Neutral Thinking

It Takes What It Takes

Neutral thinking is the subject of Trevor Moawad’s new book, “It Takes What It Takes”. A good book, provoking me to take a look at how I’m managing. It’s an interesting concept that I battle with a lot. Moawad is talking about the frame of mind of top sportspeople enter into, where negative thinking is displaced and the focus is on the now. In his case, his mind-coaching of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. He tells a story of Wilson forgetting his two recent interceptions, staying neutral and looking at the next play, trusting the process. And going on to win the game.

My feeling is that neutral thinking can operate in several timeframes. We see Roger Federer lose crucial points, remaining focused, winning the next point. The next set. Then the game. Neutral thinking at its best. I worked for a great football coach some 25 years ago and he would say to me “you’re never as good as you think you are, and you’re never as bad as you think you are.” He was telling me to stay neutral in my thinking and preparation.

He was explaining to me that our team was talented and solid (and indeed a championship team that year, as it transpired). But that it was about trusting the strategies we were operating us for the whole season and applying them game by game, quarter by quarter, play by play. Countless repetitions of plays and processes which were designed to achieve a certain outcome were worked through. Then during a game, there was no place for negative thinking, what had come before was of no concern, we were focused on the next action. One we had run through dozens of times in the previous days.

Neutral Thinking In Business

In business, trusting the process is my go-to system. No different to the sporting example just described. I’ve had to learn to adhere to it, it’s taken a long time. Sometimes the discipline of developing the process is hard and it takes years of testing and tweaking. Then once you have a system, trusting it. Communicating it and persuading others to trust it. And applying it again and again. That discipline is not easy. I’m a Myers-Briggs INTP so I probably adapt better to the approach. People can see me as being a bit gung-ho and operating on gut feel at times, but I prefer to think about the system. That’s my comfort zone. Appearances can be deceptive, but I was the quiet one when growing up, watching and thinking.

If you can stick with your proven process, then you will progress. Any robust system will weather whatever internal and external factors are thrown at it. It may shake from time to time, it may stumble, but it won’t collapse. When the pressure is on, a business leader should stay in neutral thinking, because she cannot control what has just happened, but she does have control over what comes next. Trust the process, stay in neutral thinking. Your next action is one you have prepared for already.

Positivity & Impatience Problems

It sounds perverse, but positive thinking can be a problem. A rush of blood to the head and all of a sudden you’re making poor decisions. It can open the door to all sorts of bias, seeking to see and hear only the data you want to support your next action. It can lead to self-delusion. Remember, you’re never as good as you think you are. A wise and successful football coach told me so.

Humans get impatient. This undermines neutral thinking and allows for proven systems to be bypassed. For no rational reason, people just want to interfere. They could not manage their anxiety or boredom or need for instant gratification. Feeling they know better. Letting ego dominate. We’ve all been there. The biggest enemy of the proven process is human impulsivity. When thinking moves out of the neutral.

Trust The Process

Of course, pressure can make people panic and override what’s proven to work. Neutral thinking gets overpowered by the pressure of the situation and then bad decisions ensue. It’s crucial to take that step back when the heat gets turned up. Ask yourself why you are here in the first place. Most likely due to having the right talent in place and having paired it with a clear plan and processes. Trust the process, it simplifies decisions when the pressure is on. If you trust the process, neutral thinking is enabled.

The process has to be evolved, however. We are all operating in dynamic environments and the personal and organisational capability and strategy have to adapt. Each hour, week or year, do tweak it. The complex swirl of data around you should be used to inform and drive small improvements. But always come back to the system. The business or team that doesn’t do this will fail eventually. Complacency or lack of awareness or failure to constantly develop organisational capability will result in failure, sometimes creeping failure, sometimes catastrophic. One day it’s all going nicely, but haven’t noticed the drift from the path. Or the environmental change, because it stealthily envelops you before you know it.

Neutral Thinking – My Personal Experience

Neutral thinking is a weapon. But it needs serious application. And stopping ourselves overriding it for emotional reasons. My personal experience is that I need discipline in business, I need to be aware of what’s happening for me and what’s happening around me. If I’m feeling positive or possibly overconfident, it can lead me to contemplate reaching for something that’s outside of the plan and process. I need to take the emotion out of it, analyse the data and then consider it in the context of the process. Not always easy, the stakes can be high.

The flip side is true too. If something isn’t going too well, if the unexpected occurs, it’s tempting to double down and try and correct the deviation from plan all in one go. In all cases, neutral thinking is more effective. It may be you do need to make a bold move but from a neutral frame of mind.

That’s not to say one shouldn’t consider any new avenues or alternatives, because that too will result in getting bitten at some stage. What I am saying is trusting the process and staying in neutral thinking will much more often than not win. If you start bringing strongly positive or strongly negative emotions and associated ideas into play, then you stray off the plan. What brought you the success in the first place was a well thought through and practiced set of actions and processes.

Summary

I’m sold on the neutral thinking concept. It’s not the easiest approach, we all emotionally ebb and flow as humans. Our strength and our weakness as humans is our emotion, our ability to experience the world from the heart and not just the head. One of the multitudes of reasons we are fascinating. I wouldn’t be sold on neutral thinking as a standalone concept however, it needs to be anchored to a proven success model. Which is why developing a proven framework and associated processes are crucial. Have those and then you can start thinking about the neutral thinking discipline to help guide action.


Also published on Medium.

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