The Curse of Teamwork: Groupthink

The Curse of Teamwork: Groupthink

Many teams tend to compromise their decisions for the sake of consensus, harmony, and “esprit de corps.” The result is often a lowest-common-denominator decision upon which everybody in the team agrees. This predisposition for a team to minimize conflict and value conformity is the psychological phenomenon of Groupthink.

'Victims of Groupthink' by Irving Janis (ISBN 0395317045) In the 1970s, American psychologist Irving Janis defined Groupthink as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” Janis argued that Groupthink “undermines critical analysis, legitimizes ignorance, reinforces collective biases, and promotes a group self-image of infallibility.”

Negative Effects of Groupthink in Teamwork

Teams are prone to Groupthink and a variety of other detrimental decision-making approaches, but are seldom aware of it.

  • Groupthink suppresses dissent Individuals resign to group pressure, thereby conforming their opinions to a decision that they believe will achieve consensus. Groupthink discourages dissenters from “rocking the boat.” Over time, nonconformists are gradually shunted aside or excluded from the team altogether.
  • Groupthink engenders self-censorship. Individuals who disagree with the chosen course of action remain silent because they reason they cannot change others’ minds. Consequently, the team tends to focus its discussions on ideas that everyone agrees about rather than ideas that everyone disagrees about.
  • Groupthink gives team members greater confidence in their collective decisions than their individual decisions. Therefore, Groupthink leads individuals to publicly endorse ideas and decisions that they view as common for the group, even if they personally have reservations about them.
  • Groupthink stifles creativity and independent thinking. When individuals are unwilling to bring up and confront difficult issues, the team fails to examine alternative viewpoints that could be contentious. This leads to irrational and flawed decisions.

Antidote to Groupthink in Teamwork

Negative Effects of Groupthink in Teamwork An awareness of Groupthink and other group dynamic biases combined with some hands-on intervention, self-reflection, and control can help teams make better decisions.

  • Create an organizational environment where individuals can freely voice their ideas, challenges, and concerns. Individuals must feel comfortable with taking interpersonal risks, admitting hesitations, and challenging one-another. Absent an inclination to avoid conflict, a team can easily discuss and debate different perspectives.
  • Think about the right information required to make sound decisions. Consider the strongest counter-argument to every idea.
  • Do not suppress disagreements or dominate the dissenters. Carefully examine the reasons and implications of alternate viewpoints.
  • Divide a team into sub-teams or partnerships and set each sub-team to work on a problem independently. Encourage them to take into account the plusses and the minuses of each idea.
  • Designate one team member as a devil’s advocate to argue enthusiastically against all contemplated ideas. This can force the team to discuss and debate the concomitant merits and demerits of different ideas. In Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats process (see my book summary), the devil’s advocate wears the “black hat.”
  • Invite outside consultants and subject-matter experts to discuss key issues and review decisions.
  • Appoint a moderator who can engage the team collectively and individually by gathering all points of view, giving feedback, and challenging the team’s thinking. Ideally, the moderator should be an independent third party who can be comprehensive and forthright.
  • Step back regularly from the team’s deliberation process to reflect on the effectiveness of the team’s decision-making and intervene where necessary. In the Six Thinking Hats process, De Bono suggests adding reflection time at the end of each meeting to analyze the process’ effectiveness.

Idea for Impact: Sometimes, Teamwork is Overrated

Don’t get me wrong: teamwork can be very powerful, but only when teams consist of individuals who have the right expertise and who are willing to voice their forthright opinions, dissent, and build consensus. Avoid teamwork when one person or a partnership with complementary skills and styles may achieve identical objectives.

To prevent Groupthink, establish an environment where speaking up is encouraged and rewarded. Welcome disagreements, avoid dominating dissenters, and contemplate the strongest counter-argument to every idea.

