(About) 630 amazing power words that will astound your reader!


“For beginning writers,” writes Jon Morrow of Smartblogger, “power words are one of the easiest tools to master. Unlike many storytelling strategies, which can take years of practice to master, you can start sprinkling power words into your writing, and you’ll notice an immediate lift in the quality of your prose.”

A power word, according to Morrow, “is defined by its ability to make you feel.” It derives its power from the emotional reaction you have to it. Because that reaction, like all emotional reactions, is unconscious – at the edge of rational control – power words promise to sneak under the reader’s cognitive radar and influence them to buy or click.

Beyond emotion, power words probably tap into other sub- or unconscious responses to language. Connotations, for example, generate power. Kevan Lee, in a useful post, gives a good example. “The difference between ‘joining’ and ‘signing up’,” he writes, “is the difference between fellowship and enlisting. A word changes the meaning, the mood, and the motivation.”


Lee also references another source of verbal power: the so-called ‘bouba-kiki’ effect, which suggests that our brains somehow attach abstract meaning to the actual sounds of words in a consistent way. (A ‘bouba’, for example, is probably rounded or soft, while a ‘kiki’ is probably sharp and jagged.)

Don’t ignore the poetic or musical power of your copy.

I’m grateful to Kevan Lee for a lot of the material here. Let’s follow him and consider a few lists of power words – from short to long.

To begin: he lists these as the five ‘most persuasive words in the English language’. Well, maybe. Sometimes. 

  • You
  • Free
  • Because
  • Instantly
  • New

Moving on, we come to David Ogilvy’s famous list of the twenty most influential marketing words.  Ogilvy2

  • Suddenly
  • Now
  • Announcing
  • Introducing
  • Improvement
  • Amazing
  • Sensational
  • Remarkable
  • Revolutionary
  • Startling
  • Miracle
  • Magic
  • Offer
  • Quick
  • Easy
  • Wanted
  • Challenge
  • Compare
  • Bargain
  • Hurry

(This is an interesting piece on the origin of the list.)

From twenty to forty-eight. And I feel a need to start listing alphabetically. This list apparently derives from a study of best-selling magazine covers. It will probably serve you well in promotional copy and email subject lines.

  • Amazing
  • Anniversary
  • Basic
  • Best
  • Big
  • Bonus
  • Complete
  • Create
  • Discover
  • Easy
  • Exclusive
  • Extra
  • Extraordinary
  • First
  • Free
  • Guarantee
  • Health
  • Help
  • Hot
  • Hot Special
  • How to
  • Immediately
  • Improve
  • Know
  • Latest
  • Learn
  • Money
  • More
  • New
  • Now
  • Plus!
  • Powerful
  • Premiere
  • Profit
  • Protect
  • Proven
  • Results
  • Safety
  • Save
  • Today
  • Trust
  • Ultimate
  • Understand
  • Win
  • Worst
  • You

Now for two, longer lists. Each, intriguingly, is exactly 120 words long.

First, ExpressWriters offers this list that, they claim, “can boost your headlines and power up your content for better click-through’s [sic] and results.” And they throw in 10 “compelling call-to-action phrases” for good measure.

(Pity about the wandering apostrophe.)


The second list derives from a recent webinar at Leanplum about push notifications: messages sent from an app directly to someone’s mobile device. The message appears even if the device is locked or if the person is inside a different app. Push notifications, say Leanplum ingenuously, “are useful for sending information to app users in real time.” 

According to Stefan Bhagwandin, “effective mobile messaging is a huge challenge for mobile marketers. Not only will these “power words” amplify your creativity and app engagement, but they will increase your open rates, retention, and revenue.”

Leanplum examined more than 2.6 billion mobile push notifications sent by brands between January 1 and December 31, 2016. Each word in the dataset was isolated and assigned an engagement score based on how it affected open rates across different campaigns. The researchers found that the words with the highest engagement scores fell into four main groupings:

  • words that convey urgency (alert, pending, critical);
  • words that convey exclusivity (accepted, eligible, limited);
  • words that convey emotion (dream, epic, warning); and
  • words that convey value (bargains, deals, sale).

The list has its eccentricities. I’d guess that ‘tick-tock’, ‘inventory’ and ‘forfeiture’ (really?) are unlikely to appear on any other list of power words. But in the new world of mobile apps, power presumably shifts.


