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Updated: May 18, 2021

Metacognition. Sounds a good word and it's certainly an important one. The dictionary defines it as ‘thinking about thinking’, self-awareness, our ability to oversee what we are thinking and doing. It’s not a new idea - the Greeks had it pretty much nailed (literally) to the arch over their oracle at Delphi. If you want advice on how to approach an uncertain future begin with this recipe - ‘Know thyself’.

But it's more than a self-improvement motto. It's a key neural capability, one which has helped us evolve and survive as a species. Even though we’re smart enough to find solutions to problems of a hostile environment there will still be situations where we need to reframe, to question what we’re doing and perhaps try a new tack. And that needs metacognition - the ability to think about how we are thinking.

It's a hot topic in psychology today. The neuro-scientist Stephen Fleming has just published a book (Know Thyself: The science of self-awareness) which highlights the importance of self-reflection and the ways in which its absence can have negative impacts. His team carried out studies using advanced computer techniques which highlight very clear neural pathways associated with the capability for ‘thinking consciously about our own minds and the minds of others’.

And without it we can soon find ourselves in difficulty. For example, Tim Harford’s excellent account of the Torrey Canyon disaster draws attention to the problem of not taking the time out to question and rethink. In 1967 the Torrey Canyon, a well-built and modern oil tanker under the command of a highly experienced captain followed a course which took it away from the destination port of Milford Haven and instead on to the Seven Stones rocks near the Isles of Scilly. Despite having radar, accurate charts and having travelled the route before the ship crashed hard against these - resulting in what was, for its time, one of the world’s most damaging environmental disasters.

The subsequent reconstruction for the official enquiry found that the captain (under pressure to try and make harbour before the tide turned against him) had followed a new course. Unfortunately he also made assumptions about the ship’s position which were wrong and even when he was provided with updated information stuck to his original course plan.

A classic example of where a minute of metacognition could have helped avoid a lot of heartache (not to mention a disastrous oil spill, the financial costs of cleaning it up and the end of a good man’s career).

What psychologists call ‘plan continuation bias’ looks to have been at fault - our tendency to continue with an original course of action that is no longer viable. It’s a well-known problem, the villain in many other disasters - for example those resulting from when pilots unexpectedly encounter bad weather but decide to persist with their course rather than divert to another location. The aviation world has a name for this - ‘get-there-itis’ - and it is surprisingly infectious.

The trouble is that this is not the only challenge we face in trying to get things done. Sometimes we’re so focused on the task in hand we lose sight of the wider peripheral information which might contain clues about something important which has changed in our environment. Psychologists call this one 'inattentional blindness’ and it's behind a slew of internet video clips which have gone viral.

Perhaps the most famous shows a group of students playing a game of basketball, half of them dressed in white, the other half in black tops. The viewer is instructed to watch closely, following the white team and counting the number of times the ball is handled - bounced, passed or lost to the other team. A highly focused task and one which is complicated by the fact that they are playing with more than one ball!

It draws you in if you’ve never seen it before; during the thirty seconds or so for which the clip runs there’s a lot of activity going on as you try to count. Which is why you may well not notice the gorilla (or rather someone dressed up in a gorilla suit) strolling to the centre of the game, turning to the camera and beating his chest before sauntering off again. This isn't a small sideshow; it takes place centre stage. And yet studies repeatedly show that around half of the viewers fail to see the gorilla and are surprised by it when shown the film a second time.

It’s a real eye opener - or rather , an eye closer. Because what is going on is the determined focusing of attention on the task in hand - counting the passes and throws of the ball(s). A second’s peripheral vision, a quick glance at the bigger picture and the gorilla instantly and obviously becomes visible.

Inattentional blindness takes many forms and it results from our having evolved the capability to focus our limited attentional resources quickly on the urgent task in hand. That's been a really valuable survival trait for us as a species but it comes with the downside that the gorilla and a thousand other experiments highlight; sometimes we fail to take something else into account because we are too focused.

Our problem is that although we are pretty good at thinking our way out of trouble our unconscious biases (of which these are only two of many) can often get us into worse trouble. So metacognition matters - being able to pause and check what and how we are thinking. Unfortunately it isn't always deployed.

Of course it's not easy - the swamp/alligator analogy springs to mind. It’s really hard to think about draining the swamp (or any other solution which a metacognitive pause might help generate) when your appendages are being snapped at by hungry reptiles! But if we can develop that faculty it’s probably going to pay off in the long term - which is why evolution has helpfully built it into our neural wiring.

