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Thinking on Your Feet

thinknyourfeet-202x234If a bat and ball costs £1.10 and the bat costs a pound more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

If the answer that jumps to mind is ten pence you are not alone, but you are wrong! Have another look (the answer is at the end of this post). The problem is that we are prone to place too much faith in our intuition, which gives us quick answers but not always the right answers. At times, we need to slow down. In support of this, an investigation into how people answer the bat and ball question revealed that the number of correct answers increases if the question is made more difficult to read, by using an obscure font and a paler script, because this forces people to slow down.

The problem of responding too quickly is particularly acute when we are asked to think on our feet and provide answers on the spot. How many times have you said something that on later reflection turned out to be half-baked, lame, or downright wrong? The secret of course is to stay poised while you compose your thoughts and prepare your response, but how do you do this? Here are some skills and tactics that might help when you are under pressure to respond.

  1. Listen and Look. Look directly at the questioner and observe their body language as well as what is being spoken. Try to interpret what is being suggested by the question or request. Is this an attack, a legitimate request for more information, or a test? Why is this person asking this and what is the intention?
  1. Ask for the question to be repeated. If you’re feeling particularly under pressure, ask for the question to be repeated. This gives you a bit more time to think about your response. This won’t make you look unsure, it will make you look concerned that you give an appropriate response. It also gives the questioner an opportunity to rephrase and ask a question that is more on point. It also gives you an opportunity to assess the intentions of the questioner. If it is more specific or better worded, chances are the person really wants to learn more. If the repeated question is more aggressive than the first one, then you know the person is more interested in making you uncomfortable than anything else. If that’s the case, stall them.
  1. Stall. One way to stall is to repeat the question yourself. This gives you time to think and clarify exactly what is being asked. It also allows you to rephrase if necessary and put a positive spin on the request. Or you can try narrowing the focus. Ask a question of your own to clarify, but also to bring the question down to a manageable scope. Alternatively, ask for clarification. This should force the questioner to be more specific. Finally, ask for clarity over definitions. Ask to have jargon and ideas clarified to ensure you are talking about the same thing.
  1. Don’t be afraid of silence. Silence can be uncomfortable. However, if you use it sparingly, it communicates that you are in control of your thoughts and confident in your ability to answer expertly. When you rush to answer you also typically rush your words. Pausing to collect your thoughts tells your brain to slow everything down.
  1. Stick to the Point. Under pressure it’s easy to give too much or too little information. If you give too short an answer, you risk letting the conversation slip into interrogation mode and the follow up questions will feel like a hail storm. When your reply is too long, you risk losing people’s interest, or giving away things that are better left unsaid. Rather than trying to tie together all the ideas that are running through your head, pick one main point and one supporting fact, this will give you focus. If you don’t know the answer, say so. There is (usually) nothing wrong with not knowing something, as long as you get back to the person with an answer as soon as possible
  1. Prepare Some “What Ifs”. With a bit of forethought, it’s often possible to predict the types of questions you might be asked, how you will respond, and what additional information you might need to hand. Spend some time thinking up the most difficult questions that people might ask, and preparing and rehearsing good answers to them.
    1. Summarize and Stop. Wrap up your response with a quick summary. After that, resist adding more information. Again, don’t be afraid of the silence that may follow and make the mistake of filling the silence with more information. This is the time when other people are absorbing the information you have given. If you persist with more information, you may end up causing confusion and undoing the great work you’ve already done in delivering your response.

Hope this helps and by the way, the answer to the bat and ball question is 5p. If the ball cost 10p then the total cost would be £1.20.

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Challenge Your Assumptions

Six Honest Serving MenHere’s a challenge for you and a colleague. Get yourselves a large piece of paper (a sheet from a flipchart or a broadsheet newspaper is ideal) and place it on the floor. Now, the challenge is for you both to stand on the paper, but without being able to touch one another. Sounds impossible, but there is a simple solution (please see the bottom of the blog for the answer). When using it in workshops I have had all manner of imaginative, though incorrect, suggestions: ranging from turning back to back, tying each person’s hands together, putting each person in a bin bag, and a variety of contortionist options that would not look out of place in a game of Twister, but none of them come anywhere close. So why do most people not see the simple solution immediately (me included)?