And finally, this ‘monster list of power words’ comes from Jon Morrow of Smartblogger. Morrow offers no fewer than 317 “Emotion-Packed Words and Phrases That’ll Instantly Make You a Better Writer”.

Morrow helpfully categorizes his list: ‘words to provoke fear’, ‘words to encourage and energize’ and so on. And, generously, he offers his list free. Download a copy here.

Download Sb-power-words

For me, all of these lists can act like oracles. Use them to stimulate new ideas.

And then test them.

Creativity and Problem Solving: materials for a course at Gloucestershire County Council

This workbook and slidedeck support the course that I am currently running at Gloucestershire County Council. Feel free to download both.

Download GloucestershireCC_man3_Creativity_and_Problem_Solving_backgroundmanual

Download GCC_Creativity_and_problem_solving_slidedeck

Creativity at Work

Creativity-at-workCreativity at Work is one of my ebooks published by Bookboon.

Is it magic?  Can we really learn creativity?  And why should we bother?

When I told one of my clients that I was writing a book about creativity at work, he said: “Managers aren’t interested in creativity. They want to know how to manage better.”

Well, maybe.

Creativity has gained a reputation, among some managers at least, as a ‘fringe’ activity: quite fun, but of little practical use in the workplace. A friend of mine refers to it as ‘basketweaving’. And management – most managerial work – is, after all, about getting practical results. It’s about doing what works, and trying to do it better.

Management is about ‘making it happen’.

But what if making it happen isn’t sufficient? What if we need to make something new happen?

What if we need to do something differently rather than better? What if, instead of continuous improvement, we want discontinuous change? What if we want – or need – to create something new?

Of course, those needs might be written in to our job descriptions. Anyone in the ‘creative industries’ – and plenty of people outside them – need to think creatively as a matter of routine. Many of us – doctors, teachers, research scientists, engineers, consultants, marketers – frequently need to find creative solutions for unprecedented problems.

Sometimes, we need to be creative because external circumstances change. Our organisation undergoes a radical restructure; we suddenly face competition from new technologies; our customers start to make new and unexpected demands.

On other occasions, we want to be creative. We might be dissatisfied with our current situation; we may want to change direction radically in our work, our career or our life.

At times like this – when we need to, or when we want to – we need to engage a different kind of thinking: not the routines, protocols and habits of operational work, but different disciplines, different ways of using our imagination and our powers of logic.

Creativity is fun. And it’s also, for more and more of us, key to our success. If you’re interested in unlocking your creative potential, whatever your work, then this book is for you.


Creativity at Work

Creative thinking: a reading list

People often ask me to recommend books about creative thinking.  Here's a short list of the books that I've found most useful over the years.

A reminder: I run courses on creative thinking, problem solving and innovation.   Download these course outlines to find out more.

Download 015_CO_Meeting_Creative thinking_doc

Download 014_CO_Meeting_Problem solving_doc

Download 013_CO_Writing_Managing_Innovation_outline

Contact me if you're interested in working with me in any of these areas. 

First, some books I simply have to recommend, because I know the author so well.  Click on the covers to find out more.

Creativity-at-work 30minutesbrainstorm How to solve almost any problemAlchemy of innovation



Casting the reading net further afield, I would probably start - unsurprisingly, perhaps - with Edward de Bono.  He was enormously prolific, and the best book to start with might be Lateral Thinking for Management.  It introduces his core concepts: lateral thinking and vertical thinking, first- and second-stage thinking, and a whole lot more. 

Tudor Rickards is a source of great wisdom: Creativity and the Management of Change  has inspired me in all sorts of ways.  I also make use of Simon Majaro's book, The Creative Gap, and Vincent Nolan's The Innovator's Handbook.

Lateral thinking for management Creativity and the management of change








If you want more academic material, try these titles.  The Routledge Companion is edited in part by Rickards; and the material published by the Open University is unfailingly excellent.

Routledge companion to creativity Creative management







If you're looking for something a bit lighter but full of practical ideas, I recommend Roger von Oech's bestseller, A Whack on the Side of the Head.  (Von Oech has also produced a Whack Pack:  a set of cards that are great for stimulating creativity and creative conversations.)

Creative whack pack Whack on the side of the head

And finally, for a distinctly different approach to the creative process, you could take a look at Robert Fritz' book, Creating. 



Looking where you least expect to find: oracles as creativity tools

Roger Van Oech, in his book A Whack on the Side of the Head, tells this story.




