Systems thinking is a big idea that’s remarkably… simple.
It’s a simple idea about complex phenomena. And the principle virtue of systems thinking is that it reminds us that the real world is far from simple.
Indeed, when we try to apply simple solutions to complex problems, the solution tends to fail: often spectacularly. And it’s systems thinking that points us in the right direction. We need to think about the whole messy, complex, inter-connected system, if we are to have any chance of finding a solution that makes our problem better.
Creativity is all about having brilliant new ideas.
Go on… Have one now.
Creative ideas don’t just come to us when we want them. The whole process is mysterious, and cannot be called up on demand. Or can it?
Yes, it can. Or so said William Gordon and George Prince. If you know how to, you can find creative solutions when you need them. And their research into the creative process led them to a methodology still used today: Synectics.
William (Bill) Gordon was born in 1919.He attended the University of Pennsylvania, but it is not clear whether he graduated. Between 1950 and 1960, Gordon led the Invention Design Group at consulting firm Arthur D Little & Co. He was, himself, a prolific inventor, with numerous patents to his name.
Synectics had its origins just after the Second World War. Gordon started studying how individuals and groups act creatively. This became more intensive and systematic, leading to him forming the Invention Design Group within Arthur D Little. There, he helped set up synectics groups within several client companies.
It was while leading this team, that Gordon met future Synectics co-founder, George Prince. With two further colleagues, they left Arthur D Little in 1960 to found Synectics Inc. There they pursued further research, developing and selling their model for how to run a creative process.
However, Gordon did not remain at Synectics Inc for long. He left to found Synectics Education Systems, to promote problem‑solving and education based on the use of metaphor.
Gordon died in 2003.
George Prince was born in 1918 and grew up in New York State. He attended college at Phillips Exeter Academy and Williams College, graduating in Geology. The second World War saw him serving as a junior officer in the US Navy, in the North Atlantic.
Upon his return, Prince joined an advertising company in Rochester, where he rose to VP. He then learned of the work of Arthur D Little’s Invention Design Group, led by William Gordon. He joined the Arthur D Little company in the 1950s to be a part of that group.
In 1960, he, Gordon and two other colleagues left Arthur D Little to found Synectics Inc (now Synecticsworld). This company researched, developed and promoted their creative problem-solving methodology, Synectics.
Prince remained with the company for most of his, life, as Chairman. In 1970, he wrote ‘The Practice of Creativity‘, which remains in print. He died in 2009.
Synectics is a rich methodology for solving problems creatively. However, the principles are easy to grasp:
look for alien concepts and things that seem irrelevant, and join them together.
Embrace emotions over intellect, and the irrational over the rational.
In applying these principles, Gordon and Prince assumed that the creative process can be described and then taught to others. They also believed that their process, Synectics, will apply widely to different domains of endeavour and can be used by groups and individuals.
They start with a cycling between the ‘operational world’ of routines and procedures, and the ‘innovation world’ of speculation and experimentation. New solutions become more available as we move out of the reality of the operational world, and increasingly embrace fantasy, metaphor, and absurdity.
The process they articulate is at its simplest:
Articulate the task.
Explore options, generating radical ideas that they called ‘Springboards’.
Select the best idea. Synectics presumes a preference for newness over feasibility at this stage.
Develop that idea, and how it might work in practice.
Two ideas stick with me from my learning about Synectics many years ago
The first one is the use of ‘How to…’
I love the way Synectics reframes every problem as ‘how to…’ I like it because it presupposes a solution exists and therefor the problem becomes finding it.
And once a selected idea emerges, the emphasis becomes intensely practical. We work on ‘how to make it work’. We constantly articulate the challenges and problems of implementation as ‘how to…’ Each time we solve this, we can modify the trial solution until, with no further issues, we have a possible solution, worthy of putting to the test in the real world.
The second is ‘In and Out Thinking’
Often, when we are in a meeting particularly a long one that is trying to solve a problem, our minds wander. We have ideas and thoughts that come from ‘inside’, as well as from the meeting: ‘outside’.
