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810: How to Get Stuff Done inside Bureaucracies with Marina Nitze

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Marina Nitze reveals what makes bureaucracies tick and how you can work your way through them.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why bureaucracies can actually be great
  2. Six favorite bureaucracy hacks
  3. What not to do when trying to challenge a bureaucracy

About Marina

Marina Nitze, co-author of the new book Hack Your Bureaucracy, is a partner at Layer Aleph, a crisis response firm specializing in restoring complex software systems to service. Marina is also a fellow at New America’s New Practice Lab, where she improves America’s foster care system through the Resource Family Working Group and Child Welfare Playbook. Marina was the CTO of the VA after serving as a Senior Advisor on technology in the Obama White House. She lives in Seattle.

Resources Mentioned

Marina Nitze Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Marina, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Marina Nitze
Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to hear about your wisdom but, first, I think we need to hear a little bit about your job as a 12-year-old making fan sites for General Hospital.

Marina Nitze
Well, it was the best way to learn HTML back then. It was the days of AOL keywords, and I loved my General Hospital soap opera couples, and it was a great way to learn technology, and that was absolutely the start of my tech career.

Pete Mockaitis
So, at 12 years old, you’re loving General Hospital?

Marina Nitze
Yes, it was our neighbor’s grandma watched it, and I got to sit and watched it with her. And then you get hooked, right? Friday cliffhanger, you got to see what happened Monday, and then you’re running home from the school bus every night.

Pete Mockaitis
That is fun. That’s fun. I have a feeling that in your childhood you probably had a lot of fun conversations with “grownups.” Is that fair to say?

Marina Nitze
I was really bad at being with kids, so, yeah, I mostly just talk to grownups and tried to have my own businesses. Yeah, being an adult is more fun.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’m intrigued to hear you’ve got a cool specialty. We’re talking about your book Hack Your Bureaucracy. You’ve worked in some in your career in your days. Could you share with us, any particularly surprising or counterintuitive discovery you’ve made about bureaucracies in general? Is there something most of us have wrong about bureaucracies?

Marina Nitze
I think so. I think bureaucracy is often a four-letter word. We think of them as things that you need to blow up, you need to move around, you need to get rid of. And, for me, the most surprising thing as a Libertarian joining the Federal Government, believing that the whole thing should be blown up, and it totally did not work, was that bureaucracies actually work quite effectively and you can do a lot of effective things to get them to change for the better. And so, learning those techniques was really the impetus behind writing the new book and sharing those with others.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so tell us more about that. Bureaucracies, in fact, do work effectively. Can you give us some data or evidence or examples there?

Marina Nitze
Well, we kept seeing, when I was in the Federal Government, we had a program called the US Digital Service, which recruited top-tier technologists to come into government for tours of duty. And, repeatedly, kind of the pattern was always the same. They wanted to come in and the first thing they thought was the path to success was getting a waiver or an exception to the rules, or going around the rules, and that worked zero percent of the time.

But what did really work was learning what the rules were, and then not only using them to your advantage, but sometimes changing the rules of the game themselves so that the next thing the bureaucracy was doing was the right thing and the thing that you wanted them to be doing consistently even after you left.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, they were able to accomplish what they were hoping to accomplish by doing things the way that they say are to be done, and that was fine.

Marina Nitze
Yeah. I had a great story there around trying the normal way first, which was one of our bureaucracy hacks. When we wanted to use cloud computing because, at the time, all the websites for veterans were literally operating on computers that were like under people’s desks or, in one case, in a mop closet. And even if you don’t know a lot about technology, computers and mop closets and water should never the twain shall meet.

But one of the big objections that we got to doing this was from the inspector general, who said, “Well, wait a minute. You can’t use cloud computing because you can’t put the cloud in an evidence bag.” And so, by actually going through this process and working with them and understanding how they conducted their investigations, which was they would walk into your office, they would pick up the computer, and they would put it in an evidence bag. They didn’t know how they could do that in a world where cloud computing, and you can’t actually touch the computers anymore.

So, we had to work with them to help them see how they could actually conduct their investigations more effectively.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, you don’t have to truck it over to the mop closet.

Marina Nitze
Exactly. You don’t have to lift anything, you don’t have to put it into bags, your back won’t be strained anymore. And then, in the course of following up with that, we ended up hitting the IT approval paperwork had questions, like, “Marina, do you pinky-swear that you jiggled the doorknob to make sure that it was locked on the cloud?”

And you can’t jiggle the doorknob of the cloud either, so you had to actually change the paperwork itself. But in the course of changing the paperwork, now you can say, like, “Hey, is this server in a mop closet?” And if it is, then it doesn’t get approved, “Does this server have backups?” And if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t get approved. “Does this website have business hours?” And if it does, then it doesn’t get approved. And that’s how you can make a really systemic change in a bureaucracy.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I just need to follow up. So, there was actually an official form somewhere that had the phraseology pinky-swear and jiggle the handle on it? Is that accurate?

Marina Nitze
The pinky-swear is my color, admittedly, but the jiggling the handle was actually literally a security control. We had to promise. I had to swear and sign on a piece of paper that I had jiggled the doorknob to make sure it was locked.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, this is fun. This is the way I love it, it’s the detailed insight scoop. All right. So, maybe let’s zoom out a bit. What’s the big idea behind the book Hack Your Bureaucracy?

Marina Nitze
Yeah, it’s really the Frank Sinatra test. So, in Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way,” he says, “Hey, if I made it here in New York, I can make it anywhere.” And so, the bureaucracy hacking tactics we learned in the White House, when I was at the VA as the chief technology officer in Department of Defense, when they worked there, we then found, my co-author Nick and I, that when we left, now he’s in venture capital and at Harvard University, I now do IT crises consulting for Fortune 500 companies and I work in state and local governments on foster care, and the bureaucracy hacking tactics still keep working.

And then we tried them in PTAs and Homeowners Associations, and they still keep working. So, the idea is, “Here are some hacks that work in some of the toughest bureaucracies, and they’ll also work in your everyday bureaucracies.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, could you share with us an inspiring story of someone who, indeed, successfully hacked their bureaucracy and got something cool done which others may have said is impossible?

Marina Nitze
Absolutely. So, at the VA in 2013, there was a horrible backlog of healthcare applications from veterans that were trying to access VA healthcare, 800,000 of them waiting, pieces of paper waiting in a warehouse. And it was in the news that the inspector general had determined that 100,000 of those veterans had died waiting for the VA to process that paperwork.

And so, the VA was going to do what the VA always did, which was, “We’re going to do more mandatory overtime and more data entry.” But my team believed that there was a different way to go about that, “What if we could bypass the paper and get digital instant enrolment for veterans?” And what unlocked that was actually sitting down with a real veteran whose name was Dominic and, with his permission, we recorded him trying and failing to apply for VA healthcare 12 times.

He called; we hung up on him. He tried to open the website; it wouldn’t load. He tried to open another website; it wouldn’t open. And up until that point, the VA’s belief had been that veterans don’t use the internet because the numbers of veterans that apply online were so small. When, in fact, it was that the websites didn’t work.

And so, when we had this video of Dominic trying and failing so many times, and then it turned out he was actually absolutely eligible, and we were able to enroll him the next morning. We gave him our new mobile form, which is not rocket science, it’s not machine learning. It’s literally a form that was under on your mobile phone. He was able to enroll instantly, and we’ve since enrolled 2 million veterans instantly in VA healthcare through that mobile form.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Okay. So, taking a step back and parsing some insights from that story, it seems that the leadership has a mistaken view of what things are really like on the ground, it seems to be my takeaway there.

Marina Nitze
Yeah, and so our tactic here is you got to talk to real people. No matter where you are, if you’re a brand-new hire, if you’ve been in your role for 30 years, if you’re the leader or if you’re like an entry-level employee, going out and talking to the real people that are really experiencing your service, whatever your company may offer, is the way that you’re going to find those disconnects that you’re not going to find if you never leave the office.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a grand story. Well, so you’ve got 56 such approaches for hacking. I don’t imagine we’d cover all 56 in the time we have here today. But could you maybe give us some of your greatest hits in terms of, and here’s my criteria, how I define greatest hits, that’s widely applicable in terms of it covers many kinds of bureaucracies; it is widely effective in terms of, “By golly, there’s a high percentage of the time this thing gets it done; and it has a good return on effort, if you will, like a little bit of time here can give big returns?” So, I’m putting you on the spot, Marina, if you could give us a few of your favorite bureaucracy hacks that meet these three criteria, what leaps to mind?

Marina Nitze
Absolutely. It would definitely be the space between the silos. So, the bigger your bureaucracy is, the more specialized it gets, the more that there’s different departments, it may even be that your company interacts with other companies through the course of a process. And while there’s tons of defensive antibodies that don’t want to change inside a silo, there’s often absolutely nobody paying attention at the handoffs between the silos. So, it’s a really awesome opportunity to make a really big change.

And I’ll tell you a quick story around this. I was helping a state trying to shorten its foster parent application processing time. And this is really important because, while grandparents, or aunts, or uncles have kiddos in foster care in their home, they’re not getting paid, they’re not getting any financial support until they complete this really byzantine paperwork process. So, it’s really important to get it down.

So, I’m following the claim in this case from start to finish, and this is the advice that anybody can use. If it’s a claim, if it’s a case, if it’s a customer, whatever it may be, follow up from start to finish. When it goes through the fax machine, you go to the other end of the fax machine. When it goes to the mailroom, you go to the mailroom.

And so, I was following this one foster parent application through the office, and I get to this woman, and she says, “Well, now I have to request the applicant’s driving record from the DMV,” and she pulls out the carbon copy triplicate paper, you know the kind you have to like press really hard and it’s different colors, and she says, “Oh, I hate this step so much. The DMV lives in the 19th century. I don’t even have stamps. Like, it takes forever. This sucks.”

And I walked over to the DMV because I’m following the real application, and I say, “Hey, can you show me how you’re processing the driving record request?” And the woman there says, “Oh, yes. We use this electronic system, and the request come in, and we process them same day.” And I said, “Well, wait a minute. I saw a carbon copy paper. Where does that come in?” And she said, “Oh, you were at child welfare. Those people are in the 19th century. They keep sending this carbon copy paper. Why the heck won’t they use my electronic system like everybody else?”

And so, I was able to connect those two individuals and, overnight, shaved 32 days off a process, removed a cumbersome step that nobody wanted to do, and make everybody’s lives easier simply because, in most bureaucracies, nobody ever sees or owns the end-to-end process. And so, if you can just crawl through it, follow your person, you will be shocked at the amount of insights and improvements that you can make.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, Marina, this is the first time someone has made government work sound exciting to me. It’s like, “Oh, my gosh, what a huge value-add,” sorry, consulting language stuck with me. That’s like a huge amount of value for what sounded somewhat easy. Marina, maybe you did a lot of work over many days to pull this off, but that didn’t sound too hard. And, yet, that’s a huge improvement in people’s lives that’s quite touching. And those opportunities exist when you’re inside big bureaucracies.

Call me optimistic, but that almost sounds like a positive, “Oh, I’m in a huge bureaucracy.” “Oh, lucky you. There are so many improvement opportunities you can probably just grab that make a huge impact for not a lot of effort. That’s kind of a cool place to be.”

Marina Nitze
I would agree with you. I’d agree with that. The bigger the fire, the more interested I am. But even if you’re at a smaller bureaucracy, there might be handoffs you do with other outside partners, or maybe you’re interacting with the government as a nonprofit or something. Go follow that application process through and see if there are inefficiencies to be had.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Okay. So, we talked about the space between the silos, and following from start to finish. What are some of the other approaches?

Marina Nitze
Picking up the pen. So, I first learned this one, at the VA, for a while, we were missing one of our senior leader roles. We hadn’t hired for it yet and so we were kind of distributing that role’s tasks among the staff. And one of them involved having to go to the White House for a meeting, which sounds really exciting, like everybody would want to do it, but that means waiting in the security line for two hours in the hot sun.

So, I, as the new person on the team, got tagged in to take on this meeting, and I was supposed to write the President’s management agenda, which is a pretty big deal in Federal Government, and one of the tasks of that meeting was, “Hey, can someone write a technology goal on a slide?” And so, I’m looking around figuring other people showed up with their ideas, but, no, here was the blank slide, and so I said, “Oh, I’ll do it. I’m going to write down that the VA should have the first agency digital service to this team, and it should have 75 employees reporting to the CTO,” which was me.

And I assumed someone would come along and edit my slide or delete it or modify it, but, nope, it kept moseying along through the process, and then, lo and behold, the President is announcing the President’s management agenda that includes the goal of having 75 technologists assigned to this CTO of the VA, which is me.

So, then I got to take that slide that I had written because I had picked up a pen and take it and justified hiring these 75 teammates that I really, really needed. And that was a great way in the Federal Government but I since used it all the time to include…we have a story in the book of someone using that to change their condo’s pool policy because there was a lot of bickering around, like, “Is the Homeowners Association going to let us have the pool opened during COVID?”

And I said, “Well, why don’t you write the policy that says it’s open, because then the person that wants to keep the pool closed, they’re going to have to also write a policy and shows up and like get counter votes, so you’re actually raising the bar and effort for them, and making it easier for everybody to do what you want.” And this worked pretty consistently among everybody that I knew that was having this pool problem.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so cool. And what’s funny, because there was a bit of resistance there, so it’s like, “Ugh, writing a pool policy, that sounds kind of boring and lame. And what do I know about pool policies? I’ve never written anything like this.” But, at the end of the day, everybody just makes it up. Someone just makes it up. You just made it up and you got 75 employees. That’s pretty cool.

And someone else is just making up a pool policy. It’s unlikely that they’re consulting with someone with a tremendous deep expertise in pool matters from an insurance company or law firm, but that’s conceivably possible. But the most parts are like, “Oh, I guess this makes some sense when it comes to having a pool, so it’s the policy. Any input, feedback? Okay, here we go. This is the policy.”

Marina Nitze
Yeah, if you look around, no offense to your particular Homeowners Association, but if you’re looking around it, it’s just made of other regular humans that are just like you and me so there’s no reason why you can’t write a pool policy. And, yeah, maybe somebody will have an edit to it, but if you want the pool open, pick up the pen, draft the policy, see what happens.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I dig it. Marina, this is awesome. Keep going.

Marina Nitze
All right. I’d love to share a Harry Potter analogy here because I think this is a really, really effective one if you’re ever working with technology. So, there’s a concept called strangling the mainframe, and it’s the idea, like, say you’ve got an old, old system. Everybody’s got one in their company if it’s around long enough, and everybody thinks that the goal is to shut off the old system.

But the old system ends up powering a little bit of everything. It’s going to power HR, IT, something maybe, and everybody’s trying to have this magic huge perfect plan to turn off the old thing and one day magically turn on the new thing. And I’ve never, in the history of time, seen that worked. Like, in all of Western civilization is actually powered by these mainframes.

And so, my best analogy here of how to actually fix this problem, if it’s something you’re facing in your workplace, is a Harry Potter one. And this is a spoiler alert, so if you don’t know how Harry Potter ends, you should skip ahead 60 seconds. That is Voldemort is the mainframe and Harry and his family and the whole wizarding world are trying to destroy the mainframe head on, and it doesn’t work. The mainframe gets more powerful than ever. And after six and a half books, Harry’s lost most of his family, there’s billions of pounds of Muggle property damaged, and Voldemort is stronger than ever.

But what does work are finding the Horcruxes and slowly peeling off bits of the mainframe’s power one bit at a time. So, if you think about it in your organization, maybe you could pull off a little bit of case management, maybe a little bit of claims status tracking, maybe a little bit of HR, such that, at the end, you have a small enough of a puzzle that you can actually replace it in, say, six months or one year.

And so, this is a technique that we use all the time. Even if your company is working, frankly, off of like a really advanced spreadsheet, you still often can’t turn it off overnight. You got to peel off piece by piece. And this can be a really amazing bureaucracy hack and tactic if you’re trying to make change because there may be some new innovation that you want to have seen.

One example here would be around the unemployment claim backlog. In a lot of states, they had a strangle a mainframe tactic of helping stand up a claim status tracker because that’s what everybody wanted to know, “Did you get my claim? When is it going to get paid?” And the mainframes couldn’t support that, but many states stood up and, literally a week, a claim status tracker where everybody checked their status just from their mobile phone by building this little piece off to the side that just syncs to the mainframe once a night.

So, just want to encourage folks to think creatively about how they might strangle their mainframe and what their first Horcrux might be.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool. That’s really cool. What comes to mind is I was in a Facebook group all about professional speakers, and this was only like four years ago, and someone took a photo of a dot matrix printer at a rental car location, and said, “Dot matrix printer is still holding town at the rental car agency.” It’s like, “Yes, that is so weird that those still exists there.” And then that’s intriguing, if you think about it, in terms of…and I don’t know the rationale for why those are still there.

Marina Nitze
They’re all in airports, too. Airport manifests are printed on dot matrix printers.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and maybe that is or is not relevant but if we’re genuinely waiting, I don’t know, an extra 30 seconds per person in line for the dot matrix thing to go through that, then it sounds like it needs to be replaced. But if it’s plugged into a mainframe, or a bigger computer sort, then I guess it’s quite possible that you have an alternative means by which the information is sent to a different printing thing.

As I zoom into these conversations, how I imagine they would go, it’s like, “Oh, well, we can’t change that because it’s connected to the thing. And that thing runs everything, so just don’t even touch it, don’t even think about it. Just forget about it and move on.” And then most of us are not so persistent, shall we say, or stubborn, however you’d like to phrase it, as to dig in a little deeper and further. But if you were to do so, peeling off a little bit at a time is likely to get us a lot farther.

Marina Nitze
Absolutely. That’s the message.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. Let’s hear another.

Marina Nitze
So, if you’re kind of a staff-level person, a recommendation that we have here is really think about tailoring your pitch to who you need to persuade to your way of thinking. And one of my favorite bureaucracy hacks here was done by a colleague. We needed a bunch of IT executives to approve an API policy. An API is an application programming interface. It’s something that lets two computers talk to each other.