There once was an Indian medicine man who made hunting maps for his tribe. When game got sparse, he'd put a piece of fresh leather in the sun to dry. Then he'd say a few prayers, fold and twist it, and then smooth it out. The rawhide was now etched with lines. He marked some reference points, and a new map was created. When the hunters followed the map's newly defined trails, they usually discovered abundant game.

The medicine man had stimulated the hunters to look where they least expected to find game, by introducing random information into their thinking.


(This image is from Roger's excellent book.)

The medicine man's map acted as an oracle.

Oracles use randomly generated information to help us think laterally.  They invite us to look at something in terms of something else.  We’re unlikely to get new ideas by using our existing mental connections; like the hunters in the story, we need to look where we least expect to find something.  (That phrase is from Philip K Dick, I think.  I love it.)

It’s the randomness of the new information that matters. 



We love oracles.  We use them all the time.  We read our horoscopes.  We shuffle Tarot cards and throw dice.  In ancient times, people visited oracles in places like Delphi, where priests or priestesses would utter strange pronouncements in answer to their questions.



And yet, in our work, we often do all we can to filter out randomness.  As Kathy Sierra writes in an interesting blog post: "While we assume that randomness plays a big role in games, we do our best to strip it from "serious" products and services." That's good for quality control and consistency; but it's hopeless for innovation or radical problem solving.  Without random input, we remain stuck in our old ways.

With information overload a constant threat, we filter and screen information relentlessly in an attempt to narrow the funnel.  "But," writes Kathy, "all this filtering, tuning, and pruning keeps us stuck! We end up seeing only what we think we want to see--what we're already familiar with--and slashes our chances for serendipity. And that means slashing our ability to create and innovate, or even to be truly surprised and delighted."

So give random thinking a go.  Open up your mind to the possibility of serendipity.  Look, just a little more often, where you least expect to find it.

To create a simple oracle for yourself:

Type ‘random word generator’ into your search engine and you’ll soon find one.  The generator will offer you randomly selected words that you can juxtapose against a problem to stimulate new ideas.

For example, suppose the problem is:

How to encourage my team to be more creative

I generated four words on a random word generator.

Salon: how about establishing a creativity salon or room, where the team can use toys and games to stimulate new ideas?

Curry: how about finding ways of mixing different ingredients into projects or team activities to spark creativity?

Captain: does the team need leadership to help them unlock their creativity?

Roof:  maybe we need an overarching strategy that integrates creativity into team objectives and competencies.

The best words for this kind of lateral thinking are concrete nouns: words that name things physically present in the world.  Concrete nouns stimulate our imagination with images, and the images create powerful sparks.  Words like ‘finance’, planning’ or ‘region’ are not likely to be so rich in associations.


Creativity and creating: what's the difference?

Thanks to Mark W for an interesting question.  Mark had been reading this post about opportunity-led thinking.  He asks:

I found your article where you reference Robert Fritz's work, notably his book CREATING, and was wondering how your work relates to his.  You talk about 'opportunity-led thinking', and I'm seeking to understand how this interfaces with creating and creativity. Can you please clarify? How does it help a person create?

Simple answer:  the difference between creating and creativity is the difference between a process and a set of techniques. 

How does opportunity-led thinking help a person create?  By developing our ability to find opportunities to resolve a tension: the tension between what exists and what we want to create.

I want to create a really special meal.  I have no time to go to the food store.  What do I do?  I look around and seek out the possibilities suggested by what I have in the house.  That’s opportunity-led thinking.  I could use one or more creativity techniques to help me (morphological analysis springs to mind); but more likely, I’ll find some useful-looking core ingredients and try to build up a meal from them in some way.

(Another name for this is design thinking.  I’m designing the meal with the components available to me.  The more creative I am in my thinking, the more unusual or elegant the meal might turn out.)

Now for the less simple answer.

I came across Robert Fritz’s work some years ago.  I had been following the well trodden creativity route, which uses different techniques to generate new ideas.  Most of these techniques can be clustered under one of two categories:  metaphorical techniques and reversal techniques. 

Metaphorical techniques seek to create lateral connections between unconnected or dissimilar things.  How is a cat like a refrigerator?  (They can both contain milk.)  How is a hoverfly like a pizza?  (Pizzas can hover if you spin them quickly enough.  Maybe hoverflies like olives...)