We can make best use of these by dividing our notebook page in two – I like to draw a vertical line. On one side, make notes about what you hear or see in the meeting – the Outside thinking. On the other, note down ideas that come from your own thoughts – the Inside thinking. Often these will be connections or distinctions, but sometimes they are seemingly random thoughts. Seemingly, because they are almost certainly triggered by something, but to you, they seem irrelevant, because you are not aware of the link.
Among many types of model of leadership is one that is particularly useful to practical day-to-day managers: situational leadership. And by far the best version of this idea was developed by two UCLA professors, Robert Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt. Their 1958 article (reprinted in 1973) is one of the most reprinted from Harvard Business Review.
Robert Tannenbaum was born in 1916, in Colorado. He studied at The University of Chicago, gaining an AB in Business Administration in 1937, and his MBA in 1938. The following year, he started his PhD in Industrial Relations also at Chicago, but his studies were interrupted by the war.
After serving as a Lieutenant in the US Navy, he returned to his PhD, which he defended in 1948. From there, he went to teach at the UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, where he remained until his retirement in 1977.
Warren H Schmidt
Warren Schmidt was born in 1920, in Detroit, and took a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism at Wayne State University. He then became ordained as a Lutheran minister.
He changed direction again, and after gaining his PhD in Psychology at Washington University, he went to teach at the University of Southern California and UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, where he met Tannenbaum.
By the by, Schmidt is the first of our Management Thinkers and Doers who has won an Oscar. In 1969, he wrote an Op Ed piece for the LA times, titled ‘Is it Always Right to be Right’. This was well received and turned into a short animated movie, narrated by Orson Welles. It won the Academy Award for Best Short Animated Film in 1970.
The Leadership Behaviours Continuum
In what is regarded as a classic 1958 Harvard Business Review article, ‘How to Choose a Leadership Pattern‘, Robert Tannenbaum and Warren H Schmidt set out a range of leadership behaviours. They set out seven distinct stages on a continuum, which vary from telling team members their decision, through selling their idea and consulting on the problem, to handing over decision-making.
Equally valuable is their assessment of how a manager can decide how to lead and choose which of the styles will work best. They argue you must consider three forces:
Forces in the manager Your values and style, and your assessment of the risk
Forces in the team-members Your assessment of their readiness and enthusiasm to assume responsibility
Forces in the situation Time pressure, the group’s effectiveness, organisational culture
This article is a foundation for what is now known as ‘Situational Leadership’, and the two trademarked models developed by Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard.
The Seven Leadership Behaviours
1. Manager makes the decision and announces it
This is a purely authoritarian style of leadership, with no consideration given to other points of view. Most appropriate in a crisis, the manager sets clear instructions and expectations.
2. Manager ‘sells’ their decision
The manager takes the role of decision-maker but advocates their decision, appealing to benefits to the group. Valuable when you need the group’s support.
3. Manager presents their decision and invites questions
The manager is still in control, but allows the group to explore the ideas to better understand the decision. The manager answers to their team, without committing to honour their opinions.
4. Manager presents a tentative decision, subject to change
Now the group’s opinions can count. The manager identifies and resolves the problem, but consults their team before making their own decision.
5. Manager presents the problem, gets suggestions and then makes a decision
Still the manager retains ultimate decision-making authority. But now, they share responsibility for finding the solution with the group, who can influence the final decision.
6. Manager defines the limits within which the group makes the decision
Now decision-making sits with the team. The manager defines the problem and sets boundaries within which the group can operate, which may constrain the final decision.
7. Manager allows group to make decision, subject to organisational constraints
The group has as much freedom as the manager is able to grant them. The manager may help the group and again, commits to respect the decision the group arrives at.