But if you don’t know what an API is, that just sounds like a huge security blackhole, like, “Wait a minute. I’m going to let another computer connect to my computer and take data out of it? Like, that sounds like everybody’s going to hack it and take all the private data out of it. That doesn’t sound safe.” And so, people were pretty opposed to it.

But because they were senior leaders, they had no safe place to ask basic questions about what an API was. They were too senior to ask the basic questions. So, we had to set up a space for them to learn, so we had a session called APIs for Executives, and we held it in a fancy room and had some fancy speakers and fancy invites, and invited them to come.

And at the beginning of the presentation, it said, “You know, hey, we know everybody here knows what APIs are, but just in case,” and then gave a basic 101 review of APIs so that it gave those executives a safe place to learn so they could actually engage in the conversation. And if we hadn’t done that, they would’ve just blocked our policy from day one from a place of fear.

Pete Mockaitis
It feels really brilliant in terms of so you knew exactly what your roadblock was. It’s like, “These folks don’t understand what an API is and they’re afraid to ask. And I can’t just say, ‘Listen, bud, I know you don’t know what you’re talking about, so let me lay it down for you.’” You knew that wasn’t going to fly in this environment.

And so, I’m curious about how you presented that, it’s like, “Oh, wouldn’t you know it? Like, crazy coincidence, this event is happening,” because you had agency in creating the event. So, how did you play that game?

Marina Nitze
Well, it was just about framing it in a totally respectful way. So, like, yeah, it does sound a little bit manipulative. I fully acknowledge that but we had to find a safe place to get them to learn. And having an event called API 101 wasn’t going to do it because they were going to be afraid of, like, being seen in front of their direct reports, potentially, as not knowing. So, we had to create a place that they would feel safe.

And we had a little bit of an advantage. We could also invite them to a fancy White House office room for the event, but you probably have an equivalent wherever your organization may be of creating some sort of safe space for people to learn without making them feel dumb. Because if people feel dumb or threatened, they’re not going to engage with you in a constructive way.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. All right. Marina, you can just keep going all day. More hacks. Lay it on us.

Marina Nitze
Something that I think is really overlooked that we really encourage is when you’re understanding how process works or when you find a change that you want to make, you have to understand the internal employee impacts of that process the same as you understand how you may want to change it for that end-user or for your customer.

So, often your internal employees have particular risks or incentive frameworks, like their position description said they have to do this or that. Their practice manual says they have to do this or that. They have more steps to do in a day than they can possibly do. So, if you show up with your, like, bright, fancy, new idea for outside customers, that you’re going to have a new customer support model or you’re going to have a new product that makes the internal people have to do seven more steps on their already-over full plate, they are going to resist you, and they are going to fight you.

But if you can understand kind of like my story earlier about the DMV, like neither of those women, they were both busy. They didn’t want to fill out carbon copy paper and mail it to one another. Like, they were happy to take that step off their plate, but you had to acknowledge that it existed in the first place to understand how you could kind of trade, and say, “Okay, I’ll get you two more internal efficiency gains and, in exchange, I need you to do this one extra step that’s going to help my actual project goal.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, now, could you tell us a little bit about what not to do when it comes to hacking a bureaucracy? If we want to make something happen, we’re inside a bureaucracy, we’ve got some really cool things that we should do, what are some things that we absolutely should not do?

Marina Nitze
Yeah, this is a mistake I see people make all the time, and I made it myself a lot in the beginning, which is you can’t try to make the bureaucracy care. Bureaucracies do not have feelings. They have decision criteria. And something I see a lot, and I see this especially in IT, where you want a new IT application approved, or you want to be able to use a spreadsheet software because it’s going to make you more efficient.

But the argument that, like, “Hey, if we don’t get this, there’ll be foster children that are homeless, or there’ll be veterans that don’t get healthcare.” Those are not approval criteria on the approval form. They’re not part of the decision matrix. So, you can beg and plead and make the emotional arguments to the end of time, but if you don’t actually fill out the approval form and meet what it needs, you’re not ever going to get to the goal that you actually want.

So, a big mistake I see people make is trying to make the bureaucracy care. And what, instead, you should do is understand what the bureaucracy cares about and meet those needs even if it may be frustrating and not feel particularly emotionally fulfilling in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, what’s interesting here is we’re talking about the bureaucracy, it’s like an entity because I’m thinking of it like The Borg. It’s like an entity, a person, a corporate thing unto itself and that doesn’t have feelings. I get you. Like, if we defined bureaucracy as a series of steps or processes, then maybe, first, we should get your definition of bureaucracy. I guess individual humans within the bureaucracy might care, and that could maybe motivate them.

It’s like, “Wow, you’re right. This is a big problem and we need to do something.” So, you maybe even enrolled them and you’ve gotten them on board with some emotions, but you’re not really going to get any traction in terms of making it happen until the actual steps of the form or process or whatever are getting adjusted. Is that a fair synopsis?

Marina Nitze
Absolutely. You might win them over to pay attention to you first, to take your form first, but you’re not going to win them over to allow your half-filled out form to get approved.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. And then since we’re saying the word bureaucracy a lot, could you define it for us?

Marina Nitze
Yeah. In the course of writing the book, we actually tried to find something that wasn’t a bureaucracy. And this quest took us even to, like, a co-op grocery store in Brooklyn, California. It turned out it was still a bureaucracy. It’s any organization of any size that’s run by a series of processes and rules, both written and unwritten. And unwritten I think is really important, too, because, at the end of the day, like if there is a process, if you have to go through Bertha, and Bertha considers your form in a particular way, and she is the gatekeeper there, it’s important to understand that as an unwritten rule.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you for that. So, anyway, more don’ts. What else should we not do?

Marina Nitze
Yeah, my other one is beware of the obvious answer. I, literally, have a TextExpander keyboard shortcut on my computer, where if I typed the word just, it will delete it, so it will not let me type the word just because that word is what gets tons of people in trouble, especially if you’re new to a problem or to an organization. Do not show up and say, “Well, why don’t you just do X, Y, Z?” because the odds are that hundreds of people have had your idea before, and there are some reason why it is not been done already.

So, before you say, “Why don’t you just do this?” it’s really important to kind of, first, keep that idea to yourself, but dig in, try to find people who had that same idea, see who has tried what, where didn’t it work, because maybe that the solution is not impossible. That’s not all what I’m saying, but it’s a lot more complicated than the obvious answer that it may seem like you have.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And articulating the word just out loud can, I imagine, enrage some people, like, “Who do you think you are? Oh, I guess we’re all just idiots, Marina. Excuse us for not having just made an online form. Pardon our foolishness.”

Marina Nitze
Correct. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve often coached people, like, “Don’t say the word obviously ever. It doesn’t help you out.”

Marina Nitze
That should be a TextExpander shortcut, too. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, just is in that same category in this context. So, okay, any other don’ts?

Marina Nitze
I think those are my two main ones.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And I want to talk a little bit about the emotional component here. I think some folks have a feeling that if they try to hack it through the bureaucracy, their bosses might think that you’re trying to undermine their authority, or you’re trying to circumvent them or their system, or you’re going over their head, like you’re committing some kind of a no-no. Can you tell us, to what extent are these fears real? And if we have them, what should we do about them?

Marina Nitze
Yes. So, my approach there would be to build a stakeholder map, and that’s something we recommend in the book. And a stakeholder map is usually such a valuable tool that we explicitly recommend that you never share it with anybody and that you don’t put it anywhere that somebody else can find it, because everybody’s got those different perspectives, like you were just saying.

You may have a boss that is threatened by you shining. In which case, if you really want to see your initiative take hold, the way to do it might be to give your boss credit for having done it. Or, you may have a boss that is really like a rule-follower, and so the way to get around that is to follow the rules. You may have people that are very motivated by getting a promotion and, therefore, you have to understand what is the criteria for them getting that promotion, and how do you help them achieve that in the course of helping you achieve your initiative.

So, by mapping out kind of who each person is, what their resources or power structure is relative to the decisions that you need made, and what are their risks and incentives, you can start strategically figuring out how to move forward so that you can get your initiative done, whether that means, again, giving some people credit, distracting some other people with a different shiny toy, and then maybe even changing some position descriptions themselves so that people’s motivation to do their regular work is shifted to help support what you’re trying to get done.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s so much wisdom here, Marina. Thank you.Okay, so when you’re making this map of things with the stakeholders and what they want, I’m curious, are there a few key categories of drivers, of things that people tend to really want or not want that we might tick through as we’re trying to fill out that map? Because we might say, “Huh, what does Paul want? Hmm, nothing’s leaping to mind.” Could you give us a few starter categories to help get those ideas flowing?

Marina Nitze
Yeah, absolutely. I think we have, like, two pages of bullets in the book as additional brainstorming exercise. But people think about what their recognition is. Some people, for example, actively avoid the limelight, and some people really want to be seen in it. Money, which could be tied to promotions or raises or getting more budget line item for their own program.

Some people want to be perceived as innovative, and some people want to be perceived as rule followers. And then it’s also important not to overlook the literal lines of like, “What is this person supposed to be doing? And what are the lines, whether they’re grey or bright lines, of what they’re not supposed to be doing?” And how might you need to adjust those to accommodate the kind of different kind of work that you might need them to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Marina, it seems like as you described this, you sound like such a master, and, hey, you’ve got a lot of experience in some organizations, you’ve learned some things the hard way, and you’ve codified some of it. So, beyond simply reading your book Hack Your Bureaucracy, do you have any tips on how we can, generally, become all the more savvy and hip to this skillset?

Marina Nitze
Yeah, I think this is one that anybody can learn. I don’t think you have to get a bachelor’s degree in it by any means. And so, I would start with just identifying a problem in your space of, again, whether it’s you’re annoyed by a Homeowners Association rule, or since this podcast is about being awesome at your job, something in your immediate department, or maybe at a slightly higher level on your organization that you want to change.

And then I would go about trying to change it. Talk to your peers. Enlist other people in the journey of making the change. Try the normal way. Understand and ask why, “Is it the way that it is? Is there some law or policy, or is it just that a CEO, three CEOs ago, said that it was the case, and no one has ever questioned it since?”

And then you can build up your skills there. I would definitely recommend picking problems, if at all possible, that don’t involve life or death as your first bureaucracy hack. Pick something a little bit lower stakes. And then as you build up your bureaucracy-busting muscles, you can take on harder and harder problems.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Marina, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Marina Nitze
One last thing I’ll just say is it’s also a lot of this sounds like you’re really in the weeds, and it definitely is, but it really helps to hold a north star. And that was something that I built early on when I was at the VA. But literally, it just started with a bunch of Post-It notes, but saying like, “What could the VA be? If we get through all these bureaucracy hacks, like what is the VA at the end of the rainbow, as it were?”

And, actually, so the Federal Government has an equivalent to the Grammy’s or the Emmy’s called the Sammy’s. And the VA won the Sammy for the whole Federal Government for customer service two weeks ago.

Pete Mockaitis
Congratulations.

Marina Nitze
And that was such an incredible vision, that from ten years ago, that it wasn’t even on my vision board. So, I just encourage you, it’s nice to have a north star, and it can also motivate you through the dark times to know, like, what the big picture you’re working towards is even if you have to make a lot of concessions along the way.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Marina Nitze
Absolutely. It’s Lily Tomlin, and it’s, “I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that. And then I realized, I’m somebody.”

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Marina Nitze
I love re-reading Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, and the research that you’re just kind of as happy as you were before no matter what bad things happen to you, or no matter what decisions that you make. That helps make some decisions feel a little lower stakes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Marina Nitze
Well, a book that I really modeled our book off of is The Success Principles by Jack Canfield because I love that you can just open to any page and get like a little mini dose of inspiration without having to commit to reading a 300-page book.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool?

Marina Nitze
Definitely the stakeholder maps or the journey maps, that it would be like when you’re mapping out a process from end to end, all the different steps, all the people working at the steps, what the error rates are, what the volume rates are, what the wait times are. I love those immensely. And maybe, as a meta toy, it would be my enormous dry erase board sticker because it takes up like my whole wall, and it’s where I draw all my maps.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, so it’s a dry erase board but it’s like a Post-It, or you say sticker?

Marina Nitze
Yes, it’s from 3M. Yeah, it’s like six-by-twelve feet. You can buy them in different sizes. And mine, I’ve had it for five years now, and it’s held up perfectly, but I accept I’d have to replace them.

Pete Mockaitis
But you could reposition it with the adhesive.

Marina Nitze
I had never tried that. So, yes, you could reposition it, but most of my vision was if I got it…you know how you dry erase something for a while and you’d kind of have that red hue that you can’t get rid of? I envisioned, I could just, “Oh, great. I can just unstick the board and put up a new one.” But I haven’t even had to do that yet, so.

Pete Mockaitis
Then you get it done.

Marina Nitze
Yeah, I use it all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Marina Nitze
Inbox zero. It took me many years to get to that point but now I get super anxious if I even have, like, five unprocessed emails.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Marina, maybe we need to have you for a whole another episode to discuss that.

Marina Nitze
It took a lot of work to get there.

Pete Mockaitis
So, a quick follow-up, what have been some of the most game-changing insights, or approaches, or tools, or hacks to pulling this off?

Marina Nitze
One, definitely, the snooze feature in Gmail helped a lot because some email it’s a hotel reservation one, or something about a meeting agenda for next week. I snooze it till one minute before I need it so it gets out of my inbox but I know it’s going to appear when I need it. Another piece is really from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which is I just have to make a decision about what to do in the email.

I don’t have to do the thing, so that reduces the friction of like, “Oh, my God, I don’t have time to write a 20-page report.” But I don’t have to. All I have to do is capture it in my to-do list that I have to write a 20-page report, and then I tag the email as having a task, and then I can get it out of my inbox. I’m also a pretty merciless un-subscriber, and I love apps like Matter, for example.

Anytime I get an email newsletter, something I’m supposed to read, that automatically gets forwarded to Matter and delete it from my inbox, so that when I’m in the mood to read, or David Allen, in the context to read, I can just pull up my Matter app and I get all my reading material in one place so it’s not in my inbox.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; you hear people quote it back to you often?

Marina Nitze
Yes, it’s the idea of cultivating the karass. Karass is a concept from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which is that, in the book, that God has hidden other people on the planet to help you accomplish a goal. We use it in a little bit more of a secular way, which is imagine if, instead of thinking that all people in your agency or your department are out to get you or out to slow-roll you, imagine that there are people that are out to help you, and they are just hidden around as security guards or secretaries or accountants. And how can you find them and then band together to get your goal accomplished?

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Marina Nitze
HackYourBureaucracy.com. We have a blog where we’re continuing to share more bureaucracy-hacking tactics and stories. And then you can follow me on Twitter at @MarinaNitze, N-I-T-Z-E.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Marina Nitze
Yes, find your karass. I mean, the best allies I had when I was in government trying to get through some of the hardest projects were literally the security guards and the executive assistants. And so, you just never know who your best allies are. So, go out there, meet as many people as you can, and hack your bureaucracy.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Marina, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you many successful hacks.

Marina Nitze
Thank you so much. You, too.

801: How to Find the Upside amid Uncertainty with Nathan Furr

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Nathan Furr discusses how to reframe your relationship with uncertainty to open up to new possibilities.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to turn the fear of the unknown into an excitement for possibilities
  2. The six types of risk and how to manage them
  3. How to deal with the frustrations of failure 

About Nathan

Nathan Furr is a professor of strategy and innovation at INSEAD in Paris and an expert in the fields of innovation and technology strategy. His bestselling books include The Innovator’s Method and Innovation Capital. Published regularly in Harvard Business ReviewMIT Sloan Management ReviewForbes and Inc., he is an Innosight Fellow, has been nominated for the Thinkers50 Innovation Award, and works with leading companies including Google, Microsoft, Citi, ING, and Philips.

 Resources Mentioned

Nathan Furr Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Nathan, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Nathan Furr
Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat about your book The Upside of Uncertainty: A Guide to Finding Possibility in the Unknown. But, first, I was a bit intrigued about you’ve got a Master’s in Later British Literature, you’ve written some novels and some screenplays, and you’re a professor of innovation and technology strategy. That’s a fun combo and I’m just curious how your love of literature fuels insights into uncertainty and innovation.

Nathan Furr
Interesting. Well, first off, I think it’s a great example that, of uncertainty itself, that life is full of curveballs because there’s other things in there. I worked in strategy consulting, I went and did a PhD at Stanford in strategy in entrepreneurship, so very different than literature. But I think, really, what is literature about? It’s really about big ideas that teach us how to live.

And so, maybe, in a way, nobody’s asked me that question before. Not many people know that part of my history. But, really, I think what you put your finger on is my interest in big questions.

And, for me, uncertainty is like the biggest question of all because, in the field that I’m currently in, I’ve been in for more than two decades, yeah, we talk about management. Where did management come from? What problem was it built to solve? It was really something we created during the industrial revolution when the landscape shifted from this ecosystem of tiny firms, craftspeople doing their work, to this landscape of giant firms, textiles, and automobiles, and oil, and steel, and suddenly you needed somebody to coordinate and organize all that.

And so, management, really, has been so focused on this question of, “How do we coordinate, organize, and control, and optimize?” It really hasn’t spent very much time on this other equally important question, which is, “Well, what about when the world changes? What about when we need to create? What about when something disrupts? And what are the tools for a world of uncertainty?” And so, that’s kind of like really the question I’ve been obsessed with in my management and academic careers, has been, “What are the theories, tools, and frameworks for a world of uncertainty?”

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Well, I’d love to dig into a few of those in particular. I’m thinking about the book, The Upside of Uncertainty. What’s sort of behind the title there? There’s some upside we should be enjoying?

Nathan Furr
Yeah. Listen, we’re all wired to be afraid of uncertainty. So, for example, my co-authors, who are neuroscientists, will point you to these studies that show how our brains light up in the face of uncertainty. So, that’s an evolutionary wiring we can’t help. But, as I mentioned, I’ve been studying these kinds of questions for a while and, in particular, I’ve gotten to interview innovators. So, over the last 20 plus years, some of the biggest names that you’ve heard of and some of the most interesting people who you haven’t heard of.