These techniques employ our powerful sense of metaphor to spark new cognitive connections.  Those connections are new ideas.

Reversal techniques, in contrast, operate by turning ideas inside out, or back to front, or upside down?  How can we make our customer experience truly terrible?  If we wanted to make our systems as inefficient as possible, what would we have to do?  By conjuring ‘intermediate impossibles’, we can generate new ideas.

220px-Robert_FritzNow, Fritz stands aloof from all this lateral thinking.  He dislikes the word ‘creativity’, preferring to talk about creating.

Indeed, he's openly scornful of most creativity techniques.  "Can you imagine," he writes, "Mozart brainstorming alternatives for the overture to The Marriage of Figaro?"  (Fritz is a composer.) 

For Fritz, these techniques ignore the vital question:  "What do I want to create?" 

He insists that creativity only makes sense in the context of a desire to create something.  It's not a matter of 'liberating' creativity, of 'taking risks' or 'manufacturing commitment'; creating brings something new into existence for its own sake.

Opportunity-led thinking is how we think when we respond to the desire to create.  We perceive a tension between current reality and the vision of what we want to create.  We look for opportunities to resolve that tension.  (My earlier post explains this bit in more detail.)



Fritz suggests that the creating process follows five identifiable steps.

  1.  Conceive.  Have an idea of what you want to create. It may be general or specific.  Before you can start to create, you must know what you want to bring into being.
  2. Know what currently exists.  This may be surprisingly hard to do.  We tend to view reality with various biases - assumptions, values, beliefs - that distort the truth of what actually exists.  But unless you know what currently exists in relation to your ambition, you cannot take action towards creating it.
  3. Take action.  What do you do?  Fritz suggests some deceptively simple answers.  "Make it up."  "Trial and error."  His point is that you do whatever you think is necessary to bring the creation nearer to existence.  Some of the actions you take will move directly towards the desired result, and most will not.  "The art of creating is often found in your ability to adjust or correct what you have done so far."  The 'right first time' philosophy is extremely unhelpful when trying to create something new.  Creating involves learning as you go: and that, suggests Fritz, is a skill to be practised and learnt.
  4. Learn the rhythms of the creative process.  These are: germination; assimilation; completion.  Germination is begins with the excitement of the new; assimilation is living with your ideas and actions and helping them to pull together; completion is the final stage when you can see the end result and are re-energised to push for its full realisation.
  5. Create momentum.  The creative process contains the seeds of its own development.  Produce one creation and you will be better prepared to create the next.

How does my work relate to that of Robert Fritz?  Well, he has inspired me to think differently about what we do when we create.  All those creativity techniques have their uses (especially if we're not feeling particularly creative to begin with); but creating puts everything in context.  What do we want to create?  What have we got to start with?  Where are the opportunities? 

Those are good life questions.


What shall we do?

Closing the mind gap

Closing the Mind Gap

Ted Cadsby

BPS Books, 2014

ISBN 978 1 927483 78 7





China Miéville sets one of his novels, The City & the City, in two cities occupying the same physical space.  Citizens of each city, partly through choice and partly through political coercion, have trained themselves to ‘unsee’ the other city: to recognize the buildings and inhabitants of the other city without seeing them.  Crossing the cognitive divide, even by accident, is regarded as ‘breaching’ – a terrible crime invoking unspeakable punishments.

Ted Cadsby, in his ambitious and enjoyable new book, similarly invokes two coterminous worlds.  We live in both, but usually recognise only one.  The consequences of ignoring the other can be profoundly damaging.

World #1 is, in his description, ‘straightforward’.  In World #1, we easily differentiate meaningful signals from noise; patterns are consistent across different situations; feedback is direct, timely and clear.  In World #1, learning is easy and prediction is reliable.  World #1 is the world “in which countless generations of our ancestors lived and in which we continue to spend much of our time.” 

Fractal19World #2 is ‘complex’.  In World #2, signals are buried in noise; patterns vary across situations because each situation is unique; feedback on our actions is indirect, delayed and ambiguous.  World #2 has, Cadsby suggests, “snuck up on us”, principally in the evolutionary blink of an eye that witnessed the Industrial and Information Revolutions. 

The farmers of World #1 could reliably expect their predictions to turn out correctly (except, presumably, when they didn’t); the knowledge workers of World #2, in contrast, “cannot rely on simple cues and timely feedback to make decisions.”

