Of playground paradoxes and ancient gods: how to innovate with Janusian thinking

Today, we would declare in the playground, is Opposite Day. On Opposite Day, everything you said meant the opposite of what you said, so you had to say the opposite of what you wanted to say in order to communicate what you wanted to say. But to say Today is Opposite Day on Opposite Day meant it was not Opposite Day, so how could you spread the word around school that it was Opposite Day?

Still with me? Getting our heads around paradoxes takes some concentration. However, the ability to conceive of conflicting or opposite thoughts simultaneously has been identified as a mark of outstanding creativity by the psychiatrist Albert Rothenburg.

Rothenburg named this type of thought ‘Janusian Thinking’, after the Roman god Janus. Janus was a two-headed god, one of whose heads could look into the past whilst the other looked into the future. Whilst few of us have two heads with which to hold antithetical ideas concurrently, we can emulate the Janusian thought process in order to approach what we do at a higher level of thinking.

Rothenburg studied 54 Nobel prizewinners and attributed many major scientific breakthroughs or artistic works of genius to a specific process: taking a problem formulated in terms of opposing concepts or ideas, and trying to resolve the paradox.

Many of the problems you may have with your business can probably be captured in terms of a paradox.

Can you now think of a non-business equivalent to the problem your paradox describes?

In your analogy, what can be done to improve the situation?

Now can you apply this improvement back to your original paradox?

What’s your new big idea?

Rothenburg has claimed that Einstein, Bohr, Mozart and Picasso were all Janusian thinkers. Our paradoxes may be more Opposite Day than Quantum Theory, but with a little prayer to Janus we might come up with some creative innovations to improve on our company’s status quo.

Want to walk on the moon? It’s all about the small steps

How does change happen? Newton’s first law states that objects keep going in the same direction at the same speed until an external force acts upon it which changes its course and velocity. There isn’t much point arguing with the laws of physics, so if we want to make a change, we have to be that external force.

Luckily for us, to improve your personal productivity, you don’t have to grab your Sunday golf club and bludgeon yourself into action; a small nudge should do the trick. This is because it’s the little things that can have the biggest impact.

Accentuate the positive

Research shows daily habits are the most powerful of all behaviours, and therefore the most powerful way to make the changes we want is to start with the small things.

First off, we need to acknowledge that we can’t do everything. Recognising this takes a certain strength and self-awareness, but if we remember to let go and focus in on one or two small but key priorities, we are well on our way to improving personal productivity.

You might want to make a positive improvement to your health: how about starting your day every day with a fruit smoothie? You can easily tick off three of your five a day before you’ve even left the house.

Want to increase your client or customer numbers? What about going to events where you can network twice a month? Schedule in an hour for following up with new contacts after each event and you’ll soon reap the benefits.

It’s this attention to detail that makes a big difference. This does not mean we lose sight of the big picture, but focusing on the small things making a small alteration to the daily routine, or instigating one minor innovation in the weekly plan enables us to achieve real change.

Eliminate the negative

There’s a flipside to the power of the small things. If small, positive things can have a huge impact, so too can small, negative things. What bad habits in your company or your life could you do without? If we don’t keep an eye on the details, the little things can wreak havoc in our personal and professional lives.

Cognitive therapy treats problems big and small by helping patients to challenge unhelpful reactions to everyday situations.

You probably don’t feel this applies to you. But have you ever felt rejected or upset after someone has said no to an invitation? Been self-critical when you haven’t achieved what you set out to do by the end of the day?

These are exactly the kinds of situations CBT focuses on, because this therapy recognises how changing the small things can have a huge impact on how we approach the world. We can learn a lot from these techniques to eradicate those unhelpful little things from our own lives.

One small step

To create real impact by changing the small things, you need to do it consistently. The engagement and the investment doesn’t have to be big, but it has to be there. Can you think of a significant change you’ve made for the positive? Can you break down the big picture into the small things that got you there?

Many of us can probably come up with a few things. But now it’s time to have a think about a small alteration or new activity you could introduce today one which you could do regularly with a modest amount of effort which could help you towards a big change. And then do it.

