Tools to Achieve Clarity of Thought

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

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.
  • Craft Tenets. One of the first rules of problem-solving is “getting to first principles.” The 2nd P in the 5 Ps is Principles. Tenet is a synonym of Principle. This blog post will teach teams how to craft geat Tenets.
  • Debate. The debate is critical to clear thinking in an organization. Debates create collective intelligence, and they garner the full intelligence of an org. On decisions of great import, rigorous debate depersonalizes the decision. Debate your Tenets.
  • 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.
  • Write Narratives. As Jeff Bezos has 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. Please read my post on Taxonomy and Lexicon. 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 gets 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!

3 comments


  1. John Harris says:

    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.

  3. Mark Cichowski says:

    Some of these tools, and your other pearls of wisdom, remind me of a time tested approach to Coaching: Explain, Demonstrate, Practice, Correct, Repeat. I’ve used this coaching with kids and in business with adults. Similar principles, different topics, but typically strong results, especially long term.

Debate this topic with me:

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