But what I noticed in interviewing those innovators is that to do anything new, they all had to go through uncertainty first. And I was so curious about that because I wouldn’t say that I’m like naturally good at that, that that’s where I’m oriented, so I wanted to learn from them, “So, wait, how did you get the courage to do that? How did you get the courage to leave your job? How did you go through the obstacles when it looked like everything was going to fall apart?” So, really, the genesis of this book was that question.

I’ve been interviewing people for about 10 years on this topic, about, “Well, so, how did you fit and learn to face uncertainty? And what are you doing? How do you navigate it? How do you manage it? And what happens when something goes wrong?”

And so, really, what we did is compiled those interviews and the existing research to come up with some practical things that can help.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m excited to dig into some of this how. But, first, I’d love to touch upon a why. What’s really at stake for professionals looking to be awesome at their job if they maintain their current level of skill and discomfort with uncertainty versus gain as much mastery as we humans with our brain hardware and biochemistry can do?

Nathan Furr
Yeah, that’s a great question because here’s the dilemma. Whether you try to avoid uncertainty or not, it’s going to happen to you. So, by many, many measures, it appears that the world is becoming more dynamic and more uncertain. So, a very rough proxy, the World Uncertainty Index put together by some economists at Stanford and IMF shows steady increase of uncertainty over the last several decades. And, yeah, there are many other measures of this that point to greater dynamism and greater change, and I think it’s best summarized by the former CEO of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Jostein Solheim.

He, basically, said, “The world is ambiguity and paradox, it’s everywhere. The world is getting harder and harder for people who like the linear route forward in any field.” And what I think he’s putting his finger on is what I was feeling, which is, yeah, maybe they had better parents and schools than I did, but I certainly wasn’t taught, “How do I deal with uncertainty?”

And here’s the thing, when we have low skills, we tend to fall into these maladaptive behaviors, which are also, by the way, well-documented in the literature, like threat rigidity and rumination and so forth. So, if we have tools, then we can approach it with greater calm, greater courage and resolve, but I’d say the stake is even bigger than that. Because the thing I learned in kind of going through this, I was so obsessed with uncertainty, but what really became clear to me is that, again, like those innovators I told you about, they only got to new and different things, to the possibilities, by going through the uncertainty.

And so, uncertainty and possibility are really two sides of the same coin. And so, if we’re to spend our lives avoiding uncertainty or dealing with it poorly, what we’re really doing is shortchanging ourselves on possibility. Now, some of you might be saying, “Oh, that’s real nice, Nathan, but I just lived through the pandemic, and that stunk. And I didn’t choose that.” Well, you’re right, so I want to separate.

There’s planned uncertainty. When you, say, go start a new job or make a geographic move. There’s also unplanned uncertainty that happens to you. But my thesis, my proposal would be that is if we had better tools, even that unplanned uncertainty, we can make more out of it, we can suffer less in the situation, and we can discover, or at least unpack, the possibilities that might still be there, acknowledging, of course, there’s downsides. I want to acknowledge that but we tend to get focused on that and not on the upside.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, before we delve into those skill-builders, we’re saying the word uncertainty a lot, and I have a view of what that might mean and it’s broad and inclusive of much. What is your definition and some places where you think the everyday professional sees a lot of uncertainty?

Nathan Furr
So, yeah, there’s a lot of definitions out there. So, most folks probably have heard of VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. So, yeah, if you allow me a nerdy moment, complexity is where you have many nodes and many connections between those nodes. And so, the complexity is because if you changed one variable, you don’t know how it’s going to affect other variables.

And risk is more…there was an economist in the 20th century, very important economist, Frank Knight, who described risk as when you know the variables and you know the probability distribution, you just don’t know the outcome. So, think about like rolling dice. But uncertainty is where you maybe don’t know the variables, you don’t know the probability distribution, for sure, and if you want to get even a little bit higher-stakes uncertainty, what we might call ambiguity, it’s where you don’t even maybe have the mental model to make sense of it.

And so, here’s the thing about uncertainty and ambiguity, it requires different tools. Frank Knight, the economist, was very clear about that, but it happens to us a lot more than we realize. So, think about people talking about disruption all the time, disruptive technologies. Well, that is not risk, friends. That is total uncertainty. There are so many things we don’t understand about that, so many variables we don’t know, so much lack of information, new mental models, how to think about it.

Or, we don’t know what’s coming down the pipe in terms of recession, or rebound, or what’s next. All of those things are uncertain. And so, the challenge, I think, is that we’re wired almost because it’s frightening to us and we haven’t been given the tools to kind of avoid the uncertainty, but I kind of feel like if you tried to make your life as certain as possible, what you would certainly discover is how boring it is.

And, in fact, one of my favorite interviews was with the head of a big gambling organization, and he said, “What we do is we call it among ourselves reverse insurance because it’s for people whose lives have gotten so predictable and they want to actually introduce some uncertainty back into their lives.” So, for me, uncertainty is really a lack of information or think of it like fog in the landscape. You can’t see what’s ahead, so what do you do? Do you stay safe and wait?

And what I would encourage people to think about, I think about it for myself, think about the things you’re proud of, that you’ve done in your life. It could be a career move you made, it could be a relationship, it could be that you went away to school when nobody else was doing that, whatever it is. Think of what you’re proud of and look back, and I am sure there was a great deal of uncertainty in that journey to that possibility.

So, for me, it’s just if those are the things we’re proud of, and they took on uncertainty, we had to go through uncertainty, then I want to get better at it so I can get more of those things.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I’m sold. So, Nathan, tell us, how do we get better at it?

Nathan Furr
Oh, man, so that’s a big question because we interviewed so many fun people, we interviewed entrepreneurs, scientists, people who won the Nobel Prize, but also many professions have a lot of uncertainty in them, like, say, for example, paramedics and so forth. But to be fair, we came up with 30 plus tools. Now, that’s a lot to remember.

So, what we decided to do was to organize these tools, kind of grouped them roughly around a metaphor of a First Aid cross, but a First Aid cross for uncertainty, so you can get help. And the First Aid cross has four arms or four categories of things to remember. Number one, to reframe the uncertainty from something that is going to cause you a loss to looking at the possibility instead.

Number two, there’s ways you can prime, like, think prime the wall so that the paint sticks to it or prime the pumps so the water comes out. There are things you can do to prime or prepare so that when uncertainty happens, you’re calmer and you’re ready for it. Number three, there’s ways to do or to take action. The number one thing to resolve uncertainty is to take action. But we learn from a robust body of literature and innovation entrepreneurship, there’s ways to take action that are better than others in circumstances of the unknown.

And then, lastly, the fourth category is to sustain, this idea that we will face setbacks, there will be anxiety that’s part of uncertainty, so how do we sustain ourselves through that so we can get to the possibility?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then, let’s hear some tools. Like, maybe let’s perhaps drop into a scenario that professionals might find themselves faced with, like, “Hey, do I take on a new job?” “Do I take on a new project, or role, or responsibility?” So, in the midst of that, there’s some uncertainty, there’s some discomfort. How do we, say, use some reframing tools to get better?

Nathan Furr
So, reframing really sounds simple. It really is this idea that the way we describe something changes how we think, decide, and act. Now, it sounds kind of fluffy but there’s actually a very robust body of research in psychology and behavioral economics that shows that we have different reactions. So, there’s a very famous study by Kahneman and Tversky, won the Nobel Prize, which showed that.. in the experiment there was a disease and they offered people two treatments. I’m simplifying it but it basically was one treatment has a 5% chance of failure and the other treatment has a 95% chance of success.

And what they find, people vastly prefer the 95% chance of success, even though they’re statistically identical. Why? Well, because we are wired to be loss averse and gain seeking, so we’re afraid of losses, and that’s a real problem with uncertainty because, for most of us, uncertainty feels like, “Ooh, I might lose something.” And so, if we can reframe it in terms of the possibility, then it’s much easier to take action to face the unknown.

So, you asked, facing a new job. I faced this myself. I was at a university in the US and I was on track for what we call tenure, which is the job for life. So, you heard professors “Publish or perish.” This is the moment where you perish, or you publish enough and you survive. So, I was kind of making it, we’re living in the US, we’re comfortable, and everything was good, and then we got invited to do this visiting professor thing in France, and we just fell in love with it.

Anyway, over a course of years, eventually, the university I’m at made me an offer, but it was a hard offer to take because I had kids in high school, I was making a good living, everything was stable and safe, we had in-laws up the street, five houses, I was going to get tenure for sure versus going to France, where, oh, my gosh, the standard was like about double my current university, so I might perish. I was going to actually make less money, my kids were going to have to go to a different culture, a different language. One of them at a high school, actually, so there was a lot of uncertainties there.

And I found that when I compared the knowns of my current situation, all the good things of my current situation, to the unknowns of this other situation, this big move, it was very scary, but that was totally unfair because I was comparing my gains to my potential losses. When, instead, I compared my gains to my gains. So, yes, I have these good things here at home now, but what about what could happen, what could be the gains of taking the risk of this new situation?

And when I did that, it became much clearer, in fact, the greatest moment of clarity was when I shared it with my grandmother, who said to me very simply, she said, “Nathan, parents teach their children to live their dreams by living their own dreams.” And, for me, that really clicked. Now, if none of that resonates for you, I guess I’ll just share with you one of the interviews we did with Jeff Bezos way back in the era when he was not one of the wealthiest people on the planet, and he was kind of reflecting on Amazon.com, which was a modest success at that time. It wasn’t what it was now.

But he was reflecting on how he made the decision back in the 1990s, a time when the internet was the wild west, we would never put our credit cards in on an online site back in 1995. And he had this idea for selling books online but it was just such a crazy and different thing, and people were like, “Oh, that seems really scary.”

And at the time, Bezos was working on Wall Street at DE Shaw, like one of the best, most prestigious jobs you could ever have, if he left his job, he was going to leave his bonus on the table. He went to his boss and told his boss about the idea. And after like a two-hour discussion and walking around Central Park, the boss said, “Jeff, this could be a good idea but it’s probably a better idea for somebody who doesn’t already have a really good job, so why don’t you think about it.”

And what Jeff Bezos told us at the end of that, he said he thought for a while and then the framework he came up with was he called it a regret-minimization framework, which was, “I want to project myself out to age 80 and look back on my life and ask ‘What would I regret?’” And he said, “I wouldn’t regret trying this thing, participating in this thing called the internet, and failing. But the one thing I would regret is never having tried.” And so, I think that’s another lens.

So, in summary, what I’ve said is two tools here, is one is to compare the gains to the gains, or the opportunities to the opportunities. We tend to compare the uncertainties of the new thing to the known of the existing thing. And then, number two, to ask ourselves about regret, “What will we regret when we’re age 80?” And, to be totally fair, there are times in our life when we would regret trying and failing, and then that’s a good answer, that’s just as legitimate of an answer.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. And that provides a fresh perspective when you zoom out at that level and it’s really handy. And I like what you said right there at the end, is there could be times where it’s like, “Oh, yes, I do regret removing my children from, I don’t know, their best friends, an excellent environment, family, whatever.”

Like, that could, when considering a move to a totally new continent, that could be something that pops up when you take that lens, or it could be just the opposite, “I regret not exposing my children to this really cool new different culture and way of life and perspective and language that can broaden their horizons and views in so many healthy ways.” You could fairly come out on either side of that question and they’re both valid.

Nathan Furr
Yeah, Pete. And I want to be clear, it was hard. Like, we got to France, the kids at school were total bullies. I mean, it was awful. We had to move the kids, like there were all kinds of hard things, but we are so grateful we did it. Why? Because part of it was we saw the education here isn’t just what they learn in math class. The education is what you learn from doing something different and persisting. And the biggest education, which, now it’s been long enough.

The biggest education point was, “Go live your dreams.” And now when I say it’s been long enough, the kids are starting to come back and show that they can be bold, and that they do want to live their dreams. And so, for me, if they walk away with that experience, then maybe I’ve given them the best lesson I can.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, let’s talk about the prime set of tools now.

Nathan Furr
Yeah, and especially with keeping in mind, people who want to be awesome at their job, maybe I could tell another…I didn’t mean to tell a lot of personal stories here, but maybe I could tell another personal story, which was when I was doing my PhD at Stanford, remember I’d worked before and so I felt a little bit uncomfortable sometimes not working for several years to go do a PhD.

Anyway, I was in Silicon Valley, and in Silicon Valley, the heroes are not us nerdy professors, they are the entrepreneurs who create things. So, I started to feel bad about myself, like, “Wow, if I had any courage, I would go become an entrepreneur. I would quit the program and just jump out and do something.” And, finally, it was just boiling over and I remember reaching out to one of my mentors there, Professor Tina Seelig.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, she’s been on the show.

Nathan Furr
Oh, yeah. Okay, great. Yeah, Tina is amazing. I love Tina. Okay. So, Tina, yeah, you can look her up. She’s a really lovely person. So, we went to lunch together, and I confessed to Tina, like, “Tina, if I had any courage, I’d quit this program and go be an entrepreneur, but I’m just not a risk-taker.” And she said to me, “What do you mean you’re not a risk-taker?” I said, “Yeah, just I don’t have the courage to just jump off the cliff.”

And she said, “Do you really think there’s only one kind of risk?” And I was like, “Well, what do you mean, Tina?” She said, “In my mind, there’s financial risk, there’s intellectual risk, there’s social risk, there’s emotional risk, we can go on and on. You seem like somebody who is comfortable taking on intellectual risk, let’s say, talk about something like uncertainty, but you have four kids.” At the time, my wife and co-author was starting a clothing line so it wasn’t generating any money. We’re just living off the student loans, basically.

She said, “You have four kids, you’re living off on student loans so you don’t want to take a financial risk. Well, that makes a lot of sense.” And what she was trying to teach me is that we can actually do a little bit of self-reflection to ask, “What are the risks we’re comfortable with and we have an aversion with? And where you have an affinity, you want to play to your strengths. And where you have an aversion, you just want to be aware.”

So, for me, being a professor, actually made an immense amount of sense because I could kind of pad down that financial risk but I could take intellectual and social risks. And so, again, number one lesson, “Where do you have an affinity? Where do you have an aversion?” But the second lesson I learned from another mentor at Stanford, Professor Bob Sutton, and what he taught me was, “Be careful that you don’t let your risk aversions hold you back from the things you most want.”

And the story was, at the time again, things are super tight, we’re packing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from home just to save a couple bucks on lunch. And I’m in class with him and a bunch of other PhD students, and he just tells us, “Oh, yeah, when I was a PhD, I borrowed the equivalent of $30,000 to get my research done.” And I’m like the top of my head blew off, I was like, “While I’m packing this peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you like dropped 30 grand. Like, what? Why would you do that?”

And he just said, “It was simple. I knew that the most important thing for me getting a good job and keeping it, in that context, was the quality of my research, so why not put some money into it?” And it was one of those moments where I had this aha of like, “Oh, so if you just let your aversions be aversions, it can hold you back from the things you most care about. And the good news is you can actually build up your risk tolerances by taking smaller risks, little small risks, and that will get you more comfortable so you can take bigger and bigger risks.” And so, I’ve done that around financial risk aversion.

Another way to think about it, one of my favorite interviews was with a guy, David Heinemeier Hansson. He’s like the guy behind Ruby on Rails and Basecamp. He’s a startup legend. He is very clear – he hates financial risk. So, how do you hate financial risk and be an eight-time serial entrepreneur? Well, he always has something on the side that’s paying the bills. First, it was a consulting gig, and then later when he had some software that was selling, it was that. But he always had something to pay the bills on the side and then he can do a project and not feel so stressed about the financial risk he’s taking.

So, I would say it can do a lot of good for an individual. And, by the way, I sometimes coach organizations through this as well because their risk affinities and aversions hold them back as well. But know your risks, map them out, ask, “Where am I strong? Where am I weak? Where is maybe an aversion holding me back? And how could I kind of build up some comfort with that so I can act well when that moment comes, where I have to face some uncertainty? And where are my strengths and how do I play to those?”

It’s a very practical thing. Maybe you’re somebody who thinks up a lot of ideas and you just don’t speak up about it in, say, a meeting or somewhere. This might be a moment of reflection to say, “Hey, maybe I should step out there a little bit and speak up about these things,” or whatever it may be. Anyway, that would be one of the ideas we drew from the book is to know your risks.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. And I’m thinking now, so Tina highlighted a number of categories of risk there: financial, intellectual, relational. Can you maybe name a few more to prime the pump of ideas for listeners?

Nathan Furr
Yeah, for sure. And let me give a little brief explanation. So, obviously, there are many kinds, so I would encourage you to do what makes sense to you. But the ones we used are intellectual, so your willingness to kind of come up with new ideas. Obviously, financial is your willingness to take a financial risk. Social risk is, say, with acquaintances, so you go to a party or a networking event, your willingness to go out and speak to people, or, say, stand up in front of a crowd and talk.

Emotional risk would be for your more intimate relationships, so that may be like being willing to say the thing that needs to be said.

Physical risks, so maybe like it’s getting out, doing action sports. One of my executive students said, “I hated physical risks but then when I was kind of entering the executive ranks, my job was shifting from kind of tamping down risks and uncertainty, to actually having to take some uncertainty and risk, and so I knew I needed to get better at it but I didn’t know how. But I knew I really was scared of physical risks, so I said, ‘I’m going to take a kickboxing class, which is a super physical confrontational sport.’” So, he takes a kickboxing course, and he said, “It was fun, it was energizing, and it made me more comfortable taking other kinds of risks.” So, that would be physical.

And then I would maybe just add political, which is your willingness to stand up for change, speak up for change, whether that be in an organizational setting, or, say, in a citizenship setting. So, it’s financial, intellectual, social, emotional, physical, and political.

Nathan Furr
You could, of course, substitute something else, but, yeah, it’s up to you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, consultants love their categorization systems and arguing over them, so I’ll just roll with yours.

Nathan Furr
So do academics. It turns out so do academics, so, yeah, just having those arguments.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s talk about some of the tools within the do category.

