Critical Thinking – what can carbon fibre teach us?

Maclaren racing car winning the 1981 Grand Prix

In 1979 racing car designer John Barnard was exploring the use of carbon fibre as a material for making Formula 1 cars and critical thinking was key to this research. His interest was in making the chassis narrower and lighter, without any loss in strength or torsional stiffness (the ability to withstand twisting.)

Barnard approached British Aerospace, who were working with this new product, and asked for their help. Arthur Webb, an aeronautical engineer and carbon fibre (and carbon fibre composite) expert, came on board (in his spare time!) Together Barnard and Webb changed motor sport history. What they did was to think about this new product differently to the way other people were approaching it.

Lesson 1 – Barnard realized that their competitors were trying to use carbon fibre in the same way as they had been using metal. However, aluminium is “stretchy” whereas carbon fibre is brittle. Both products would behave very differently under stress and in an accident.

Critical thinking lesson 1 – techniques that work in one situation don’t necessarily work in another, even if the materials look the same.

Lesson 2 – Hercules Aerospace, an American firm, were funding the construction of the new chassis. Their technicians calculated that the design that Barnard and Webb had come up with wouldn’t work. However, in their calculations they had treated the carbon fibre as “black metal”. Arthur Webb was able to convince them that their calculations were based on wrong assumptions.

Critical thinking lesson 2 – challenge the assumptions you and others are making.

Lesson 3 – Concerns were raised by competitors and in the sporting press, that this new material was dangerous and wouldn’t protect the driver in a crash. Their main objection was that carbon fibre was brittle. What they didn’t take into account was

    1. that brittle in engineering terms has a different meaning to what the man in the street means by brittle.
    2. the carbon fibre composite material has fibres running in many directions to give it all round strength and is sandwiched around a honeycomb of aluminium.
    3. carbon fibre maintains its strength right up to the point where it breaks, unlike metal, which loses its strength as stress is increased.

Critical thinking lesson 3 – check that everyone understands something in the same way.

Maclaren racing car winning the 1981 Grand Prix
What a car! A win for carbon fibre.

And Finally

Their new car, driven by John Watson, won the British Grand Prix for Maclaren in July 1981. Later that year, Watson crashed his car at the Italian Grand Prix. Webb and Barnard had built into the design weak points where the chassis would break, giving them a safety advantage. The engine mounts broke, so that the engine sheared away from the rest of the car, reducing the kinetic energy and putting distance between the driver and engine. Watson walked away unharmed and concerns about this new product faded.



Devoting Resources and Supporting Parents – Living in a Neolithic Village

Chapter Two – Supporting Parents For The Future

(You can read part one here.)

The Context – Protecting Resources

A picture of Gog's mud and thatch house in his Neolithic Village, with two other houses.
Gog’s lovely house

The village needed a number of important resources to survive, including food, water and people. Without protecting these resources, such as supporting parents to have children, they would all perish.  The water source was drying up and in 20 years there would be no fresh water supply. Disaster. However, the elders knew that there was a fresh spring a few miles away. If only they could find a way of getting it.

The Answer – Devoting Resources

Gog, the person in the village most skilled at making things, had an idea for a system to carry the water to the village.  He would build a pipeline underground to protect the water from other tribes. This would take some time and effort to do and for the sake of their survival, the village would need to give up resources to Gog. The village gave it’s blessing. Crucially, no-one suggested that if took on this project, then that was his decision alone and he was on his own. After all, the village need this pipeline.

Gog decided how long it was going to take – the village agreed that he was best placed to make that decision – and he set off with precious resources; tools, food and other workers.

The work was sometimes tiring, sometimes exhilarating. There were setbacks. There were advances. Gog and his crew learnt much. Meanwhile, the village waited patiently.

The Outcome

A few years later Gog returned triumphant because the water supply had been secured for the future. Hooray! The whole village celebrated; they were happy to have their friend back and they also knew how important this work had been. They rewarded him and gave him status. He had grown in knowledge. He returned with a new outlook and perspective. All of this was helpful to the growth of the whole village. What a party they had!

