When Are Thinking Tools Useful?

Thinking is hard work. We can only hold a certain number of ideas in working memory at one time. Any large, complex problem will have multiple, interrelated, and conflicting elements that have to be worked through. Some people can do this in their heads. The likelihood is that they will do it badly.

This is because we’re prone to bias. We cling to ideas that we think of first. Things that are recent, memorable or vivid seem more likely to happen again. As a result we’re often surprised when things turn out differently than we expected.

Formal thinking tools are a way to avoid these biases. We take notes, create models and carry out analysis so that we really understand what’s going on and, more importantly, avoid fooling ourselves.

Using tools brings its own risks. We can get so involved in models that we can forget they are simplifications of reality, not a model of reality. A model should be used to help you think rather than replace thinking.

But what is a thinking tool anyway? We’re surrounded by them – every textbook will show a model of one kind of another. Models show entities and relationships. A map is a model – a simplified representation of key geographical elements in relation to each other. A 2×2 matrix is a model, as is a spreadsheet with a budget.

Some things look like models but are not entirely quite. A list of questions, for example, is not a model unless there is some underlying connective logic that is visible to the questioner.

One of the challenges that we face is that some models are simplified to the point where they are plausible but not necessarily usable. For example, it’s often said that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. And you’re also told that not all that matters can be measured, and not all that can be measured matters. So which is it – is measuring something good or bad?

More often than not it turns out to be bad. Take waiting times or sales targets. They’re both very hard to hit and so managers end up gaming the system, managing the numbers rather than managing the business.

But really, what makes one thinking tool better than another? Why do some things work for some people and not others? Some people are motivated by targets while others hate them.

There is a sort of Godelian incompleteness to all this. Godel showed that within any system of logic there are things that cannot be proved using the tools within the system. In other words you have to take some things on faith, and treat them as axioms, a principle that is seen as true without proof.

The unhelpful, to some, conclusion is that the utility of any tool depends on you and how you feel when you use it. If target setting and goal-seeking work for you then great. It not, there are plenty of other methods that might suit you better.


Karthik Suresh

p.s. Posted from a Pi400

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