Take one small step in the right direction, and you might find that, with consistent effort, you’ve made a giant leap for you or your business.

Got a case of experts’ disease? Don’t call the doctor

In the lofty world of academic research into language, experts speak of a common plight of those who spend their days trying to decide whether sentences they encounter are grammatical or not: linguists’ disease. The symptoms? Because these specialists spend so long examining their area of expertise, they find that they increasingly struggle to maintain perspective and make accurate judgments over whether a sentence sounds right in their native language or not.


When you’ve built up a company yourself, or spent many years working in a certain sector, you probably know your stuff pretty well. But do you think you might ever find yourself suffering from experts’ disease? The more you know about a certain area, the more you think in a certain way about that area. We create the box we’re always being told to think outside of.

Our thinking remains inside the box, even when we search for new ideas. What’s more, we often surround ourselves by people with similar expertise or outlook, further limiting our horizons. Indeed, the greater our knowledge or experience of a certain field, the more difficult it is to innovate.


Don’t just self-medicate by telling yourself to think outside the box. And don’t call the doctor. A more effective treatment is to talk to someone who is not an authority in your field. Often the greatest innovators are those who do not have expert knowledge and so have to search elsewhere to bring new ideas and solutions to the table.

If you have a problem, run it past someone who is from an entirely different background to you. The less associated they are with your business, the more likely they are to offer you a new perspective. This could be anyone.

Track down people you know to be creative, imaginative or big on ideas. They may not have your professional know-how, but they might have a talent for innovation that could spark something new.

Talk to strangers. They might observe something you haven’t. Talk to customers or clients. Their criteria for how they evaluate your product could well be different from your own.


Talking to non-experts is only an effective treatment if you listen to what they have to say. Your success depends upon your ability to hear what they tell you and take them seriously. This can be hard to do when you are the expert and they are not, and you may resist what they have to say if it goes against your way of thinking.

If you consult someone, or even if someone offers you a suggestion unsolicited, make sure you keep an open mind to what they are saying. Resist distractions when you are listening, concentrate on extracting the key ideas and hear out what they have to say until the end.

Make sure you judge their content, not their delivery. Be critical in your analysis, but resist the temptation to make a judgment on their words until they have finished speaking: you may not like everything they have to say, but you might miss something valuable if you are overly hasty in reaching a verdict.


From baked beans to iTunes: the why, how and who of establishing company principles

Remember that friend from university who moved in with you and became the nightmare flatmate? Never did the hoovering? Left pans encrusted with baked beans all over the kitchen? Didn’t notice when you went on bin strike for two months?

Maybe that was just me. But we’ve all experienced a similar mismatch of standards and values with another person in our personal or professional lives.


It is crucial to establish the key principles we wish to live and work by. These define what we believe is important and give impetus and purpose to our decisions and choices.

A common mistake is to assume that our own standards and expectations are shared by others we come across. All too often, we only realise there is a difference in values after someone has acted in a way we find inappropriate.

I thought I had no reason to believe my flatmate wouldn’t share what I considered to be basic standards of cleanliness and courtesy to others: but these were my standards, not his.

If your values and expectations aren’t established and shared from the outset, you run the risk of having to firefight all the behaviours that go against these. Indeed, I spent the rest of the time my flatmate and I lived together trying to amend the mismatch between his standards and mine.

What’s worse, you may end up instigating rules which may appear simplistic or petty to protect against infringements of your standards. In doing so, you limit others’ freedom to make their own decisions or choose their own behaviours. The old adage rings true: prevention is better than cure.


Make a checklist of your key principles, whether these are personal or professional. There is likely to be an overlap between the two if you are in charge of your own business, as your personal ethos is likely to be the eyes through which you focus the company vision.

In order to draw up what your key principles are, think about what you are like when you are at your best. Truthful? Trustworthy? Creative? Community-focused? Are you more of a risk-taking or risk-averse business? If you are risk-averse, are reliability and steadfastness at the heart of what you do?

Write down what you do best. Always write these in the positive (dependable and consistent sounds better than risk-averse, right?). Be truthful. And make your definitions as clear as possible.

