Developing a Helicopter Mind – how technical managers can improve their success

Estimated reading time: 2 mins

The Helicopter Mind is a concept of thinking and questioning that allows managers to interweve abstract and specific thoughts, and to have the ability to switch between the two modes of thought appropriately and skilfully. An extensive study has shown that managers who have these abilities are more successful and perform better in their roles than those that do not.

How does the Helicopter Mind work? Well if you can hold an image of a helicopter in your mind that moves up (towards abstract) when a WHY question is asked and moves down (towards specific) when a HOW question is asked. A manager who asks WHY questions will be reviewing an activity in terms of its purpose, value and desired outcome. A manager who asks HOW questions will review activities in terms of their method, process and skills involved.

So if you have grasped the concept, its application is simple. Asking a WHY question allows managers to think more laterally about a given task and reconsider the methods in which they use to achieve it. In my experience, technical managers do not do enough of this, and are generally more interested in the task and optimising it. But asking WHY one performs an activity before HOW the activity is completed allows a technical manager to consider the objectives and outcome and challenge them.

To illustrate:

WHY? Maximise company profits

WHY? Efficient production and increase customer satisfaction

WHY? Produce quality widget

ACTIVITY: Run quality checks on each widget

HOW? Inspect each widget by hand

HOW? Staff visually checks each widget as it comes off the production line

HOW? Staff applies a checklist according to the spec of each widget

In the above example, asking HOW questions about the activity take you into specific solutions to the problem. But asking WHY questions consider what is the desired outcome of the activity, which may lead you to consider a different activity to achieve the same result. In this example, desiring the production of quality widgets could be achieved by quality checking the production process rather than checking the quality of the final product, i.e.

WHY? Maximise company profits

WHY? Efficient production and increase customer satisfaction

WHY? Produce quality widget

ACTIVITY: Run quality checks against the production process

HOW? Check items at each stage of the process periodically

HOW? Take a sample of every hundredth product when it leaves a stage of production

HOW? Staff applies a checklist according to the spec of each production stage

The above example aims to illustrate that by using WHY and gaining height in your helicopter opens up the mind of you and your colleagues to alternative ways of achieving your goals. By considering the Produce Quality Widgets objective, you’ve been led to think about ensuring you have a quality process (which should in turn produce a quality product) rather than just ensuring you produce a quality product.

In summary, exhibiting a Helicopter Mind where one asks WHY something is done as well as HOW can lead you to consider alternative strategies to achieve a technical activity. Business leaders like this. This is how innovation is achieved and new ideas concerning products, operations and other business benefits are stimulated. It’s also a way for a manager to make their mark in their organization. Developing a Helicopter Mind should offer you personal development benefits as well as career benefits.


About the author /

Simon is a creative and passionate business leader dedicated to having fun in the pursuit of high performance and personal development. He is co-founder of Truthsayers Neurotech, the world's first Neurotech platform servicing the enterprise. Simon is also an Ambassador for Gloucestershire business. Simon is an Associate Member of the Chartered Institute of Professional Development and Associate Member of the Agile Business Consortium.

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