Nathan Furr
Yes. So, the do category is very interesting because it’s really one of the sections that draws most heavily on the research in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship. And if I were to summarize it very briefly, it would be taking action is one of the best ways to resolve uncertainty. And one of the best ways to take action is to break the thing down into small steps and run a series of experiments.

And we see that over and over in the entrepreneurship literature, “How do you learn quickly under uncertainty?” So, for example, if you look at the research on startup accelerators, so startup accelerator, essentially, accepts in a class of entrepreneurs for three months and they coach them into, hopefully, a successful startup. So, what are the best practices of the best startup accelerators?

Well, let me pose it to you as a puzzle. Let me turn it over to you. How would you make a great startup accelerator? So, for example, you know that in the startup accelerator that you want your entrepreneurs to talk to people. So, should you force them to talk to as many people as fast as possible up front, like just drink out of the fire hydrant? Or, should you spread out those interactions with customers, mentors, investors, executives, over the space of the three months that they have time to absorb all that information?

And, oh, by the way, these startups, some of them might be doing slightly competitive things. So, should you allow the startups to keep what they’re doing secret or should you force them to talk to each other and present to each other? Oh, and then, finally, these startups are doing different things. And so, should you customize the schedule of who they talk to, like what they’re doing, “They should only talk to people who seem to be relevant to them”? Or, should you make them talk to people who maybe seem irrelevant to them? Those are some interesting puzzles, right? Well, what does the research suggest?

What it suggests, and I’m going to draw the parallel to everyone who’s listening about uncertainty, is it’s better actually to talk to as many people as fast as possible. In fact, the great startup accelerators sometimes make people talk to 100, 200 people in the first month. Why? Because the major trap that they fall into is what we call premature certainty, which is they settle on what they think is the right way to do it too early, and talking to all those folks as fast as possible shakes them out of that and makes them realize, “Oh, I could make progress but I kind of need to change it a little bit.”

Oh, and, by the way, it’s also good to make those folks who seem competitive talk to each other because, it turns out, they can share how they solve similar problems. So, if you and I were both publishing a book tomorrow, even though we might feel competitive, it’s better for us to share information with each other and learn from each other. Oh, and then, lastly, even though I might think I should only talk to people who are like me, it’s actually incredibly useful to not customize. In other words, talk to everybody because sometimes your most valuable insights come from a place you wouldn’t think it would come from.

And one of the funniest stories was an entrepreneur who was creating this kind of funding platform, really for social initiatives and even like churches, and on his schedule was like the worst thing he could imagine, it was the VP of marketing from Playboy, and he was like, “Oh, this is like everything I hate. I’m not going to talk to this person.” But they forced him to talk to this person, and it turns out, like one of his best conversations. The VP was like, “Yeah, I want to get out of here, too. I’m actually a churchgoer, too. Like, here’s what you could do,” and gave him all these ideas, and this entrepreneur walked out, saying, “This was the best meeting I’d had.”

And so, how do I translate that for you? When you’re under uncertainty, it’s like you’re in a landscape with fog, and your task is to blow away that fog. And what we learned from startup accelerators is, A, talk to as many people as you can; B, talk to people who you even think are your competitors because they will reveal new ways of doing things and how to solve familiar problems; and number three, talk to people who are actually kind of a little bit different. You may not think they have much to offer because they might have something to offer.

And one of my favorites of this is the woman who was the founder behind GoldieBlox. This is engineering toys for girls, and she was being nice to this guy at the restaurant who was her waiter and was kind of telling this waiter about engineering toys for girls, “Why would this waiter care?” And the waiter was like, “Oh, that’s really cool. You know what, my aunt is actually one of the editors at,” I think it was like The Atlantic or The New York Times or something, “and she would really love this. Let me introduce you to her.” So, that, to me, is, again, as we think about taking action, one of the many tools about kind of learning quickly through the unknown.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Now, many of these actions that we talked about are talking to people and/or running small experiments. Can you share with us, beyond talking to folks, what are some great actions that help us gather wisdom in a jiffy?

Nathan Furr
So, maybe I’ll go a little bit different direction and share something a little more counterintuitive. So, before I do that, I’ll say some of the other tools are things like a term we use called bricolage, which is make do with what you have. And one of my favorite interviews with the gentleman who was responsible for turning around the city of Melbourne in Australia from being one of the most decrepit downtown courses, really, like zombie apocalypse-looking to being one of the most livable cities in the world. In fact, voted that way seven years in a row, even though he was given no budget and, essentially, no resources. So, how do you turn around such a dire situation?

And one of the things he did is say, “Well, what do I have a lot of that nobody’s valuing because we have so much of it?” And Melbourne, just because how it was laid out in the gold rush, had all these little they call them laneways, they’re like little alleys that end in a dead end, and they’re usually used for parking during the day, trash and social problems at night.

And he said, “Well, we’ve got so many of these laneways. What if I just put a pile on there so cars can’t go in there and tell the restaurants that are nearby, ‘You can use this space, put up some lights, keep it clean, but you can double the square footage of your restaurant if you keep this space clean’?” And he tried it on one laneway first, and it worked. People kind of ended up staying around at night and the laneway became a place where people wanted to be. And, by the way, today, Melbourne’s laneways are one of its major tourist attractions. But he kept doing, like making do with very little.

For example, there was a big property collapse, and he saw that as an opportunity. He said, “Great. Now, all these buildings downtown, the space I’m trying to revitalize, have no value, so I’m going to go to one of the owners of one of these old kinds of Victorian buildings and I’m going to make him a proposition. Your building, essentially, has no value to you. Let me renovate it into a mixed-use space, so businesses on the bottom, residents up above.”

Well, the owner of the building had no other alternative, and so he said, “Okay.” And it worked. Like, people moved into the apartments, he paid it off in half the time he expected, and then he rolled and did that to the next apartment, and the next building, and the next building. At the start of Rob Adam’s tenure, he’s the gentleman who renovated Melbourne, there were 650 occupied apartments in downtown Melbourne, 650, that’s it. By the end of his tenure, I think there was over 40,000 occupied apartments in downtown Melbourne.

And so, the whole principle there was often we say, “I don’t have the resources I need to get started,” but it’s really about asking sometimes, “What can I do with what I have? Or, what do I have so much of that nobody is really, maybe not even I am, realizing that it’s valuable?” If that feels too common sense to you, do we have time for me to tell you about one of the other tools from do?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Nathan Furr
Yeah, okay. So, how do you set yourself up so you can’t fail? That’s an interesting one. You’re going into uncertainty. You don’t know what you’re going to face. Is it possible to set yourself up so you can’t fail? Well, one of the ideas that was really counterintuitive to me, at least, because I was raised on the dogma of goals, like, you set a goal and you go do it.

But, remember, I told you about David Heinemeier Hansson, he’s a real contrarian. I loved that he was like, “Listen, if you’re doing something new, something doesn’t happen because you set a goal. The goal is total bull crap. Under uncertainty, you really don’t have control over whether that’s going to happen or not. Sure, set a goal. Sure, work hard and all that, but whether the market accepts what you’re doing or not is really not in your control directly. So, instead, act upon your values rather than your goals because that’s what you have control over.”

So, for example, for him, his value is, “I want to write great software, I want to treat my employees well, and I want to act ethically with the marketplace,” and he’s very clear. He just launched his big email platform Hey.com. he’s like, “At the end of that two years, if it failed, if that was a success in the market or not, sure, I’d do the growth hacking, I’d do all that stuff, but, really, whether the market accepts it or not, it’s not truly in my control. So, if that fails, but I have lived true to my values then I’ll be happy. I wrote great software. I learned tons of stuff. I treated people well, and I was ethical. I feel good about it.”

It sounds really soft and fluffy but, again, personal experience. So, think of me, I’m an academic, I’ve been working on this for like a decade, nobody’s talking about uncertainty, a pandemic happens. Suddenly, every thought leader in the universe is grounded, has nowhere to go, and all they’re talking about was uncertainty. I was freaking out, I’m like, “I’m going to get totally scooped here.” And my co-author said to me, “Well, what’s your values? Operate on your values because the world needs lots of perspectives but go out there, act according to your values, write the very best thing you can possibly write, and that you have control over. You don’t have control over if guru X or guru Y comes out and says what you already said.”

My co-author said, “If you really do that, according to your values, then what you say will be different and unique and a contribution.” And she was absolutely right, and I felt much, much calmer in that uncertainty of somebody’s going to beat me to it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Thank you. And how about some sustain tools?

Nathan Furr
Yeah, sustain is a good one it’s really important because whether you choose uncertainty or uncertainty happens to you, it is going to make you anxious, nervous. There’s nothing wrong with you. That’s called being a human being. You’re wired to be that way, so you need to sustain yourself when there’s a setback.

So, we talked about a couple important ideas in there. One of them is known as emotional hygiene. So, it sounds sort of soft and fluffy but we forget that physical hygiene is a 20th century revolution. If you grew up before the 20th century, you would not know naturally that it made sense when you got a cut, you need to wash it up and keep it clean. And when we figured that stuff out that you’ve got to do physical hygiene for your body, it increased the life expectancy 50%.

And I think we’re in the midst of a similar revolution where we realize that our emotions are real, too, and we have an emotional body. The problem is that when many of us try something new, and then there’s a setback, which, by the way, was inevitable – it was going to be different than you expected – then we beat ourselves up, and that’s like the worst kind of sustaining. So, you’ve got to sustain yourself, you’ve got to treat yourself with kindness, and also there’s ways you can be rational about it.

So, I did an interview with Ben Faringa. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016. He won it for this idea called molecular machines. So, if you’ve read those sci-fi articles about little robots running around your blood, curing diseases and things, it would be based on his invention. So, I asked him, “On the way to this breakthrough of this fundamentally new discovery, did you face uncertainty?” And he like laughed at my face as if that was like the silliest question I could ask. He’s like, “Of course.” And I said, “So, how did you deal with it?” And he said, “Listen, if you deal with uncertainty, you will have setbacks, you will fail. You just have to get good at it.”

And he said, “Allow yourself to feel the frustration for a few days, and then ask yourself, ‘What can I learn from it?’” And it turns out that “What can I learn from it?” question is just one in a set of different ways to approach a setback, “What can I learn from it?” is one, another is to focus on what you still have rather than what you’ve lost. Maybe one of my other personal favorites came from a gentleman named Ben Gilmore, who is a paramedic in Australia but he also writes books and makes films. So, that’s a full-time job, paramedic, and, by the way, has a lot of uncertainty. You never know when you break down the door, what you’re going to find on the other side.

But I think the story he told me that really inspired me is he wanted his life to be interesting and adventurous, and he’d always dreamed of riding his motorcycle through the Khyber Pass. And so, he saves up his money, and he goes out there, and he’s got his motorcycle, and while he’s like staying in the hotel, his motorcycle gets impounded, and he’s like, “What do I do now?” And he says, “Well, I’m going to go on foot. I’m going to go anyway.”

So, he was walking on foot through the Khyber Pass, and he meets this family, they’re residents of the region and they’ve had this generational business of making weapons, so guns. But the son, he doesn’t want to grow up to be a weapons maker. He wants to go to school. He wants to be a poet but he doesn’t have the money to go to school. So, Ben Gilmore goes back, and he said, “I want to make a film about this family,” and he goes back and he makes a film about this family, called Son of a Lion, which is, by the way, featured in the Cannes Film Festival, and does generate the funds to allow their son to go to school and follow his dream of being a poet.

But Ben faced so many obstacles on this journey, including the motorcycle getting impounded, but he went on to make other films, and he had experiences like he’d be in country with the film crew, and the budget would get pulled, and everybody flies home except the lead actor, and they’d rewrote the script and filmed that, and that became Australia’s entry into the Oscars.

And I asked Ben, “How do you keep going through these obstacles when you face these setbacks?” And he said, “Listen, my father read to me as a boy every night growing up. I love stories. I love to hear them.” He said, “Everybody loves the hero but the only way to become the hero is to go through the obstacles.” So, that’s what I always remember.

So, anyway, again, just to summarize. Feeling anxiety, feeling frustration, having setbacks is totally normal. So, there’s a way you can actually frame them so that you respond differently. Ben Faringa, the guy who was the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, he gets frustrated but he says, “What can I learn from it?” Ben Gilmore, this kind of wild and interesting character says, “Hey, the only way to become the hero is to go through the obstacles,” so many ways to address that and sustain yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s beautiful. Thank you, Nathan. I remember when I was in the early stages of my business and times were lean. I remember thinking, ‘Hopefully, years from now, when I’m rolling in it, I’ll look back and say, ‘Ah, yes, that was the heroic struggle period.’”

Nathan Furr
So, what happened? Did you make it through?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I did make it through. Yes, I have sufficient revenue to provide for the family, so mission accomplished.

Nathan Furr
And you know what, yeah, and even when we don’t make it through. Listen, hey, I try to tell my kids because my kids see me, they’re like, “Oh, dad got a PhD at Stanford. Now, he’s a professor at one of the top five strategy schools, and blah, blah, blah.” And I tell them, “What? Are you kidding me? Like, I got rejected from every graduate school I applied to at one time,” and I tell them about all of my failures along the way.

And I think when you dig into people’s stories, what you really discover is that there’s actually a lot of failure and setback and self-doubt. It’s just incredible. We discovered some really moving and interesting stories of self-doubt of people who are very, very successful and just to normalize that. That’s part of the journey.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Nathan, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Nathan Furr
I think the one big takeaway I hope people have is that when they face uncertainty, whether it’s happened to them or they’ve chosen it, but something is going a little different than expected, is to ask the question, “How could this make me stronger? How could I turn this or flip this so that it can make me stronger?”

I think that’s a question I try to ask myself because, again, I get stuck, too, friends. I get stuck, too. But when I can do that, I actually wrote about it. We use this old term from the technology strategy literature called transilience, which is this kind of leaping from one state to another. And that, to me, is like the image, when like boiling water gets set free as steam in this moment of like you’re feeling stressed, you’re feeling anxious, and you say, “How do I turn this?” and you are able to see the possibility and be transilient, kind of leap to that state. That would be my hope. I think it’s a real powerful question to ask yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Nathan Furr
One of my favorite books in the world is by Henry Miller, it’s called The Colossus of Maroussi, and he said something really strange. He said, “Magic can never be destroyed.” Well, what do you mean magic? Come on, I’m an empiricist, I’m a rationalist, what do you mean magic?

But we actually wrote in the book about magic. And what we mean by that is those leaps of insight, those moments of connection, that serendipity that you just can’t quite explain, and we saw so many of those as well. And so, what I would encourage people to do is to make some room for that. Put yourself in positions where you could have that. You don’t know in advance. But if you don’t get out there, you don’t talk, you don’t try, you don’t talk to the waiter, you won’t have those magical moments.

But I like that magic can never be destroyed because it’s there. We don’t understand how everything in the universe works but things can happen at just the right time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Nathan Furr
So, one of my favorite studies or papers is called “Drop Your Tools.” It’s by a very famous organization theorist called Karl Weick. And what he looked at is the Mann Gulch fire disaster, which happened in Montana in 1949.

So, they established this program where smoke jumpers would jump out of the plane to where a big fire was and put it out. And it was a very successful program, and everything was going great when this fire starts in Mann Gulch in August, it’s really hot. And when the smoke jumpers land, they’re like, “Oh, we’ll put this fire out by 10:00 a.m. the next morning.” They’re so calm and assured, they stop and have dinner, and the fire is on one side of the ridge and kind of start heading downhill towards where there’s a river in the valley, so they have an escape route when the wind kicks up.

And this fire suddenly becomes really intense. It leaps the ridge and blocks their escape exits, so the trees by the river are on fire, and they start to run back up the hill. It’s this incredibly 70-degree slope. It’s incredibly steep and they’re racing and the fire is chasing them, 30-foot-high flames moving at this incredible speed. And the head of the fire crew does something that, today we understand, but that time didn’t make any sense. He said, “Drop your tools.” Now, they’d all been told, “Don’t ever drop your tools. That’s your lifeline,” and he said, “Drop your tools.” And he lights this escape fire, so he lights the grass around them on fire, and says, “Lay down here.”

Well, that didn’t make sense to them, so they kept running, and the foreman lies down the fire, covers himself up in a blanket, fire just rushes over him, and it goes on and it kills the rest of the team. And it became this moment, this kind of symbolic moment because it was this idea that we go around acting as if the world was stable and certain and makes lots of sense, when, in reality, it’s actually changing all the time. It’s very uncertain. It’s only these kinds of distinctive moments, like this fire crisis, where we really recognize it.

And what Karl Weick recommended coming out of that was that we need in life, and this is true on uncertainty, to adapt to what he calls an attitude of wisdom. What that means is you have just enough trust in yourself, in the idea, in your instinct that, “I should do something about this,” to take a step forward, and you doubt yourself just enough to listen to the voices that signal when it’s time to change course. Not every voice is the right voice but some of them signal that, “Yeah, you should change course when you hear that chorus enough times.”

And I think that’s a good metaphor for leaders under uncertainty because where leaders get themselves in trouble is they just doggedly pursue a path, try to plan their way to success and execute it, rather than what’s the attitude of wisdom in getting there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Nathan Furr
So, one of the tools we wrote about is called finite versus infinite games. So, James Carse was a modern philosopher at NYU, and in his book, he argued there’s really two ways of looking at life. There’s the finite view, which is we look at the game of life as the goal is to win, and the rules, the roles, the boundaries are all fixed, but we’re trying to win, we’re trying to be the best.

And infinite players, what do they do instead? They look at, instead, the joy of playing the game and they view the roles and rules and boundaries as being flexible or we can play with that. And maybe my favorite example of that comes from the Tour de France, which is happening right now where I live. And a very famous race between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor. Jacque Anquetil was the favorite, he’d already won four Tour de Frances. Raymond Poulidor is kind of this…they call him the wholehearted son of the soil, and he didn’t really win much at all. In fact, he hadn’t won any races so far.

But there was this moment in this very rough, rugged terrain called The Puy de Dome. People described it like the teeth of a saw, just 10 kilometers of up and down. And instead of doing that thing where they draft behind each other, they raced neck and neck, shoulders, literally, like smash into each other, neither of them wanting to give an inch to the other one for 10 kilometers. And, finally, at the end, Pullidor, the wholehearted son of the soil, pulls ahead, and he wins that leg but he loses the race.

