Thinking things through

Thinking things through

Several people who have read our articles on ‘The Heart of the Matter’ have asked “How do you get there?”  I will try to show you.

First, you have a proposition, an idea, a concept, a thought. It may have developed slowly or come in a flash. People always think spontaneous ideas are the best. It’s true that some of them are fine but most good ideas come more slowly, ground out of the bigger needs we have, mined from the recesses of our brains. The concept of penicillin was observed by my old friend Professor Sir Ernst Chain. He noticed the miners underground getting a lot of superficial cuts which they treated with a fungus growing on the walls of the mine. He took some home and he and two colleagues worked out that this was a cure of remarkable power. That’s how antibiotics began.

Your proposition may have come from observation – most do – or from conceptualising how something that is laborious could be achieved more easily.  Your ideas will be more than products, they will be concepts you need to sell. Getting to the heart of the matter means thinking about the consequences of what you are proposing, then thinking about the consequences of those, and then of those and so on and on. You cannot encompass all the possibilities. Just suppose there are five possible consequences of your idea and each of those has five possible consequences. You get to 78,125 possibilities in seven steps. And that isn’t delving particularly far.

So your judgment has to be which (or which two) of the first five consequences is most likely to happen. You do the same at the next stage and the one after that. Now you have a manageable thread of likely consequences. Based on that, does you idea fly or not? Your answer will be, hopefully, reasonably ‘thought through’, at least enough to make a judgment whether to take it further and subject it to more rigorous testing.

So does the whole thing hinge on your judgment of which consequences are most likely? Certainly, partly, but you must have thought of all the consequences, however briefly, and selected the most likely of them. It sounds as though you need a very quick brain to do all that. Well, you do need to think fairly speedily. However we use our brains very amateurishly. We think linearly instead of laterally. To think more widely we need to be adventurous and assume that everything relates to everything else. When we use our brains this way they work better.

‘Pacing your brain’ is something that we should be learning more than we do. Most people’s brains are capable of faster thinking and we can learn to do that. It’s a bit like chess but not nearly as complicated. A chess player sees the possible responses to any move he makes – and his and his opponent’s responses many moves beyond that. You have a wider range of possible opponents to your ideas but fewer possible consequences. You have already whittled them down.

To illustrate this in practice. You are considering appointing a bright, successful, young man as the next CEO of your substantial business. He is reasonably young but has demonstrated a maturity beyond his age. Your board members are all getting on in years, as are your department heads. Opposition from both these groups could disrupt the business. A new broom might sweep the floor clean and set the business in the right direction for the coming upheaval in business life. But his appointment will be disruptive. You may lose you some of the old stalwarts. For all their reluctance to change, they understand the business from the ground up. They are safe, if unadventurous, hands. These thoughts could extend and develop for quite some time.

What you are now doing is considering the politics of the appointment. You want to be cosy with your board, you don’t want to upset the old hands. Of course you know that you are heading into a dangerous time for business but the present setup will probably see it through, at least until you retire. And, as we always say, people matter. Leave it another couple of years and your young star will be that much more experienced. That will be the time to get him to take over.

What is the heart of this matter?

What does the business need if it is to survive and prosper in the coming wave of planet sustainability changes, digital disruption, population growth (of the world), diet reorientation, societal change for greater equality and requirements for proper health services provision?

It needs a new approach, someone who understands the technological developments and how to use them, who has a strategic frame of mind, who can cope with workers’ new militancy and who can wield authority without a stick. All other considerations are peripheral even if important.

That is the ‘heart of the matter’.

The heart of the matter should always rule.