Lessons from Charlie Munger: Destroy Your Previous Ideas & Reexamine Your Convictions

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger at Berkshire Hathaway's 2016 Annual Meeting (Screenshot from Yahoo! Finance webcast)

Reexamine your deep-rooted ideas

Here is one of the many nuggets of wisdom from the 2016 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting. At the 4:39:39 mark in the meeting’s webcast by Yahoo! Finance, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger discuss an effective strategy for persuasion and argumentation:

Charlie Munger: We try and avoid the worst anchoring effect which is always your previous conclusion. We really try and destroy our previous ideas.

Warren Buffett: Charlie says that if you disagree with somebody, you want to be able to state their case better than they can.

Charlie Munger: Absolutely.

Warren Buffett: And at that point you’ve earned the right to disagree with them.

Charlie Munger: Otherwise you should keep quiet. It would do wonders for our politics if everybody followed my system.

Actively seek counterarguments to consolidate your arguments

Munger’s advice comports with the following wisdom on using critique for reasoned judgments and critical thinking:

  • 'A Rulebook for Arguments' by Anthony Weston (ISBN 0872209547) Professor Anthony Weston, a contemporary exponent of critical thinking, wrote in his Rulebook for Arguments, “If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet.”
  • The great Roman philosopher and orator Cicero wrote in his influential work De Oratore (55 BCE, Eng. trans. On the Orator,) “The man who can hold forth on every matter under debate in two contradictory ways of pleading, or can argue for and against every proposition that can be laid down—such a man is the true, the complete, and the only orator.” [See my previous article on how to argue like the Wright brothers.]
  • Advocating observable evidence and rational investigation, the great English natural philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in his Novum Organum (1620,) “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else-by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate.”

You cannot effectively argue for your side if you don’t comprehend the arguments of the other

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) Once a belief is added to your collection of viewpoints, you indulge in “intellectual censorship”—you instinctively and unconsciously protect and defend it. You cling to your beliefs instead of objectively reassessing and questioning them. Moreover, owing to confirmation bias, you seek narratives that convey to you what you want to hear, substantiate your beliefs, and entitle you to continue to feel as you already do.

An important constituent of critical thinking is taking your beliefs and opinions apart methodically, analyzing each part, assessing it for soundness by means of arguments and counterarguments, and then improving it.

When you stop arguing against an opposite perspective and try arguing for it, that is to say when you can switch your point of view briefly, you will witness a profound shift in your thinking. Your own convictions may look different when seen from the opposite perspective. Justifying the counterarguments can help you reinforce your own beliefs and attitudes.

Idea for Impact: Only when your deep-rooted convictions and viewpoints are challenged by contradictory evidence, will your beliefs actually get stronger.

Make Decisions Using Bill Hewlett’s “Hat-Wearing Process”

“Reasons pro and con are not present at the same time”

My previous article about Ben Franklin’s T-Chart method in making difficult decisions quoted him mentioning this as a key challenge of fact-collecting and decision-making:

When difficult cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under consideration all the reasons pro and con are not present to the mind at the same time; but sometimes one set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of sight. Hence the various purposes or inclinations that alternately prevail, and the uncertainty that perplexes us.

Bill Hewlett’s “Hat-Wearing Process”

Bill Hewlett's Bill Hewlett, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard (HP,) developed an effective “hat-wearing process” in his decision-making. When confronted with a challenge, Hewlett used a three-pronged approach to take the time to reflect, collect input from others, and develop a sound judgment about the matter at hand.

  1. Whenever an HP employee approached Hewlett with an innovative idea, he put on his “enthusiasm” hat. He listened, expressed enthusiasm, appreciated the creative process, and asked wide-ranging but not-too-pointed questions about the idea.
  2. A few days later, Hewlett wore his “inquisition” hat and met the inventor. Hewlett asked many pointed questions and meticulously examined the facts and the virtues. He critically examined the idea, but adjourned without a final decision.
  3. A few days later, Hewlett wore his “decision” hat and met with the inventor. Hewlett discussed his opinions and conveyed his decision with logic and sensitivity.