It has been said that assumption is the mother of all cock ups. It may not be the mother, but it is certainly a close family member in many day to day challenges. The problem is that our brains are very adept at pattern-recognising and pattern-making. It is these mental models, rules of thumb, or heuristics that allow us to function effectively, allowing us to rapidly sift and sort information into useful knowledge, according to whether it confirms or contradicts the patterns already embedded in our minds. The danger is that we misread the signals and lock onto patterns that aren’t actually there.

In other words, we tend to see, hear and understand based upon what we already believe (what are mental models tell us to see, hear and understand) rather than what is actually there. It turns out that much of our understanding is based upon assumption not observation. One way to avoid self-limiting assumptions is to get a second opinion, but paired or group solutions can be equally incomplete unless a diversity of knowledge and experience is represented. Homogenous groups tend to exist in an echo chamber, producing ideas that are nothing more than updated versions of existing thinking, which still leave assumptions unquestioned.

The answer, for an individual or a group, is to stop, look, think and investigate assumptions by asking the right questions. As Sherlock Holmes advised Watson, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.”

To take a real life example, consider the observations of US General Stanley McChrystal, when he summarized the difficult process of adaptation the US military underwent in the years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq: When we first started, the question was, ‘Where is the enemy?’ That was the intelligence question. As we got smarter, we started to ask, ‘Who is the enemy?’ And we thought we were pretty clever. And then we realized that wasn’t the right question, and we asked, ‘What’s the enemy doing or trying to do?’ And it wasn’t until we got further along that we said, ‘Why are they the enemy?’

So, in the first place, try following the advice of Rudyard Kipling: keep six honest serving-men and use them to interrogate the problem and your assumptions…

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Second, try writing down the problem and your thinking. Put the problem at the top of the page and write down your thoughts on the topic. When you’ve filled as much of a page as you can, stop, go back and find the assumptions – what are you taking for granted? An assumption is anything you don’t have actual proof for, an interpretation you’ve made of someone else’s motivations, or something implied by something you wrote. Write your assumptions on a separate piece of paper and then examine them to see where they might lead. Writing things down forces us to think more deeply about them, it also tends to widen our perspective beyond first conclusions.

Finally, it’s back to Kipling. His poem continues…

I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

Take his advice and have a break. If you have the leisure to mull over a problem, or even better sleep on it, do so. It seems that brilliant flashes of insight have a unique aspect to them. They almost never occur when you are actually focused on solving a problem, but after an intense, prolonged struggle with the problem, followed by a break. A change of scene, time away doing something else, or after a nap. Rest frees the mind from control of the conscious mind, allowing the free association of memories and ideas, which lead, in ways that are not yet fully understood, to unexpected connections and combinations.

In the case of the challenge I set you at the start, the flash of insight is the unstated assumption is that you can’t move the paper. The answer is to place the paper under a door. You then stand on the paper on one side of the door and your colleague stands on the paper on the other side of the door. With the door shut, you will be unable to touch each other. I have also seen a large table manhandled into position between two people so that they couldn’t touch each other, but I think you will agree that the door is the simpler, less energetic and more satisfying solution.

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Act Your Way into a Different Way of Thinking

theater-masksSheryl Sandberg famously advised women to ‘Lean In’. However, when dealing with difficult tasks and decisions women and men might be better advised to ‘Lean Back’. Research has revealed that people who are having trouble making decisions can benefit from creating some physical, and thereby psychological, distance between themselves and the problem.

The researchers, Manoj Thomas (Cornell University) and Claire Tsai (University of Toronto), examined whether psychological distance reduces the difficulty and anxiety in choice situations. In one study, they presented participants with two products on a computer screen and asked them to choose one of the items or defer the choice until later. Half the participants were told to lean toward the computer screen and the other half were instructed to lean away. The results revealed that those who leaned toward the screen found the choice to be more difficult and were more likely to defer the choice than those who leaned away from the screen. This suggests that when making difficult decisions, leaning back or away from the problem can reduce the perceived difficulty. In other words, it appears that bodily distance helps create psychological distance.