Arguably, it is how Nonaka and Takeuchi took some of their thinking forward that has led to a far bigger transformation. In 1985, they co-wrote an article for the January 1986 edition of Harvard Business Review. Called ‘The New New Product Development Game’, this article was instrumental in revolutionising the discipline of Project Management.
Takeuchi and Nonaka gave us a new way of thinking about how to develop products and deliver projects. And they coined an evocative sporting metaphor for their process, which has stuck: Scrum.
Born in 1935, Ikujiro Nonaka gained a BS in political science at Waseda University, then started work at Fuji Electric, where he created their management programme. Nonaka left Fuji in 1967, to study at the University of California, Berkeley. He was awarded his MBA in 1968, and his PhD in Business Administration, in 1972. He took posts at US universities, before returning to Japan, as a professor at the Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy, Hitotsubashi University.
Born in 1946, Hirotaka Takeuchi got his BA from the International Christian University, Tokyo. After a short spell working at McCann-Erickson, he went to the University of California, Berkeley, where he got his MBA in 1971, and his PhD in 1977. During his time at Berkeley, he also worked summers for McKinsey & Company in Tokyo and, more important, met Nonaka.
Takeushi took a lectureship at Harvard in 1976 until 1983, when he joined Hitotsubashi University School of Commerce, where he became a full professor and Dean of the Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy. He stayed until 2010, when he returned to Harvard, as Professor of Management Practice, where he is now.
The New New Product Development Game.
In January 1986, Harvard Business Review published ‘The New New Product Development Game‘ by Takeuchi and Nonaka. This was about a new way to do New Product Development, or NPD. They drew on the idea of ‘ba’ – a Japanese coinage of Nonaka’s, meaning a meeting place for minds and the energy that draws out knowledge and creates new ideas.
They also took a look at the Toyota idea of teams coming together to solve problems. They introduced a sporting metaphor from the game of Rugby; that of the scrum. They used scrum to denote the way teams work together intensively when the ball goes out of play. In a work environment that demands creativity and innovative problem solving, this is just what is needed.
The model they created for Scrum Teams is of a cross functional group that can work autonomously to resolve its own problems. Their organisation is ’emergent’ meaning there is no assigned leadership or structure; it just emerges from the effective collaboration of its members.
To work best, a Scrum Team needs to be co-located, and work together full-time. This allows a high level of cross-fertilisation of ideas, and a dedication to working on their shared problems, tasks, and initiatives.
Scrum as an Agile Project Management Methodology
Agile project management seeks to avoid the all-or-nothing approach to projects that used to characterise traditional approaches – especially when done in a way that slavishly follows a set of ‘rules’. Although good project managers have always incorporated a lot of plan-do-review (the Deming Cycle), the growth of software development projects demanded an increase focus on agility and incrementalism.
In Scrum projects, a Product Owner is responsible for detailing the business requirements and ensuring that the business gets a good return on its product development investment (RoI). The Scrum Team, led by a Scrum Master, selects one subset of functionality from a product backlog of undeveloped functions, divides it into tasks, and works intensively on developing the outputs for a fixed time, known as a Sprint, which is usually 30 days.
Each day, the team gets together for a daily Scrum Meeting to share learning, report progress, discuss challenges, and solve problems. At the end of the sprint, the team should produce a working product that is stable and useful. After a reflection and learning process, the team then works with the product owner to define the subset of functionality it will work on in the next sprint.
The team continues like this until the Product Owner concludes that the next sprint would not create enough additional value to justify the incremental cost.
I have already declared my interest as a fan of Edward de Bono in the 2012 blog: The Fertile Mind of Edward de Bono, which I followed up with Six times Four: More de Bono. Now it is time for a slightly wider survey of the work of the man who introduced the term ‘lateral thinking’ and who has been trying to teach business people, governments, student and their teachers to think for nearly half a century.
