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Eliminate Your But!

I would love to see the following sign outside every strategic planning conference room:

Strategic Planning Session in Progress

No Thought Bubbles Allowed!

Of course, it will never happen because we can’t get rid of our thought bubbles. What we can do is take a careful inventory of them and update those that no longer align with current market conditions. That way, our thought bubbles won’t derail our strategic planning processes by causing us to make decisions that have no foundation in reality.

Thought bubbles are the deeply held beliefs and assumptions we have about every aspect of ourselves, others, our organizations, and our lives. Operating just below the conscious level, they determine how and what we perceive, and guide how we think and act.

Thought bubbles tend to be self-reinforcing. They are always incomplete. They can limit our ability to achieve results. And they require constant updating to remain current.

During strategic planning, thought bubbles typically manifest themselves through hidden biases that affect how we analyze data and make (or don’t make) important decisions. Here are some examples of common strategic planning biases and the thought bubbles that might accompany them:

Bias: Status quo comfort.

Description: The tendency for people to like things to stay relatively the same.

Thought bubble: “We’ve always set goals at 5% higher than last year. Why should we change now?”


Bias: The bandwagon effect.

Description: The tendency to do or believe things because others do the same.

Thought bubble: “Nobody else in our industry is doing that. Why should we?”


Bias: Hindsight bias.

Description: The inclination to see past events as being predictable.

Thought bubble: “I knew that was going to happen! Why didn’t anyone listen?”


Bias: Information bias.

Description: The tendency to seek information even when it can’t affect action.

Thought bubble: “We can’t make a decision now, we need more data!”


Bias: Projection bias.

Description: Unconsciously assuming that others share the same or similar thoughts, beliefs, values, or positions.

Thought bubble: “I’m glad everyone’s with me on this one” (without checking for validation).


I could list dozens more. But the real issue is not just identifying our thought bubbles. It’s what we do with them.

For many, the biggest challenge with thought bubbles is simply becoming aware of them. Here’s the #1 clue: if an issue triggers an instantaneous emotional reaction, you’re in the grips of a thought bubble. And the more intense the emotion, the more powerful the thought bubble and the stronger your belief in its validity.

Other ways to recognize when thought bubbles come bubbling to the surface include:

  • Any time you find yourself saying “clearly… it’s obvious…”
  • Getting defensive when people challenge you
  • Feeling threatened by a statement, idea, or issue
  • Feeling like others are stupid for having a different point of view
  • Refusing to even consider an idea because “you know it isn’t true”

One of the most common thought bubble signals is using the word “but” as in, “That’s a good idea, but…” As soon as you say “but…” it negates everything that came before it. Your “but” thoughts shut down your brain from processing other possibilities while it works to validate whatever opinion or belief you currently have. It also puts the other person on the defensive and shuts down the conversation rather than opening the issue up for exploration. So one of the first rules in thought bubble bursting is to eliminate your “but.”

To avoid letting other thought bubbles dominate your decision-making, become more aware of how you react to issues. Any time you have a strong, instantaneous emotional reaction, pause and ask yourself:

  • Why am I reacting so strongly to this issue?
  • What is my underlying assumption or belief that is being challenged?
  • Is this assumption or belief still true?
  • Is it time for me to update my bubble?
  • What do I stand to lose by having this assumption challenged?

When we pause to examine a thought bubble, we can use our brain to layer logic on top of the emotion. We can recognize the thought bubble as an unspoken assumption and seek new data to test it for validity. The problem is we don’t take the time to pause because we’re running so fast from the time we wake up until we put our head on the pillow at night.

We can’t get rid of our thought bubbles; that’s just the way the human brain works and they are important to us in many very positive ways. We can periodically stop responding to them in knee-jerk fashion by becoming aware of when they occur, pausing to check our reaction, and then responding in a more rational manner.

Monitor your emotional responses, eliminate your “but” and you’ll start making much better decisions during your next strategic planning meeting!

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