CTO Compass

Solving Problems with Precision: The Science of Structured Thinking

In the last blog, we discussed Thinking Time, a sacred time each week to unplug from working in the business to working on the business to solving problems and creating future opportunities.

However, it is more than just sitting and thinking haphazardly. Good results from Thinking Time stem from two elements:

  1. consistency
  2. a structured thinking process

Consistency of process

The first is simple; Thinking Time needs to become a ritual, an activity that is non-negotiable in your week. Always do it at the same time on the same day, and make sure your environment is quiet and distraction-free.

The first month or two of implementing it will likely feel strange. It’s similar to the feeling you get when you first start a meditation practice; you don’t really know if it’s working. Much like the compounding effect, there’s little obvious reward in the early days, but stick with it and follow the process, and you’ll see it begin to pay off in bigger and bigger spades.

As you progress, your goal should be to increase the time you dedicate to your weekly Thinking Time sessions.

Solve problems, not symptoms

Abraham Lincoln is famously quoted as saying, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four hours sharpening the axe”.

Contrary to what you might think, Thinking Time is the chopping phase. For an effective session that gets results, you need to prepare. You need to make sure you’re solving the right problem.

There’s nothing worse than spying a distant mountain, then going down into the jungle, hacking through it and ascending the peak only to find out that you took a wrong turn, and now you’re at the top of the wrong mountain.

Can you think of one problem you’ve got right now? (By the way, this process works great whether your problems are professional or personal).

It is almost certain that the problem you’re thinking of is just a symptom of the real issue. Can you come up with at least three possible causes that would generate this issue?

Structured Thinking

The trick is to make sure that we don’t mistake the symptoms for the real issue and spend lots of time applying sticky plasters instead of addressing the root cause.

There are four steps to Thinking Time that we have to get clear on, in this order.

  1. You have a very clear idea of where you want to be, i.e., what’s your goal or target?
  2. You have a clear idea of where you are right now
  3. Identify an obstacle that’s standing in your way
  4. Create a plan to overcome the obstacle

​I’m not going to go into much detail in the first two steps here except to say that it’s vital that you have clarity on your goal and that it’s unambiguous.

It’s not enough to say vague things like “increase revenue” or “lose weight”. You must be specific; the more measurable they are, the better. Use the SMART acronym to write clear goals. (I have much more to say about this topic in the future). Better examples are “revenue of £1.5 million by 31st December” or “weigh less than 75kg with less than 15% body fat”.

Once you have a clearly specified goal, the next step is to identify the gap between your goal and where you are now. This is why the more specific you are with your goals, the easier this is. If you currently have £1.2 million in revenue, your gap is £250,000. If you’re at 80kg with 20% body fat, the gap is 5kg and 5%.

Now we come to the interesting part, identifying the obstacle in your way.

First, let’s be clear that our obstacles will be different even if you and I have the exact same goal and gap. My biggest obstacle to getting to my desired body fat could be the weekly Belgian bun from Greggs, whilst yours could be freeing enough time to exercise daily.

The Right Question

Questions are powerful; a few words in the correct order at the right time can unlock untold potential. Check out the Thinking Time box below for the essential questions to answer to help you figure out what your biggest obstacles are. Spend at least 10 minutes per question, and as I said before, it may take several Thinking Time sessions to work through this process.

Once you’ve answered those questions, you may think you have a good idea about the solution, but hold on. To complete the third step of the process, we now need to create our actual Thinking Time question. Finish this sentence based on what you came up with:

“How might I…“

Good questions enable good solutions. A good Thinking Time question will be simple, specific and help solve an obstacle you’ve identified. If what you wrote down doesn’t meet these criteria, give it another try.

Note that good questions aren’t tactical.

How might I integrate my task manager with my calendar? or How might I double my productivity? don’t address a real obstacle and only tackle symptoms.

Better questions are more like:

  • How might I achieve my 10-year goal in 12 months?
  • Why are people not buying from us?
  • What’s the biggest point of failure in our business that could ruin us?
  • How must I replace myself in the business in the next six months?
  • What am I tolerating that I shouldn’t?

By the way, you don’t have to create a question that starts with “How might I”, but it’s an excellent place to start. With practice, you’ll figure out good questions that work for you.

The Right Solution

Now you can move to the final step in the process and use the question to come up with a great solution and a plan that will address the root cause preventing you from reaching your goal.

Use your Thinking Time sessions to work your way through these steps. Don’t worry if it takes you several weeks in the beginning. As you progress, things will become easier, and you’ll build a library of questions and prompts (plus, I’ll also provide plenty of seed ideas and prompts through these emails).

Thinking Time flips on its head the usual process people try to take to solve problems. Don’t do what most people do and take a problem, then brainstorm lots of ways to address it. You’ll only be tackling the symptoms of the larger issue. Instead, use the practice of Thinking Time to apply more structured thinking to find the root cause and the real obstacle in your way.

As Henry Ford said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.”

⚡️ Thinking Time ⚡️

Spend at least 10 minutes on each of these questions to help you identify the obstacles standing in your way.

  • Why isn’t this problem already solved?
  • Why am I not where I want to be?
  • How did this get to be a problem to begin with?
  • What have been the impediments or constraints that have hindered me from solving this problem?
  • Was it a skill? Desire? Resources? Time? Discipline? Environment? Or something else?
  • If I could only <fill in the blank> really, really well, I would have had it all figured out.
  • What could I do to make this problem even worse?
  • What can be done today to improve this situation?
  • If I only had <blank>, I could solve this problem.