Edward de Bono was born in Malta in 1933, the second of four sons of a doctor father and journalist mother, and was an exceptionally bright pupil at his Malta boarding school. He was three years younger than his class-mates when he got his degree in medicine from Malta University and went off to study psychology and physiology at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, where he also earned a DPhil in medicine. This was followed by slew of further degrees and academic appointments, that leave him, technically, Dr Dr Dr Dr (Dr) de Bono. I may have mis-counted and I have bracketed his first qualification as a medical doctor, as that was not an academic doctorate. I think we can conclude that Edward de Bono is both intelligent and academically motivated.
In 1967, he published the first of his popular books on thinking, the now out of print The Use of Lateral Thinking. This book introduced the world to his idea of ‘lateral thinking’ – a term that de Bono coined. His books now number around 60, of which the current most popular are:
De Bono has also created online thinking skills programmes and the CoRT (Cognitive Research Trust) programme for teaching thinking to school-age children.
De Bono’s Contribution to Managers and Business Professionals
I think this is where de Bono has clearly been at his best and least controversial. Many of his techniques and training programmes have provided business people, public service managers and other professionals with practical and helpful tools to enhance their critical thinking and creative thinking skills. Like any creative powerhouse, de Bono has produced easily as many ideas that have not gained widespread use as he has lasting ideas. But we should judge him on the latter.
This term is now so widely used that de Bono’s original meaning has been largely subsumed into the wider context of ‘creative thinking’. By ‘Lateral Thinking’, I believe de Bono originally meant perceiving the world in different ways, so that your thinking about a problem can pursue lateral branches, rather than following the main route that is obvious to it. It therefore means looking for new starting points for addressing a problem – an implicit assumption that existing patterns of thought rarely solve new problems effectively.
A central theme of a lot of de Bono’s books on creative thinking is the idea that provocative assertions stimulate lateral jumps in our thinking. De Bono crystallised this idea in his (now out of print) book Po: Beyond Yes and No. By analysing the provocation (or ‘Po’), we can reach new and possibly fruitful insights.
Another key theme of de Bono’s work, including Po, is that the dichotomies of yes versus no, or right versus wrong, or good versus bad, lead us into linear thinking that is poor at identifying new ideas or thinking in a rich and subtle way. Arguably de Bono’s single most powerful tool is PMI analysis, which can get you over that problem.
It takes its inspiration from Kurt Lewin’s force field analysis approach (which, incidentally, leads directly to SWOT Analysis). But instead of looking at the driving and restraining forces, or the strengths and weakness alone, PMI analysis asks us to look at the Pluses, the Minuses and the things that are Interesting about a situation, option or challenge. This third dimension opens your mind to the subtleties and to new ideas.
Six Thinking Hats
We covered this idea more fully in an earlier blog, but the essence of the concept is simple: that there are different ways to think and that we will solve problems more effectively and make more robust decisions, when we apply multiple modes of thinking, rather than a single, favourite style. The six thinking hats represent six modes: analytical, risk-averse, constructive, imaginative, emotional, and procedural thinking (white, black, yellow, green, red and blue hats respectively).
De Bono’s work is not without its critics – even his ‘mainstream’ contributions. Many cognitive scientists have critiqued the lack of evidence base for the efficacy of his methods and programmes – which matters deeply where the teaching of children is concerned, as for his CoRt programme. However, I am not qualified to assess these arguments. It does seem to me that there is a dichotomy here between the theoretical/academic assessment and the practical/utilitarian usage. His ideas as an addition to other training and teaching make a useful contribution to thinking skills for many people. There is plenty of testimony to support that assertion, even if the rigorous evidence base is lacking.
So, as with so much else in the world of management ideas, the proof is in the practical application: take de Bono’s ideas out for a test drive, and decide whether they are for you. If they help you: use them. If they do not: consign them to the bookshelf, and take them to the charity shop, next time you are passing. Maybe, if you donate one of de Bono’s books that I don’t own, I may well buy it!
This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.
As a manager, one of your responsibilities will be to solve problems. Set aside the small day-to-day problems you are constantly tackling: when you have a bigger,more challenging problem, how do you handle it? Do you have a process?
