The Importance of Practical Thinking Tools

June 2, 2021 | Peter Cronin


Our world is currently awash with ideas on how to think and how to improve thinking. Among the reasons why, a strong driver is that people are more and more in knowledge- based jobs. They must think for a living. This trend will only get stronger due to two drivers. Firstly there is a growing trend to transition away from the hierarchical structures of industry, as people have the power through the internet to work for themselves as part of the gig economy, so large groups of people are less necessary to achieve things. Second, the businesses that do remain are increasingly incorporating IT into all their roles. As we replace manual workers with machines, and with machines building machines, software engineers and people using software will become a greater part of work. This inherently requires more thinking. As well as this we have more access to information than ever before, in fact more information than ever before is being forced at us. This information is not necessarily true, and even when it is, it is not always relevant. We are left with a requirement to make more decisions and solve more problems faster, based on increased information of dubious quality.

Now more than ever the requirement to be able to think clearly and think differently is a critical skill in the average person’s life.

This has led to many businesses directly serving this need or coming close; for example, Businesses that offer abstract logic training through apps and software, often designed as games. This is like school teaching you calculus rather than how to budget – it has a specific application but is not deployable where most need it. We then have the logic of ancient philosophers being shared and clarified for modern life. I’m a big fan of these, however, they also are not directly useful to many, instead serving more like tertiary institutions which set you up with a base knowledge of topics but often no way to practically use them.

What’s most useful are practical thinking tools. Tools which give us structures to solve problems with, as kinds of formulae or templates. So with the right tools, we don’t have to be masterful thinkers to solve problems. Tools which in structure allow us to drill in the use of them, like doing drills in martial arts, this ingrains the skills into our mind and we can use the logic when not using the tools. Tools which allow us to help others, if we have an innate skill it is difficult to teach it to others or even to identify how we think to ourselves, these tools allow us to pass on thinking techniques.


Solving problems

“All his life, Klaus had believed that if you read enough books, you could solve any problem, but now he wasn’t so sure.”

― Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning


Like anything, solving problems for specific scenarios is difficult, or even impossible, if you don’t have experience with the scenario. Where do you start? What do you do? We fall back on adapting the approaches we have used in other scenarios to solve problems. A Product Manager says “let’s just ask the customer,” while a Project Manager says, “lets allocate tasks on what we know to everyone, and see where we get.” Another chimes in, “lets have a meeting and a whiteboard session”. These approaches, when combined with our natural thinking abilities, don’t appear to be an issue; they have got us this far at least!

Imagine instead if you had a mental toolbox, where you can choose the right tool for the job, a hammer for a nail; a screwdriver for a screw. As you become more comfortable with the basic tools you find yourself reaching for more specialised tools, eventually developing a large toolbox with tools specialised to tackle any scenario – a mechanic’s rolling toolbox.

We already have these in some parts of our lives. If quick maths is too tough or the outcome important we pull out a calculator. If finances are too difficult to plan mentally, we pull out a budget. Practical thinking tools are the same. They are in many cases templates which we can use to prompt our mind in how to see the situation more clearly. They work as a checklist ensuring we have the whole situation clear, not just a part of it. Practical thinking tools then focus you on where to solve the problem and often include prompts to think differently. If you are blocked on your ideas a tool may serve to reverse your ideas or force you to think outside your current frame of mind.

The critical attribute is that such thinking tools are specific and reliable. Tools which are practical will work provided you follow the steps, this means you can be confident to deploy them in tough situations. They are also designed to solve a problem specifically, meaning you can understand which tool is right to use.

Philosophical ideas on how to think and solve problems can provide useful, high-level guidance but are often very abstract and do not provide the practical steps necessary to reach satisfactory solutions. They can make us aware of things to consider but a practical thinking tool is what’s needed to reliably think about practical situations clearly and differently.


Developing the skill

Trying to build a skill without a structure or training regime is difficult. If you are looking to develop your skill in a sport you can buy a training program from a top coach. Even though the coach is not there to actually coach you, following the programme will give you both a far better outcome than winging it, and will provide a guide to remove the feeling of ‘where do I start?’ or ‘what to do next?’ Learning any skill has soft elements which will change from person to person, and firm elements, which are just the most effective way to learn. The soft elements matter least at the start and matter more and more as we build our skill. Initially you are most concerned with having a method you can use to solve a problem. Then your concern becomes how to use that method to practice so that it becomes second nature. A martial arts instructor (or student) will tell you it is hard to un-learn how to throw an effective punch. Once you have gone from the wild swing to an effective and targeted movement you can’t unlearn it. The muscle memory takes over and you just do the right things. As you develop a skill your body adapts to it.

How does this happen? In our brain neurons connect to each other via branch-like axons.

We learn new things via these connections, and we can also strengthen our understanding by adding more of these connections. Once the initial connections have been formed, they get stronger by having the connection insulated. The connections we use frequently become stronger and stronger, as our brain applies more insulation to them.

This insulation is a fatty tissue called myelin, and it accelerates the brain’s signal along those connections that are insulated. A well-myelinated axon will transfer a signal 15 times faster than an un-myelinated axon.

A structured way of thinking about things is necessary because we need to be myelinating the right connections in our brain. We want to ensure that we are doing the same process over and over to ensure we are getting it ingrained. Further we want to be solving harder and harder problems similar to training with heavier weights, our body will add more myelin when we struggle and thereby accelerate the connection.

The situation in the above section where we could pull out a calculator is again relevant. There is a level of mental maths we can do, and if we always pull out the calculator we will become rusty. Having a relevant equation or method we know will solve the maths problem makes it simple to practice and when we do this practise, we enhance the skill. We become better at it.

When we apply this to general thinking and problem solving the same thing happens. Your mind develops a default for identifying the critical information you need to put into the thinking tool, and following the steps as if you were using the tool. Subconsciously your mind is more focused, you find the information faster because your brain knows what to look for. You can quickly fill in the gaps or notice the gaps in the logic that don’t make sense and therefore require more questions. If you use the structure of the tools loosely in your head you will quickly notice that you’re doing this. Otherwise you may not notice as quickly but still notice that you make more rational decisions, you’re asking better questions in meetings, and you’re finding people coming to you for advice more as you can solve their problems. Of course once others come to you, you will need a structured way to help them with their problems.


Sharing/helping others

How often have you gone to share an approach you have with others and found that it is a lot harder to explain than just do. You have built up a set of skills that intertwine and support each other over years and years; distilling that down to some simple steps for someone else to follow is not easy. We already know the skill this takes and also the effect it has on us from a mentor that stands out because they were so effective at this. They could make the skill tangible or better yet give you no-fail steps to get you going. The risk that the skill is not passed on from you to the next person and the mentor’s approach is lost is high.

The importance of steps and templates to be able to share the useful tool is critical. We need tools which are tangible to help us get others going. This becomes even more dramatic when you have a team of people looking to solve problems together. Having a common ground to collaborate around a tool will focus the efforts, and the clear structure of such a tool allows newbies to get involved too.

The framework can also be used to easily review what the person has done, you can see their thinking and whether they have approached it how you would have or differently. The structure brings a physical aspect to their thoughts that you couldn’t have seen or understood before.

The most effective way to change the way you think, improve your problem solving, and make better decisions is to use practical thinking tools. Seek out practical tools which utilise templates, checklists, and steps. Where this is not possible, distil esoteric advice into the most tangible steps you can and test those. Courses such as our Black Belt in Thinking course teach these tools.