Category Archives: About thinking

Cognitive bias – understanding how we fool ourselves

A client of mine told me: ‘My customers are going to love the new service I’m launching.’

‘How can you be so sure’ I asked.

‘How could they not like it?’ was his confident reply.

Ok, his knowledge of his customers may well be extensive, but does he know what they really want? Has he asked them? His ‘How could they not like it?’ gave away the fact that his own enthusiasm for the service was playing a big part in convincing him that it would be a success.

It’s a common mistake when doing sales projections. We are so determined to succeed that we become prone to false optimism, unrealistic targets suddenly seem achievable. This skewed thinking is an example of what psychologists call cognitive bias.

Unfortunately, cognitive bias takes many forms. Even if my client had done some research, he might well have succumbed to confirmation bias – the tendency to search for and interpret information in a way that confirms what he already thinks. Added to this, he might not realise the power and influence of his own enthusiasm for the new service. Psychologists refer here to the empathy gap – our inability to fully understand the role of our emotions in decision making. Research also suggests that even if he had received some negative feedback from customers, he might well have succumbed to conservatism bias –  the tendency to revise plans insufficiently in the face of unfavourable evidence.

When he finally managed to tailor a service to suit his customers, he would still have to decide on a price, and here would face other hazards. The IKEA effect is the tendency to over-value things that we have made ourselves, regardless of their attributes. And once this is done, it’s easy to fall into the trap of the endowment effect, the tendency to demand a higher price for something than people are willing to pay.

If you’re feeling smug at this point, thinking ‘Huh, I don’t do that sort of thing’, be warned. In its many forms, cognitive bias can affect us all. There’s even a name for the skewed thinking that leads to our smugness, it’s called bias blind spot – the tendency to see ourselves as less biased than other people.

As a coach, part of my role is to listen out for cognitive bias. If I hear it, I ask questions like ‘How do you know?’, or ‘What makes you think that?’ I provide a more detached perspective, and my clients get an opportunity to talk through and reflect on their thoughts, feelings, plans and desires.

You will find a list of cognitive biases here.

You will find more information on coaching here.

Shakespeare and life skills

I’m a great Shakespeare fan, so the recent anniversary of this death was been a great time for me. Re-watching some of the plays has reminded me that there are many instances in which Shakespeare’s characters offer great advice about how to live their lives. Two instances of this advice-giving spring to mind – both involve advice from a father to a departing son.

In Richard II, the King banishes Henry Bullingbrook (the future Henry IV) from England. As Henry contemplates a bleak future his father (John of Gaunt) encourages him not to be downcast, and to change his thoughts from negative to positive ones.

‘All places that the eye of heaven visits, are to a wise man ports and happy havens.’

(Act 1, scene 3, line 576 – for the full text see here.

As a coach, and in a similar way, I often use the techniques of asset-based thinking – these encourage you to focus on what you have got and what you can do rather than what you haven’t got and can’t do, and on what a person or situation can do for you rather than what they can’t. For more information, see my blog.

In Hamlet, Polonius offers Laertes (his son) advice about how he should conduct himself when he is away in France. The advice includes:

‘Give every man thy ear, but few they voice.’

(Act 1, scene 3, line 554 – for the full text see here.

This line has always resonated with me. Listening is (I think) an over-looked but crucial skill for the workplace as well as for life in general. For more on listening skills, see my blog.

Asset-Based Thinking

Asset-Based Thinking (ABT) was one of the first ‘positive thinking’ tools that I came across. I still use it a lot and think it’s one of the best and most easily used tools of its type.

ABT  encourages us to think positively, to think about what we’ve got rather than what we haven’t got, what we can do rather than what we can’t do. It focuses on:

  • opportunities rather than problems
  • strengths rather than weaknesses
  • what can be done rather what can’t be done

It applies this thinking in three realms:

  1. ourselves – it looks at our strengths and what we can do
  2. others – it looks at their strengths and what they can do for us, how they can help us
  3. situations – what’s good about them and the benefits they provide

The way we think is reflected in our internal dialogues, the language we use, the questions we ask ourselves and the answers we give. ABT focuses on these dialogues and seeks to change them, and in doing so, to change negative or deficit-based thinking into something more positive and enabling.