Gog had his old job back but he wanted to carry on working on other engineering projects. This made sense, so again the village agreed.  In addition, in order that he could catch up on what had changed, he was given attention and support. It was a wonderful time of joy, growth and confidence.

Nobody criticized him for leaving the village for a year or two. No-one complained that the village had to give up resources so that he could do this. Everyone understood that there had been some short-term cost for a long-term investment in their future.  As a society they are going to survive. As a society they benefitted.


The Learning – Supporting Parents

Now compare this with how society is supporting parents today in having children and protecting the future.

Having children is not some hobby that parents indulge in.

We are all somebody’s child. Also, our employees and customers were somebody’s child. The businesses that we buy goods and services from – their employees were somebody’s child. Society needs this pipeline.


Taking Risks To Grow – What Can We Learn From A Hermit Crab?

I absolutely love hermit crabs; I have since childhood.  They are so intriguing and they have a lot to teach us about taking risks in order to grow.

A hermit crab not taking risks but staying put.
Herman Hermit in a compact and bijou “house.”

A Hermit Crab’s Life

Unlike other crustaceans, Hermit Crabs don’t grow their own shells when it is time to expand. Instead, they take up lodgings in a shell that has been cast off, such as a snail shell. It’s an efficient system, made more so by a procedure of co-operation and management of resources. This BBC video, narrated by the wonderful Sir David Attenborough, shows how a housing chain is set up when a large “des res” becomes available.


All the time that the Hermit Crab remains in its shell it is safe, but it will eventually need to take a risk and move to a new house, if it is to grow.  Whilst it is moving to another shell it is vulnerable to attack. However, if it doesn’t move it will die, as the shell becomes too small for it.

What Can We learn?

Our Hermit Crab taking a risk and moving house
Herman is taking the risk and making his move.

To grow, survive and thrive, we have to face up to taking risks:

  • to try something new
  • to say no to a request when we usually say yes
  • to say yes to an opportunity when we usually say no
  • to change jobs
  • to leave a relationship
  • to challenge bad behaviour
  • to move house

All these things take a certain amount of risk as we step outside of what is familiar and safe. Taking a risk stimulates our Limbic system and we feel fear – as if we were under threat of death.  I’ve written about some of this here.

But unless we face these things, we stagnate, shrink even. Our outlook shrinks, our options shrink and our opportunities shrink. To make the most of what we have, we need to take chances and risk what we have. Sometimes we lose, but even if we lose, we gain learning.


So What If We Do Lose?

Mark Twain said

“Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement.”

When we get things wrong we learn. When we get things right we grow. But if we never try we gain nothing.

Our Hermit Crab settled into a new house
Hooray! Herman has moved in and loving his new life.

A Hermit Crab hides in its shell for safety, but sometimes it leaves that safety in order to gain something new and of value. We could learn a lot.




Cartoons by Janet Webb, who had a go at something new.

What Creative Thinking Skills Are You Investing In?

According to the World Economic Forum, analytical, creative thinking and complex problem solving, are key skills for now and over the next few years.


The skills the World Economic Forum think are important.


The pace of change, particularly around working lives, requires a workforce that can remain flexible, think creatively and make effective choices. Understating how the brain might actually get in the way of these skills and having a kitbag of strategies to boost thinking power, may be more important than experience. Knowing how we have done things in the past will not be as useful as coming up with ideas on how to do things differently.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein



Impasse to Insight – creative problem solving for business.


When It Comes To The EU part 2 –

Is This The Best Atmosphere In Which To Negotiate?

On the 23rd June the country voted in the EU Referendum. We made our decision on gut feel, research based on conjecture and hope. Then someone had to deal with the aftermath.

Some, who thought that they might want to handle the job, just walked away when the time came. Theresa May stepped up to the plate and thank God she did; someone had to and the alternative choices don’t bear thinking about.  She didn’t want to leave the EU and almost certainly still doesn’t but has been handed a task that needs doing; negotiating a deal in such a way that gives Britain the best possible outcome.