Cadsby argues that our brains have evolved to navigate World #1 and are unprepared for World #2.   In fact, we have, figuratively, two brains: the ‘old’ brain, which operates unconsciously, and the ‘new’ brain, which has evolved over the past 100,000 years and which we think of as conscious.  We think automatically with the ‘old’ brain, and effortfully with the ‘new’ one.  But the partnership is unequal:  the ‘new’ brain has limited access to the ‘old’ one.  As a result of this ‘brain-brain’ gap, the way we think is not always matched to our modern world, and so we face the second challenge of a ‘brain-world’ gap. 

The challenge is to close the gaps.

Cadsby’s book works with an explanatory narrative of human cognition that has developed Old brain, new brainrapidly over the past decade or two.   The ‘left-brain-right-brain’ narrative of the 70s and 80s has gradually given way to an ‘intuition-and-rationality’ narrative, under the influence of psychology, complexity science, evolutionary anthropology, cognitive science and what’s loosely referred to as neuroscience.  Paul MacLean's model of the triune brain helped get the narrative going; Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, Stephen Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind and Chris Frith's Making Up the Mind have all made interesting contributions.  

Like its predecessor, the ‘intuition/rationality’ narrative relies on a satisfyingly simple dichotomy.  Where the earlier explanation concentrated on a lateral division between left and right brain, the new one emphasizes a vertical division, the ‘new’ brain (represented by the neocortex) sitting on top of the ‘old’, intuitive, emotional brain (represented mostly by the hippocampus and the amygdala). 

This new narrative has considerable explanatory power.  Cadsby argues that “our minds are meaning-making machines”: we predict the nature of reality by intuitively pattern-matching to pre-existing mental models, some inherited (like the ability to recognize a face), some learned (like the ability to ride a bike).  ‘Constructive realism’ is useful in World #1 because in this world the pattern-matches are usually more or less accurate; but in World #2, constructive realism falls prey to “greedy reductionism”: we oversimplify complexity and conclude overconfidently.   

Type 1 thinking, intuitive and automatic, will help us solve straightforward problems, but not complex ones.  It will help us read a novel but not write one; eat a meal but not cook it; watch tennis but not play it.  If we want to understand complexity more effectively, we need to invoke Type 2 thinking.

The catch is that Type 2 thinking requires concentration.  Where Type 1 is quick, Type 2 must be slow; where Type 1 operates in parallel, Type 2 can operate only one task at a time.  Much of the book is devoted to the strategies necessary to develop Type 2 thinking: study the problem landscape more carefully; pursue missing information; analyse causal relationships; and so on.  Cadsby suggests that we need to develop two types of Type 2 thinking:  Type 2.1, which helps us model complexity more accurately; and Type 2.2, thinking about thinking, which “brings us as thinking agents into the process of thinking”.  Cadsby calls Type 2.2 ‘metacognition’ and, with a Buddhist inflection, ‘mindfulness’. 

Bigstock-Are-You-Sure-45817090But we’re not inclined to do either.  We prefer Type 1 thinking.  For one thing, effortful thinking requires – well – effort, and we need to conserve cognitive energy.  Worse still, we’re addicted to certainty: we need to know, we need to be in control, and we’re desperate to enjoy the calm, pleasurable (intuitive) feeling of knowing that we have figured something out.  Ambiguity and doubt create too much discomfort.

Closing the Mind Gap develops this thesis in great detail.  Cadsby synthesises huge quantities of information and explains it elegantly.  This may not be quite a popular science book and it may not be quite a management book; but it's certainly a page-turner.  Cadsby is much influenced by Daniel Kahnemann (Thinking Fast and Slow), although he also cites the work of Robin Hogarth, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Keith Stanovich, along with a host of experimental evidence to support his argument.  Along the way, he offers excellent accounts of theory of mind, the workings of the emotions, Bayesian probability theory and much more.  For anybody interested in understanding why we so often fail to think as well as we can, this book will be useful (though I wish his endnotes indicated his sources more precisely). 

And yet, and yet.  Something bothers me. 

To begin with, I’m not sure about these two worlds.  How do we distinguish #1 from #2?  Are they not both simply mental constructs?  After all, as Cadsby himself says:  “our earliest forms of conscious awareness enabled language, culture and innovation, and we began to create a new world for ourselves.”  We find ourselves paradoxically limited in our ability to understand the cognitive complexity that we ourselves have generated. 