All very interesting, but so what? Well, in the first place, these findings offer a new way of understanding why an uninvolved third party, such as a friend or colleague, might see the answer to your problem far easier than yourself. So it’s certainly worth getting a second opinion. Second, it supports the notion that taking time out from a problem can help (as if you needed another excuse to take a break). Perhaps most interesting of all is the support this research gives to the theory of ‘embodied cognition’, the idea that the relationship between our mind and body is two way: our mind influences the way our body acts, but the action of the body also influences our mind. For example, sitting straighter increases self-confidence, while slouching makes us sadder.

According to a series of experiments conducted by Erik Peper, professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, slouching, head down makes negative thoughts and memories more likely, while sitting upright encourages positive thoughts and memories. It may be that the increase in collapsed sitting and walking, from sitting in front of computers and looking down at smartphones, has contributed to the rise of depression in recent years. On a positive note, Peper’s research suggests that it only takes two minutes to change your body chemistry, meaning you can change your mood while waiting for the kettle to boil (you might not even need the caffeine then).

If you would like to find out more, try Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED talk, and remember, in the words of Bob Dylan (or it may have been Leonard Cohen), “Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you’d like to act.”

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Making the Most of Yourself

Before becoming a consultant I spent 20 puzzled years in the military. Puzzled, because I was not a natural make-the-most-of-yourself-ralph-waldo-emerson (1)fit with the military. I was not a front-line soldier, I was an educator (a ‘schoolie’ in the Army vernacular) and spent much of my career teaching leadership and management, military history and international relations. This meant I spent a lot of my time questioning what the Army did and how they did it. It was not until I became a consultant that I found a natural fit and felt that I truly belonged in my chosen profession.

I therefore have a lot of sympathy and, I hope, understanding when individuals admit to a similar lack of fit. The conversation then is about how to help them understand how thay might get that sense of shared meaning in their life, or at least have a few touchpoints from where to begin that search.  On one level it is about satisfying four fundamental needs: purpose, value, efficacy and self worth. Purpose is about achieving or doing things that are satisfying. Value is justifying what we do and giving it legitimacy. Efficiacy is doing things and achieving the intended result. While self worth is having confidence in what we do and believe.

On a more practical level, Ken Robinson believes it is about making the most of yourself, which, in a increasingly unpredicatable environment will make us more flexible and adaptable. In ‘Finding Your Element’ he talks of identifying your aptitude (a natural facility for something) and your passion (that which gives you deep delight and pleasure), having a positive attitude (drive and grit) and looking for opportunity (how we create and take opportunities). The aim is to be in your ‘element’, to be in the ‘zone’, where you lose track of time, feel you are doing what you are meant to be doing and being who you are meant to be. In short, it is about using your particular kind of intelligence in an optimal way.

But this is not all. By finding yourself you are likely to find your tribe, people who share your aptitude, passion and attitude. This can have a transformative effect on your sense of identity and purpose, but it is also how great teams form. People of your tribe will affirm that you are not alone and this will also enable collaborative ventures. They will inspire and provoke you to greater achievement. Furthermore, teams of like minded people offer the benefits of synegy. They are intensively interactive and finding new connections is how breakthroughs often occur. Every person’s intelligence is unique, like a fingerprint, and we all have something distinctive to offer, the key is to understand what that something is.

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Enhancing Your Personal Brand


We give a lot of advice to clients about how to enhance their personal brand and get noticed by the people who matter. For us, this is all about the 3Ps: Presence, Posture and Profile.

Presence is about getting noticed:

  • Network – Develop your network and identify role models, advocates and mentors. Who are the real power-brokers in the organisation? Identify when, where and how you come into contact with them and target these occasions as opportunities to get noticed.
  • Belong – in meetings with power-brokers always demonstrate confidence, look as though you belong in their company.
  • Helicopter – rise above the parochial concerns of your department and write reports and presentations from the perspective of the wider organisation.
  • Lead – take opportunities to lead high-profile, cross-department project teams, show that you can operate outside your professional discipline and have the capacity to make the transition to general management.