For example, these are some ABT ‘corrections’ to deficit-based thinking:

Don’t say ‘that’s impossible.’ Ask ‘what is possible?’
Don’t say ‘oh no, not that again!’ Say ‘it could be better, but I’ve seen this before.’
Don’t say ‘whose fault is that?’ Say ‘what’s done is done, move on.’
Don’t say ‘I’ll never get this done.’ Say ‘this could take longer than expected.’
Don’t say ‘what’s wrong with me?’ Ask ‘what am I learning?’
Don’t say ‘I always get it wrong.’ Say ‘I didn’t get it right last time, but I’ve learnt.’
Don’t say ‘that’ll never change.’ Ask ‘how can I get around this?’
Don’t say ‘he’s out of his mind.’ Ask ‘what makes him tick?’

For more information check out, for a complete guide to ABT, including practical tips and ‘work outs’ see Kathryn D. Kramer and Hank Wasiak, Change The Way You See Everything Through Asset-based Thinking, Running Press, 2006.

About Learning

I work on the assumption that we can all be even better at what we do. Therefore, it follows that we are (or can be) always learning.

It helps to know what our learning style is if you want to learn and properly embed new skills and knowledge. We all naturally prefer to learn in different ways. To understand these different ways, Peter Honey and Alan Mumford developed their ‘Learning Styles’ model. They identified four distinct learning styles or preferences and recommend that we should both understand our learning style, and seek out opportunities to learn using that style.

Their four styles are:

Activists. Activists involve themselves fully in new experiences. They are open-minded, not sceptical, and this tends to make them enthusiastic about anything new. Their philosophy is: “I’ll try anything once”.

Reflectors. Reflectors like to stand back to ponder experiences and observe them from many different perspectives. They collect data, both first hand and from others, and prefer to think about it thoroughly before coming to any conclusion.

Theorists. Theorists adapt and integrate observations into complex but logically sound theories. They think problems through in a step-by-step logical way. They assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories.

Pragmatists. Pragmatists are the sorts of people who return from management courses brimming with new ideas that they want to try out in practice. They like to get on with things and act quickly and confidently on ideas that attract them.

If you want to know more about Learning Styles, and know more about your own style, you can download a free questionnaire here.

For me, one of the greatest pleasures in life is being curious and learning new stuff. What have you learnt today?

Great questions pt. 2: GROW and 5QF

Here are two very useful tools based on asking powerful questions. You can use both tools to support and help others clarify goals or find solutions, or you can use them to structure your own planning and thinking process.

Both tools are questioning routes, they set out a structured journey based on the power of questions. They will help you think and plan in a positive way. You can use them to help planning, goal setting, and problem solving. They are useful if you’re a project manager, a manager of people, leading a team, running a company, or when you’re dealing with clients or customers.


This was developed as a coaching tool and is now widely used in the business environment. GROW is an acronym for Goal, Reality, Options, Way forward – it provides a structured approach to problem solving and planning.

Some people like to add a T – for Topic – as the first stage to ensure that everyone involved is clear what is being discussed.

It is important to follow the stages in the GROW order.

Stage 1. Goal

Ask: What is it you want to achieve? What is your goal?

Remember – a goal should be aspirational and motivating, and it should also be SMART:

Specific – it is clear, not vague
Measurable – you know when it’s been achieved
Attainable – it’s realistic in the sense that it can be attained, and you have the necessary resources
Relevant – it will help you achieve long-term plans, it is in line with your values
Time specific – it has a time limit

Therefore, after the initial goal question, you might ask others such as:

Exactly what will it look like?
When will it be finished?
How much will it cost?

The goal setting comes at this stage, before the Reality section, so that the process is started on a positive note, and you are less likely to be constrained by thinking about the problems of the moment or past failures.

Stage 2. Reality

Ask: Where are you now? What is the current situation?

At this point you should analyse the current situation, exploring those areas that directly impact on or influence the achievement of the goal. What have you already achieved, and what might be holding you back. In simple terms, you need to know where you are now in order to know how to get where you want to be – if your goal is to make a 1000 widgets a day, or make a journey to a specific destination, you need to know the current level of production or the journey’s starting point.

Stage 3. Options

Ask: What options have you got?

At this stage you should identify the options you have for getting to your goal.

A key question at this stage is: what other options are there? The more options you can explore the more chance of success. Brainstorming can be done to produce a list of options.

Analyse the options and chose the one that will most readily get you to your goal.

Stage 4.

Ask: What will you do now? What exactly will you do?

At this point you need to plan the way forward – how will you put your chosen option into action, what will you actually do?

Sometimes, as you start to plan you realise that there are aspects of the main goal, or sub-goals, that are not clear, in which case you can use GROW again to clarify.