One process for structured problem solving – ideal for teams to use – is called Synectics. The methodology was developed observing many problem solving sessions by two Arthur D Little consultants, George Prince, Bill Gordon and their team in the 1950s. The story of its development is on the Synecticsworld website.
The process has nine steps:
1. Task Headline
Define the problem in the form ‘How to…’
2. Task Analysis
Set out why the problem exists, and its background, the oportunity before you and what you have already tried or thought of. If you have one, set out your ‘dream solution’, so that later, you can see if there are ways to break down the barriers to achieving it.
Invite provocative statements and random ideas to set off creative thinking, like:
‘Why can’t we…’
‘I want to…’
‘If only we could…’
‘One idea might be to…’
‘With unlimited resources, we could…’
Select the most appealing ideas to emerge from the Springboard, to work on further. These may be practical, visionary or intriguing.
5. Ways and Means
Look for practical steps to develop selected ideas, and ways you may be able to implement them.
6. Emerging Idea
Allow one idea to emerge as the strongest potential solution.
7. Itemised Response
Evaluate the Emerging Idea, looking for ideas for how to make it work until you identify the best way forward, if the idea were finally chosen. Test out your level of satisfaction with the idea/implementation package: is this your possible solution?
If it is not, return to Step 6 and work with a new Emerging Idea.
8. Possible Solution
State and document the Possible Solution and the associated implementation approaches.
9. Next Step
Document the actions to be taken, by whom and to what deadlines?
This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.
How do you gather the knowledge that you need, to do your job?
Who do you go to for sage advice?
When you find them, how do you access their opinions?
Do you get it?
Of course you do: questioning is the way we explore our world, the way we discover new ideas, understand problems, and find solutions. They are how we raise awareness in ourselves and others, how we help people to learn and how we get the answers we need.
So one could argue that management is all about questions and answers. That would be easy. It is far harder to determine which is more central to your role as manager: are you there to ask the right questions, or to find the good answers? (please debate that question in the comments section)
We often think questioning is easy, but there is a skill to it, which consists of three essential disciplines:
Spotting what to question
Structuring your questioning process
Asking your questions artfully
What to Question
Listening to people can give you all of the clues you need about what to question. Here are five examples of the most questionable types of statement:
Adverse outcomes beg questions about causes and assumptions about causes beg questions that seek evidence to justify or falsify them.
Interpretations of events beg the question of what evidence supports that interpretation.
When someone is struggling to master a new skill or technique, asking the right question can direct their attention to the most important insight.
Generalised and prejudicial assertions beg the question not just of how you know that they are true, but of whether they do indeed stand up to objective evaluation.
When you are asked for a solution, questions will help you to understand the problem better.
The fallacy of petitio principii, or ‘begging the question’, arises when a proposition which requires a proof is assumed to be true without that proof.
The Questioning Process
Learning more from a person – or even a scientific enquiry of nature – follows a clear process:
Big, open questions to get a survey of the relevant information.
Probing questions that explore more detail about the particular areas of interest
Closed questions to test understanding and confirm facts
What if? questions to test how the answers stand up to experimentation and related scenarios
One question has more power than any other. It is the one that small children ask repeatedly and the extent of the frustration it generates in their carers underlines its potency:
The question ‘why’ probes deeply, looking for causes, reasons and purpose. As a scientific enquiry into nature, or as a diagnostic probe into events, it is hugely effective, as underlined by the ‘Five Whys’ process within Six Sigma.
But things are different when you ask a person why they did something. You will usually get a defensive answer. ‘Why?’ feels like an attack on the values that direct our decision making, so we react against the question and rarely give a resourceful answer. A better question might be: ‘what were your criteria when you chose to do that?’
How else can you ask the question ‘why?’
without using the word ‘why’?
We’ve listed the six hats. Let’s do the same for the others. Whilst I own copies of Six Action Shoes and Six Value Medals, it was only in researching this blog that I learned about the newest book here, so I am indebted to Professor Tortoise for the primer in the Six Frames.