In fact, he races 14 times and he never wins, but everybody loved Pullidor. In fact, no racer was more beloved than Pullidor, and people tried to figure it out, they wrote dissertations about it, but I think the best way to summarize it is he was an infinite player. And at the end of his career, he reflected, somebody had said to him, “Raymond, you always had your head in the clouds. You didn’t take it seriously enough.”

And he said, “Maybe I didn’t because I never got up in the morning thinking, ‘How do I win?’ I’ve always thought, ‘This is so fun that I get to race. I can’t wait to race. How do I have fun racing?’” And so, for me, the tool I use is when I approach a situation that’s hard, and I have hard things, things I don’t want to do, tough things. I say, “What’s the infinite game I can play here? How could I play a little bit with the goal, with the rules, with the roles, with the boundaries?” That makes me curious.

Yeah, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t, but I’d say I have a much more interesting career than I might have because I’ve tried to play that infinite game.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Nathan Furr
Well, we wanted to make the tools in the book The Upside of Uncertainty available to everybody, so we made a website called UncertaintyPossibility.com. So, remember my thesis, uncertainty and possibility are two sides of the same coin. So, you just type that out, dot com. And we actually described all the tools there so that they’re available and accessible.

Of course, I’d be super grateful if people went and bought the book or left a review, like on Amazon or something like that, because it is tough as an author getting the word out there. Writing a book is a little bit like a tree falling in the forest for nobody to hear unless people take action. So, thank you, though, for asking.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Nathan Furr
Well, I would say this, there is no doubt that we live in a world of increasing uncertainty, and I think if you can develop that ability early on, you’re going to have a huge leg up. And we talked about reframing at the beginning. Reframe any challenge in terms of the possibility. Even when we looked at empirical studies of a company facing disruption, the ones that succeed are the ones who, instead of focusing on the loss or the threat, they’re the ones who focused on the possibility.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Nathan, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you much fun and adventure and possibility.

Nathan Furr
Yeah, thank you so much. It was fun.

736: The Surprising Problem-Solving Insights from Art with Amy Herman

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Amy Herman reveals the surprising framework agencies like the FBI, NATO, and Interpol have used to solve their most intricate problems.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What to do when you don’t know what to do 
  2. Three simple steps for smarter problem solving
  3. The top two do’s and don’ts of problem solving 

About Amy

Amy Herman is the founder and president of The Art of Perception, Inc., a New York–based organization that conducts professional development courses for leaders around the world, from Secret Service agents to prison wardens. Herman was the head of education at the Frick Collection for over ten years.

An art historian and an attorney, Herman holds a BA in international affairs from Lafayette College, a JD from the National Law Center at George Washington University, and an MA in art history from Hunter College. A world-renowned speaker, Herman has been featured on the CBS Evening News, the BBC, and in countless print publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Telegraph, the New York Daily NewsSmithsonian Magazine, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Resources Mentioned

Amy Herman Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Amy, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Amy Herman
Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to get your perspectives on art and problem-solving and more. Could we start with maybe hearing what’s been one of the most influential pieces of art in your life? Like, what is a piece that has stuck with you and made an impact, and tell us that story?

Amy Herman
Well, that changes almost every day because every time I see a work of art that takes my breath away, I think, “Oh, that’s it. That’s lifechanging.” And luckily for me, that happens quite often. But the work of art that really got me thinking so much about this book and about the work that I do is a painting from 1819 by Gericault, and it’s called “The Raft of the Medusa.”

Pete Mockaitis
Ah, yes.

Amy Herman
And the reason I talk about this work so much, it’s a really horrific painting. It shows the worst of humanity but just the tiniest bit of hope. And it’s a huge painting, it’s 23 feet by 16 feet.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog.

Amy Herman
It takes the whole wall at the Louvre. And it shows the absolute worst that can result from incompetence and from power, and yet there is this slightest bit of hope in retelling the story of how the painting came to be and how this people survived, really, has been inspirational, and I’ve been able to apply it in so many different situations. So, I’ve been thinking a lot and I open my new book with “The Raft of the Medusa” and I close with it as well, so I think a lot about that work of art.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’ll certainly link to an image of that for the visual side of things in a podcast interview. And the sliver of hope, so there’s the story, in reading your introduction, I gazed upon it, I confess, well, in a much smaller amount of real estate on my screen.

Amy Herman
Uh-huh, than the Louvre offers.

Pete Mockaitis
And maybe only for about 20 seconds, which I imagine you would say is not nearly enough to take in the depths, but I was just like, “Oh, man, that’s a real cluster.”

Amy Herman
That’s exactly what it is.

Pete Mockaitis
So, was there hope depicted in that image that I overlooked?

Amy Herman
Believe it or not, and you’re not alone in overlooking the hope because very, very faintly on the horizon line, if you really, really squint your eyes, the rescue ship can be seen.

Pete Mockaitis
Ah, okay.

Amy Herman
Yes, the rescue ship is there. And what I love is the painting also does away with discrimination, and there is black man at the top of the pyramid who’s flagging down the rescue ship, and that was a real scandal back in the 19th century to have a black man was the one who rescued everybody because he was the one who’s able to flag down the ship. But the ship is not apparent.

Don’t feel bad for not seeing it. It’s so small and it’s on the horizon, and it reminds us all that sometimes hope is just out of our grasp and we have to look a little bit harder and really try to find it. And it really is within our grasp, and that’s what I hope that readers of the book will be able to understand, and be able to apply in their own lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like that. Hope may be just beyond my immediately obvious perception, just as it was in that image, and I’ll chew on that. Thank you. Well, let’s talk about problem-solving here. You spent a lot of time thinking about this, training people in this, learning and researching on this. Can you share maybe one of the most strikingly maybe surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about problem-solving over the course of your career?

Amy Herman
I have. And I’d love to share one of the things because it’s almost counterintuitive but I’m going to start by telling you about a process in Japan when ceramicists and potters, when they make bowls and vases and cups, it’s inevitable that some of those vases and cups are going to come out broken or asymmetrical or imperfect. And instead of throwing that flawed pottery away, what these Japanese ceramicists do is they fill the cracks in with gold and silver and platinum lacquer. And the process is called kintsugi, and it means to repair with gold, to fill in the cracks with gold.

And what happens to each of those objects is they become more precious and more valuable than had they been perfect in the first place. And what I take away from the process of kintsugi is none of the people that I work with are potters or ceramicists, but I ask them the question, “How are you practicing kintsugi? How are you fixing what’s broken with resources that you already have?”

And the beautiful thing about kintsugi is it honors the struggle; it brings the mistakes to the fore. So, rather than walking away from our mistakes, and saying, “I’m going to do better next time and I’m going to make it perfect,” we’re not striving for perfection. I want to bring our mistakes to the fore. So, not only can we honor the struggle that we went through to solve a problem, but others can see our mistakes and see how we got there, because I hate to break it to you, nobody is perfect and there is no perfect solution.

So, the idea of kintsugi, it’s such a beautiful concept and it allows us to make our mistakes and to honor those mistakes in trying to fix them.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Thank you
So, kintsugi really is a beautiful visual representation of that very process, that notion of we have some mistakes and we’re going to fill them in and make it all the more useful in terms of maybe sharing the mistakes and lessons learned with others so that that wisdom can proliferate. That’s really cool. Can you share a cool example of this in practice?

Amy Herman
Absolutely. In the field of medicine, doctors sometimes, this takes place in hospitals all across the country, and sometimes it’s done weekly, sometimes it’s done every two weeks or every month. Doctors go behind closed doors and they have something called M&M. And M&M stands for morbidity and mortality, kind of a downer of a title.

But what they do is they go around the table and they talk about what went wrong, who misread the MRI, who got the wrong prescription, who died, and what went wrong. And by sharing all their mistakes, not only does it alleviate the guilt of the individual person and recognize that we all make mistakes but, also, we can learn from each other’s mistakes because we’re human and things will go wrong.

And so, just the idea of M&M, the doctors are willing to go behind the door and talk about what went wrong, I wish we had M&M in every profession. The way kintsugi enables us to visualize what went wrong and actually honor that struggle, medicine says, “Okay, we’re not perfect. Things go wrong. Lives are lost. We gave the wrong medicines. Let’s all learn from it collectively and keep moving.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a powerful example because that says that’s about as high stakes as it gets, “Lives were lost because of a mistake I made,” and that happens in law enforcement and military and many of your clients and medicine, certainly. And I was just thinking, one my very first thoughts was this litigious age, it’s like behind closed doors is right.

Amy Herman
I can give you one more example that’s not so high stakes.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess, maybe first with that practice, which indeed I agree with you, there are many other fields where that could be applied excellently. I’m curious, how do folks get past some of the hang-ups associated with like the vulnerability, and trying to cover your rear end, and liability? We’ve had Amy Edmondson on, talking about psychological safety, and other guests. And that’s often hard to get to, but as you described it, it sounds like this is just par for the course in most hospital environments.

Amy Herman
It’s a recognition of the fact that we are all human. One of the things that I talk about across the professional spectrum is that when you are missing a critical piece of information, and it can happen whether you are a postal worker, a prison warden, a beekeeper, a doctor, or a Navy Seal, you’re missing a piece of information, and in the intelligence world, they call it an intel gap.

And I tell all the people that I work with that no matter how big the intel gap is, you have one more source of information that you can rely on. You can default to your humanity. And if you default, because before we’re doctors and patients and lawyers and clients and police officers and suspects, we are all human.

And if you don’t know what to do next because of an intel gap, ask yourself, and say, “You know what, if I was this guy’s father or uncle or friend, what would I do?” and default to your humanity, and you have this whole rich source of information that you can really rely on, and very rarely will it let you down.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really beautiful because in those instances, humanity, that really strikes…it can automatically stir up sort of virtuous stuff, like humility, like compassion, like, “Hey, man, we don’t quite know what’s going on here. But you know what, if it were my kid, I’d want to test X, Y, and Z. So, what do you say?” and we keep it moving.

Amy Herman
That’s exactly right. And what’s so interesting, sometimes it comes down to the smallest of human interactions. I had a group, they were a group of Army officers on the ground in a foreign country, and it was a hostile country, but they were at the local village and they were looking for help in the local village, and none of the women would talk to the Army officers.

They weren’t forceful, and they defaulted to their humanity. And, finally, one of them asked in the other language, “Why are you not speaking with us?” And you know what it was? It was because the Army officers were wearing reflective sunglasses, and women in this village can’t make eye contact with men. And if they didn’t know if they were making eye contact or not, they wouldn’t talk to them. So, it all came down to sunglasses.

But I find what’s universal is sometimes we have to ask hard questions, “Why isn’t this working? Why can’t I fix this?” to find the solution.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you’re right. It is a hard question in that there is, again, some vulnerability in terms of, “Well, you know, you smell, you’ve been very rude to us, you were involved in an accident that harmed a family member of mine a couple weeks ago.” It is a hard question, like, “Why aren’t you talking to us?” and, yeah, that can surface some surprisingly simple solutions. Okay, sure, taking off sunglasses can do.

Awesome. Well, so we’ve already gone deep into kintsugi. Can you tell us then, your book Fixed.: How to Perfect the Fine Art of Problem Solving, what’s sort of the main idea or thesis here?

Amy Herman
The main idea of the book is to take the artists’ creative process, how artists create works of art, and use that as a template to solve problems from minor annoyances to intractable dilemmas. Let’s face it, everything is broken right now. Everything. When I started writing this book, we weren’t even under the crunch of pandemic. I had no idea what we were going to be facing. And in so many cases, solutions from the past, yesterday’s solutions are not going to solve tomorrow’s problems.

And so, I wanted to create this template that everybody could use regardless of their profession, regardless of their educational level. How can we make problems more approachable? And what’s a template everybody can solve? And I use the artists’ process to create a work of art because I’m a lawyer and an art historian, and I like to think I have a logical mind but I also wanted to tap into the creative process.

So, I broke the book down into three sections, three really easy sections – prep, draft, and exhibit. How do we prep the problem? How do we draft our solutions? And how do we bring them into the world? And each of those sections is broken down into subsections, but it all goes back to prep, draft, and exhibit. And I wanted the process to be simple. We all have enough on our plates. I don’t need to give people fancy acronyms and things to remember, “Oh, Amy said in her book we have to do A, B, C, and D.” Nobody has time for that.

How can we break problems into digestible pieces? And how can we not be afraid to engage in conversation the way artists, for millennia, have been creating works of art? This is not the time to fool with that success. Let’s leverage it. Let’s use that approach to try to solve our own problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, intriguing. So, that’s fun. And a lot of your clients are, I don’t know what the word is, hardcore.

Amy Herman
That’s a good way to put it, they’re hardcore.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know, secret service, NATO, FBI, Interpol. In terms of not having time, I imagine their patience for “out there” or frilly or soft tools might be limited. I’m purely speculating. You can confirm or deny.

Amy Herman
You’re speculating correctly.

Pete Mockaitis
So, given that, I’m curious, could you maybe walk us through an example of what’s called hardcore clients applying some of this prep, draft, exhibit problem-solving process used from the artistic approach to solve something?

Amy Herman
Absolutely, and I’ll tell you about one of my favorite clients. One of my favorite clients is the NBA, National Basketball Association, and they brought me to Las Vegas, and I was going to lead a session in my program for about 250 heads of security for the NBA. Picture these guys. They’re the ones on the court, they’ve got an earpiece in their ear, they’re dressed in a suit, they’re watching the players, the GM, the audience, they’re making sure everybody is safe, there’s no violence, and that game is going to go forward. Can you picture the scene?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Amy Herman
So, the woman who introduces me gets up on the stage and she reads from a piece of paper, and says, “Amy Herman is here from New York, and she’s going to teach us how to look at works of art so you can do your job more effectively.” Every head went down to their phone. That was like the trigger to go start scrolling on your phone.

So, I get up on the stage and I say, “You know what, we’re going to have an instant replay. You’re going to be looking at art for the next two hours, I’m in charge, and you’re going to leave here thinking about your job differently than you came in.” And I broke them into pairs and I said, “One of you, close your eyes, one of you, keep your eyes open,” and I put a work of art up, and they had 45 seconds to describe it to their partner so that they could get the best visual image of what it was they were looking at.

They had to look at a work of art, they had to decide, they had to prep, “What am I going to say?” then they had to run it through their mind, and then they had to exhibit, they had to tell their partner the best possible version of something they had never seen before, and for the next two hours, flew, because I brought them new data. I brought them works of art. Nobody trained the NBA to look at works of art to think about how they do their job.

But to think about the creative process, every single basketball game, no two games are ever the same, no two teams are the same, no two securities concerns are the same, no two cities, and the game always changes from painting to painting to painting. And how do you assess that work of art you’re looking at? How do you re-draft it in your head? And how do you articulate it on that little microphone in your ear because the safety and the success of that game is in your hands?

And at the end of the session, I said to them, “You know, the NBA brought a copy of my book for each of you. Before you go to your cocktail party, I’ll be at the back signing your books.” And I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m going to be all alone back there.” Every single one of them stopped to sign a book and there were hugs all around because so many of them were NYPD officers from back home.

And it made me realize, it doesn’t matter what you do, whether you’re on the basketball court, or you are in hostile territory, or you are the night nurse, you’re going to face problems that are unforeseen, and I want to be able to help you solve them.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing because, at first, you might say, “I don’t see the connection at all between looking at art and security,” but then this is, “Oh, yes. Sure enough, very often in that job, you could look at something and you had to describe that something well to collaborators or you might have a bit of a stickier situation if you did not describe it as well in terms of misunderstandings and over or under reactions and all that sort of thing.”

Amy Herman
I can bring in a quote that applies to everybody, and it’s a quote from the 19th century from Henry James, but it’s a quote that I give to every single one of my sessions, and I say, “Try to be that person on whom nothing is lost.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool.

Amy Herman
“Try to be the person on whom nothing is lost.” So, when you look at a work of art, I want you to tell me not only what you see but what are you missing.

Pete Mockaitis
Say more about that. Tell you not only what I see but what’s missing. Like, what I am missing from the art?

Amy Herman
Not only what you’re missing, what you expected to be there, assumptions you had that aren’t there. This is a concept that I stole from emergency medicine. It’s called the pertinent negative. It means articulating what’s not there in addition to what is there to actually give a more accurate picture of what you’re looking at.

So, here’s the example. If a patient comes in to the emergency room, and, let’s say, the attending physician thinks the patient has pneumonia. Pneumonia has three symptoms. Symptom one is present, symptom two is present, but if symptom three is absent, it’s the pertinent negative you need to say that it’s not there because then you know it’s not pneumonia.

So, when you arrive at a crime scene, and you hear on the radio all the details, well, you expected there to be blood. Well, there’s not blood everywhere. You need to say, “There isn’t blood everywhere. It’s not just that I see disarray and I see shell casings. There is no blood.” Because when you say what you see, you’re only giving half the picture.

So, art gives us this perfect vehicle, “Well, I notice all these blues and yellows, and trees in the picture, but I noticed there were no humans in the picture. There was no sunshine in the picture.” We’re actually getting to the other side of the issue to tell people not only what we see but what we don’t see. The pertinent negative is a really powerful tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is handy. I guess I’m thinking about all sorts of conversations in terms of we had a guest who talked about not just being provided an explanation, but are you being provided evidence. And there’s quite a difference.

Amy Herman
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, often, we make do with an explanation, like, “Oh, okay, I guess that makes some sense, so I can move along,” versus if you really got your antenna up and you’re thinking critically and alertly, you can say, “Okay, so that might be a plausible story but do we have the evidence that that is, in fact, what did occur? That’d be great to see.” Or, in a conversation, in terms of maybe what I didn’t hear was an apology, what I didn’t hear was a commitment to do something differently.

And so, that’s a cool tool, the pertinent negative from ER folk. If I could, well, say, have you borrowed some nifty things from law enforcement in terms of a ready-to-go tool like that you could share?