In a discussion about the corporate culture of enthusiasm and creativity that the founders engendered at Hewlett-Packard, cofounder David Packard recalls in The HP Way (see my review / summary) that even if the decision went against the inventor, Bill Hewlett’s “Hat-Wearing Process” provided the inventor with a sense of satisfaction that Hewlett had carefully considered the ideas.

Idea for Impact: Make Considered Decisions

Use the “hat-wearing process” to listen to and mull over facts about a decision to be made, collect input from others, develop perspective that comes only with time, and make sound, thoughtful decisions.

Compliment with Edward de Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’ thought process to stimulate creativity.

Problem Reversal: How to Solve a Problem By “Standing It on Its Head”

Problem Reversal

Fixed Mental Set or Fixation

Psychologists use the terms ‘fixation’ and ‘fixed mental set’ to describe a person’s inability to see his/her problem from a fresh perspective. Fixation impedes problem-solvers from approaching problems from a different angle and from finding novel solutions.

Fixation is a persistent impasse in problem-solving in which predispositions towards a previously-reliable process, unwarranted postulations, unjustifiable assumptions, conventional thinking in identifiable contexts (called Einstellung Effect,) or recent experiences block awareness of possible solutions that may exist within other contexts. A period of rest, entertainment, or exposure to an alternative environment frequently can dissipate fixation.

Problem Reversal in Problem-Solving

If you’re stuck on a problem and can’t solve it because you’re fixated on a reliable process, try reversing the problem to reframe your thinking and consider alternate perspectives.

Solve a Problem By

As the following three case studies illustrate, reversing a problem simply involves taking a problem and turning it on its head.

  • A top-level executive at a large American corporation loved his job, his company, his employees, and his salary. However, he despised his boss. The executive and his boss were both long tenured; neither was likely to move out of their jobs anytime soon. The executive decided to find a new job at a different company. A headhunter assured the executive that a new job could be easily arranged. While speaking to his wife in the evening, the executive realized that he could easily reverse the problem. So he returned to the headhunter the next day and provided the boss’s name. Within days, the headhunter found an appealing new job for the unwary boss, who accepted. The executive then got his boss’s job and was even more content with his career.
  • A herd of sheep was moving slowly along a narrow country lane that was surrounded by high banks. An ambulance in a great hurry came up behind the herd and requested the shepherd to move his sheep to the side so that the ambulance could drive through. The shepherd declined because getting the ambulance past the sheep would be slow and he wasn’t sure of keeping all his sheep out of the way of the ambulance on a narrow lane. Instead, he reversed the problem: he got the sheep past the ambulance. He asked the ambulance to halt and then gently turned the herd round and guided it back past the stationary ambulance.
  • An ethical used-car salesman loathed his job because he felt compelled to sell cars with problematic features to unsuspecting buyers. He was eager for a career change, but the only thing he knew was cars. Therefore, he reversed his problem: he started a new business of locating, inspecting, and recommending used cars to prospective buyers. For a reasonable fee, he helped car buyers by scrutinizing used cars, listing current and prospective problems, and offering an estimate for repairs. His business boomed and he was much happier than he was as a used-car salesman.

Idea for Impact: Solve Problems by Reversing Them

When you’re stuck and can’t see how to solve the problem at hand, try reversing it or “standing the problem on its head.” Reversal as a problem-solving technique can free you from old ways of looking at problems.

Finding Potential Problems & Risk Analysis: A Case Study on ‘The Three Faces of Eve’

The Three Faces of Eve (1957)

Risk Analysis is a Forerunner to Risk Reduction

My previous article stressed the importance of problem finding as an intellectual skill and as a definitive forerunner to any creative process. In this article, I will draw attention to another facet of problem finding: thinking through potential problems.

Sometimes people are unaware of the harmful, unintended side effects of their actions. They fail to realize that a current state of affairs may lead to problems later on. Their actions and decisions could result in outcomes that are different from those planned. Risk analysis reduces the chance of non-optimal results.