Six Action Shoes
Navy Formal Shoes
Represent formal routines, processes and procedures.
Represent exploring, investigating and gathering information.
Brown Practical Brogues
Represent practical, pragmatic, roll-your-sleeves-up action.
Represent safety-conscious activities and emergency action.
Pink Comfy Slippers
Represent caring, concerned, compassionate and sensitive action.
Purple Riding Boots
Represent leadership, authority and command.
Six Value Medals
Gold Medal – Human Values
Values relating to putting people first.
Silver Medal – Organisational Values
Values relating to your organisation’s purpose.
Steel Medal – Quality Values
Values relating to your product, service or function.
Glass Medal – Creativity Values
Values relating to creating, innovating and simplicity.
Wood Medal – Environmental Values
Values relating to sustainability and impact on the community and on society.
Brass Medal – Perceptual Values Values relating to the way things appear.
Six Frames for Thinking
Triangle Frame – Purpose
Understanding the information at hand – the What, the Why and the Where.
Circle Frame – Accuracy
Is the information consistent, accurate and adequate for our needs (to solve a problem or make a decision, for example)?
Square frame – Perspectives
We can look at information and a situation from different points of view, with different biases and prejudices. Which ones are present?
Heart Frame – Interest
Focuses our attention on the relevant, salient, interesting information that matters most to you.
Diamond Frame – Value
How do we evaluate the value of our information? We can use the six value medals to prioritise its importance.
Slab Frame – Conclusions
What does the information tell us and, crucially, what next?
Without a doubt, one of the most fertile minds in personal and management effectiveness of the late Twentieth Century is Edward de Bono. His almost constant stream of books about thinking skills (approaching 60 to date – the latest is Think!: Before It’s Too Late) has provided insight, provocation, practical skills and frustrating verbiage by turns. The fact is that I’m a sucker for his books and have 17 on my shelf. Many have inspired me.
Six Thinking Hats is the one I frequently return to – both in my own thinking and in offering it as a valuable tool to workshop participants. In a nutshell, de Bono advocates deploying different thinking modes to examine an issue, consider a decision or work on a problem from different points of view.
The Green Hat – Creativity
Put this on to think innovatively, creatively, and from a new perspective.
Yellow Hat – Positive
Put this on to think constructively, develop ideas, identify benefits and find practical ways to implement them.
Black Hat – Judgement
Put this on to evaluate risks, downsides and problems with an idea and evaluate it critically to protect us from mistakes.
White Hat – Factual
Put this on to focus on facts, evidence and logical analysis of the situation.
Red Hat – Feeling
Put this on for one of two reasons: to think intuitively and also to use your emotional response to generate and evaluate ideas.
Blue Hat – Process
Put this on to direct your team’s and your own thinking process; to provide an orderly structure for problem-solving, decision-making and evaluation, using all of the hats to see the topic in all possible ways.
The Thinking Hats Controversy
I don’t want to take sides: I don’t have a basis to do so. But it is worth noting that Dr Michael Hewitt-Gleeson puts forward a case that the idea was developed not by de Bono, but by the directors of The Edward de Bono School of Thinking Inc – now defunct – but which Hewitt-Gleeson argues is the predecessor of his own School of Thinking.
What I do agree with Hewitt-Gleeson on is his rather lovely suggestion for a seventh hat.
‘Grey Hat Thinking is the ability to see consequences, immediate, short term and long term. It is the ability to look back over history and to see forward into the future. To understand cycles, passages of time, the passing of fashions, eras, eons and the many possible futures including extinction, the possibility of no future at all.
‘Grey Hat Thinking also means the wisdom to see other points of view. It includes the sagacity of patience to see beyond one’s own immediate viewpoint and the wisdom to see the viewpoints of others involved in situations: your partner’s viewpoint, your children’s, your children’s children, your neighbour’s, your customer’s, your enemy’s.’