Amy Herman
I have. Actually, I have two tools that I wanted to share.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it.

Amy Herman
One of them, just to build on the pertinent negative, is in warfare, in modern warfare.

Pete Mockaitis
Not the video game.

Amy Herman
Nope, not the video game.

Pete Mockaitis
Modern Warfare, yeah.

Amy Herman
Yeah, I didn’t even know there was such a thing, so I’m learning from you.

Pete Mockaitis
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Amy Herman
No, my son would know that. In World War II, the Royal Air Force sent their planes out, their fighter planes out, and they suffered heavily at the hands of German anti-aircraft fire. And when the planes came back, the Royal Air Force didn’t have enough armor to reinforce the whole plane before they sent them out again to fight.

So, the decision was made by the Royal Air Force, “Let’s just fix the planes where they were damaged,” but it was a mathematician, a single mathematician who was dissenting, and said, “You’re looking at this the wrong way.” He said, “You need to look at these planes to see where they weren’t damaged, and that’s where you need to reinforce them because the planes that were damaged in those areas didn’t come back.”

Pete Mockaitis
Zing, yeah.

Amy Herman
See how the pertinent negative works. So, you get on the other side of the issue. And just today, I was talking with one of my colleagues in the NYPD and we were talking about different applications of the program, and he said, “You know, one of the things that you taught us is that when we get to the crime scene, we hear about the crime scene, we hear it on the radio, we get there, we know what we’re expecting.”

“Not only do we have to overcome confirmation bias, thinking, ‘Been there, done that. I know what I’m going to find,’ but you’ve instilled in us that we need to go back, retrace our steps, and walk into the crime scene again to notice what we didn’t see the first time. What’s on the staircase? What’s on the landing? What’s in the garbage can?” He said, “How many times have I found a weapon that’s been thrown outside the crime scene, and is never within the confines of where we’re looking.”

Pete Mockaitis
So, the retracing the steps, I’m thinking how does that work mentally? So, okay, I go to the crime scene once, I take a good look around, and then I just pretend that I didn’t do that or what are we thinking?

Amy Herman
I think the whole thing in reverse, and I enter again because your eyes, you’re already planning on what you’re going to see. And what confirmation bias is, is you have an idea in your head of what you’re going to see and your brain will seek out those things to confirm what’s already in your brain. But when you make it a practice to say, “Okay, I’m here. I’m going to step out and walk again, and try to notice what I didn’t see before.”

So, one of the assignments that I give to my classes, if I see them over a course of two days, their assignment is, when they leave, to come back and tell me something that they noticed that night on the way home that they wouldn’t have seen before. And it forces you to look outside of your comfort zone because we’re all trying to get from point A to point B, and we forget that there are points C through Z out there.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that’s funny. When I think about that challenge, “Notice something you haven’t noticed before,” I guess I’m thinking in a professional career context, like a document. You want a spreadsheet or a report or a bunch of words to be free of errors and really compelling, persuasive, well-researched and all that good stuff.

And so, it’s tricky when you’re reviewing your own writing in terms of being like kind of catching the stuff. But then when you put that challenge in there, in terms of notice what you haven’t noticed before, in a way it’s sort of puts your brain in a funky little loop, it’s like, “Well, how am I supposed to do that? I didn’t notice it before. How am I going to notice it?”

But then it’s just like look specifically for that which you haven’t looked before, I guess my mind is thinking, well, the first thing you might notice might be somewhat inconsequential, like, “I’m using this font, is actually mismatched in some places. Okay, quick fix, doesn’t matter a lot, but a little more consistency, professionalism.”

And then you might notice any number of things like, “I’m using the word indeed a lot. That might be kind of annoying,” or if you say, “Hey, if I’m not going to notice something that I haven’t noticed before, maybe I need to get a fresh lens on this, maybe get some AI tools to look at my writing, and tell me some things. Like, hotdog.” I’m actually kind of impressed with what those can do right now.

Amy Herman
And think about how effective this can be in problem-solving. You do the same thing over and over again, you say, “Well, how are we going to get out of this rut?” And you say to yourself, “All right, I’m going to look for something that I haven’t seen before that’s intrinsic to this problem. What happens before the problem occurs? What happens immediately after?” And if you make it a practice to look for things that you didn’t see before, you’d be amazed what drops into your lap.

And you know what, this all calls upon another concept that I learned from one of my colleagues at the FBI, and I use it every single day. It’s a Latin phrase, “Festina lente.” Festina lente. It means to make haste slowly. We all have deadlines, we all need to get to the finish line, but if you don’t make that haste purposefully and slowly and look around, you’re going to have to start all over again.

And it brings me back to one of my favorite books, it’s called The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, it’s a book from 2013. And it’s about the eight-oared boat from the University of Washington that won the gold at the 1936 Olympics. They beat Hitler’s boat. It was, really, quite the upset. It’s a great book. It’s about our strengths and weaknesses, and that we’re all part of a team. The boat is just as good as its weakest rower.

But the reason I bring in festina lente is what could be a better example of having to row. Of course, you want to row quickly, you want to win the race, but if you’re not in sync with all the other rowers and you’re not communicating with them, you’re going to lose. And so, it means taking the time to communicate about how quickly you’re going so that you can make haste slowly.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Lovely. Okay. Well, so we talked about the prep, draft, exhibit. Could you maybe walk us through, in terms of step by step, how do I apply this process when I’m trying to solve a problem?

Amy Herman
Absolutely. There are some steps within each of those, and the table of contents is broken down. I’m going to give you one section from each of them that I think is most important, and it’s going to sound blatantly obvious. But under prep, you need to define the problem, you need to say it out loud. Because if you assume that everybody knows what the problem is, you’re all gathered, how many times have you been at a meeting and everybody says, “Okay, we’re here to discuss X.” How come we never say what X is?

We need to go around the table, and ask, “What is everybody’s perception of the problem?” to make sure we’re all starting on the same page. That’s part of the prep. And part of the draft, I think, the two most important parts of draft are breaking the problem into bite-size pieces. When little kids, toddlers, are learning to eat, you cut their food up into small pieces. Well, at some point, they have to learn to eat themselves. We need to break it into bite-size pieces so that we can digest the problem, and then we need to set deadlines.

There’s this negative association with the deadline. It’s not such a bad thing. It forces us to be creative. It forces us to find a solution. And, finally, under exhibit, the two most important things are to manage contradictions. We’re going to find contradictions all the time, “It can’t be fixed. Can’t do it. This doesn’t match.” Manage those contradictions. Articulate them.

And the second one is what I started this discussion with was kintsugi, repairing your mistakes with gold because there are going to be mistakes the whole way but I think it’s so important to incorporate those mistakes into your solution because you’re going to have to solve problems over and over and over again, and recognizing the mistakes and honoring those struggles is a great way to start to get to the solution.

So, within prep, draft, and exhibit, there are bite-size pieces that you can take. And I really believe, working across the professional spectrum, almost any problem can be solved this way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s grab one, let’s grab a problem and sort of move step by step here.

Amy Herman
Sure. So, let’s think about… I worked with a group of nurses in the hospital after there was a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Do you remember?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Amy Herman
Yeah. And so, I had a session with the shock and trauma nurses. And one of the reasons I love working with them, there’s no mincing of words. They are negotiating on the frontlines, they are processing the trauma that’s coming through the doors, they’re dealing with family members, they’re dealing with medical personnel, and there is no time. You can’t mince words. Every word matters.

And one of them said to me, she raised her hand, and she said, “You know the night of that shooting, we ran out of gurneys, Amy. We ran out of gurneys and we had to put the patients over our shoulders to bring them into the emergency room.” And she said, “I lost it as a human being.” She said, “We were out of resources and I couldn’t articulate anymore.” And I said, “Well, what did you do then?” She said, “I had to pull it together because I can’t be an effective nurse until I can communicate not just with my colleagues but with colleagues, patients, and families.”

And so, without that communication, we just have to learn to pull it together, and, of course, not everybody is in a shock-and-trauma setting. As you said before, so many of the people I work with are in life and death situations. Most of us don’t work in those situations. But it’s still so important to regroup, and to say, “Okay, what’s the immediate problem here?” She lost it as a human being, she couldn’t communicate, and if you can’t communicate and you’re in the shock and trauma ward, you need to fix that problem immediately.

But, yet, another shock and trauma nurse who doesn’t have the same reaction is going to be dealing with families, and they’re going to see people in panic mode, so they’re going to have different perceptions of the problem and how they’re going to solve a problem, so articulating, “You do A, I’m going to do B, and you do C.” Sometimes there are time constraints, sometimes there aren’t, but we have many, many different facets to deal with. And, again, this book is not about art. It’s using art as a template that different people can use in a whole host of scenarios to prep, draft, and exhibit to solve their problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And could you share with us maybe one more top do and top don’t when it comes to problem-solving and how art can help us?

Amy Herman
Sure. So, the first top do is to recognize that you need to say what you see before you say what you think. People confuse them all the time. So, when we’re looking at a work of art, people will say, “Well, I don’t like that. And I hate modern art.” That’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking, what do you see? And so, to think about the firm line of delineation between saying what you see and saying what you think. What you think is very, very important but you need to lay the groundwork first.

And I would say the top don’t, don’t speak without thinking. Do the prep and draft in your head before you send an email, before you press send, before you pick up the phone, or so many of my clients are on the radio. Think before you speak. And I will say this, communication is a two-way street. It’s not just what you have to say, it’s how it’s being heard. To whom are you speaking? And who is listening to you? And the prep and the draft and the exhibit are all tailored and according to whom you are working with and to whom are you communicating.

Think before you speak. The top don’t is don’t speak without thinking. And the top do is say what you see before you say what you think.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now, Amy, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Amy Herman
I‘m going to repeat the quote that I said before about Henry James, at the risk of saying it twice, because it is so fundamental to me, to my work, and the way I try to live my life from walking to the corner to go get a quart of milk, to helping someone in distress. It’s what Henry James said, “Try to be the person on whom nothing is lost.”

And just in parenthesis, that also enhances your own engagement in the world. Nothing is lost. I know you can engage with people and the places and appreciate so much more where you are by trying to be that person on whom nothing is lost.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Amy Herman
Yeah, a bit of research that was just mind boggling to me was a study done in 2009 in Jerusalem, and it was a study of radiologists. And what they did is they showed a group of radiologists MRIs and X-rays and scans, but for a controlled group, they also showed a photograph of the patient. So, it wasn’t just the X-ray of the lungs or the ribs or the hips, there was also an actual photograph of the person.

And for those radiologists who had the photograph of the person, they found 80% more findings. Their reports were more in depth, and they also found ancillary findings. And when they asked the physicians, “What could account for this 80% difference?” they said, “You know, it took no extra time to have a picture of the patient next to a picture of the lung, and it gave us a broader picture of the whole person.”

And I think about that study because sometimes we just see a cross-section of a person, we have an email, we have an X-ray, we have an MRI, and by thinking of that person, by thinking of that X-ray as in a whole person, it’s going to broaden your own view of them and help them solve their problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And how about a favorite book?

Amy Herman
My favorite book, again, to repeat what I talked about before, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown from 2013. It’s about individuals and teamwork, and just cheering on the underdog. I’m a huge champion of the underdog.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Amy Herman
When I’m completely overwhelmed and my brain is foggy, I sit back and, because of the pandemic, I go to a museum online, and I look at works of art, some that I know and some that I don’t, and I just take a deep breath, and it allows my eyes to relax, and it allows my brain to simmer down and remind me to see things with refreshed eyes whenever possible.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your clients; they quote it back to you often?

Amy Herman
Think about what you’re not seeing, that pertinent negative. More often than not, when I ask, “What’s the key takeaway from the art of perception?” people say, “To think about what I’m not seeing and to know that it’s right in front of me, and to really gear our vision and our looking and our sense of critical inquiry, to think about not just what we see but what we don’t see.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Amy Herman
I would point them to my website, ArtfulPerception.com, and my books are at ArtfulBooks.com, and I’m on social media @AmyHermanAOP.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Amy Herman
Every day that you go to work or you sit down at your desk, prepare to have your eyes opened when you don’t even realize that they’re closed. Every day, I want you to end the day having your eyes opened in a way that you didn’t even know they were closed. And it can be the smallest thing that you notice, just so when we talked about what you didn’t see before, but know that your eyes are closed and make the effort to open them. And use art to do that when you can.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Amy, thank you. This has been a treat. And I wish you much luck and fun in all your problem-solving.

Amy Herman
Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure. Thanks for having me.

684: Achieving More by Tapping into the Science of Less with Leidy Klotz

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Leidy Klotz reveals how to access the untapped potential of subtraction to make work and life more efficient.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What Legos can teach us about smarter problem-solving
  2. The trick to overcoming your brain’s bias for addition
  3. How subtracting leaves us with more

About Leidy

Leidy Klotz is a Professor at the University of Virginia, where he directs the university’s Convergent Behavioral Science Initiative and is appointed in the Schools of Engineering, Architecture, and Business. His research on the science of problem-solving has appeared in both Nature and Science and has been covered in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post among national newspapers on five continents. 

Resources Mentioned

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Leidy Klotz Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Leidy, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Leidy Klotz
Thanks for having me, Pete. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into the wisdom you’ve put forth in your book Subtract. So, why don’t we kick it off by you telling us the story of your epiphany that occurred with Legos?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, the epiphany courtesy of my three-year old at the time, so I was playing Legos with my son and the problem that we had was that we were building a Lego bridge and it wasn’t level. And so, one of the columns was shorter than the other column. I turned around behind me to grab a block to add to the shorter column. By the time I had turned back around, my son had removed a block from the longer column. And that right there in front of me was this kind of thought process that I became interested in. And we’ve since done tens thousands of hours’ worth of research, studying and trying to figure out what was going on there.

But what was really helpful for me with that moment with the Legos, with my son, was that I’d always been interested in less, kind of this end state of things that are better because there’s less to them. But what he helped me see in that moment was this act of getting there, subtracting, and he also helped me see it in a very tangible way, in a way that I could actually go around and even show other people and describe my thoughts to other people. So, that proved really helpful as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. Yes, three-year olds, I’ve got one as well and they teach you much. So, that’s wild how that sparks such a long journey, and it’s cool that we don’t stop there with a nice little metaphor. You got a boatload of research now to back it up. So, can you tell us then, while that’s kind of an interesting way to think a little bit differently, what’s sort at stake or the benefits associated with pursuing subtracting as opposed to adding?

Leidy Klotz
Fundamentally, what’s at stake here is that it’s a basic option that we have to make things better. Whether we’re creating a Lego structure, or whether we’re trying to improve our daily task list, whether we’re trying to improve the thoughts that are in our head, we can add things to them and we can also take things away.

And what I did in that moment was I didn’t even think about taking away as an option, and I would’ve added and moved on, never even considering if I wanted to subtract in that moment if not for being shown the other way by my son. And so, that’s the problem. The problem is that we’re not considering the options. The problem is not that less is always better. In fact, I quite like adding, but I think that anytime that we’re systematically overlooking a basic way to change things, that’s a problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah. Doubling our options sounds handy for sure. Could you share with us maybe some cool case studies in terms of professionals who’d done some subtracting and seen some really cool results and benefits?

Leidy Klotz
So, the downside is that we systematically underuse it. The upside is we don’t have to, and because everybody else is systematically underusing, there’s kind of additional power in taking things away. This is an untapped opportunity. And so, I think you see it everywhere really. So, one example is the craft of good presentations. I know you’ve had some people talking about that on your podcast before.

But, like, one of the elements of a good presentation is that all the kind of unnecessary stuff is stripped away. Edward Tufte, who’s this guru of information design, talks about maximizing the information to ink ratio, which basically means stripping away any ink that is not adding to your message. And so, that’s something in PowerPoint presentations, or posters, or any kind of visual displays, but obviously you can see the same thing in editing, so editing writing, also editing podcasts. I’m sure you’re going to take out some of the stuff that I say here today.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, not much. Not much.

Leidy Klotz
So, that is a very powerful subtraction that improves the overall product by taking away. So, that’s subtracting in kind of the information way. I think, on a personal level, and I’m certainly not the first person who has thought of this, but thinking about what you can stop doing, especially at work because at work we’re so inclined to show competence, and this is one of the reasons that we tend to add, I think, is because adding shows competence. But reminding ourselves, “Hey, one of the ways to make your work life better is to stop doing marginally useful tasks so that you have more time for the really useful ones.”

So, forcing myself, when I’m doing my to-do list, also thinking about, “Okay, what’s on my stop-doing list for the week?” And it’s critical that it can’t just be things that you’re going to say no to. It has to be things that you’re already doing, and now you’re going to stop doing them. That’s an actual subtraction from your calendar.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s like saving money, like if you buy something that’s 30% off, you haven’t really saved money. But if you remove something, like, “You know what, I don’t even use that thing. Cancel that subscription.” Okay, now you’re saving some real money. So, that’s cool. And I’m curious, now             you’ve got a boatload of science and research behind it. Could you share with us what are some interesting insights, experiments, and results there that have taught you something about how we humans tend to operate and how we might operate better?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah. So, building from the bridge with my son, we did have one Lego-inspired study here, and basically you could solve this Lego study. There was a platform that was protecting a mini figure, and the task was to try to stabilize the platform so that you could balance a brick on top of the platform without crushing the mini figure. And, basically, you could solve this by removing one block and kind of letting the platform set down, or you could solve it by adding eight blocks and stabilizing it that way.

So, in this case, with the bridge it was like either/or. Either way could be a viable solution. In this case, it was obvious that taking away was better. We even incentivized people, and said, “Hey, every block you add, you have to pay for, but if you don’t add blocks, you can keep more of the money that we gave you up front.” And people still, overwhelmingly, kind of defaulted to this way of adding.

And so, what’s interesting about that is it shows not just that we tend to add but also that it’s a problem, like we tend to add even when subtracting would serve us well. And, of course, when people noticed or were told that, “Hey, this is a subtractive option,” they said, “Oh, geez, I wish I did that.” So, that was evidence that people were systematically overlooking it.