5QF is another framework for tackling problems and challenges, and for moving forward.

It’s a great tool for overcoming ‘blockages’ and helping in situations where no progress is being made towards solving problems. It’s a very positive tool in that it looks at assets – what’s working rather than what’s broken, what you have achieved rather than what you haven’t done.

At the heart of 5QF is a simple set of five questions. The order of the questions is important.

Question 1 – What’s working?

In the vast majority of situations there is something that is working, it’s very rare to have a situation where everything is bad, or broken, or wrong. This question starts the investigation on a positive note, it helps to overcome feelings of ‘I can’t solve this.’

Question 2 – Why is it working?

This question is designed to get deeper into an understanding of what’s right, and it reinforces the positive start. Also, if you know what’s working you can do more of it, and this might help you to find other things that work.

Question 3 – Where do we want to be?

This question seeks to clarify the goal – what do we need to achieve, what will it be like when everything is fixed?

Question 4 – What needs tweaking?

This question moves on from what’s working to look at what is almost working, to look at other things that are already in place or already being done, but which aren’t quite achieving the desired results. In most situations there will be a lot of things that don’t need replacing, they just need adjusting, developing, adapting.

Question 5 – What resources could help?

The last question looks at what else can be bought to bear on the problem – does it need more thought, someone else to give a fresh perspective, more time/money etc? It’s the question that starts to look at what else can be done that is not currently being done.

For more on the Five Question Framework see Kurt Wright, Breaking the Rules: Removing the Obstacles to Effortless High Performance, C P M, 1998.

Learning and ignorance

‘Education is that which reveals to the wise, and conceals from the stupid, the vast limits of their knowledge.’ Mark Twain

I find it reassuring to know that learning (whether it’s learning to speak a language or ride a bike) is a process. Even a simple skill or a small amount of information takes effort and time to get embeded in our minds or our bodies. To express this in terms of the brain – it takes practice to create new neural pathways.

For this reason, I like The Four Stages of Learning. If you don’t know them, they are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence – I don’t know that there is a language called French.
  2. Conscious incompetence – I know there is a language called French, but I don’t speak it.
  3. Conscious competence – I speak French but I have to concentrate hard to do so.
  4. Unconscious competence – I can speak French without having to think about it.

For me, the greatest value lies in being reminded that we might be at the conscious competence for some time, but that unconscious competence  is just a matter of time and practice.

The Four Stages model also serves to remind us that there is plenty we don’t know – or don’t yet know. And, as Mark Twain points out, wisdom lies in understanding how little we know.

And being wise in this sense helps us to avoid the arrogance of thinking we know it all. Simon Wardley’s Three Stage of Expertise reminds us of the foolishness of this. The Three Stages are:

  1. Beginners – I know nothing, I don’t yet know much.
  2. Hazard – I’m an expert, I know all there is to know.
  3. Expert – I know little, I know there is lots more to know.

See here for more information.

Mark Twain would, I think, like the idea of an expert as someone who knows nothing!






A short piece on art and life

After I left school, which is a very long time ago, I spent four years at art-college practising to be an artist. Then life took over, I put down my brushes and started on a long winding career that took in art galleries, museums, bits of film and TV, a flirtation with marketing, and work as a business coach and trainer.

Last October I started to paint again. Now I try to spend at least a couple of days a week painting. While I love it and get a huge sense of fulfilment from it, I’ve been surprised to find that it’s the most difficult thing I’ve done for a very long time. The interesting thing is that, alongside the need to re-learn some technical skills (how to handle paint etc.), the challenges of painting have reminded me of some important life-skills

The first thing I’ve been reminded of is the importance of perseverance. When something isn’t going well, when we’re in danger of being knocked-off course or dissuaded from continuing, then the ability to stick at it is essential. But perseverance shouldn’t be simple bloody-mindedness, it needs to be linked to a clarity of purpose and a goal.

Courage is the next thing. I’ve found that when I’m painting I often produce something that looks ok, and it’s very tempting at that stage to accept the painting as finished. At that point it needs courage to go on, to change something that’s good in order to achieve something that’s even better.

Self-belief is crucial here too. There’s something about producing a painting (and this applies to many other aspects of life) that requires the empowering thought that ‘I can do that’ – it requires a certain amount of ‘balls’ to produce something that’s going to be out there in the world representing you.

Lastly, and this is the most thrilling thing to be reminded of (and therefore maybe the most important), painting has reminded me about letting go of pre-conceptions, thinking outside the box, using imagination, being creative – keep on asking questions, keep on exploring, keep on changing perspective.