The Three Contracts of Eve

'The 3 Faces of Eve' by Corbett H. Thigpen and Hervey M. Cleckley (ISBN 0445081376) A particularly instructive example of finding potential problems and mitigating risk concerns the Hollywood classic The Three Faces of Eve (1957). This psychological drama features the true story of Chris Sizemore who suffered from dissociative identity disorder (also called multiple personality disorder.) Based on The Three Faces of Eve by her psychiatrists Corbett Thigpen and Hervey Cleckley, the movie portrays Sizemore’s three personalities, which manifest in three characters: Eve White, Eve Black, and Jane.

Before filming started on The Three Faces of Eve, the legal department of the 20th Century Fox studio insisted that Sizemore sign three separate contracts—one for each of her personalities—to cover the studio from any possible legal action. For that reason, Sizemore was asked to evoke “Eve White,” “Eve Black,” and “Jane,” and then sign an agreement while manifesting each of these respective personalities. According to Aubrey Solomon’s The Films of 20th Century-Fox and her commentary on the movie’s DVD, the three signatures on the three contracts were all different because they were a product of three distinct personalities that Sizemore had invoked because of her multiple personality disorder.

Idea for Impact: Risk analysis and risk reduction should be one of the primary goals of any intellectual process.

Postscript Notes

  • I recommend the movie The Three Faces of Eve for its captivating glimpse into the mind of a person afflicted with dissociative identity disorder. Actress Joanne Woodward won the 1958 Academy Award (Oscar) for best actress for her portrayal of the three Eves.
  • The automotive, aerospace, and other engineering disciplines use a formal risk analysis procedure called “failure mode and effects analysis” (FEMA.) FEMA examines the key risk factors that may fail a project, system, design, or process, the potential effects of those failures, and the seriousness of these effects.

You Can’t Develop Solutions Unless You Realize You Got Problems: Problem Finding is an Undervalued Skill

Problem Finding is an Undervalued Skill

Problem finding plays an important role in creative thinking

Problem finding is one of the most significant parts of problem solving. However, it tends to be an underappreciated skill. Many managers naively consider it strange to encourage employees to look for problems at work: “Why look for new problems when we’ve got no resources to work on ones we’ve already identified?”

Many courses and books on problem solving and creativity overlook problem finding. Many educational resources tend to assume that problem solving really begins only after problems have been identified.

Problem-identification lead to the invention of the ballpoint pen

Invention of the Ballpoint Pen by Biro Brothers The story of the invention of the ballpoint pen demonstrates the importance of problem finding. Had the inventors not recognized a problem with the existing writing instruments of their day, they would not have developed their invention.

In the 1920s, Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro spent much time proofreading and checking for errors in others’ writings. To communicate these errors to the authors, Laszlo could not use pencils because their impressions fade quickly. He tried using a fountain pen, but the ink from the fountain pen dried slowly and often left smudges on paper.

Laszlo observed that the ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly and left the paper smudge-free. When he tried using that ink in his fountain pen, however, the ink was too viscous to flow into the tip of the fountain pen.

Laszlo then collaborated with his chemist-brother Gyorgy Biro to invent a new pen tip consisting of a ball that was enclosed within a socket. As the ball rolled inside the socket, the ball could pick up ink from a reservoir or cartridge and then continue to roll to deposit the ink on the paper. The Biro brothers thus invented the ballpoint pen. The company they created is now part of the BIC Company. The ballpoint pen continues to be called a ‘Biro’ in some countries.

Often, creativity is the outcome of discovered problem solving

Greek Philosopher Plato famously wrote in The Republic, “Let us begin and create in idea a State; and yet a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention.”

One reason we fail to identify problems is that we do not stop to think about improving various situations that we encounter. Very often, these problems are directly in front of us; we need to consciously identify them and convert them into opportunities for problem solving. Instead, we tend to take inconveniences and unpleasant situations for granted and assume they are merely “facts of life.”