DecisionsAnd then, understanding complexity is never the whole story.  The primary function of a brain is to enable an organism to move.  If “all life is problem solving” – as Karl Popper suggested – then, as Cadsby points out, “the brain interprets its environment so it can motivate actions that are conducive to thriving.”  Or, to quote José Ortega y Gasset:  “Living is a constant process of deciding what we are going to do.”  The truth, however complex, matters less than the solution, which is not an answer but an intervention in the world.

Cadsby touches on decision-making.  He discusses the Taylor-Russell diagram; and he acknowledges, entertainingly, the provisional quality of all decisions.  But his advice on how to decide better is somewhat negative: we should qualify our conclusions with ‘probably not’, ‘could be’ or ‘it appears to me that...’  I’d like more emphasis on how to choose what to do, and how to manage risk. 

Perhaps Cadsby has picked up Kahnemann’s pessimism, along with the undoubted insights of behavioural economics.  It seems that that the best we can do is overcome – effortfully – our inevitable cognitive shortcomings.  For example, we read a lot about confirmation bias, availability bias and myside bias, but nothing about optimism bias: the tendency to assume that everything will turn out ok, which becomes a useful learning tool when surprised by failure or the unexpected.  (I’d like to see more in the book about learning.)  Rather than celebrating our successes in combining Type #1 and Type #2 thinking – in collaborative research, artistic production, business and diplomacy – Cadsby invokes the quietism of Stoicism and Buddhism to help us outmanoeuvre Type 1 thinking and the depressing negativity bias of our emotions.  (“The marginal value of eating and sex declines rapidly once we have had our fill, but the marginal value of avoiding danger never declines.”  Hm. ) 

What’s missing?

The clue may be in the ‘cultural big bang’ that Cadsby describes early in the book.  It’s a critical part of the narrative.  This was the moment, perhaps 50,000 years ago, when human LW109mithen2consciousness seemed to take a sudden leap forward, “fuelled by the ... ability to communicate complex ideas and generalize learning by applying insight from one task to different ones.”   Something happened to our thinking; something that allowed us to transcend the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 thinking and combine them; something that offered us the opportunity, not merely to generalise, but to create wholly new ideas.  Cadsby acknowledges that this cognitive leap expanded our working memories and enabled us to speculate about the past and the future.  But there’s a more radically significant element in this new ‘cathedral of the mind’, as Stephen Mithen has called it.  And Cadsby, I can’t help feeling, has missed it.

That element is metaphorical thinking.   

“The metaphor,” said José Ortega y Gasset, “is probably the most fertile power possessed by man.”  Metaphorical thinking has generated the massive potential for creativity that continues to drive our cognitive development.  Where, I wonder, might metaphor might fit into Ted Cadsby’s splendidly articulated argument?

How to Solve (almost) Any Problem: slideshow for my presentation, Directory of Social Change, 23 May 2013

On 23 May 2013, I ran a session during the May Fayre at the Directory of Social Change in London.

DSC is an independent charity with a vision of an independent voluntary sector at the heart of social change.

Thanks to Chrissie, Annette and all the good people of DSC for their help.

'How to Solve (almost) Any Problem' introduces the problem-solving philosophy and practice that I developed in the book of (almost) the same name. 

You can buy copies of the book from Amazon.  There's a Kindle edition, too.

The slides for the session are here. Download DSC_How to solve_presentation_blog

Leadership Outside the Box: notes for my presentation at DSC, 23 May 2013

On 23 May 2013, I ran a session during the May Fayre at the Directory of Social Change in London.

DSC is an independent charity with a vision of an independent voluntary sector at the heart of social change.

Thanks to Chrissie, Annette and all the good people of DSC for their help.

'Leadership Outside the Box' looks at how to embed innovation in our organisations: what it is, why we can't ignore the need to innovate, how to create a sustainable innovation strategy, creative competencies, and a few thinking techniques that can help us cross from operational thinking into innovative thinking.

Much of the material in this session is based on my book, The Alchemy of InnovationThe book is no longer in print, but you can find copies on Amazon, on Bookfinder and on Abe Books.

The notes for 'Leadership Outside the Box' are here: Download Leadership outside the box.


Surfing the waterfall: a new approach to planning

Planning is the process of preparing, making and managing change.  We’re here, now; and we want to be somewhere else, at some point in the future.  So we can ask four questions.