And we did this in a lot of different contexts. For me, the most convincing study paradigm was these grids that we created that you could just play on a computer screen. Because the argument could always be, “Well, that’s just what people do with Legos. This doesn’t mean we’re systematically doing it. It just means we add when we’re playing with Legos.”

But the grids on a computer screen are an entirely new task for people, and the way we set that up was there was a matrix, and it was basically divided into four quadrants. And the task people had was to make the quadrants symmetrical from left to right and from top to bottom. And we put extraneous marks in one of the quadrants. So, the way to solve it was to either to remove those extraneous marks from one quadrant or add the mirror marks in three other quadrants.

So, again, as with the Lego protecting the mini figure, subtracting was the better option, and people systematically overlooked it. And with these grids, there was no kind of preconceived contexts or preconceived ideas that people could bring to the task, so it was pretty good evidence that this is something we’re systematically doing.

Pete Mockaitis
in some ways, it’s funny. With like leveling a bridge, I guess I think about like leveling a table. It’s a lot easier to put a little shim under there than it is, like, “Oh, let me whip out the saw and just kind of shorten one of these legs.”

So, in many contexts, adding is easier. Adding, you mentioned, can reveal competence, like, “Oh, wow, you must know a lot of things because look at all those slides you made there.” And so, there’s a little bit of a nudge or bias there. Any other big explainers as to why do we humans do this?

Leidy Klotz
There are a lot of reasons. The first four chapters of the book is that there’s biological, cultural, and economic forces that have us doing it. And I think one useful distinction here is that there’s this basic oversight where we don’t even think of the option, and then there’s all kinds of reasons once we do think of the option, why we wouldn’t even pursue it.

So, your example of, and I certainly agree with, like cutting a leg off a table, that’s harder. But the assumption there is that, “Okay, we considered it. We thought of that option and we chose against it because it was harder.” That’s logical. That’s not a problem. Basically, what’s going on in the cognitive process, the reason we overlook it is because we add and then move on, we basically say, “This satisfies.” So, we say, “This is a good enough solution and I’m moving on without considering other options.”

And then, from there, there’s evolutionary reasons why that might be happening. You mentioned competence. We think of competence as a very work-related thing and it’s maybe a modern thing. I was surprised, doing the research, just how deeply rooted this desire to show competence is. This is why bowerbirds build their ceremonial nests to attract a mate.

So, if you’re not familiar, these birds build these really great nests. The males build the nests, the females go around and look at the nests, and then they decide which males to mate with based on which nest they like the best. And then the females go and make their own nests to shelter the kids. So, these nests serve no other function than to say, “Hey, the bowerbird who built this nest is effective at interacting with their world.”

And so, we all have this biological desire to show competence. So, when I have 800-file folders saved for this research that we did, none of which that are ever going to see the light of day, part of that is this kind of innate desire to show competence through adding things. And so, that’s a strong why. I think there’s cultural reasons, of course. Then cultural and economic reasons that kind of come together.

If your country is being measured on Gross Domestic Product, anything that you add to the economy is going to be seen as a positive even if it’s a jail or something that’s bad. And then if your company is working on kind of quarterly earning reports, that can incentivize adding stuff to show that you’re doing more and to show that there’s increasing streams of revenue coming in.

So, I think there’s economic incentives, cultural incentives, and biological incentives, and they’re all kind of reinforcing each other.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I guess I’m also thinking about that corporate example reminded me of it seems like sometimes if you’ve got a really great thing going in terms of like a product and process, and it’s like you could just keep doing that all day, it’s sort of like, “Well, hey, the team is getting bored.” It’s like, “We’re getting bored doing this thing that’s working perfectly over and over and over again, and making lots of profits. So, how about we do a new thing?” I think that can happen too.

Leidy Klotz
Yeah. And I think that’s what I like about subtracting. I’m that kind of person. I want to do and I don’t want to kind keep doing the same thing over and over. And subtracting is an action, so it’s like, this is different than just kind of sitting back, kind of minimalism, or even laziness, or just getting stuck in a rut. It’s like, “Hey, we want to change. We want to improve this thing. We want to try something new. Why is it that we only think about things we could add?”

Because the other way to break out of rut, if you’re that organization that’s been doing the same thing over and over and over again, it’s like, “Hey, let’s cut out half of what we’ve been doing and really focus on the other half,” and that would be a change. Again, I’m agnostic on whether you should add or subtract, but to not consider the option is the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. You mentioned the research reveals some stuff about how we can get our brains to swim against the current, go against the grain, and do more subtracting. Tell us, how do we go about making that happen?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, and one of the things we’re trying to show with the research, we’re trying to find with the research is whether people weren’t even thinking of this. And so, we would try things to get them to think of it, make them more likely to think of it, and one of the things we tried was cues. So, with the grids, for example, we gave people a cue that you could add or subtract to solve the grid pattern, and that increased the rates of subtracting, which would be like, “Okay, big deal, you gave them a reminder and they were reminded.” But it didn’t increase the rates of adding.

So, what that showed was that the reminder was bringing new subtractions to mind but for adding it was redundant with what people were already thinking. So, it was really useful for our research but also really useful as a how-to. And so, I think one thing is you have a reminder that you can add or subtract, or add and subtract, to solve things, but it’s really important, we didn’t find any evidence that that reminder would kind of carry over from one study to the next, so you have to put those reminders close to where you’re making the decision. That’s why when I’m doing the stop-doing list, I’m forcing a reminder that subtracting is a way to improve my calendar.

One of the things on your sheet, you talked about your listeners, and you talked about them being interested in thinking, and you put a reminder on there about thinking involves generating and selecting ideas, which is beautiful because it’s like that’s a reminder that adding and subtracting can be used here in our thinking process and actually mimics something that I talk about in the book, which is that evolution generates and selects to make progress. So, having those reminders at the point of when you’re making the decisions or when you’re trying to make the improvements is really important and supported by the research.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Okay. so we’ve got some reminders up front. Maybe, could you share with us some of the coolest examples of subtraction in terms of someone did some subtracting and then they saw great results? So, you mentioned you’ve got your stop-doing list. What are some things that you’ve chosen to stop doing and the cool fruit that’s come from that?

Leidy Klotz
Email.

Pete Mockaitis
Nice. Stop doing email.

Leidy Klotz
I haven’t stopped completely but I think just forcing myself to be disciplined with doing it one time a day, and so I positioned that stop-doing as like stop these intermittent email checks. And what’s interesting about that, of course it has this amazing effect where I’m not distracted throughout the day, but it also led to decrease the stream of my email. Because part of the problem with me getting so many emails was me sending so many emails. So, every time I spam my graduate students with, “Hey, did you see this article?” then I’m distracting them, they’re feeling a need to respond, and then I have like distracted people working with me, plus I have six new email responses in my inbox the next time I go to check.

So, that email discipline, that stop-doing, has actually led to cascading subtractions. Another personal one that’s really helpful is kind of just unplugging when I exercise. And, again, like gathering knowledge is just so precious. I listen to podcasts, I read voraciously on Wikipedia, but I had been kind of using my exercise time as like, “Okay, can I catch up on the news while I’m running on the treadmill, while I’m listening to a podcast?” and it wasn’t giving me any time for my brain to kind of like synthesize things and think about what’s really important to select. So, those two are kind of personal ones that are work-related.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, certainly. And even if they’re not work-related, I’d love to hear what are some cool subtractions you’ve seen in action?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, one of my favorites is the balance bike. So, you said you had a three-year old.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Leidy Klotz
Do you have a balance bike?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t.

Leidy Klotz
You don’t. Oh, man, so this is the value that I’m providing right now to you, Pete. They’re these miniature bikes that don’t have pedals and they allow the kids to ride them like a Flintstones car basically. So, the kid balances on the bike and then just pushes, propels it with their feet. And what’s amazing is that the kids learn how to balance within like 30 minutes to an hour of walking around on this. So, very quickly, they can reach really high speeds as like a two-year old on this bike.

And what’s amazing about is that, well, the power of it, I think, is it gives kids like two extra years of bike riding, which I think is a very delightful thing. I’m disappointed that we didn’t have them when I was growing up. And also, the innovation there is removing the pedals. People have been thinking about better bike design for a hundred years at least, and there’s been a lot of profit to be made, and people added training wheels. We added connections from the kids’ bike to the grownup bike. We made fatter tires, fatter tubes. And it took all this time for somebody to think, “Hey, what if we subtract the pedals? What will happen there?”

So, I think that’s a beautiful example in the physical world. And then an example I used in the book is Bruce Springsteen. He’s a prolific artist, obviously, but one of his albums is Darkness on the Edge of Town, and it’s one of his most critically acclaimed albums. And what’s really unique and noticeable about that album is that he really stripped things down. And so, one, he stripped on the number of songs on the album. He recorded like 50 songs during that time period and only a few of them, a dozen or ten, made it onto the album. And he stripped away some really good songs that became hits for other artists.

But then the music itself is very stripped down. So, the wording is sparse and the music is compact and powerful. And what’s cool about that is that he subtracted but, also, he kind of showed competence by subtracting because it’s not that we can’t show competence by subtracting. It’s just that you need to probably do more of it for your subtracting to stand out. And so, everybody, when they heard this album, and if you’re a Bruce Springsteen fan, if you’re listening to his albums, you’re like, “Well, this is different.” Even if you don’t know why it’s different, you’re like, “This is different. Something happened here.”

And so, in the subtraction that he persisted with there led to this kind of innovative change in how music was made. So, whereas, the balance bike was a physical example, the subtraction in his music is a very kind of ideas/words and music example.

Pete Mockaitis
And I had also heard that married couples that don’t have a TV in their bedroom have more sex. So, I don’t know if we’re going to go here today. And so, I think that’s an interesting example and it sort of makes sense, like, “Hey, well, our focus is on each other as opposed to that large eye-grabbing device on the wall.”

Leidy Klotz
That’s such a beautiful example. And it’s really annoying to be doing these podcasts after writing the book and thinking like, “Oh, I wish I could’ve used the TV-sex example,” would’ve been way better than the example I used in the book to illustrate this principle, which I’m about to say, which is so often when we’re trying to improve a situation, like we think about what incentives we can add. So, it’s like, “Okay, the goal is like let’s have more sex. And so, can we put in mood lights?

Leidy Klotz
You get the idea. There’s a lot of things, a lot of incentives we could add for having sex. And then we often overlook the barriers to the behavior we’re trying to produce. And so, in this case, the barrier is that TV, what’s interesting with this and the argument that people make, and like Kurt Lewin, the founder of social psychology, said, “There’s two ways to change a situation. One is to add incentives and the other is to remove barriers.” And he said, “Removing barriers is actually the good way because it relieves tension.”

So, imagine if you add the incentive, well, you still got the TV there. So, it’s very clear that the incentive might work but if it doesn’t work, there’s still this kind of you’ve got the incentive plus you’ve got the TV, and you haven’t actually relieved the fundamental tension in the system. Whereas, if you stripped away the TV, you’ve actually relieved tension in the system. The example I used in the book is an iPad with a kid. So, it’s so close to the example but it’s so much better than the example I used.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, if you go with the iPad and the kids, so if you…

Leidy Klotz
So, the behavior in that case is I’m trying to get my kid to spend time not looking at the iPad when he comes home from school. And so, one thing you can do is say, “Hey, if you don’t use the iPad, you can have a cookie,” that’s the incentive version. And, in this case, if he doesn’t, so it may work. He may eat the cookie and be happy and never think about it, or he may want to watch the iPad still, which increases his frustration because now he’s not getting a cookie because he’s watching the iPad. So, you’ve increased the tension in the system. Whereas, kind of the equivalent of removing the TV is just removing the iPad from the kid’s view and hopefully he doesn’t think about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that notion of removing the view, I think, is huge because while it’s true, it’s so funny because I just want to take a photo of the adorable thing my child is doing. And then when I get out my phone, it’s like, “Ooh, can we play the pre-school games?” It’s like, “I just want to take a picture. This is going to be like three seconds.” And so then, we now have a bit of a, “Well, hey, no. We did that earlier,” you’ve got that whole thing.

And so, could you expand upon that in terms of some things that maybe we just want out of view and how we get them out of view? I imagine there’s like social media, news, distractions, and there’s some apps you can use to block those or shut them off. What are some maybe creative ways you’ve seen this put into practice?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, to get them out of view. That’s, essentially, what the email was doing, the not checking the emails, but also the email reminders. I’ve got my good friend Ben who worked with me on the research. He’s like, “I got to figure out how to turn off my email reminders.” And this is like four years into the research together, which is like this is kind of forced, automated adding that’s distracting you throughout the day, so things like that come to mind.

Pete Mockaitis
I heard that there’s a study that they challenged folks to turn off all of their phone notifications for like a week or something, and then they followed up with them like a year later, half of people continued to live that way, like, “Now it’s so much better. Thank you.” And so, it’s striking how that is good. I have seen they’ve actually made…my buddy Jackson, shoutout Jackson, has, I think, it’s called a lite phone and it doesn’t have much. You can make phone calls, you can do texting, maybe a little bit more. It has like a Kindle-style screen, and that’s on purpose. So, you can’t get a bunch of apps and all the distractions that they incur because it’s just not available, or that temptation.

I guess now I’m thinking about like tempting circumstances, like alcoholics, or overeaters, or anyone, or gambling. There’s many number of ways you can just make sure you’re not in the presence of those things, which lead you down there. But I’d love to hear, I guess I’m just so intrigued by this because if people have that hardwiring, like, “More is better and I want more,” what are some maybe surprises you’ve seen in terms of it turns out that subtracting this thing was actually awesome?

Leidy Klotz
We talked a lot about the disadvantages that subtracting faces, like the systematic, “Oh, it doesn’t show competence,” and we don’t think of it. One of the systematic advantages is that when you subtract something, you’re left with the new situation plus whatever you took away. So, like the donut holes is the example I used in the book here just to illustrate it. It’s like it took forever for somebody to realize you could cut the middle of the round wall of dough and make it cook more evenly, and you could spread more stuff onto it. And then it took even longer for somebody to realize, “Hey, this thing that we just took out is actually like another source of revenue.”

And so, this applies in a lot of ways. If you think about divestment is another thing I talk about in the book, which is like, “How do you, not investing in things that are kind of counter to your values?” So, this was really powerful in helping bring down apartheid in South Africa, for example. It’s like, “Okay, let’s stop investing in the companies that are operating in South Africa, propping up this system that nobody thinks is good.”

And when you divest, you take the money out and you’ve still got the money. You can do something with it. You can go put it somewhere else. It’s the same, going back to your example of the people in the business who are like, “Okay, we’re working along really well, and we like what we’re doing. What can we do differently? What can we add?” If you add, you’ve got this existing situation plus all the stuff you’ve added, the activities you’ve added, so you’re still at capacity or beyond capacity. If you take something away, then you’ve got the new improved situation, which is like you’re streamlined-focus plus you’ve got this effort that is now unaccounted for and you can devote to something else.

So, I think it makes sense when it’s explained to you but it’s also a little counterintuitive when we think about subtracting. We often overlook the fact that you can reuse the thing that you took away. Whereas, if you add, you’ve got nothing left over.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, whether it’s money or time or attention or energy, you got it.

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, time is a big one.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Leidy Klotz
No, I think the key thing is across ideas, objects with the Lego bridge, and then our day-to-day situations. So, the ideas one, that’s for people who like to listen to podcasts and for people who like to think about how they’re going to be better at their job. We spend a lot of time kind of accumulating information and we often overlook, like, “Okay, how do I streamline my mental models? What am I kind of grounding my ideas in that I may not believe anymore that has been shown isn’t actually the way that I think it is?” And so, spending the time streamlining our mental models is a really powerful use of subtraction and very overlooked.

Pete Mockaitis
Streamlining our mental models, so that’s like specifically identifying the, “I don’t believe, think, accept, agree with this thing anymore.”

Leidy Klotz
Yeah. And prioritizing, so it’s like, “Yeah, this thing is true. I listened to it but It doesn’t warrant the same attention as these kinds of four core things that are in my mental models.” The intentional version of synaptic pruning, which is our brain has evolved to do naturally which is like the connections that get used, get reinforced and strengthened, and when we sleep, it kind of prunes away the connections that aren’t being used to leave more room for the connections that are being used. So, our brain does that on its own for all the parts of the brain, but it also is something that we can do, and say, “Hey, this is not something that warrants the same amount of attention as some other ideas that are really, really critical.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Leidy, could you share with us a mental model or two that you have pruned away as the years have gone by?

Leidy Klotz
This is a slightly embarrassing one to share but I think if people are honest with themselves, I think a lot of us felt the same way. So, if you think about the systemic racism, I remember last summer the first time systemic racism came up in a department meeting, everybody, myself included, some people were verbally like, “Whoa, we’re not racists.” And I was probably thinking that but not articulating it, smart enough to not articulate it, but I think that’s certainly a mental model that shifted this notion that I knew the playing field wasn’t level before. I knew that always but just kind of the degree to which it was not level, and the fact that there can be systemic racism with me not being racist.

It required learning a little bit of new stuff but it also required subtracting some of my deeply held beliefs about how the United States operates for people. And so, I think that’s one very important one that has shifted for me recently.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote?

Leidy Klotz
Perfect, and we didn’t cover it yet, and it relates to subtraction. So, Lao Tzu has this great quote that’s attributed to him, that’s, “To gain knowledge, add things every day. To gain wisdom, subtract things every day.” I love the quote because it’s a great reminder that we talked about being important, but it’s also evidence of the fact that we’ve been overlooking subtraction for a long time because this is a two and a half millennia-old quote, and it still rings true and counterintuitive today.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Leidy Klotz
One that I really like that I find myself talking about a lot is actually Ashley Whillans, who’s at Harvard, and Liz Dunn, who’s at the University of British Columbia, they do a lot of work on time and happiness, and they’ve got this great study that shows that people who spend money to save time are happy.

And they show it, one reaction to that study is like, “Well, yeah, that’s because they have money to spend on like housekeepers.” But they show it on a population of millionaires but they also show it in people who are working on like minimum wage. And they do that by kind of giving them money and setting up a controlled experiment where certain people spend the money in one way, and certain people spend money the other way.

