier(1) is not Supplier(2).
  • Even the ‘same’ Customer(1) … that Customer changes over time. So that the Program Office you dealt with in 1997 is NOT the ‘same’ Program Office you’re dealing with in 2000, which you can expect to not be the same Program Office in 2002.
  • In our particular business, “The Customer” is seldom singular; we almost always have multiple constituencies to serve, both in terms of individuals and in terms of offices or functions.

So we need to acknowledge and maintain continual awareness of these changes in our environments.

2. The Back Wall: Your Individual Past Experiences

You are unique!

Guess what? So is everybody else!

We each come from different backgrounds, different viewpoints, different attitudes, different values, different beliefs. Each one of us brings a unique “to-me-ness” to any project or situation; you could add the words to me after just about any observation you make.

Next time you’re in a meeting, look around the room and think about how your background is different from everyone else’s; think of ways in which you might be looking at the problem or the issue differently than anybody else.

And consider how the backgrounds of everyone else are different from yours, and how might their backgrounds might lead them to differing perspectives or opinions from yours.

3. A Side Wall: Your Assumptions

We all know the old joke about assumptions and Ass-u-me, but we cannot avoid, nor should we attempt to avoid, assumptions. The key is to bring as many of our assumptions into our awareness as possible. Recognize that many of our really significant assumptions may be hidden, or unstated, examples:

  • Driving your car
  • Eating the food at the restaurant
  • Sitting down on your chair

Consider the implications of these often unstated business assumptions: any order is a good order; any business is good business; our products sell themselves; if it took us a year before, it’ll take us a year now.

I consider assumptions, premises, beliefs, inferences, etc., as similar and somewhat interchangeable; as opposed to ‘facts’. Here are the critieria I would propose for a ‘fact’:

  • Can be made only after an observation, experiences, etc.; therefore, I don’t consider it a fact to say, regardless of the conviction, “We will win this program”; “We will make our orders forecast”
  • Stays with what can be observed, does not speculate or presume as to intent or motivation; “The competition requested an extension because they obviously are having technical problems.” Is that a fact? No, it’s an opinion, a judgment, an inference …. it’s a guess.
  • As close to certainty as humanly possible – would you bet your life on it?

Compare those criteria to the characteristics of an assumption or inference:

  • Can be made anytime, including the present and future
  • Goes beyond what is observed, speculates as to intent, motivation, quality, purpose, meaning, etc. …. “it happened because ….”
  • Only expressed in terms of degrees of possibility or probability, not certainty

In his autobiography, former Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca advised: “The discipline of writing something down is the first step towards making it happen.” In the context of assumptions, I’d modify that to say this, “The discipline of writing down your assumptions is the first step towards making sure you don’t trip over them later.”

4. The Opposite Wall: Your Expectations

You have expectations of results or outcomes, such as to expect an award of a contract by a certain date, or you expect certain competitors to make a bid.

You have expectations of other people, such as your boss, your subordinates, your peers, your friends, your kids, your parents, your neighbors.

And you expectations of yourself.

I’m going to go against the grain of conventional wisdom and motivational speakers and suggest that you practice lowering your expectations. All that aggressive Zig Ziglar can do, just do it, charge the hill! attitude needs to be tempered with realistic assessments and expectations.

Why? Disappointments result from unrealized expectations, whether it’s somebody else failing to live up to your expectations, you failing to live up to theirs, or you failing to live up to your own. I think there’s wisdom in the aphorism to “Under promise, over deliver.”

At the Air Force Academy, we used to have a saying: “If the minimum wasn’t good enough, it wouldn’t be the minimum.” From a management perspective, “If the minimum isn’t good enough, it shouldn’t be the minimum.

If you allow your expectations to get out of control, then your thinking is probably going to follow. For example, I once worked on a development program for the U.S. Army weapon system called Javelin. Our baseline contract called for a 36-month, $170M program, even though our Army Project Management Office knew it wasn’t possible.

Two years into the program, as we re-planned our third major re-structuring, one of our business managers joked, “Nobody thought this was a 36-month, $170M program … but we proved ‘em wrong. No matter what, we’re always 36 months and $170M away from completion.”

5. The Front Panel: Your “World View”

Your “world view” might be thought of in terms of your own unique filters or screens or attitudes that determine how you see and make sense of the world. How much do you relate to statements such as:

  • This is the best of all possible worlds and it couldn’t possibly be any better.
  • You’re either for us or against us.
  • There’s nothing new under the sun.
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • It just wasn’t meant to be.
  • There’s no such thing as luck.
  • Que sera, sera; whatever will be, will be.
  • They just don’t understand what we do down here in Dallas!

We each hold different world views, which have resulted from our unique backgrounds, experiences, assumptions and expectations. It’s worthwhile to occasionally re-examine your orientation with respect to its applicability and appropriateness: Does my world view, or my ‘map’ of what’s going on, still adequately and appropriately represent what’s going on? In the world? On my program? In my market space?

6. The Lid: Your Language

There’s the language you use everyday to think, talk, listen, write, read, and the language you use as you analyze your thinking, talking, listening, writing, reading, etc.

As map is to the territory it represents, your language should appropriately represent what goes on around you. We’ve already talked about the importance of discriminating facts from inferences and assumptions. For the most part, we live in worlds where there aren’t clear-cut “either-or”  choices: not black-or-white; not right-or-wrong; shades of grayish ambiguity everywhere we look. As much as we might wish otherwise, the notion of a specific, clearly-worded, unambiguous requirement or specification is always desired … but almost always impossible, not only in our work but in our daily lives.

We ought to maintain an “on guard” attitude of expecting to be misunderstood, and to misunderstand, rather than assuming than people will automatically understand what we mean just because they seem to understand each of the words.

In general semantics we have a notion we refer to as “English Minus Absolutes”. Avoid all-inclusive or exclusive terms unless you’re positive they’re accurate and appropriate to the context. Be on the lookout for inappropriate uses of phrases like: always, never, fully, totally, without exceptions, exact, exactly the same, no different than, 100%, all, none, and, of course … absolutely!

By the same token, avoid terms that don’t really mean anything without some other relational data point: low cost, early, low risk – lower than what? Earlier than when?

Now, I realize that in the competitive landscape we’re in, sometimes it’s difficult to adhere to this advice (especially in competitive proposals), but at least among ourselves, let’s not fool ourselves!

We need to be thoughtful, aware, innovative and creative employees. And managers. And parents. And spouses. And friends. We need to think, and act, and react, in ways that are appropriate to the situation, to the context, to the program, to the individual relationships we’re dealing with at that particular moment.

We do well if we regularly assess, and make appropriate adjustments to, these six factors that shape and constrain our thinking:

  1. Our Environment
  2. Our individually-unique Past Experiences
  3. Our Assumptions (including those that are unstated)
  4. Our Expectations
  5. Our own unique World View
  6. And finally the Language we use to communicate with others, and perhaps more importantly, the language we use to communicate with ourselves.

The dinosaurs we saw earlier had a limiting factor that precluded their ability to adapt to their situation – they had brains the size of walnuts. I believe it fair to speculate that most of us in this room don’t have that limitation. We ought to not only adapt, but to thrive.