  • The grain mill was not invented until somebody in antiquity identified the ineffectiveness of two hours of pounding grain to make a cup of flour.
  • The world’s first traffic lights were installed around the British Houses of Parliament in London only after somebody thought of the problem of traffic congestion. In other words, up until the problems from congestion were identified in the 1860s, no one attempted to systematically consider how the problem might be solved.

James Watt invented his seminal separate-condenser steam engine

  • James Watt invented his seminal separate-condenser steam engine after discovering an interesting problem with the Newcomen steam engine. In 1763, when Watt was working as an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow, he was assigned to repair a model of a Newcomen engine for a lecture-demonstration. Watt initially had difficulty getting the Newcomen engine to work because its parts were poorly constructed. When he finally had it running, he was surprised at its efficiency. Watt observed that the engine was constantly running out of coal because the constant heating and cooling of the cylinder resulted in a large waste of energy. Watt then devised a system whereby the cylinder and the condenser were separate. This led to his invention of the “steam engine” (or, more precisely, the separate-condenser steam engine.)
  • As I mentioned in a previous article on the opportunities in customers’ pain points, crispy potato chips were invented only when Chef George Crum of New York’s Saratoga Springs attempted to appease a cranky customer who frequently sent Crum’s fried potatoes back to the kitchen complaining that they were mushy and not crunchy enough. Decades later, Laura Scudder invented airtight packaging for potato chips only after becoming conscious of customers’ complaints that chips packaged in metal containers quickly go stale and crumble during handling.

Finding and defining a creative problem

If problems are not identified, solutions are unlikely to be proposed

It pays to keep your eyes open and look at inconveniences, difficulties, and troubles as creative problems to be solved. Don’t ignore these merely as facts of life.

Curiosity, intrigue, and motivation influence problem finding (and problem solving.) One of the easiest ways to develop your skills in problem finding is to ponder at anything around you and wonder why those gadgets and contraptions were ever invented. Analyze carefully and you’ll learn that the first step taken by the inventors of these objects was the identification of the problems the objects were designed to solve.

When you look around various objects in your life, think about what life was before these objects were invented. What problems could these inventions have solved? Why was the zipper invented? What problems motivated Bjarne Stroustrup to create C++? What was internet search like before Google? How did commerce transpire before the advent of coins and bills and money?

Some people make a career out of problem finding. Managers who want to know if their organizations are running efficiently frequently hire consultants to look for problems that managers do not know exist in their businesses.

And finally, if you want to become an inventor or an entrepreneur, try to start with problems you already have in your work or in your life. Ideally, identify problems shared by a large number of people to increase the probability that your inventions will be put in widespread use.

Idea for Impact: A creative solution to a problem often depends on first finding and defining a creative problem. Very often, the solution to a problem becomes obvious when the problem has been properly identified, defined, and represented.

How to Stimulate Group Creativity / Book Summary of Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats”

Stimulate Group Creativity Using Edward de Bono's 'Six Thinking Hats'

In his bestselling book Six Thinking Hats, Edward de Bono describes a powerful problem-solving approach that enriches mental flexibility by encouraging individuals and groups to attack an issue from six independent but complementary perspectives.

Edward de Bono is a leading authority in creative thinking. He is widely regarded as the father of lateral thinking. De Bono has written over 70 books on thinking and creativity.

Using the ‘Six Thinking Hats’ for Structured Brainstorming

Edward de Bono, leading authority in creative thinking and lateral thinking De Bono created the ‘six thinking hats’ method after identifying six distinct lines of human thought in problem solving. De Bono calls each approach a “hat” and assigns them different colors.

At the heart of the ‘six thinking hats’ method are six different colored hats that participants put on—literally or metaphorically—to represent the type of thinking they should concentrate on while wearing each.

