Tips and techniques

5 thinking traps to avoid at work

Ben Crothers Ben Crothers • 11 October 2022

Sometimes we find that certain truisms we think and say at work just aren't...well... so true anymore. Here are five we should consign to the bin of Outdated Thinking.

Photo credit: Julia M Cameron, via

Photo credit: Julia M Cameron, via

Whether we realise it or not, we lay traps for ourselves - and others - at work all the time. This happens through no fault of our own, but once you become aware of these traps, you see them in your own ways of working, and in others' as well. Let's take a look at what they are, and what to do instead.

Wait, don't worry! This isn't a post about occupational health and safety (as important as that is). Nor is it about catching crayfish or anything like that. 

So, what kinds of traps am I talking about? I'm talking about the sorts of aphorisms and truisms that used to reign supreme in The Olden Days of Work, especially when it came to product and service innovation and improvement. But these truisms just aren't so true anymore. It's time to weigh them up carefully before heeding them, and avoid them if they hurt our chances of success. 

Let's take a look:

1. TRAP: Don't ask a question you don't know the answer to

Ah yes. If you want to be seen as a confident leader, never ask questions. It makes you look weak. 

You might work with someone like this. They never ask questions, and if they do, they only ask leading questions to look smart. This approach might work well if you're a lawyer, but it's useless when trying to come up with better solutions together. A team is always grateful when each and every person - including the boss - is open with each other, and comfortable with not knowing all the answers.

INSTEAD: Start in the unknown, and ask questions.

2. TRAP: Think big

This sounds so good, right? Yes, we all want to scale, scale scale. But, success is instead often found in making the small thing work really well, connecting really deeply with an audience first. I'm so glad whenever anyone in the workshops I facilitate don't let the idealism of SCALE get in the way of envisioning a truly useful, resonant product or solution.

INSTEAD: Focus on meeting genuine needs.

3. TRAP: If the idea is good, then the money will follow

This one sounds good when you say it out loud, but it's rife with intellectual laziness and false simplification. Many leaders only back ideas that already make money, or that already appear "good' for them in a subjective sense. Why? Because it's easy. It takes no mental effort at all.

This can suffocate real innovation, especially internal organisational innovation. It's always good to define what "good' actually means first, in measurable terms. It's always good to create and assess solutions based on business cases, not whatever someone read in HBR last week, or whatever worked for someone else in some other organisation before.

INSTEAD: Provide seed funding to the right people and problems, and growth will follow.

4. Measure twice, cut once

Wait, what? This is solid, dependable advice, isn't it? For simple and complicated problems, sure. But not for the sorts of complex problems that you're probably tussling with, in which we might actually be playing a part ourselves. 

Sometimes this truism is just hesitation masquerading as responsibility. I've been guilty of wasting time on this one in the past: trying to measure the unmeasurable, looking for a sense of certainty before taking action, when I should've just made a call. 

INSTEAD: Place small bets fast.

5. Sell your solution

If you don't believe in it, nobody will. It sounds so"¦right, doesn't it? But in the age we're in now, it's totally fine to instead be sceptical of your solution. Fall in love with the problem, not the solution, as an old boss of mine used to say.

Time and time again in workshops I run, I see that it's better to be absolutely certain that we're focused on a worthy problem first, and iterate to a workable solution as we go. An idea's strength shouldn't rely on the "sizzle' factor, but on substance.

INSTEAD: Choose a worthwhile customer problem, and let them validate the solution.

By the way, I didn't make these up (although I've certainly witnessed all of them!). These traps are from a great book I like: Designing for Growth, by Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie (affiliate link).

This week, you might like to check your own thinking. You might be making life harder for yourself by falling into these traps.

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