  • Where are we?
  • Where do we want to be?
  • How could we get there?
  • What limits our options? 

We use plans to create new things: a cake, a new product, a work of art.  So the first question might be: what do I want to create?  The more clearly we can answer that question, the clearer the plan. 

So what makes for a clear goal?  If we’re solving a mathematical equation, the goal is a checkable correct answer.  But plans in real life tend not to be right or wrong.  They tend to be acceptable or not acceptable.  How good is the cake?  Do our customers like the new product?  Does a glass of water on a shelf in a gallery count as a work of art? 


(Michael Craig Martin: An Oak Tree, 1973.)

The next step is to construct a route from where you are to where you want to be.  The plan you create is the set of operators that will help you achieve your goal.

The standard advice is to work backwards.  Most of us, say the experts, plan forwards: we begin by identifying the first step.  Instead (they say), start at the goal and look back.  Map out the milestones you need to reach, and measure your progress against them.

The result of this approach is the ‘waterfall model’: a neat, linear sequence of stages, each of which should be completed before we embark on the next.


The model originated in manufacturing and construction: sectors where changing the sequence of operations can be prohibitively expensive.  The waterfall has become a fairly standard model for projects in other fields.  Every time you see a Gannt chart on a project manager’s wall, you’re looking at a waterfall.


The question is: does the model work?

It’s a question of context. 

Think back to that mathematical equation.  You’re operating in a closed system:  all the parameters are clear, checkable and stable.  (Imagine being told midway through your work that the number base has changed from ten to – say – eight.) 

When you’re planning in a more-or-less closed system – an assembly plant, a structured administrative process – the waterfall model will work, more or less.  Open up the system – introduce dynamic factors or multiple stakeholders, each with a different view of how the system operates – and the plan is very unlikely to follow a neat linear progression. 

So do we abandon the waterfall method?  Well, no.  Not entirely.  But we need another model to complement it.

Here’s another model.  Think about it.  In fact, don’t think about it.  Do it.

You’ll need a blank piece of paper – at least A4 size would be good – and your wallet or purse.  Put the blank piece of paper on the table and look at it. 

Go ahead: look at the paper for at least 15 seconds.  It’s blank.  Let it be blank.  There’s nothing wrong with a blank piece of paper.

Now take everything out of your wallet or purse.  Credit cards, photographs, old tickets or cash machine printouts; paper money and coins.  You’ll need at least ten objects.

You’re going to make an assemblage on the blank piece of paper, using the objects from your wallet or purse.  You can use only the objects you have, but you don’t have to use all of them.  You have three minutes. (Use a stopwatch or your wristwatch to measure the time; you’re not allowed to go past the three-minute mark.) 

Don’t read on until you’ve completed the task.





(Thanks to Robert Fritz for this idea.  His book, Creating, is a source of constant inspiration.)



Now: did you follow the waterfall model? 

My guess is that you were almost certainly not planning backwards from a goal.  Instead, you were negotiating in your mind between a vague idea of what you wanted to achieve, and what you could do.  The gap between the two creates a tension that you tried to resolve by taking action.


It’s called ‘opportunity-led thinking’.  And it’s not entirely rational. We look for opportunities to create a solution. We create possible solutions and see how they might work.  We then adjust our search for opportunities based on what we found.  We’re looking for the places where we can make headway: backing up when an opportunity leads to a dead end, pushing forwards when it promises help. 

The resulting activity can look pretty chaotic.  But in fact it’s very well organized: we’re making opportunity-led switches of attention between our vision and current reality: between what we want and what we’ve got.


Planning in open systems demands opportunity-led thinking.  The key factor, often, is people.  If we’re planning a solution that involves users, customers or colleagues, then we shall need to accommodate some opportunity-led thinking.

Easier said than done, of course.  Imagine you’re a project leader:  you’re responsible for keeping the project to time and within budget.  If the project fails to meet all the requirements in the brief, you’ll be accountable.  You know that the process will – must – include opportunity-led thinking; but you must still make plans, create schedules and commit to milestones.

The key is to recognize when such thinking is necessary and to manage it dynamically.  The control we need is the control of a surfer, balancing forces and looking for the way forward.

So opportunity-led planning is like - well - surfing a waterfall.


This post is based on material from my book, How to Solve Almost Any Problem.