10 Simple Tools to Bolster Your Productivity, Leadership and Decision-Making

conceptual tools for productivity and leadership
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The best conceptual tools and mental models for use in life, work and management

My work falls into several key roles. I lead an organisation, and run my own business, I coach senior managers and I also facilitate leadership courses for various corporations. With a couple of decades of management experience under my belt, I have found that certain tools and approaches really help me on a weekly (even daily) basis. So why not share them with you?

I have picked my top 10 (because, hey, we all like top-ten lists, right?) so this is not exhaustive, but it is representative of the mental models that I use the most. You will likely recognise a few tools from the list but equally, hopefully, there are some new gems to be found or reminded of.

I have included a short explanation of each model but there are also links to longer articles on each tool if you want to explore them further.

The Rule of 3 – for simple, impactful written and verbal communication

I love the rule of 3 because it is utterly simple and yet undeniably effective. The rule of three is the phenomenon that information, clustered in threes, makes communications clearer, more memorable, and impactful. There is a long history of using this tool, reaching back to Aristotle and perhaps further. To find out how to apply to rule to your writing, decision-making and public speaking, take a look at The Rule of 3: An Easy Hack to Improve Your Communication.

The Right Questions – for decision-making and planning

I developed this approach for making decisions and plans through my work as a Bomb Disposal Officer. By using the seven main interrogatives in the English language as a mental prompt, and applying the questions in a suitable order, it creates a simple system to think through a choice and come up with a plan of action. The framework looks like this:

  • Why? (Purpose, Values, Priorities): Why is this important?
  • Where? (Situation, Vision) Where have we come from, where are we now and where do we want to go?
  • What? (Mission, Goal) What does success look like?
  • Which? (Options, Risk) In which ways could we achieve our goal?
  • How? (Resources, Plan) How do we get to our destination (what steps and resources do we need)?
  • Who? (Network, Team) Who can help us achieve the goal?
  • When? (Timing, Scheduling) When is the best time to achieve the tasks and how long will it take to succeed?

You can read more in What are the Right Questions for Decision Making and Strategic Planning?

The Eisenhower Matrix – a tool for effective prioritising 

I first came across the Eisenhower Matrix over two decades ago when I first read Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I have been using the system ever since to help me think about my task list and how to prioritise things. The two-by-two matrix is composed of thinking about what is important and what is urgent. This creates four ways to categorise and prioritise our tasks:

  1. Urgent and Important. Do these tasks now.
  2. Not urgent but important. Plan time to do these tasks.
  3. Urgent but not important. Try to delegate these tasks.
  4. Not urgent and not important. Avoid these activities.

5:5 Breathing Technique – to help your emotional management 

Various scientific studies have shown the effectiveness of using breathing techniques to manage our emotional states. When a crisis hits, or you feel yourself losing your cool then the best thing to do is employ a proven breathing technique. The thing is, to truly be effective, you need to have practised beforehand. My favourite technique is 5:5 breathing where I breathe in for a slow count of five and then breath out for a slow count of five. If you would like to know some variations to this technique (and how tracing your hand can make it even more impactful) then read How to Use Simple Breathing Techniques to Reduce Stress.

The Kolb Learning Cycle – for experiential learning and a growth mindset

We learn through experience and the Kolb cycle helps is to ensure that we learn effectively by making us aware of the critical stages. The order is not important but we need to go through all four phases of the cycle if we are to truly learn. So, if you do not want to waste a learning opportunity then you need to check off these four elements:

  1. Concrete Experience – having some sort of new experience
  2. Reflective Observation – assessing the experience against existing knowledge
  3. Abstract Conceptualisation – generating new mental models
  4. Active experimentation – applying new methods to the experience

There are also four learning styles that complement these phases. The idea is that we all have a preferred learning style and you can find out more in How to Boost Your Growth Mindset with Kolb’s Learning Cycle.