  1. White is neutral, objective, and fact-based. A white hat is concerned with objective data: “What information do we have? What information do we need? What information are we missing? How can get the information we need? What objective questions should be asked?”
  2. Red denotes passion, anger, intuition, and emotions. A red hat considers the emotional side of problem solving, which is often neglected or masked in meetings: “What are our gut reactions to the matter at hand?”
  3. Black is somber, serious, and cautious. A black hat is vigilant, plays devil’s advocate, and encourages derogatory and judgmental behavior: “what are the weaknesses of these ideas? What are the risks? What could go wrong?”
  4. Yellow represents positive thinking, hope, and optimism to counteract the black hat’s power. A yellow hat plays “the angel’s advocate” and is cheerful and confident: “What are the best-case scenarios? What are the best aspects of this? What are the advantages? Who can benefit from this?”
  5. Green signifies abundance, growth, richness, and fertility. A green hat is the hat of creativity; it rejects established rules and norms, and invents new approaches: “What are some new ideas on this subject? What is interesting about this idea? What are the variances in these ideas?”
  6. Blue represents the sky and therefore provides the overarching perspective. A blue hat performs “meta thinking” and is concerned with the organization of the thinking process and the use of other hats. The blue hat synthesizes and reconciles different viewpoints. At the start of a brainstorming session, the blue hat sets the stage for where the discussion may go. The blue hat guides and sustains the discussion, often restating its purposes: “What are we thinking about? What is the goal? What should we do next? What have we achieved so far? What should we do to achieve more?” At the conclusion of the brainstorming session, the blue hat appraises the discussion, and proposes a plan of action.

Use De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats Model for Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

'Six Thinking Hats' by Edward de Bono (ISBN 0316178314) An individual working alone may use the approach to consider broader, distinct lines of thought. By changing hats, the individual can switch viewpoints and ensure that he/she is not stuck in specific thinking patterns.

However, the approach is best suited to group discussions (when chaired by a skilled facilitator) in which conflicting ideas may never otherwise be fully synthesized into plans of action. By persuading each participant to think constructively alongside other participants, the ‘six thinking hats’ method taps into group members’diverse perspectives and uses their collective knowledge without destructive conflict.

Using these hats nurtures creativity by letting participants step beyond their typical roles and contribute to developing, organizing, and progressing ideas. Participants can also identify how their cognitive state at any one time shapes how they approach problems.

Recommendation: Read. Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats presents a very effective technique for stimulating group creativity. The method can remove mental blocks, organize ideas and information, foster cross-fertilization, and help conduct thinking sessions more productively than do other brainstorming methods.

Complement with Dan Ciampa’s Taking Advice for an excellent framework on the kind of advice network you need on strategic, operational, political, and personal elements of your work and life. Read my summary in this article.

Stuck on a Problem? Shift Your Perspective!

Get Creative by Shifting Your Perspective

The World’s Second Funniest Joke

In 2001, Richard Wiseman led an international humor experiment to find the world’s funniest joke. He had internet users submit and rate 40,000 jokes. Of these, the second-funniest joke was the following (the world’s funniest joke is here.)

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are camping. They pitch their tent under the stars and go to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night, Holmes wakes Watson up.

Holmes: “Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you deduce.”

Watson: “I see millions of stars and even if a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like earth, and if there are a few planets like earth out there, there might also be life. What does it tell you, Holmes?”

Holmes: “Watson, you idiot, somebody has stolen our tent!”

Fixation: an Impediment to Successful Problem Solving

The joke suggests the psychological concept of fixation. Fixation occurs when you view a problem from only one perspective preventing you from seeing the obvious or breaking from a routine way of thinking.

To change an entrenched pattern of thinking, try to shift your perspective—literally or metaphorically. A shift in perspective can change your physical position and thus alter your point of view in a literal and sensory way, or it may change the way you think about or define the problem at hand.

The fields of arts and the sciences are replete with examples of how a different frame of mind can offer creative insight. As I cited in my article on the start of Picasso’s Blue Period, many artistic styles develop when artists feel the need to change the way their art represents the world. The new style therefore presents an alternative perspective.

Idea for Impact: Get Creative by Shifting Your Perspective

Shifts in perspective are fundamental to many facets of the creative process. As I stated in my previous article on reframing, the solution to many difficult problems can be found merely by defining or formulating them in a new, more productive way.