Posture is about developing a professional image:

  • First impressions count – use positive body language. Stand tall, smile, look people in the eye, give a firm handshake and greet people by name.
  • Show an interest – listen and ask questions.
  • Comply with dress codes – wear conservative colours and clothes that fit well.
  • Ask friends – to help identify annoying habits and avoid negative body language.
  • Speak, write and present well – keep communication clear, simple and unambiguous.

Profile is about acting in a way that makes people remember you positively:

  • Integrity – Always do what you say you will.
  • Attitude – Be fun and easy to work with, balance passion with fun (don’t be too earnest).
  • Effective – aim to consistently produce work at 80% of your best as a minimum.
  • Expert – become an expert, ideally in something your boss needs.
  • Understand – show organisational and wider business awareness, and use your knowledge to entertain, educate and engage.
  • Consistent – don’t let your mood affect how you treat people.
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Asking Good Questions


Asking good questions starts with a clear understanding of what you want to know. Broadly speaking, do you want the facts or do you want someone’s opinion or judgement? Once you have the objective clearly in mind you need to ask questions that will quickly get you the best information available. In pursuit of that sometimes elusive goal the following tips may help:

1. Unless you want simple factual answers don’t ask yes or no questions, otherwise known as closed questions. Questions with “would,” “should,” “is,” “are,” and “do you think” all steer the responder toward yes or no answers that close the conversation down. More open questions, beginning with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” or “why” lead people to give more thought to their answers and provide fuller answers.

2. Ask follow up questions. Opinions and judgements are based upon a set of assumptions, by asking follow up questions you will gain insight into these assumptions that will help you develop your own opinions about things. Ask questions such as, “What makes you say that?” or “Why do you think that?”

3. Don’t be afraid of silence. People feel the need to fill the holes in a conversation and this may bring out the critical bit of information you seek.

4. Don’t interrupt. Not only does it suggest that you don’t value what the other person is saying, it can also interrupt their train of thought and direct the conversation the way you want, rather than the way it perhaps should go. Let the person answer in full, even when you think you are not getting the answer you require, then use a subsequent question to direct them back to the topic when there is a natural pause. If you have to interrupt for the sake of time, then be polite. Ask to confirm that you have understood them correctly and then bring them back to the point.

As Eugene Ionesco observed, “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.”

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The Power of a Good Question

QuestionsIn January’s blog I wrote that PSA’s role is not to tell, but to ask useful questions that will ignite effective conversation. I would add that it is also our role to help leaders to ask those same questions. We agree with Ian Leslie, the author of ‘Curious’, that those with the ability to ask penetrating questions will increasingly be in demand. Leslie quotes the former CEO of Dow Chemical, Mike Parker, who observed that:

A lot of bad leadership comes from an inability or unwillingness to ask questions. I have watched talented people – people with much higher IQs than mine – who have failed as leaders. They can talk brilliantly, with a great breadth of knowledge, but they’re not very good at asking questions. So while they know a lot at a high level, they don’t know what’s going on way down in the system. Sometimes they are afraid of asking questions, but what they don’t realise is that the dumbest questions can be very powerful. They can unlock a conversation.

So what are we afraid of? Leslie, drawing on the work of Michael Marquardt, identifies four reasons why people don’t ask questions: first, a desire to protect ourselves from the danger of looking stupid; second, because we’re too busy and tend to focus on action at the expense of thinking and questioning; third, because the culture discourages questioning – either because it is are authoritarian, blinded by groupthink or disposed toward action not reflection; and finally, because we lack the skills (or knowledge) to ask them (we don’t know what we don’t know).

So what can we do about it? Be curious. Have the courage to ask the stupid question, if you can’t who can? Take time to think and compose penetrating questions that go to the nub of an issue, and ask yourself if it’s just you, or does a fear of questioning permeate your organisation.

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