It’s also rather important in the world of innovation. We don’t have to look too far to see illustrations of plan continuation bias, for example, where what seemed like a good idea at the time then acquires its own unstoppable momentum. Projects like the Anglo-French Concorde airliner, conceived back in the 1970s as the future of supersonic travel. The eventual cost of the project spiralled from an original £70m estimate to a staggering £2bn and once in the air the plane never achieved the scale of orders needed to repay that investment. Problems with noise meant it was restricted in where it could fly to and although dramatically cutting journey times it was expensive to run and acquired relatively few passengers. (Perhaps not surprisingly since the cost of a Concorde transatlantic flight was 30 times that of the cheapest alternative!).

Concorde is, unfortunately, only one example of thousands of innovation projects whose momentum proved unstoppable - despite the fact that they, like the Torrey Canyon, were heading for the rocks. Cases where a little metacognition might have helped avoid a lot of heartache.

We’ve learned the hard way that it’s not enough just to pick a promising innovation idea and then press the ‘go’ button and hope. Robert Cooper’s famous stage gates approach emerged from experiences particularly during the war years and have become pillars of good practice. Not as roadblocks to progress but as waypoints on the journey, roadstops where we invoke metacognition. We review the strategic case, the technology, the market - and only if the lights are green do we proceed, Any other course is likely to land us in trouble.

These days we’ve embedded faster review cycles; the agile methodology originally emerged in the world of software. Not by accident - IT projects have a particularly black record when it comes to overruns in cost and time. Managing software projects requires careful control but they also need to progress; agile cycles allow both a sprint forwards and a review before planning and taking the next step.

Nowhere is this approach more relevant than in the start-up where, by definition, we don't have the luxury of making too many mistakes. Get it wrong, and we could lose everything. So the lean start-up approach involves a careful planned sequence of controlled experiments with review and learning at the heart. The pivot is essential - and the act of pivoting requires metacognition.

It’s not just about our innovation projects - we also need metacognition to check the underlying models we use to make innovation happen. We know that managing innovation depends on learning a craft, embedding a set of skills and capabilities in organizational processes to translate ideas into value. (There’s even an international standard now (ISO 56002) which sets out good practice in such innovation management systems).

But sometimes our approaches need resetting - they were helpful in the past but under different conditions they may lose their value and even get in the way.

Take, for example, the shift in approach at Procter and Gamble in 1999. Clearly no slouch when it came to innovation, P&G had built a business from candle-making back in the mid-19th century to become one of the world’s most recognised suppliers of consumer products. It fuelled its innovation engine with a huge $3bn annual investment in R&D and these white-coated scientists were matched in number by another legion of market researchers, able to hook up consumer needs with the extensive knowledge base of the company.

Yet in 1999 CEO Alan Lafley launched a new programme, one which was to change the whole innovation model of the business. From 150 years of innovation driven by R&D the approach would henceforth be one of ‘Connect and develop’; the simple clear strategic target was to change the balance from 100% of innovation arising from within the company to sourcing half of those innovations from outside.

It was one of the first overt examples of an ‘open innovation’ strategy, one which thousands of other businesses began to follow, driven by the irresistible logic of global knowledge expansion. The challenge in moving to Connect and Develop was twofold; it required rethinking and changing the operating model for innovation, finding new ways of connecting, learning to handle partnerships,developing strategic external network. And it required metacognition - stepping back and reviewing whether the current innovation model was still the right one for the job.

Resetting the innovation model doesn’t happen every day - but it does require that we have the capacity in our organizations to keep things under review and to be aware of when and how to make changes. Think about the ways in which many organizations are approaching the challenge of the digital revolution. Whilst they may adopt the buzzwords and slogans the reality is that effectively working in this challenging new way requires a significant shift in innovation model.

And yet a common mistake is to try and improve what is currently done rather than undertake the kind of fundamental rethinking which underpins a successful digital strategy. They are missing the metacognition needed to ride the new wave instead of getting swamped by it.

So metacognition matters - it’s a key part of learning and building innovation capability. But how might we put it into practice? There are a number of helpful strategies to develop this capability, including:

  • Look in the mirror - make time for reflection. (But watch out for the ‘Snow White’ problem - magic mirrors may tell you you are the fairest in the land but make sure they aren’t simply playing back what you want to hear).

  • Enable structured and critical reflection - tools like benchmarking, systematically comparing against reference models or other organizations can help

  • Recruit ‘critical friends’ - bring in challenging external perspectives who ask tough questions and force a degree of reflection. That’s one of the key roles played by management consultants and coaches but it can also be provided by networks of peers who are often able to cut through the flannel and tell it like it is

  • Build in review routines - make use of tools and methods like agile and stage gates, deploy post-project reviews and set-down meetings where the intention is not to do ‘blame accounting’ but to learn for the next time

  • Use different perspectives - recruit diverse second opinions. One of the most valuable attributes of tools like the Business Model Canvas is that it provides a ‘boundary object’ across which different people can exchange views about the innovation they are focusing on

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