• Gavin McMahon

Creating Outcomes — How to think about how you think.


"The outcome is everything. The outcome is what you live with"

― Frances de Pontes Peebles


How often do you think about how you think?” That sounds like a trick question. It’s one we ask in our workshops. The answer, usually, is, “not a lot.”


There's a second question:


Where do you focus your thinking?”


The answer, (usually) is


I dunno ...


These are not trick questions. These are key questions.


Let’s look at the first one. If you understand how you think — you can understand how you learn. If you understand how you think — you can improve your critical thinking skills. If you understand how you think — you can make better decisions and communicate clearly. Your thinking is the key to better leadership — self-leadership, team leadership, and thought-leadership.



How you think informs your choices, your actions, your conversations.

The second question is the key to unlocking your potential. It’s the difference between a good day and a bad day.


Where do you focus your thinking?


I dunno...


Problem or outcome?


Let’s face it, we’re all pretty good problem solvers. When we took our first pop-quiz we started down the road of rewarding the problem-solver. We’re trained in school to solve problems. Most professions wire you that way. Doctors learn to diagnose problems (symptoms) and come up with solutions. Engineers learn to recognize problems and overcome them.


We’re trained to be problem-reactors. We can't help it.


But that’s a problem. It's limited.


Reacting to problems is short-term. We miss opportunities to be broad. It's what neuroscientists call low-road thinking. ¹


We're swamped with problems at work. We don't want to live with them, but we do. We fight fires, try workarounds and fix problems. When we're deep in the problem-swamp, we lose sight of why we came to work in the first place — to create outcomes.


Creating outcomes is what neuroscientists call high-road thinking. Business people call it strategic thinking. Sports psychologists call it flow. Yogis call it mindfulness.



We spend all day at work solving problems, but we come to work to create outcomes.

Below the line, on the low-road, we react to problems. Above the line, on the high-road, we create outcomes.


Below the line is the fire-drill. Above the line is winning the big deal. It's putting a smile on your customer’s face. It's a new product success story. A team that fires on all cylinders.


How much time do you spend above the line?


Below the line is a fixed mindset, where we don’t learn. We apply our skills and experience in the same way.


Above the line is a growth mindset, where we’re at our most expansive, our most creative. It’s agile thinking. With fixed thinking, we can become rigid and entrenched. Expansive thinking allows us to be at our most flexible and open.


When we’re fixed in our thinking, we can be at our most destructive. We're closed. We're right, and they are wrong.


When we’re expansive in our thinking, we can be at our most creative. We're adaptable. We're curious. We're looking for a win-win.


To move above the line, we have to train ourselves to do two things.


1) Focus on outcomes, (allowing us to look at our problems differently)

2) Think expansively.


We have to dig deeper into how we think. Since you probably don’t have time for a Ph.D. in Psychology, we’ll use a simple model — your thinking pattern.

Each of us has a thinking pattern. They’re composed of four key elements: ²



Ethics is about people and commitments. Vision, about possibilities and ideas. Courage, about action and bold moves, and Reality, about data and plans.


As you look at those elements, you will be more drawn to some than others. Two of these elements will be particular strengths of yours. If you’re drawn to Ethics and Reality, you might over-focus on fairness and accuracy. This might get you stuck in the problem swamp when things aren’t fair, or right. You might miss the bigger picture or fail to take decisive action.


You can build stronger thinking habits working through all these elements. This broadens our thinking as we go from problem-reacting to outcome-creating. To create good outcomes we have to look at data (Reality). We have to talk to people (Ethics). We have to think through possibilities (Vision). We have to plot a course of action (Courage). We have to ask why, what, when and how?


This is not as easy as it sounds. Under time pressure, we get fixed in our thinking. We focus on problems. When we do this, we get habitual in our thinking. If we value people and ideas we over-index on Ethics and Vision. We ignore or don't think through plans (Reality) and action (Courage).


Under stress, it feels like we’re using our strengths. In fact, we’re over-using them. This hurts us.


We get stuck in a loop of fixed thinking. For me, I focus on ideas and push through actions. I may miss details, and not get people on board.


When you’re stuck, when you’re faced with a difficult choice or decision — focus on the outcome you want, not the problem you face. Work towards that outcome by expanding your thinking. Take a mental trip around your whole mind — look at data (Reality), possibilities (Vision), people (Ethics) and action (Courage).



Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads design and product development across our fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including: Leadership, culture, decision-making, information design, storytelling and customer experience.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic.

Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.




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