You can also think about whose behaviour you have been questioning. What standard is it that they have been violating? Add it to the list.


You may create your checklist on your own, or achieve it as a shared task. If you go it alone, make sure that your list is shared with others. Expectations need to be shared so that everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet.

Best practice is to ensure that the standards you have enshrined in your key principles are collective values. It’s not just a case of making sure everyone knows the right tune and the words, but that the song they’re singing is one that they would at least consider downloading off iTunes.

Finally, for these principles to have purpose, make sure you refer to these standards as you go about your day-to-day. Challenge yourselves to adhere to them. Question yourselves and your standards. Are we living up to this principle? How? How are we not? How could we tweak the behaviour, or the standard itself? Are we sure this this is how we see the world?

Don’t be the flatmate who never does the washing up. But don’t be the flatmate who assumes everyone will share the cleaning rota that’s in your head, either. Discuss it, write it down, and stick it on the fridge door. And remember to refer back to it when you walk in the kitchen, too.

Don’t shoot the messenger! 5 useful tips for when you need to share bad news

Delivering bad news is rarely easy, neither for messenger nor recipient. It is awkward for the bearer of the bad news, and the other party will often feel vulnerable as the receiver. But when it is done right, sharing bad news can improve a situation for all concerned.

When you find yourself in the position of messenger, and want to avoid a shoot-out (incidentally, don’t shoot the messenger’ is probably one of the worst things you could say in such circumstances), it is not so much what we say but how we say it that makes the difference. The best way to approach the situation is to prepare for the conversation, think about what you need to communicate and how you are going to put it across in order to keep the peace and maintain the other person’s dignity at all times.

For some useful pointers on how to keep your script on track, try out the following five tips which should help you to get that difficult conversation right.

1. Do it ASAP. Hard-to-have conversations only become more difficult if you put the inevitable off. Once you’ve had a think about how to deliver the bad news, you should look to have that conversation as soon as is feasible. This is particularly the case if the information needs to come from you; the conversation you will eventually have to have will be much harder if someone else has shared the news first.

2. Get straight to the point. Tell them the reason for your meeting at the start of the conversation, and communicate the main facts straightaway. Beating around the bush and withholding key information will hamper the interaction and may cause frustration to the other party.

3. Put yourself in their shoes. Both when preparing for the conversation and once you have broached the subject, try to anticipate and understand their perspective and reactions to the issue at hand.  Demonstrating you can identify with their position will encourage the other party to be more receptive and open to hearing and discussing the bad news you have to share.

4. Separate the news from the person. It is easy, though erroneous, to interpret bad news as a personal attack. While any offence is more likely to derive from the other party’s reaction to the news rather than your intentions presenting the information – assuming it is not your goal to make the bad news personal – you must be explicit in differentiating between the news and the individual. Separate the specifics of the situation, especially where the person may have made a mistake or been at fault, from their competence or attributes as a person.

5. End by agreeing to a plan for the next step. Tie up the conversation with a proactive agreement on what to do next, albeit only an arrangement to meet again at specified and scheduled time. This ends the exchange on a positive and looks forward to the future with a joint view on where you are headed.

Leave the entrails in the kitchen: 6 steps to plan for future success

“The future belongs to those who prepare for it” 
– Malcolm X.

How unexpected is the unexpected?

In the last week, one of the UK’s leading fashion retailers Republic went unexpectedly into administration putting 2,500 jobs at risk. It was only in 2010 that the business was bought for £300 million by private equity firm TPG and appeared to have a bright future at the time. The immediate issue appeared to be poor trading over the key Christmas/ January trading period, the unusual poor weather and snowfalls hit store sales badly across many market sectors. Whilst it’s always difficult to predict the future, this blog covers a useful technique to help you manage the worst the unexpected can throw at you.

How can you better manage unpredictable events?

In ancient Rome, an augur interpreted the will of the gods by examining animal behaviour and their entrails. Today, few of us would base our predictions for the future on the pecking behaviour of sacred chickens, or the liver of a sacrified sheep.