The SWOT Analysis – a tool to improve your situational analysis 

The SWOT analysis is one of the best know conceptual tools there is. Some people might discount it because it is so frequently mentioned or used, but this would be a mistake. The SWOT analysis is popular because – as with the best management tools – it is so simple and effective. It is brilliant for getting a snapshot of a situation. SWOT stands for:

  • Strengths 
  • Weaknesses
  • Opportunities 
  • Threats

Strengths and weaknesses are internal factors whereas opportunities and threats are external factors. One of the most beneficial elements of this tool is looking at the links and relationships between these four quadrants. And, even though the SWOT tool was designed for use with businesses I also highly recommend it as a personal tool. Do a quick SWOT analysis on yourself; it’s great for self-awareness.

The GROW Model – a tool for setting goals and coaching others

Sir John Whitmore’s GROW model, along with the SWOT analysis, is one of the best know conceptual tools used in the workplace. The GROW model was developed as a coaching tool but has been widely accepted as a tool for all managers and I frequently teach it in leadership courses. The GROW method provides an easy-to-follow framework for coaching someone to achieve something. GROW stands for:

  • Goal – identify the vision and set the task
  • Reality – consider the present situation and its factors (the SWOT analysis can help here)
  • Options – look at different ways to achieve the goal
  • Will – commit to achieving the goal and plan the first steps

As a manager, you can use this method to coach people through objectives at work and works very well alongside the SMARTER delegation method outlined below.

SMART (and SMARTER) tasks – to ensure effective delegation

The more responsibility I take on, the more I have to delegate. The thing is, if I fail to delegate work effectively then I will end up with just as much work (if not more) in the end. Therefore, it is critical to define tasks effectively when assigning work. The SMART and SMARTER acronyms are really helpful reminders of what is needed to create an achievable goal. Talking through these elements with the person taking on the job also gets their buy-in to the activity and creates agreement around the parameters of the work. SMART stands for:

  • Specific, 
  • Measurable, 
  • Attainable, 
  • Relevant and 
  • Time-bound

You can also add an optional E of Evaluate and R or Re-Evaluate to create a SMARTER task with planned review points. I would wholeheartedly recommend this, and the Traffic Light system (below) can complement this evaluation process. 

The Traffic Lights Review Tool – for reviewing projects, progress, and performance

As seen from the Kolb learning cycle, if we want to improve performance, we need to reflect on what we have done before and learn from the experience. It is also evident, from the SMARTER delegation technique, that planning in evaluation points will support the successful achievement of a task. Therefore, we need to constantly review performance in a simple, effective and time-efficient manner. This can be done by using the Traffic Light approach which prompts the three critical questions to cover in a review process:

  • Red: what should we stop doing?
  • Amber: what should we continue doing?
  • Green: what should we start doing?

For further explanation and examples take a look at The 3 Most Powerful Questions for Continual Improvement

The SCARF Model – to improve your social interactions 

The SCARF model is a tool I have come across more recently as I have become more interested in the psychology and neuroscience behind how we behave at work and in our relationships. It was developed by neuro-scientist David Rock to explain how we interact with people in social engagements and why our body and brain interpret social threats in the same way as physical threats. His research came up with five factors that can impact whether we find a social situation positive or negative. These make the acronym SCARF which stands for:

  • Status – where we feel in the pecking order
  • Certainty – how sure we feel about the future
  • Autonomy – the level of choice and agency we have
  • Relatedness – how connected we feel to others
  • Fairness – whether we perceive something to be equitable

The science behind this is fascinating and, when understood, can improve relationships, and help to stop explosive, damaging, or uncomfortable social interactions. You can find out more in How to Stop Your Primal Brain from Hijacking You at Work.

A starter for 10: which do you want to experiment with?

If there is something new here for you, then I recommend experimenting with the tools and seeing how it goes. Be playful with it, adapt it to your needs, and if it doesn’t work, put it on the shelf and try something else. Part of the fun of working life is this learning journey where we find new ideas, experiment, and grow. As we develop as individuals, we get better at what we do. Everyone – our bosses, colleagues, and teams – benefit. We also benefit if we enjoy what we do and get the satisfaction of improving our performance and achieving new things.

So have a play. And if you could make your own list, what would it have on it? 


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