Ep. 20: Matthew E. May – Winning The Brain Game

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I follow Matt since years. He has a couple of great books out, his latest one possibly being the top pick. It is called „Winning the Brain Game“. In „Winning the Brain Game“, Matt explains 7 fundamental flaws of the brain which hold us back from being the best problem solvers we could be. He describes how he discovered them, gives explanations from the fields of psychology and neuro-science and finally hints towards fixes for these flaws.


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I discovered Matt by means of a different book he wrote quite a couple of years ago. The book was called „The Laws of Subtraction“ in which he gave structure on how to make things simpler and how to address that problem. At the time I headed a product which was really a complicated mess and the book helped me think through several of the problems I had at the time and I since have it in fond memories.

Matt comes up with the following categories of flaws:

  • Misleading, which contains the flaws of Leaping (jumping to the first best, shallow solution), Fixation (being stuck on the first best idea) and Overthinking (not getting into a state of delivery at all.
  • Then there is Mediocre with Satisficing (giving in to a half baked solution and not pulling through) and Downgrading (no, it’s not so important to hang in and we didn’t mean to reach that level at all)
  • And finally there is Mindless with the flaws „Not Invented Here“ (if it’s not my idea, I won’t listen) and Self-Censoring (It’s my idea, it can’t be good).

So, again:

  • Misleading
    • Leaping
    • Fixation
    • Overthinking
  • Mediocre
    • Satisficing
    • Downgrading
  • Mindless
    • Not Invented Here
    • Self-Censoring

Also expect a definition of Strategy and a little gossip on how one of the greats – Roger L. Martin – thinks on Strategy. Also, really useful for was a description of the value of frameworks as a way of describing ways to work with tools in a non sequential, non linear way and still feel comfortable and having a feeling of progress in highly abstract knowledge work.

Another Gem for me was the framing of „assumptions“ as „What has to be true? Given our strategy, what has to be true in our industry for it to work out? What has to be true for our org structure? What has to be true about what our customer really values? What about our cost? And what has to be true about our capabilities?“ Answering that questions opens a space right between the questions of „What is true?“ and „What might be true“ and help us thinking much more open about these issues.

Show Notes

„True Strategy os not about a plan, it is not about analysis. True strategy s about choice making.“

„There’s a lot of talk about thinking outside of the box, And I’m here to tell you there’s an awful lot of space inside of the box, if we think about the box in the right way.“

„When people say „culture eats strategy for lunch, what they’re basically talking about is when you march out a plan of action without having the buy-in or the input of those being in some sort responsible for deploying that strategy, the Status quo will defeat that plan.“

„(Culture) does not eat for breakfast a great set of winning choices that answer

  • “what’s our winning aspiration?“,
  • „where will we play?“,
  • „how will we win?“,
  • „what capabilities do we need?“ and
  • „What systems are required?“

„The brain works very efficiently if there’s some sort of limit. But you make that limit smart and intelligent. Just enough so that there’s guidance but not prescription.

Matt’s Mantra

„What appears to be the problem, isn’t.

What appears to be the solution, isn’t.

What appears to be impossible, isn’t“

„I think the key to able to think differently is to be able to reframe problems“

„They (Toyota) are a very innovative company. They implement close to a million ideas per year, all across the organization.“

On Lean in the Toyota Way:

„A lot of what we see on the surface as Lean, what really drives it (and can’t be seen) is creativity. To have someone who puts on a windshield improve that work. And that’s something that took me 4 years to understand.“

„One of the training programs was called „Jobs Methods Training“. And they introduced the concept of continuous improvement: Little ideas, implemented as quickly as possible as near to the frontline as you possibly can. It was aimed at the supervisor level. Among those was a guy called Deming“

„Until this day, you will not find a Lean Thinking program at Toyota. You will find Toyota Business Process, before that it was PDCA. “

„I often get the question on what is the difference between continuous improvement and radical innovation. And it really is just a matter of scope, scale & magnitude. The process is the same. The problem solving process is the same“

It’s all problem solving.

„Do I teach Lean? Yes, I do tech Lean Thinking. But looks an awful lot like Design Thinking.“

„In an ideal world, all this stuff (Design Thinking, Agile, Lean Startup. Lean, etc.) would just be called problem solving.“

„A neuroscientist will tell that there are only two ways that human beings solve problems. Just two. One is the conscious way. And one is the unconscious way.

What is creativity?

„The best hat you can do is to steep yourself in the problem so that you have as best an understanding as you possibly can. And then simply take a break. Just take a break. because that gives the hippocampus time to make the connections that we call the term creativity. Creativity is nothing more than the mash up of certain elements, connections, criteria and memories that all boil up into that sudden burn of neuro chemical reaction that we term creativity: The Eureka moment.“

„Hansei (Reflection) in Japan is a huge part of a Childs upbringing. It’s an after action review: What did you expect to happen? What did actually happen? And what accounts for the difference? “

„First of all, Roger (Martin) would say that strategy is not a plan … he would tell you the distinction is meaningless between Strategy and execution. … Essentially strategy has to cascade down onto every individual.“


I hope this conversation was as much fun for you as it was for me and you could take away as much as I did. And I hope you could hear just how much fun I had!

And honestly I got a little stuck taking down notes for the show notes. It was just just too much good stuff and gems in it! To me, it was a blast!

Make sure you look up the Canvases that Matt talked about. There are links in the show notes. Also make sure to read Matt’s last book „Winning The Brain Game“! Also, the earlier ones are worth the money and time! And maybe, look out for a conference close to you were you might meet him or me or both of us for some chat and a hefty dose of problem solving .

I say thanks for listening in again. If you liked it, spread the word and recommend this show to your friend, colleagues and ,maybe your boss and leave a review! If you didn’t like it, please tell me how to improve!

And let’s all remember the Mantra:

„What appears to be the problem, isn’t.

What appears to be the solution, isn’t.

What appears to be impossible, isn’t“

Thanks again and hear you in a couple of weeks!


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