In fact, many of us would say you cannot predict future events. We may be able to envisage likely outcomes, or have a global notion of what is to come, but improbable events occur without warning, and catch many of us off guard.

But whilst we cannot know for certain what will happen in the future, we can plan for it. And what’s more, we can plan for future success.

To do this, we must shift our focus from the general to the local, because it is in the detail that we sink or swim. Have you thought about specific situations that might arise in the future with regard to your business? Have you planned a strategy to react to them?

In order to avoid being paralysed by indecision when faced with the unexpected, and take measures to ensure future success, we need to home in on the specifics of a situation. When we break this situation down into its component parts, we can identify and develop strategies for what needs to be done. How to do this is outlined below.

Six Steps to Plan for the Future

There are two parts to the process, identification and development. The four initial steps form the identification part, starting by pinpointing the initial problem and leading to building the possible scenarios which derive from the specified problem. Once these are established, the final two steps are the development part of the process, in which the scenarios are explored and business opportunities are predicted and analysed.

1. Identification: problem

Find and specify a particular problem or potentially challenging situation for your business. It is useful to state this as a question. Though the problem can be phrased generally (in terms of concepts rather than specific business facts), it is best to keep it as simple as possible to minimise variables.

2. Identification: decision

Isolate a decision which arises from the problem situation that will need to be taken. You should only select one decision, as your problem should be specific enough to only allow for one variable you can control by a decision-making process. If there is more than one variable beyond your control, refine your problem identification to its simplest form.

3. Identification: forces

Pinpoint the principal forces which will have an impact on your decision. These forces could be economic, technological, environmental, or otherwise associated with your business or your competition, and should relate back to the subject of your decision.

4. Identification: scenarios

Based on the principal forces you have identified, you can now build scenarios which could potentially arise given the forces at play. Of course, the possibilities are infinite, but it is best to restrict your scenarios to four or five plausible future situations. Remember to factor in both probable and improbable scenarios, and don’t forget that a valid scenario may be ‘nothing changes’ (i.e. all factors remain the same in the future as today).

5. Development: scenarios

At the development stage, you need to explore what could happen in the scenarios you have identified, and you do this by varying the forces (identified at stage 3) that affect your decision. By changing the forces and combining the changes produced, you create patterns which illustrate the possible consequences of your decision. These ‘narratives’ allow you to track the possible outcomes of a decision needing to be made based on the outside factors which influence it. A sensible projection for your narrative’s timeline is five years (i.e. what impact will your decision have over the next five years?).

6. Development: actions

You have now plotted out a step-by-step, multi-outcome forecast for your business over the next five years, with the key scenarios identified and explored. The final stage is to analyse these developed scenarios and search for business opportunities within each possible future situation. On establishing the scenarios, some actions to be taken will be immediately obvious. However, it is worth taking the time to explore the narratives you have developed to find potential commercial opportunities and areas for innovation.

Is there a bright future now for the Republic business?

The Republic business has some great brands, a decent website and some high performing store. I remain hopeful that the new owners can reshape the business to save as many of the 2,500 jobs at risk and satisfy its loyal core of happy fashion customers in the next few weeks.

Post-its and pit-stops: how can the humble Post-It help you conquer distraction and get more vital work done?

What did you set out to achieve yesterday? We can wake up each morning with a real focus on what’s most important in life and then find a tide of emails, text messages and voicemails have distracted us from what we really intended to do.

Shame on me, but sometimes a terrible temptation to quickly sit down to check my emails first thing can end up distracting me onto new tasks that I’d not planned on doing. And when I look up at the clock, I end up wondering where so much of the morning has gone?

If I just think about this morning, I got up bright and early only to have two calls before 7AM, one from Australia and another in the UK inviting me to a meeting discuss the challenges of cultural change in banks. At least I said no to the bank meeting as achieving cultural change in banks is a challenge almost on a par with parting the Red Sea.

In this 24/7 ‘always-on’ mobile phone social media world, it’s all too easy to get sucked into a black hole pattern where you seem to work non-stop all day, yet interruptions and distractions – whether self-induced or created by others – prevent you from achieving that action plan in your head.

It sounds simple, but start with writing your action plan down!

