Tools to Achieve Clarity of Thought

This post is an inventory of tools I use to drive clear thinking. I update it regularly as I learn new tools, or gain new insights about existing tools as I use them.

I am available to do 1:1 or group coaching on all of these topics. See Advising, Coaching, and Consulting | Kindel

Tig’s Clarity of Thought Toolbox

  • Embrace Mental Models. A mental model is an explanation of how something works. It is a concept, framework, or worldview that you carry around in your mind to help you interpret the world and understand the relationship between things. Mental models are deeply held beliefs about how the world works. Ask yourself, “what is a real-world analogy for this topic?” Don’t be afraid to steal mental models from others. Write your mental model down.
  • Customer, Business, Technology, Organization (CBTO). CBTO is my favorite mental model for creating clarity of thought across all aspects of a business.
  • Have a Plan. Always have a plan. Always. Recognize no plan survives first contact with the enemy (or customer). Write the plan down. Ensure every aspect of the plan has dates written down. A great mental model for any sized plan is The 5 Ps: Purpose, Principles, Priorities, Plan, and People. For more: The 5 Ps: Achieving Focus in Any Endeavor.
  • Identify the constraints. It’s easy to identify outcomes and opportunities. It’s hard to identify the constraints. The strongest businesses understand the metrics that constrain growth. See also: Focus on the inputs, not the outputs.
  • 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. Robust 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.
  • Don’t Rely on Good Intentions; Mechanize. Stuff doesn’t get done based solely on people’s good intentions. What you need is a way to mechanize people’s good intentions. A Mechanism is a complete process that ensures things get done or change happens.
  • Audit. 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 it Down. 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. When solving hard problems with a team DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE the power of a well-argued, documented, and repeatedly communicated lexicon and taxonomy. The answer to “Did we just waste two hours debating semantics?” is always no. The only way to ensure people are aligned on CORE issues is to debate semantics until you are blue in the face. Work with your teams to become excellent at debating lexicon and taxonomy. In addition to the Taxonomy and Lexicon post, read Find the Crux by Debating Excellence.
  • Structured Brainstorm. It is amazing what can happen when a group of smart folks gets in a room for a structured brainstorming session. The funny thing about structured brainstorming 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.
  • Always have a Path To Green. A Path To Green (PTG) is a clear, crisp, and complete statement describing a team’s plan for getting a project from red or yellow status to green.
  • Determine if it is a One-Way or Two-Way Door. In the long-term, very, very few things actually matter. The vast majority of the decisions made day-to-day are either minutia or easily reversible and can be made quickly. Get good at quickly figuring out whether a decision is a one-way or two-way door.
  • Be A Volunteer. Once you get to the point in your career where you realize a) you’ll be just fine financially (because your resume kicks ass), b) your company doesn’t give a sh*t about you, and c) you know what the Right Thing to do is, act like a volunteer.

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


  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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