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Creating Space for Critical Thought in the Modern World


John Miller

Date Published

Apr 13, 2022
7 minute read
A Clearing

When Chris McGoff and I founded The Clearing more than a decade ago, we were asked one question more than any other: “What is a clearing?” And even though we’ve answered it countless times, I believe there’s still value in revisiting the principle we were founded upon.

What is a Clearing?

With the explosion of email and devices that present a constant stream of pings and dings, we observed modern leaders had increasingly less time for uninterrupted, critical thinking about the issues they were tasked with solving. In this regard, little has changed in the ensuing decade-plus. Need proof? In the 10 years between 2010 and 2019, smartphone ownership increased from 35% to 81% of U.S. adults.

We believed that creating a “clear space” for this thinking would be critical to solving the biggest issues of the day. Thus, “The Clearing” was born.

Conceptually, a clearing is an empty space (physical, mental, and/or spiritual) intentionally created for a specific purpose. In this emptiness, we can bring what is essential to cause the outcome the clearing was set up for. Once you are in a clearing you are free of all that distracts you from the specific matter at hand. All you bring to a clearing is what you deem as essential and unique to achieving a specific outcome.

In practice, a clearing (whether physical or virtual) is a place where a leader brings only the most-critical individuals required to solve the issue at hand – and we’ve observed that it’s a concept leaders find addicting. You can read more about clearings and watch Chris McGoff explain them here.


When Should Leaders or Teams Create a Clearing?

Clearings are critical in a number of instances – here are a few:

  • When leaders are facing a new challenge or an opportunity they are trying to get at and don’t know where to start.
  • When a leader isn’t sure if they are communicating enough or too much to their staff AND if that message is actually being understood by the levels under them.

Often, we hear enlightened leaders say, “What I don’t need right now is more data and more people; what I need is to get my thinking clear and I simply can’t do that inside the existing structures and physical space/day-to-day that I currently have.” They know organically they need a clearing, even though they may not name it as one.

To that end, our work traditionally begins with someone finding out about The Clearing or meeting us in a facilitated session we are hosting. They contact us and say, “I think I need a clearing for a problem in my organization.” We invite them to come to our space or we bring it to them at their space. This is what we call a Chalk Talk, which serves to help them organize their thinking around a critical issue.


What Happens in a Clearing?

Leaders bring themselves and only the most critical individuals needed for a specific challenge. Freed from distraction and in a safe space, we see “aha” moments occur; moments where leaders or team members can point to one place on a whiteboard and realize if they focus on this one thing it will cause their problem to get easier. These “aha” moments occur in clearings simply because modern lives are often too cluttered to easily make those connections.

We like to say that you are trying to untangle a knot when you are facing a problem. Instead of combing through the strings, a clearing allows you to just take a knife and cut right through it. You are going right down the middle of the problem with an overwhelming force to start the solutioning process. The clear space created by severing that knot turbocharges solution-focused thinking. Once a leader has this experience, they become attached to the idea of creating a clearing earlier in their problem-solving processes.


How Does The Clearing Use Clearings in Its Work Today?

I’ll provide an example. We recently had an opportunity with a senior leader who was up against a monumental challenge: stand up a brand-new defense agency that would replace multiple legacy defense agency parts tasked with finding missing POW/MIAS.

One of the seminal moments for that leader occurred in a clearing. We asked them to imagine an agency that instead of focusing on the missing people, focused on the families of the missing. On a large whiteboard, we put a single circle with the words “family of the missing” in the middle and asked how might this transform the way a new agency finds and accounts for the POW/MIAS?

It was transformative – and led to the realization that the agency’s end customer was actually the families longing for closure. Until that moment, efforts had been all about finding all the bone fragments and DNA evidence possible, THEN talking to the family about it. In a transformed world, the agency would talk to the family constantly and provide them evidence as it came in – delivering them that closure sooner and the regular communication required to ease their uncertainty around what may be happening in the search process.

In my heart of hearts, I don’t think that transformation could have happened inside the Pentagon or in the normal structures of this leader’s day to day. Creating a clear space for critical thought, away from the environment where the previous way of doing things pervaded, was the key to imagining what a better experience could be.


Why Do Clearings Matter More Today Than Ever?

There are massive challenges and opportunities facing humankind that cannot be solved or realized by any one person. They require people from multiple organizations and backgrounds who must work together to solve them. And most of them will require a reframing of current norms and approaches, which as noted above, are often hard to consider when faced with day-to-day organizational pressures and commitments. This makes them perfect opportunities for a clearing. A clearing for possibilities to be realized.

If you’re facing a problem or have an opportunity that may benefit from a clearing, or simply want to learn more about how they work, you can reach me at