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Freaky thinking in business


By Chris Thomason, Author of ‘Freaky Thinking; Thinking that delivers a dazzling difference’

Is our thinking as efficient as it could be, especially on work-related issues? Freaky Thinking turns thinking on its head. It’s a series of techniques integrated into an innovative process that stimulates thinking on important topics when an individual is in their own best thinking place, at their personal best time of day, and (most importantly) when they are alone.

Given the economic, social, and environmental challenges being faced by businesses and individuals today, fresh thinking that delivers new and practical solutions to these challenges is needed. Organisations are facing new and difficult questions they need to answer – or they may just need superior answers to old questions. Whatever the issue, the best solutions always seem blindingly obvious in hindsight, yet they can remain tantalisingly elusive to identify when needed.

The Freaky Thinking process is designed to go beyond the realms of conventional wisdom and search for, and identify, pragmatic new ideas that form the valuable solutions needed. It’s the first radically different approach to workplace thinking in the last 70 years.  But how do you ‘do’ it?

If you want to do your very best, and most productive ‘Freaky Thinking’, where do you start?

Doing your best thinking

The best place to begin is by looking at when you do your best thinking. What are you doing when you get your best ideas? Taking a shower? Walking the dog? Driving? Exercising at the gym? I’ve asked this question of thousands of people, and these are the answers I get most frequently. Generally, we’re looking for activities where we’re alone with our thoughts.

What’s also extraordinary is that people rarely say they get their best ideas at work. This finding is consistent across all levels of an organisation and often surprises leadership. While organisations may encourage employees to ‘bring their full selves’ to work, they may not be applying their minds as well as they could be.

The science

Research from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2012 helped shed light on why we tend to get our best ideas when doing a simple task of some kind. Participants were given two creative thinking tests with different actions to perform between the tests. The group that showed the greatest improvement (of over 40%) were participants given an ‘undemanding task’ to do. They fared much better than those who performed a demanding task or who were told to sit and relax in the short break between the tests.

The summary of the research? We’re more effective thinkers while we’re performing an undemanding task, such as walking, driving or exercising.

Pose Killer Questions to find the purpose for our thinking

In order to come up with great solutions and ideas, you need to ask the right questions. A question, by definition, needs to be resolved by an answer. Questions and answers go together like left and right. And the ideas you come up with are actually the answers to questions – either to a question that you’ve posed for yourself, or to a question that someone else has asked you.

We’d all like the ideas we come up with to be bold and powerful, such that they impress those around us. But if ideas are the answers to questions, then to get bold and powerful answers, we need to be posing bold and powerful questions that stimulate this type of answer. In Freaky Thinking this type of question is called a Killer Question.

A Killer Question is one that, when answered well, will deliver significant value for you. It’s a question that you—or the organisation—haven’t yet been able to answer satisfactorily, and it’s one you intuitively feel is possible to answer. It’s a question that has many potential answers and where you’ll have to choose the best one to execute. Just because you couldn’t answer a specific work question previously, doesn’t mean it’s impossible to answer. It just means that your thinking wasn’t imaginative enough to answer it then. But with a Freaky Thinking approach that positions it as a Killer Question, you can potentially answer it now.

A Killer Question ignites a fire, or a passion, for you personally. It’s when you recognise that if you are able to answer it well, there will be significant benefit for your organisation, your team, or yourself. Killer Questions spark genuine personal interest in finding great answers to them – and they ignite an individual’s curiosity.

Encourage curiosity

On 8th June 1991, Kathy Betts, a part-time clerical worker processing medical claims for the Massachusetts State Government made the front page of the New York Times newspaper. She’d posed—and answered—a Killer Question that had helped the state of Massachusetts re-classify certain types of claims such that they could claim additional funding from the Federal Government.

At the time, Kathy Betts was 38-years old and had been employed by the state government for 12 years. She’d recently reduced her hours down to three days a week to spend more time with her two children. Because of what she knew about her work, Kathy Betts felt sure that there was some way the state could claim greater match-funding for the expenses it incurred when it refunded individual hospitals. She took home manuals and guidelines to study, searching for ways to answer her question, and over time her curiosity helped her to find the answer. Her idea enabled the state to receive additional funding over a six-year period which exceeded $1.4 billion (£2.4 billion converted to today’s money). She later stated that no-one else knew the combination of things she did about her role, which helped her find new answers to her Killer Question.

But doesn’t this apply to every employee in every business?

Nobody else knows the same combination of things as anybody else, which offers anyone the opportunity to think like Kathy Betts. And to deliver equivalent levels of value for their employer?

Here are two more recently reported examples of individuals posing Killer Questions of themselves that initiated their curiosity to produce unexpected results:

BBC News 5/1/2023: Londoner solves 20,000-year Ice Age drawings mystery

An AI programmer cracks a pure maths problem

So, what are you or members of your team curious about? What problems do you/they encounter regularly in your workplace? What problem do you keep coming back to with that intuitive sense that there must be a solution, if you could just grasp it? Each team member probably has a different ‘curious problem’, so tap into their individual curiosity. This a great place to start.

Motivating great thinking

There are elements of our work that we must do to stay employed. These elements form the basis of our daily activities and it’s the reason we get paid by our organisation. If you chose the job you’re in, then you accepted that these tasks would occupy the bulk of your time. These tasks are motivated externally by your need for a salary, and by extension, the need to keep your job.

Intrinsic motivation is where you’re motivated by what makes you feel good, and what you enjoy doing (not what you must do). Deciding to learn a new skill (such as a language) only because you want to is intrinsic motivation. The litmus test may be whether you have been told to do something, or whether you’re self-starting a task because you want to do something.

In The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer, author Steven Kotler has combined neuroscience with decades of research to create a guide for extreme performance improvement. He writes that our big five intrinsic motivators are: curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy, and mastery.

Killer Questions are an integration of an individual’s curiosity, passion and purpose. Allowing them the freedom to do their thinking in their own best personal place and time is the autonomy. And the excitement of incremental improvements as they sense new solutions being identified is their sense of mastery.

So, follow your curiosity, and encourage your team to do the same. Make time to ‘pull on that thread’ without the stress of looming deadlines. Make space for people to follow what appeals to them and find solutions to the problems that interest them.


Freaky Thinking is an approach that will help solve workplace problems and create new ideas for growth and improvement. But to do it, we need to change our approach to ‘creative thinking’. Research shows that our best thinking rarely happens at work.

While brainstorming sessions are a good excuse to bring odd assortments of people together nominally with the aim of identifying new ideas, the drab, magnolia-painted walls often tend to suck the last drop of meaningful creativity from people’s minds.  Instead, set some Killer Questions.

Encourage people to use Freaky Thinking to seek insightful answers and opportunities when they are in their own most-creative places. Away from the work environment. Later, when they have identified some interesting ideas on their own, they can share these with others to assess and develop them into ideal solutions.

There is a solution to almost every business challenge, we just need to change the way we approach thinking about these challenges and allow our teams some ‘freaky thinking’ space.


Chris Thomason is founder of Ingenious Growth which helps organisations change their thinking to boost innovation, productivity, profits and most importantly, staff satisfaction. After buying a failing manufacturing company and turning it into one of the largest in its sector, Chris now teaches the innovative ways of thinking that lead to his business success. Chris is author of eight business books including The Idea Generator, Freaky Thinking, and Excellence in Freaky Thinking. Chris’s clients include UPS, Canon, O2, Vodafone, Roche Pharmaceuticals, Touchnote, Lloyds Bank, Toyota, HSBC, Scottish Widows, South African Airways, American Express, and many more.



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