If you haven’t written your action plan down, even if only on a post-it note, chances are it is unlikely to get done. You don’t need to publish a multi-page plan in PDF. Putting pen to paper cements your intentions and confirms your priorities. If it’s on that post-it, it needs to get done; if it’s not, maybe it can wait.

We often want to achieve everything, and, especially in the world of business, there do not seem to be enough hours in the day. And you’d be right in thinking that: there aren’t enough hours in the day. Prioritisation, therefore, is key. And the humble Post-It is a great tool to help focus our attention.

Remember to pause

It may be, however, that you aren’t sure what to prioritise. So, take a brief pit-stop. Our day-to-day life isn’t all that dissimilar from Formula 1 cars looping round the track, but, unlike F1 racing drivers, we often forget to take time to refuel and make minor (or occasionally major) adjustments.

When we are overburdened, our minds are frazzled but there’s still work to be done, we don’t want to stop. Just a few more hours should do the trick, right? But we all know taking a rest will refresh us and will leave us better-equipped to take on the world when we return.

More often than not, we forget, choose not to, or feel guilty when we do take a pit-stop. Yet when we do, we afford ourselves the opportunity to take control over our distractions and re-focus our efforts and energies.

Refuel to refocus

Introducing a pit-stop isn’t just about refuelling in our daily lives. Is there something you don’t like about how your company’s latest deal is going? Or you’re not convinced about the direction in which the business is headed?

Take that pit-stop and listen to your intuitions. The pause gives you space to rest but also to reflect: time to think about those minor adjustments. Do you just need to clean the windshield, change a tyre, or make a larger repair?

Taking the time to prioritise, make an action plan, and write it down is vital to conquering distractions. Remembering to pause, slow down and make any necessary changes not only helps to conquer distractions, but it enables you to re-focus and pinpoint what your priorities are. So take a pit-stop and pull out a post-it: what do you need to get done today?

giffgaff: an alternative to your mobile phone service?

Do you trust your mobile phone service to give you the best deal? My bet is that – even if you consider yourself to be someone who’s in the know – at some point you’ve been confused by complicated tariffs, felt cheated on the deal you were sold, or let down by your service. Amongst consumers, this is all too often what mobile phone services are known for.

What does giffgaff offer to its customers?

Enter giffgaff, the type of company that likes to brand its name in lower case. It calls itself ‘the mobile network run by you’ and has been operating for a few years now, providing an alternative, community-based service with the customer at its heart. Its unique selling point is that it offers transparency, value for money and a symbiotic partnership with users: precisely what other providers are thought to lack.

giffgaff is fundamentally a pay-as-you-go service, operating on O2’s network. It offers goodybags’, monthly packages which for all intents and purposes function as a monthly rolling contract, if you choose their auto top-up’ option. Text and minutes are cheap, especially compared with other networks. Many of the goodybags offer unlimited data: and the data is truly unlimited, no secret clauses (but no tethering either). Essentially, you get a straightforward, uncomplicated deal that you can opt out of at almost the drop of a hat.

How does it keep costs down?

The company has a few simple tricks to keep costs down, which reflect their community ethos. No call centres, no high street shops, very little marketing and advertising. Promotion is achieved through word-of-mouth; indeed, that’s how I heard about it.

But this isn’t a cheap scam. A small team runs a modest head office. There’s a number customers can dial if they need help, primarily with credit card issues. Problems are instead solved in the forums by the online user community; you usually have a response within 90 seconds. The giffgaff team asks users what they want through the forum, and the users tell them.

What’s in it for me?

giffgaff rewards its users for their forum contributions in points which equate to real money through its payback’ system: this is reimbursed twice a year, in the form of mobile credit, cash, or a donation to your chosen charity. £1.8 million was paid out in December 2012. Not bad.

It’s a low-cost, efficient business model, and it works. It is, admittedly, not for everyone, but that is its appeal. It’s alternative, honest and it listens: exactly what its users are looking for.


Can I get your number? Find out more about giffgaff on its website – how about consulting the online community to see what they think?

Designed by: Carne Associates & modified by Dawud Miracle