Keys to Great Thinking

Most of this book is spent on the step-by-step instructions for working with each of the techniques it presents. But in this introduction I want to briefly touch on some ideas, attitudes, and behaviors that I have found create a mind set conducive to effective thinking and communication: these are the ultimate keys to effectively using Flying Logic.

Logic and Emotion

Logic is popularly seen as a cold, complex topic; on par with higher mathematics and invoking images of nerdy professors, science fiction computers and emotionless aliens. But the fact remains that we all think, and we all use logic with more or less skill.

What is not widely understood is that logic is simply the rules for thinking. Just as it is possible (though perilous) to drive a car without knowing the rules of the road, it is possible to think without understanding the rules of logic. These rules are extremely powerful, and fortunately quite simple. But it is unfortunate that as children we are rarely taught to use them as naturally as we learn to read and write. And far from turning us into dispassionate machines, we humans are naturally the happiest and most productive when our emotional hearts and logical minds work together in concert.

Some people resist “being logical” on the grounds that they “just know how they feel” on a given subject. But when we experience strong emotions or gut instincts, it is important to recognize that there are always underlying causes for those feelings. If we merely acknowledge the resulting feelings, and resist a deeper understanding of the causes, we create a disconnect between the rational and emotive parts of our minds. This disconnect results in cognitive dissonance, which is stress resulting from attempting to believe conflicting things or behave in conflicting ways. Cognitive dissonance is a two-edged sword: on the one hand it can help motivate us to change our beliefs for the better (that is, to better reflect reality) while on the other hand it can also lead us to manufacture rationalizations for the way we feel that don’t reflect reality. While both actions quell the discomfort of cognitive dissonance in the short term, rationalizing ultimately leads us deeper into trouble by putting us further and further out of sync with reality.

Attempting to act on feelings alone has another drawback: such actions leave us vulnerable to unintended consequences that our rational minds could have helped us predict and avoid. Of course, it works the other way too: if we try to be “purely rational,” yet ignore strong feelings by discounting their causes, we are also going to create dissonance.

The solution is to get in the habit of bringing the causes (or reasons) that underlie our emotions and instincts to the surface. In doing so, we validate our emotions, and can then integrate them into effective plans.

The good news is that thinking is a learnable skill that improves with practice, and that doing so does not diminish, but rather complements the value of emotions.

Communication and Criticism

We can rarely accomplish anything of significance alone: we rely on other people for many kinds of contributions, and since no one is an island, we must communicate effectively with others: to gain an understanding of their needs, benefit from their experience and wisdom, and negotiate their cooperation.

Often, we are too close to a situation to understand it well; we are embroiled in the situational details and “can’t see the forest for the trees.” When we think we understand a situation well, when we think we already know the all the options and the right answers, this is when inviting others to evaluate and criticize our plans can be the most valuable. Doing so lets “light and air” into our minds and helps us rid ourselves of ways of thinking that have become stale and unproductive.

In The Godfather Part II, Michael Corleone says, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Ironically, the most fruitful criticism often comes from people who actively disagree with us. Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest United States President, is renowned for having chosen prominent members of his cabinet from those who most vehemently opposed his policies. Whether or not we ultimately agree with our critics, they can often teach us a great deal. The key is to allow our view of the world to change as we learn.

Argument and Honor

When we think of an argument, many of us envision scowls, angry gesticulation, and yelling. We imagine petty name-calling, a parade of unforgiven grievances, and other emotional power plays. Most importantly, we imagine arguing to get our way: to show that we are right and others are wrong. But such an interaction is not an argument, it is a fight. In a fight there may be winners, but there will certainly be losers, and injuries for all.

A real argument is a shared search for truth. In an honorable argument people can still be passionate, but they follow the rules of logic just as drivers follow the rules of the road. And even though people approach a situation from different perspectives and with different preconceptions, the positions they take should be seen as suggestions that are ultimately intended as win-win, even if they initially fall far short. Indeed, even such flat statements as, “We’ll get along fine as soon as you learn to do things my way,” hint at a common objective: getting along.

When argument is viewed as a shared search for truth, it becomes possible to see adapting one’s position to new information and ideas not as weak or wishy-washy, but as a challenge to which only a mature, strong, and honorable person can rise. More pragmatically, all sides can begin to look forward to not merely getting their way, but getting something better in the form of a win-win solution.

Control and Influence

When considering how to cause change, we can imagine ourselves standing at the center of a circle. The things we can reach out and touch directly define our span of control. If all the changes we wish to make are entirely within our span of control, we have the power to simply go ahead and make them.

Usually, however, things are not so simple. In our mental image, the things we control are just what lies within arm’s reach; our span of control is always quite small. But just beyond our span of control lies the start of our sphere of influence. Although we may not be able to reach out and touch these things directly, we can still cause change by cooperating with others. For example, a business may control its manufacturing processes, while it can only influence its suppliers and customers.

The farther away objects are, the less influence we wield, until we reach a point where we have no significant influence. This marks the end of our sphere of influence.

Our sphere of influence is always much larger than our span of control, and is probably larger than we think. Most gratifyingly: causing positive changes within your sphere of influence has the desirable effect of expanding it.

Optimization and Suboptimization

When we reward people for improvements entirely within their span of control, what is the natural reaction? An example of this might be basing manager performance reviews solely on efficiency within their departments. The natural reaction is, of course, for them to narrow their span of control as much as possible, to define its boundaries as sharply as possible from other parts of the system, and to focus entirely on efficiency within their particular component (division, department, cubicle, etc.) This behavior results in suboptimization, which is maximizing or fine-tuning a part of the system without considering the (often detrimental) effects of doing so on the entire system.

On the other hand, what happens when we reward people for improvements within their entire sphere of influence? In this case, their desire becomes to extend their sphere of influence outwards as far as possible. As mentioned previously, acting in one’s sphere of influence requires coordination and cooperation with others, which in turn encourages an awareness of the system as a whole. The end result is optimization, where people orchestrate their efforts together, toward the fulfillment of the system’s goal.

Optimization is the outcome of systems thinking (looking at a system not as merely a collection of parts but as a unified whole) applied to the goal of process improvement.

Tools and Expectations

People have invented many useful tools that help us perceive the world accurately, arrange our knowledge, think about it logically, develop plans, and communicate effectively. Despite having these tools, we must still do the hard work of thinking, and also the hard work of implementing our plans. When new tools (such as Flying Logic) are introduced, they are often touted as labor-saving devices. But do we really do less work now that we have automobiles, telephones, and computers? Arguably, in our world of accelerating change, we often do more. So it is important to have a pragmatic understanding that the net result of new tools is not to reduce labor, but to raise expectations.

Just as spreadsheets were a boon to accounting and financial planning but did not make accountants obsolete, I hope that Flying Logic will be of significant help to systems thinkers and people with a passion for making the world and its systems better. Even more, it is my hope that Flying Logic will help get more people involved in these vital topics.

— Wolf McNally

Last updated