Tools to Achieve Clarity of Thought

This post inventories the tools I use from my toolbox when I need to drive clear thinking in product development. I was inspired to write this based on a Twitter conversation in March:

Charlie’s Clarity of Thought Toolbox

  • Write Down The 5 Ps. Purpose, Principles, Priorities, Plan, and People. Detailed here: The 5 Ps: Achieving Focus in Any Endeavor.
  • Dive Deep. Do the hard work required to actually know the details at the deepest level. The more details you know, the better questions you can ask. The better questions you ask, the more everyone gets clarity of thought. Better clarity of thought leads to better decisions by everyone. So, read the actual source code (or even better write some code). Use the product until it fails. Read every Jira. Do the math yourself. Write the document that explains it to everyone else.
  • Be a Great Reader. Read. Every. Word. Carefully. I wrote a blog post on this topic here.
  • Audit Mechanisms. An audit mechanism is a system or process that forces details to be surfaced regularly. For example, in a weekly operational excellence review, use a wheel-of-fortune style wheel to randomly select a project each week where the lead must explain their metrics dashboard. This forces every project to be prepared, but scales because not every project has to be reviewed each week.
  • Seek the Truth. Question everything.
  • Write Narratives. As Jeff Bezos said “It is impossible to write a great 6-page narrative and not have clarity of thought.” If you are tackling any hard problem take the time to write a short (no longer than 6-page), narratively written, memo presenting the problem. See some of my posts on writing here. Also make sure you read Jeff Bezos’s 2017 Letter to Shareholders.
  • Ask and Answer Great Questions in narratives using FAQs. See my FAQ About Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Ask The 5 Whys. No tool is better at getting to the root cause than “The 5 Whys”. Folks often cheat when using the 5 Why’s and ask 5 parallel questions. Don’t fall into that trap. Ask questions that seek the truth and don’t be afraid to have multiple 5 Why threads in parallel. Write it down.
  • Taxonomy and Lexicon. Develop a strong taxonomy with clear entity names. Create three buckets and put parts of the problem in them. Give each a name that logically makes sense. Don’t be afraid to get out the dictionary and thesaurus. Think hard about the meanings of the words you choose. Make it pithy. Write it down. Take a look at these blog posts for examples of taxonomies and lexicons I’ve developed: Customer, Business, Technology, Organization (CBTO), The 5 Ps: Achieving Focus in Any Endeavor, and The Market Sides of the Mobile Ecosystem.
  • Invent or Steal a Mental Model. Ask yourself “what is a real-world analogy for this topic?” Startup folks are often great at coming up with “Uber for avocados” mental models. Don’t be afraid to steal mental models from others. Write your mental model down. These blog posts cover mental models I’ve stolen from others and might help you understand how mental models work: Attention is the Currency of Leadership and Merit Badges.
  • Structured Brainstorm. It is amazing what can happen when a group of smart folks get in a room for a structured brainstorm session. The funny thing about structured brainstorm sessions is how they are better the less organized they are. Levity is key.
  • Do something monotonous and un-related. Wax the car. Power wash the driveway. Plant petunias. Bake cookies. It is ok to procrastinate (you can tell ‘em I gave you permission). Focusing on repetitive, monotonous, and unrelated tasks enables the subconscious to work magic.

Do you have other tools you’d like to share? Post them as a comment please!

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

2 comments


  1. Sound, practical, epistemological advice.
    Regretfully, the impact of a 50-year decline in fundamental cognitive tools leaves too many Americans in the position that they cannot fully benefit from such advice.
    If interested, there is AI technology that can independently and autonomously create cognitive super schools.

  2. Nice job Charlie – although much of this is already familiar to me, I always pull a few great nuggets out of your posts. This time was it’s ok to steal mental models, and the bit about zoning-out in order to let the subconscious dial-in.

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