If you’re stuck on a problem, stand back and apply a different lens to break away from your current perspective.

Alternatively, simply take time away from your problem. A relaxation of effort may help you see something that is obvious after the break, but was previously overlooked or taken for granted.

How to Become a Broad-thinker: Principles and Methods

Success depends on understanding basic principles as well as on developing and practicing workable methods.

  • Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, recently advised in his Reddit AMA, “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree—make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”
  • Harrington Emerson, a prominent management consultant and efficiency expert during the early 1900s, is understood to have said that the key to becoming a broad-thinker is to focus on the principles: “As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” (This quote is often incorrectly attributed to American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.)

How to Become a Broad-thinker: Principles and Methods Principles are the fundamental set of philosophies, propositions, assumptions, laws, and rules concerning a topic, problem, or circumstances. The principles can teach you why something works the way it does.

Methods, on the other hand, are merely devices to apply those principles in a particular circumstance.

While principles are immutable, Emerson reminds us that there can be many methods to interpret and apply those principles.

Principles and Methods

Given the time-pressure induced by the hurried world of work, we are often so tempted to implement ready-made or handed-down methods that we forgo the necessary examination of underpinning principles.

By delving directly into methods, we can find some reliable direction and save a great deal of time, but we may be neglecting many factors that can affect the outcomes of our methods. These circumferential issues, second- and higher-order effects, and peripheral relationships may not be readily apparent at the outset. They will emanate only from a knowledge of the underlying principles.

Idea for Impact: To be an effective thinker, develop a broad understanding and appreciation of the principles before you develop or deploy methods.

Make a Difficult Decision Like Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, American inventor, journalist, printer, diplomat, author, and founding father Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was renowned for his lifelong quest for self-improvement, as he thoroughly documented in his “Autobiography” (1791.)

In my previous article on Benjamin Franklin’s “Plan for Conduct,” I noted that Franklin had a methodical mindset.

As a young adult, Franklin developed a method for making complex decisions. At age 66, in a letter to his close friend Joseph Priestley (a London chemist who, in 1774, isolated the element oxygen,) Franklin described this method.

In this letter written on September 19, 1772, Franklin mentions one of the key challenges of fact-collecting and decision-making:

In the affair of so much importance to you, wherein you ask my advice, I cannot for want of sufficient premises, advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how. When these difficult cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under consideration all the reasons pro and con are not present to the mind at the same time; but sometimes one set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of sight. Hence the various purposes or inclinations that alternately prevail, and the uncertainty that perplexes us.

Make a Difficult Decision Like Benjamin Franklin - T-charts

Then, Franklin describes how to weigh the “pro et contra” (Latin for “for and against”) in any situation:

To get over this, my way is, to divide, half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns, writing over the one pro, and over the other con. Then during three or four day’s consideration I put down under the different heads short hints of the different motives that at different times occur to me for or against the measure. When I have thus got them all together in one view, I endeavor to estimate their respective weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: if I find a reason pro equal to some two reasons con, I strike out the three. If l judge some two reasons con equal to some three reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the balance lies; and if after a day or two of farther consideration nothing new that is of importance occurs on either side, I come to a determination accordingly. And though the weight of reasons cannot be taken with the precision of algebraic quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to make a rash step; and in fact I have found great advantage from this kind of equation, in what may be called moral or prudential algebra.

'The Benjamin Franklin Reader' by Walter Isaacson (ISBN 743273982) Ben Franklin’s humble tool for decision-making is now known as the T-Chart. It is widely used to examine two opposing facets of a topic, object, situation, circumstance, or event under consideration. T-Charts are particularly helpful for analyzing advantages and disadvantages, as well as strengths and weaknesses.

Recommended Reading: For a great collection of the writings of Benjamin Franklin, including his “Autobiography”, see Walter Isaacson’s “A Benjamin Franklin Reader”.