Be a sponge, be even more successful

Every new idea evolves from a pre-existing idea!

Sir Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics (and without whom we wouldn’t have computers, space travel and much else), acknowledged this when he said “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Businesses only survive by growing and changing, and that requires an input of new ideas: ‘what can we give the market that no-one else gives?’, ‘how can we produce twice as much with the same resources?’, ‘what can we do to ensure that our staff are fully engaged?’

It’s highly likely (we might even say certain) that the answers to these questions are already ‘out there’, someone somewhere has already tackled the problem, got the answer, solved the puzzle.

So, if you want to be successful in business, be a sponge! Soak up ideas as if your life depends on it. Make time for reading, watching, visiting, asking questions. The more ideas that go in, the better the quality of the ideas that come out!

When you’ve soaked up lots of ideas, play around with them until you’ve got something that suits your needs – combine ideas, take an idea from one field of activity to another, do the opposite, mix things up, take the relevant bits of an idea and discard the rest, share ideas, give some away and get some new ones back.

Be a sponge, be curious, then be creative, then be successful.

(a warning – don’t pass borrowed ideas off as your own, acknowledge the debt)

Knowing when something isn’t good enough . . and when it is.

In a previous blog I talked about asset-based thinking, here’s another example.

Most of us at some time have found ourselves in the position where something we are working on isn’t going right – we can’t seem to find the right answer, one little snag is holding up the whole project, we can’t get things to be as good as we want them to be. When this happens it’s quite common to feel frustrated with ourselves and to have negative thoughts such as ‘I’m not going to be able to do this’ or ‘I’m not good enough’.

Asset-based thinking encourages us to focus on what we have got and what we can do, rather than what we haven’t got and can’t do. So, when you’re struggling to get a piece of work to a state that you’re happy with you might remember that ‘at least you know it’s not good enough!’ This might seem an insignificant and obvious thought, but just think of the opposite – without this thought you might believe that what you’ve managed to do so far is ‘good enough’, and as a consequence you’ll turn in a second rate piece of work.

Would you rather be the person who struggles to produce something really good/efficient/fast/beautiful/meaningful, or would you prefer to be the one who goes home thinking that they’ve done a good job when actually they’ve produced something second rate?

A great thing to say to yourself is ‘it’s not good enough YET’.

When you know it’s not good enough there’s a much better chance or producing something that’s really amazing.

And, knowing when something IS good enough is important too. It’s important to know when something is good enough to be fit for purpose, or as good as it can or needs to be given the constraints of time, budget or specification. This is good time and project management, and it stops the stress and over-work of perfectionism (the fruitless or unnecessary striving for a state that cannot or need not be reached).

Happy working.

Why be happy at work?

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Aristotle.

I guess we can’t argue with that. And what Aristotle said over two thousand years ago is echoed by today’s positive psychology movement: for example, Sonja Lyubomirsky calls happiness the Holy Grail.

Because the pursuit of happiness is fundamental to human beings, possessing a high level of it brings a huge range of benefits. Happiness, the researchers tell us, aids our physical and psychological health. Interestingly, it can also improve our willingness and ability to cooperate, boost our ingenuity and creativity, and make us better leaders and negotiators. If that’s the case then we had better make sure we take it seriously in the workplace.

So what makes us happy? On one level we all desire different things – whiskey rather than gin, that Arsenal beat Manchester United, the country rather than the city. But at a deeper level there are some things that we all need. In the context of work, these are some of the things that have been found to make us all happy:

  • a variety of tasks
  • challenges, things that stretch us but don’t stress us
  • control and self-determination, the freedom to decide some aspects of how things get done
  • doing things that we are good at
  • a chance to learn and grow
  • the sense of purpose which comes from clear goals
  • an understanding how our work contributes to bigger/higher things
  • good relationships with our colleagues, bosses etc.

This isn’t rocket science. But I know from working with hundreds of people from many organisations that these obvious things are often overlooked or not in place. The other day I was talking to a young woman who was at her whit’s end because her manager either micro-managed (no self-determination), or dumped challenging projects on her at the last minute (challenges that stress), and wouldn’t listen (bad relationships).

It’s not rocket science, but it does help to be reminded of these things.

For more information on this subject, see:

Happier: can you learn to be happy?, Tal Ben-Shahar –

The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky –

Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman –


If you want to know about what I do and how I might help you, your colleagues or your organization, contact me on 07932 657925 or