For me, the worrying issue now is that everything that the Prime Minister does, every single step, is done in an atmosphere of challenge and turmoil. Each decision triggers hoards to shout at her that it is either too far or that it is not far enough. The papers scream. Each breath, each move, each laugh, each item of clothing is used to stir. The commentary is constant. The noise is deafening.

There will be no pleasing of all of the people. There will be no unification of ideas, hopes and dreams. The best outcome will not appease everyone or be fully agreed on. She will not complete this task and get a sense of success.

This is an appalling atmosphere to work through possibly one of the most complex negotiations of our time. And yet she must continue.

My hope, my prayer, is that she has the strength, courage and willpower to see it to the end. The temptation to walk away must be overwhelming. And that would be utterly disastrous.

When It Comes To The EU part 1 –

We Have The Perspective Of Z

Perspective of size – I highly recommend the animated film Antz to you, a delightful tale about a colony of ants. The main character is a worker ant called Z, pronounced zee, voiced brilliantly by Woody Allen.  Z tries to break away from the insignificance of his existence and accidently becomes a hero, saving millions of lives.  At the end of the film the “camera” pans away and you are shown that this huge colony, that seems vast and complex, is just a small mound in the middle of Central Park. The point is well made; these tiny creatures, that we have come to love and cheer for, are insignificant in the grand scheme of things and so they have a very limited perspective on the whole world.

Perspective of time – When the Romans invaded Britain, no doubt it was a terrible time; a time for fighting against their oppression and for deciding how to deal with these invaders. What would be the best thing to do for your family, should you collaborate or resist and what on earth is garlic?  Now we can look back on that time, almost with fondness, and celebrate some of the ways our country changed – the food, the City walls, the straight roads, Hadrian’s Wall and Fishbourne Palace.  If we had the chance to change history, would we have stopped them?  It is impossible to say.

For weeks before the EU referendum I was trying to make a decision about something that I couldn’t fully grasp. I was confused by the arguments for and against. I couldn’t understand (and still don’t) how anyone could be absolutely certain either way. There were big businesses supporting either side of the argument and there was a lot of noise, but little in the way of facts, because all of it was conjecture – we have neither the perspective of size or time.

I decided to vote remain but I was not sure. I had a feeling that if the country did decide to remain then there would have been a bit of me that wondered if that was the right choice, an opportunity missed.

I am certain that some leavers voted so for utterly racist reasons.  I am equally certain that many did so for logical, strategic and hope filled reasons.  And I am also certain that many who voted either way did so for self-serving reasons and in a position of arrogance.  We all voted from a position of ignorance.

The irrefutable truth is that we democratically voted to leave; well England and Wales did anyway.  It may well mean that Scotland leaves the UK.  On the other hand, it may well unite Ireland. It is impossible to know now if in generations to come this will be seen as a great decision or a disastrous decision – we have the perspective of Z.


What If There’s No Such Thing As A Wrong Choice?

This is patently not so… but what if?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few months and a lot of a lot, in the last few days. (The EU Referendum was 5 days ago.)

At times we do things and then wish we had held off or had done things in a different way.  “If only I had waited until after the weekend” “If only I had waited until after the second interview”  “If only I had turned East rather than West, left earlier, left later, kept my mouth shut, spoke up sooner, had stayed home, had gone out, had voted differently.”

Thoughts like this can keep us awake at night, which is destructive both mentally and physically.  And wondering “what if…” is a waste of precious resources.  We have already spent time churning over different options and taken action based on our thoughts about those options.  It is pointless to re-do the thinking that we have already done, or that we perhaps should have done earlier.

How about looking at this from a different perspective? What if there was no such thing as a wrong choice? What benefit would there be if that were true?

No regrets

No angst

No waste of energy considering the what ifs

We will never know the result of taking a different path from the one we took.  We’ll never be able to compare the outcomes of all the choices.  It is possible that the way we chose was the better choice after all.  Since we’ll never know, to fret over it is to put energy into a pointless activity. That energy could be better spent moving forward on the path we did take.


This is not a manifesto to be careless about making choices; clearly we need to put our efforts into making good decisions.  It is also not a comment on what happened last week; there were intelligent people on both sides that voted with their consciences for good reasons.