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Think yellow: When questions are better than answers in leadership

The world needs new maps

This isn’t a clarion call for cartographers to return to the drawing board and start penciling in missing Micronesian islands or new megacities in South Korea. Instead, we’re talking mental maps. As the Covid-19 crisis has painfully demonstrated, the way we previously viewed the world is, perhaps, no longer relevant.


“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” - F. Scott Fitzgerald

In January, when news of a virus in China first emerged, it was easy for those in Europe to shrug given the horrors were unfolding 5,000 miles away; the geographic distance created a false sense of security. Surely, a much better, and more alarming proxy would have been to consider today’s flight routes and air travel patterns, which reflect the globalized, hyper-concatenated world we live in.

The months and years ahead will be uncharted waters for today’s business-leaders. In order to navigate such uncertainty, they’ll need to develop new maps and modes of thinking.

It’s here where the concept of pink and yellow thinking – developed by Rob Poynton, tutor at Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme (OSLP) – may prove critical.

The predominant way of thinking: ‘pink’

Pink thinking is what most of today’s leaders are trained and socialised in. Broadly speaking, it’s an approach concerned with precise analysis, causality and logical distinctions. Pink thinking is characterised by the notion that problems are there to be solved; that command and control is an effective management style and the human actor is an outside observer to a world that unfolds independently to him/her. It’s the world of fixed objects, certainty, either/or judgments and banishing doubt.

Stemming from Cartesian thought and the Enlightenment, pink thinking has proved to be efficient and productive for humankind. It also works tremendously well when dealing with management issues, as Jon Stokes, OSLP tutor and SBS senior fellow, has observed.

Pink has a problem, however. When dealing with leadership challenges, we step into unmapped terrain – something Stokes calls “the swamp”. With the economic vicissitudes facing today’s leaders also constituting a swamp-like future, maybe it’s time to add a dash of yellow to the thought palette.

A complementary way of thinking: ‘yellow’

Yellow thinking embraces broad synthesis, complexity and paradoxes. Rather than observer-managers being detached from the systems they aim to shape and influence, yellow thinking sees the observer actively participating in these systems. It doesn’t apply universal solutions; instead yellow thinking encourages early safe-to-fail experiments and learning from failure. We should also point out that yellow isn’t an alternative thought process, rather one that complements pink thinking.

Conversations are also integral to yellow thinking. Asking good questions becomes more important than answers, as they probe our assumptions and mental maps, thus priming them for critical reflection. 

Rather than the hierarchical structures and ‘command and control’ of pink thinking, the conversations generated by yellow thinking enable leaders to create, maintain and engage in relationships with fellow seekers. Adopting a yellow thinking mindset can keep people more alert, attentive and mindful – useful attributes for wading into the ‘swamp’ for the first time.

Teaching yellow thinking

Leading a choir at an Oxford college chapel without any conducting experience is a task that encapsulates an idea that lies at the core of yellow thinking: that vulnerability and ignorance are leadership strengths, not weaknesses. One OSLP participant particularly sticks in mind: an extrovert CEO of a multinational corporation who attempted to engage the choir by moving his arms dramatically and using big heroic gesticulations. The choir was nonplussed. None of them were singing and the CEO was left floundering. Conductor Peter Hanke (also a leadership coach and long-time OSLP faculty) stepped in, urging the CEO to make smaller, less histrionic movements to summon the choir to sing. It worked. Over the years, we’ve learned that the intensity of conducting a choir means that the learning can last people a lifetime; it’s a touchstone they call upon time and again. A five-minute experience that yields lifelong learning.

The importance of relationships and asking good questions underpins yellow thinking; something we coax from OSLP participants by visiting Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum to discuss a selection of anthropological artefacts. After all, context and culture matters in leadership. At OSLP, even breaks, lunches and dinners are designed to recognise this social aspect of learning.

Yellow thinking is a world of ‘Yes, and…” rather than “either/or”. This is language that Rob Poynton has drawn from improv theatre. OSLP has drawn upon various improv theatre concepts and practice, while participants can also look forward to a detailed discussion of Shakespeare’s work – such as most recently, The Tempest – during the course.It’s pertinent because yellow thinking requires leaders to ‘act’ themselves into a new way of thinking. The idea of ‘acting’ into this mindset shift comes with a different learning approach; one which requires using your experience, body, relationships with others, plus your discomfort and frustrations too. As Rob Poynton has learned from many years of improvisation: “everything is an offer”.

An opportunity to listen

This year’s coronavirus pandemic has provided an opportunity for reflecting on our need for new mental maps and to start engaging with difference. In April, reports emerged that the lack of shipping traffic has meant that Canadian oceanic researchers have been able to listen to whales and other marine life without the low-frequency din of cruise ships and tankers. “We are facing a moment of truth,” said Michelle Fournet, a marine acoustician at Cornell University. “We have an opportunity to listen – and that opportunity to listen will not appear again in our lifetime.”

Just like the whales – cetaceans are our close cousins, after all – the reduction of noise in our daily lives gives us all an opportunity to listen more, notice more and have more complex conversations. These are all critical skills that will equip leaders with the map they need to order to tackle the many challenges ahead.

Tracey Camilleri is Program Director of the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme (OSLP); Sue Dopson is Vice-Dean and Academic Director of OSLP; Majken Askeland, Claus Jacobs, Johnnie Moore, Eleanor Murray, Rob Poynton, Samantha Rockey and Jon Stokes are executive education tutors on OSLP.