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How To Think When You're Stuck

When you’re stuck, it’s frustrating.

You’re in a fifty-fifty place where you could go either way. You could take the job or not. You could invest your time or not. You could get out or stay. Go or no go. Fifty-fifty.

You can’t decide.

You’re stuck.

To get unstuck, the first question is: How much time do you have?

The answer can range from no time to years.

If you have no time, you’ll use the process you’ve been trained to use. Or the process you’ve trained yourself to use.

In A Spy’s Guide To Thinking, there’s a process I used when faced with a new enemy. I didn’t have much time to think. Along the way, I got stuck. But the process also got me unstuck. It got me the right answers. Using the process meant I came away with a scar. But I didn’t lose all that I could have.

If you have more time, you can use strategic tools to get yourself unstuck. You can look forward and reason backward. You can use the simple game theoretic tools in A Spy’s Guide To Strategy to work backward through the games that you, your enemies and your allies want to play.

If you use those tools, most of the time you’ll get unstuck. You’ll see that the hole is in your data collection or your analysis or in the way you’re thinking about the games everyone is playing. But sometimes, those tools don’t get you unstuck.

Sometimes, you need a different tool for getting unstuck.

Here’s one more tool (not mentioned in those books) for getting unstuck: Change the size of the game.

I was helping a big company think through their negotiation strategy on a large deal. They wanted their potential partner to agree to terms that the partner was resisting. After a couple of weeks of back and forth, they were stuck.

It wasn’t a thinking issue. It wasn’t a strategic issue. They were just stuck.

Which the other side was happy about. But my client wasn’t happy about it. My client was action-oriented (which is why they hired me). They wanted to get unstuck.

To get unstuck, we changed the size of the game.

Changing the size of the game means one of two things:

1. You make the game smaller; or 2. You make the game larger.

With the big company, we looked at both. Could we get unstuck by getting into the details of the negotiation again? Or should we make the game bigger?

In this case, we couldn’t get unstuck by making the game smaller. So we made the game bigger. We brought more players and more issues to the table.

Then, the potential partner was ready to move. Making the game bigger got us unstuck.

You have the same choice when your thinking is stuck:

You can make what you’re thinking about smaller; or

You can make what you’re thinking about bigger.

If you’re looking at whether to take a new job, you can look at the details of salary comparisons and work-life balance and health benefits. Or you can look at the bigger picture and look at your career and whether the new job is better for advancement and skill-gathering and personal development.

Or, if you’re looking at whether to invest your time in a charity, you can look at the details of what you can contribute. How your time will be spent. How you can advance its mission. Or you can look at the big picture of how the charity contributes to solving the problems you want to solve.

You can get unstuck by getting deeper into the details. Or you can get unstuck by introducing more data and more issues and (maybe) more players into the equation.

So which is it? Do you go bigger or smaller when you’re stuck?

It depends on the situation (Which is the way you want it. If every situation benefited from the same thing, there’d be no art to getting unstuck).

Sometimes, it’s better to enlarge the game. Sometimes, it’s better to shrink it. Once you’ve practiced doing both, you’ll have a feel for which situations require which step first.

But if you don’t know which to do, here’s my advice: Alternate.

Sometimes, go smaller first. Sometimes, go bigger first. Sometimes, start with the details. Sometimes, start with the big picture. Go back and forth between them until you see which situations are likely to be better served by going smaller. And which are better served by going bigger.

Because the best way to get unstuck is to make a move.

Even if the first move is thinking a different way.

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