I often conduct a simple paper exercise with executives. I give them each a single piece of paper with a puzzle in which they have to join dots with a limited number of straight lines. Normally someone gets a solution really quickly.


Because they have seen ‘the’ solution before. The fact is there are many solutions. So why do they jump for that solution?

Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow talks about how the mind is inherently lazy and will opt for the easiest workable solution first in preference to the best solution which may take more time to arrive at. If this happens a number of times and works this is referred to as a heuristic.

My puzzle exercise also reveals the human instinct to behave in a way which is perhaps based on early life experience. For some reason just because I give everyone in the room their own piece of paper they tend to work alone. Is this because it feels like a school test where communication with those nearest was forbidden?

A few days ago while visiting Tim Peake’s slightly charred Soyuz capsule at the national railway museum in York I noticed a very strange monorail prototype called Brennan’s Gyrocar. This seems at first sight impossible. A train balancing on a single railway line careering around a bend at a precarious angle. It started me thinking especially with HS2 about to cost so much. How much cheaper could it be to build railways with just one line?

Back in 1985 I was awarded The Arthur W. Foreman Prize for the best design and make project at the Royal Naval Engineering College by the Institute for Mechanical Engineers. I was presented with a book entitled George Stephenson’s letters. Stephenson was one of the inventors of the Steam locomotive, made iconic by the Rocket and established the Institute in 1847.

As an engineer, I am aware that design can be constrained by many criteria: the customer, the specification, the budget, time, space, risk, investment and convention. As an engineer in HMS Ark Royal I was very aware that this aircraft carrier class was built with the largest reversing gearbox in the world when all other new ships had controllable pitch propellors and a small unidirectional gearbox. The reason presumably was because the risk of designing and making the largest controllable pitch propellor in the world was deemed greater than that of the largest gearbox. This decision however could create assumptions for future designers especially if they are not aware of the criteria behind the decision. There is no reason why in the future a larger controllable pitch propellor could not be produced or for that matter a completely different method of propelling a large ship in 2 directions. The danger is that we assume this is not possible.

So what of Louis Brennan’s Gyrocar - this was no inventor’s fantasy, it was invested in, heavily developed in the early 1900s, featured at international shows, Winston Churchill travelled in it, it was funded by various war departments and the idea was still going in 1962. Human instinct was probably its downfall. The concept of travelling safely across a chasm on a single wire in a train was difficult for the human mind to rationalise.

As a mountaineer I take a keen interest in geology and the formation of mountains. Alfred Wegener, the German meteorologist and explorer, is probably responsible for the biggest change in conceptual understanding in this area, changing what I was taught at school into the well accepted phenomenon of continental drift and plate movement. Unfortunately because he could not prove it the academic community hailed his theory as ‘damned pot’. One highly respected scientist went onto say “If we believe this hypothesis we must forget everything we learned in the last 70 years and start over again”. I bet he wishes he could eat his words now.

Our assumptions and the constraints around us and within us can be very limiting but how do we overcome them and those of others.

When working in safety-critical environments there are decision making processes that can be put in place to help reduce the chances of this happening.


Think who should be involved - diversity improves creativity and innovation. Collect information and ask these questions:

  • What do we know?
  • What do we not know?
  • What do we assume?
  • What constraints have been introduced?
  • What is based on past experience?
  • Why is it that way?
  • What are my biases?
  • If I was starting again and there were no constraints what would I do?

just wonder if Louis Brennan and his backers had been a bit more resilient, if the First World War had not happened, if there had not already been such an extensive network of railways, if the first train design had not developed from a horse drawn mining carriage could we have ended up with a much cheaper rail system today. More importantly is it too late to start again. Richard Branson is backing Hyperloop One. Take a look.

As an Executive Coach I can help you discover and challenge your own assumptions, constraints and biases in order to open up new opportunities within your business.

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