So, it’s a really cool study. It’s really powerful. And it ties into subtraction here because what you’re essentially doing when you spend money to save time is you’re like not only are you not doing something, which we see is hard for competence, it’s hard when you say, “Okay, I’m not going to do this task anymore,” but you’re actually paying for it now. You’re not going to do it plus you’re going to pay somebody else to do it. So, it’s a hard thing to do but the research shows that people who do do it are happier, so it’s really a great research and also very practical.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, man, Leidy, that reminds me of back in the day when I had roommates who did not work from home, and I was doing a lot of coaching, I found my laundry was kind of piling during busy season, and I was like, “Well, I mean, this is good money per hour from the coaching. Am I just supposed to stop and do laundry? But am I going to wear dirty clothes? What are my options here?”

And so, even though I was working from home, and there were like eight laundry machines on the first floor of this apartment building, I paid someone to come in and do my laundry. You can have a laundry service, Leidy, but then they don’t put in your drawers and closets. And so, I felt a little silly and decadent but I kept looking at the spreadsheet, I was like, “I will make more money and have clean laundry by paying someone else to come do this for me but I don’t want to feel, like, I’m so rich, I’m too good to do my laundry.” I had this mental block but I did it and I loved it and my roommates made fun of me but I didn’t care.

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, that’s a great example. That’s the exact feeling that I have when I do it, it’s like, “Who am I to be this guy who hires a whatever?” but, yeah, it’s exactly that. Number one, the money that you’re making, and then when you’ve got kids, it’s the free time that you’re losing. This is like an hour of my kids’ life when he actually thinks I’m cool. I don’t want to lose that. So, yeah, you’ve given us a really good way to overcome that, and Whillans and Dunn talk about this, it’s like, “Think about the value of your time.” And then, also, another reason that’s kind of hard to do because, yeah, you feel snooty.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Leidy Klotz
I’m biased towards the ones I read recently, but Alison Gopnik has this great book called The Gardener and the Carpenter. It’s about parenting and the cognitive psychology of parenting. But she’s a psychologist plus a philosopher which I think is the perfect combination for parenting, and it’s just an amazing parenting book.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. Well, I was just reading No-Drama Discipline by the authors of the The Whole-Brain Child, and now I’ve got this one. Thank you.

Leidy Klotz
Yes, I like The Whole-Brain Child too. And if I can plug one other author, Eduardo Galeano. I love his stuff. He’s an Uruguayan guy who writes kind of this amazing blend of history/his opinions/fiction, and it’s like unlike anything you read before, and it’s really amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Leidy Klotz
Favorite tool. This is an embarrassing one – Wikipedia. I use it a lot. It’s just so amazing. We talk about this information to wisdom thing, and the amount of work that people have done to make Wikipedia. It’s not my last stop in doing research, but it’s often my first stop because things are organized around subjects instead of in isolated journal articles. So, it’s an amazing tool for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I love Wikipedia for when I’ve been out of the game for news for a while, and there’s an article about the latest development in a thing, I was like, “Well, what was this thing?” And then you go to Wikipedia, and you read a four-minute piece, and it has like 180 references, you’re like, “Oh, I’m glad I didn’t read 180 news articles. I’ve read this synopsis. Thank you.”

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that but that’s a great kind of way to subtract information and still get the same benefit. It’s like just wait a couple weeks if it’s important and it’ll be on Wikipedia. And not only that, but it’ll be summarized so you don’t have to go get the 180 different viewpoints. You can get it all in one spot and distill it for yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally. And a favorite habit?

Leidy Klotz
Exercising is really important to me, and unplugging when exercising, we already talked about. So, yeah, just physical exercise to kind of strengthen my mental performance. Also, just because it’s enjoyable but the more I progress in my career, the more I realize how instrumental it is in my mental performance too.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Leidy Klotz
“Less is not a loss,” is kind of a counterintuitive thing from the book. So, yeah, it is what it sounds like but oftentimes we don’t subtract because we perceive the end state as being a loss. And what we’ve talked about in all of these cases are subtractions that actually lead to something better, but it’s still really easy to kind of conflate the two. And so, this reminder that less is not always a loss seems to be really helpful for people.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Leidy Klotz
Twitter is great. I’m @Leidyklotz. And I like interacting with people especially people who have read the book. It’s really fun to hear their thoughts. One of the cool things about the book, in my mind, is that it brings up kind of people’s experiences from all walks of life, so it’s incredibly rewarding for me to hear, like I told the Bruce Springsteen story earlier.

I talked to this guy in Germany who’s writing an article about the research for Germany’s version of MIT Technology Review but he also talked to me about these Johnny Cash American recordings. He’s like, “It’s just like what you’re describing with Bruce Springsteen.” So, now I have like six CDs, well, six downloads on Amazon to listen to from Johnny Cash that were sparked by my book. And then he shared with me and it’s made my life better. Very selfish authorship here. It’s like, “What benefit can readers give me from reading?”

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, add and subtract. So, don’t overlook this basic option to make things better.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Leidy, this has been fun. I wish you much enjoyment in all of your subtracting.

Leidy Klotz
Thank you. You, too, Pete.

679: How to Become an Everyday Innovator and Unleash Your Creativity with Josh Linkner

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Josh Linkner breaks down the habits of great innovators and how you can become a great innovator in your own right.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How you can develop your creativity–no matter your role 
  2. The habits and mindsets of the greatest innovators
  3. How to spark new ideas when you’re in a rut 

About Josh

Josh Linkner is a Creative Troublemaker. 

He has been the founder and CEO of five tech companies, which sold for a combined value of over $200 million. He’s the author of four books including the New York Times Bestsellers, Disciplined Dreaming and The Road to Reinvention.  As the founding partner and former CEO of Detroit Venture Partners, he has been involved in the launch of over 100 startups. 

Today, Josh serves as Chairman and co-founder of Platypus Labs, an innovation research, training, and consulting firm. He has twice been named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and is a recipient of the United States Presidential Champion of Change Award. 

Josh is also a passionate Detroiter, the father of four, a professional-level jazz guitarist, and has a slightly odd obsession for greasy pizza. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • Care.comFind the perfect caregiver for your child, parents, and home.
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Josh Linkner Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Josh, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Josh Linkner
Truly appreciate it. Excited for our conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Me, too. Now you’ve had a lot of cool innovative moments across your career. I’d love it if you could share with us one of your favorite eureka aha moments that have happened to you.

Josh Linkner
Well, one aha moment is that I realized that human creativity is not born as much as it’s developed, and the research bears this out. In fact, Harvard came out with a study that shows that human creativity is as much as 80% learned behavior. And many of us think that you’re either creative or you’re not, you’re born that way or you have to suffer. And the truth is that it’s more like, I would say it’s more like your weight than your height. Try as I may, I’m not going to be a foot taller by next month but my weight I can control. And creativity is very much the same. That was the big moment for me.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. And so, I want to talk a lot about exactly how one learns to become more creative. But, first, if we could make the case for creativity, innovation, particularly for listeners who are like, “Hey, you know, I’m in the middle of the organization, and my job isn’t creative per se in terms of I’m not doing design or new product stuff. I’m a program manager, maybe.” And so, can we make the case for those professionals? What do they have to gain, personally and professionally, by sharpening their creative skills?

Josh Linkner
Yeah, awesome question. The truth is that the way that we get ahead in organizations has really changed in the last few years. In the past, maybe it was your knowledge of hard skills or whatever, but nowadays, those would become outsourced, commoditized, and automated. And what allows us to really soar in our professions, to be awesome at our job, if you will, is to bring inventive thinking and creative problem-solving to the game. When you really unpack, “Why does somebody get promoted? Why does somebody achieve more in their career?”

Most often these days, it’s tied to their ability to use, get inventive thinking and solve problems in fresh ways. So, I think it’s really become mission critical, in fact, and especially as automation and robotics and artificial intelligence, that’s the one thing that’s uniquely human about us all.

The other thing I’ll just quickly say is that, too often, unfortunately, we attribute job title with creative needs. Like, for example, people in marketing should be creative and people in accounting should not. But the truth is that there’s room for creativity in every single aspect in an organization, every single box in an org chart. We can be creative in our own ways whether you’re selling or running a customer service team or, yeah, doing finance. So, I think it really applies to us all, and I think that’s the one thing that we can truly harness to get ahead in our careers.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Thank you. Okay, I’m sold. So, then let’s hear it, with your book Big Little Breakthroughs, what’s the big idea here? And, particularly, what are micro-innovations and why do they matter?

Josh Linkner
Yeah, so the book Big Little Breakthroughs: How Small, Everyday Innovations Drive Oversized Results so the big little idea is that it sort of flips innovation upside down. And, too often, we think of innovation, it’s got to be a billion-dollar idea, it’s got to change the world, and it feels risky and out of reach, and just inaccessible for most normal people.

And this really flips it upside down in that it’s cultivating small daily acts of creativity as opposed to these wild swing-for-the-fences things. It’s taking the small bites of creativity, which are way less risky, way more within the grasp of us all, they build critical skills, and they add up to big things. So, that’s the premise of the book.

I like to think about it as innovation for the rest of us. It’s kind of helping everyday people become everyday innovators. And a micro-innovation is just what you might think of. If a big innovation is inventing penicillin or the assembly line or something, that’s awesome. Nothing wrong with that. But, again, most of us won’t do that. Those happen once every generation.

On the other hand, all of us can generate micro-innovations on a regular basis everything in our personal lives. An example would be you can chill a glass of white wine by using a frozen grape in that way you don’t dilute the wine with an ice cube. So, that’s a micro-innovation. It doesn’t change the world but it’s helpful.

In a professional sense, a micro-innovation might be something as simple as how you greet a customer, or how you prospect for a new client, or how you interact with the boss, or how you conduct a job interview. And so, these are things that don’t change the world in and of themselves but they add up to big things and they do create meaningful outcomes.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m not one to get too nitpicky over definitions here, but it’s interesting with that white grape example in white wine. It’s interesting. Well, now I’m going to try it. And, in a way, that’s an innovation in that I wasn’t doing it before but I didn’t invent that. I just heard it from you and thought it was pretty cool, and I’m going to try it, and it might just enhance my life that little bit. But it feels like innovation is happening in my world as a result of trying it. Can you noodle on that with me?

Josh Linkner
Sure. Well, first of all, you don’t have to invent something to take advantage of it. I love borrowing and sharing ideas that’s awesome. How great is that? Every time I get to learn a new way to do something that’s better, that’s an aha moment that can be savored. But when we’re taking advantage and noticing them around us, it actually encourages us to come up with them ourselves.

And so, it’s funny, the best way to get creative is just the same way that I learned to play a guitar. I’ve been playing guitar for 40 plus years. I put myself through college as a working musician. I still play today. The way you don’t play a guitar is one day you wake up and say, “Eureka! I’ve got a lightning bolt from the heavens and, all of a sudden, I’m a master musician.” Of course not. The way you play a guitar is you practice day in and day out. And the more you practice the better you get.

Same thing is true with creativity. So, when we think about we want to create our Mona Lisa’s in our lives, or things that we want to be remembered by, you don’t start there. I mean, Da Vinci’s first painting wasn’t the Mona Lisa. First, Da Vinci had to learn to paint, and he had to paint bad stuff, and he painted every day. And, over time, his Mona Lisa was revealed. So, for us, even cultivating small ideas like putting frozen grapes in wine is a wonderful step along the process of unlocking your full creative potential.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, what’s so funny is that that can just sort of take you down a path in terms, “Oh, I can do the same thing for Gatorade. I have a frozen chunk…” or just insert beverage. Or, then you can extract is a little farther in terms of, “Oh, if I put a modified version of the like something on a something, it can be enhanced in some way.” I don’t know. Like, “I could extend my Post-it note by taking the same color sheet, I don’t know, and put it to the top of where the adhesive is,” whatever. I think there are some bad ideas along the way to good ideas, right?

Josh Linkner
Well, really, to go with that, I really like because you’re doing pattern recognition. You’re saying, “If this applies here, can I apply it there?” And that’s actually a wonderful technique to come up with creative ideas. We don’t need to be imbued by the gods with some original thought every 10 seconds. We can borrow from all these things around us. A lot of times innovation comes from borrowing from one part of life and applying it to another. So, that’s not a cheat. That’s actually a really productive approach.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, I dig it. Well, so then you talk about a number of particular simple habits that some creative folks like, Lady Gaga, Banksy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, have adopted that helped paved the way for their creative success. What are some of these habits?

Josh Linkner
Well, so you focused on helping people become awesome at their jobs, and if you want to be awesome at anything, I feel like you got to examine the mindsets, the habits, and the tactics of people who are awesome at something, and then you can replicate and follow their lead. So, that’s what I tried to do in the book.

I covered the eight core mindsets of everyday innovators, I covered a lot of tactics, which I’m happy to talk about with you, but I did, also, really examined, “What are the habits? What are the daily habits of people like Lady Gaga all the way down to normal people like you and me?” And what I really examined was a few different things.

First of all, people do work at it on a regular basis. There’s a real sense of habitual repetitiveness to it. And people are always changing those habits. It’s not like you just have to adopt one habit forever. It’s always in flux. What I do actually, I keep tweaking my own. I have a five-minute a day creativity habit that I do. It’s sort of like taking a shot of espresso for your creativity and it lasts me for the rest of the day. But even that, like since I wrote the book, I’d modified it a little bit and that’s kind of healthy. But I’m happy to give some, a really beginning entry. I know we’re not talking about tactical things on your show, but try this.

First of all, do an experiment 14 days. Instead of worrying about, “I’m going to do this forever for the rest of my life,” don’t over-commit. Try to for 14 days. Try this – two minutes a day. Two minutes, 14 days. Here’s how it goes. Minute number one, I call it guzzle inputs. In software engineering, they always say, “If you want to change the outputs of something, you got to change the inputs.” So, take one minute a day and just absorb the creativity of others. Maybe watch a YouTube video of a concert. Maybe you stare at a painting. Maybe you read a poem out loud. Nothing to do with you or your work, just guzzle creativity of others. And it’s sort of like priming the pump.

The second minute of your two-minute a day routine is try riffing on an unrelated problem. Pick up any problem. Look at a news source and just find any problem that has nothing to do with you, your life, or your career. So, maybe you see plastics pollution in oceans. So, okay, that’s nothing to do with you. And here’s what you do. Spend one minute, seeing how many small ideas you could think of that won’t cure it but will help it.

When we try to cure a problem all at once, it has to be so perfect that we just get all caught up and it’s hard to be creative. Don’t do that. Instead, say, “Can I come up with five little ideas that might help plastic in oceans? Can I come up with 13 little teeny baby things that might make a teeny little difference?” And so, here’s what happens. That’s like Jumping Jacks for your creativity. It’s getting your mind going on something that you’re not responsible for, it’s not going to impact your life. So, again, two minutes a day, one minute of inputs, one minute of outputs on an unrelated problem. Do that for 14 days and people will text me how crazy creative they feel.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. And just to be clear, like it’s okay if your idea happens to be big, right? You shouldn’t be like, “Oops, no, that’s too big. Never mind. I did it wrong,” because as I’m thinking about plastics, I was saying, “Well, what are the plastics that actually dissolve over time into something that was healthy for the oceans? Or what if we had ships that already trans-oceanically moving have some nets and it gets some governmental subsidies?” So, those are kind of big but that’s okay. That’s not what we’re shooting for but if that’s what we land on, I mean, count it, it’s all good. Or, how do we think about that?

Josh Linkner
Fantastic. It’s great. By the way, I love those ideas. There’s creativity in action right there. Yeah, you don’t have to restrict yourself at all but here’s what happens. The risk is when we try to solve something that big all at once, we freeze up. If our goal is getting a Nobel Prize, or becoming a 10X billionaire, or something, it’s too complex and our mind is just locked, it’s deer-in-the-headlights. Whereas, if you start with little ideas, then, all of a sudden, you’re right, big ones come.

And just really quickly, since we’re talking about that, plan that question. So, here’s a perfect example from the book that I just love. There’s a problem in oceans that’s actually bigger than plastics. And the problem is cigarette butts. So, cigarette butts, I guess, is the bigger issue in ocean than plastics, and it also is a big problem in major cities. It’s a terrible environmental challenge when people discard their cigarette butts on the ground, and most major cities spend millions of dollars a year, no luck cleaning it up.

So, enter a guy, who I interviewed for the book, named Trewin Restorick. Trewin lives in Central London, he’s not a famous guy, he’s not a celebrity billionaire. He’s like a normal dude. Anyway, he was faced looking at this problem of cigarette butts, and none of the solutions had worked so far. So, he invents something called a Ballot Bin. A normal guy just had an idea. And a Ballot Bin works like this.

Let’s say you and I were having fish and chips at a London pub. We walk out into the street, we’re about to throw our cigarette butts on the ground but, instead, we see a glowing metal yellow box 10 feet away, maybe mounted on a pole. So, you walk a little closer and realize that this metal yellow box, the front of it is glass, and at the top, there’s a two-part question, like, “Which is your favorite food? Pizza or hamburger?”

And underneath each of those is a little slit where you can vote with your butts. In other words, you drop your cigarette butt in there and it falls in. There’s a divider so it’s almost like two bar charts, and you can instantly see which of these two selections is in the lead. And the thing is totally low-tech and it didn’t require a billion dollars, and it didn’t require six PhDs or regulatory approval, but the Ballot Bins work. And when these Ballot Bins were installed, Trewin told me, they reduced cigarette litter by up to 80%.

So, this guy, who just had an idea was like a normal guy, starts a company, now has 55 employees, and these Ballot Bins are in 27 countries, reducing cigarette litter. So, you’re exactly right, man. He came up with an idea. He just started riffing on small ideas, and that small idea actually became a really cool big idea, changed his life, changed his career.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s so fascinating is that gets me thinking, like, huh, what was so darn appealing about the Ballot Bin, I guess, it’s sort of like there’s maybe a bit of fun in terms of, “Ooh, I have an opportunity to cast a vote with this thing and I’m not going to let it go to waste.” I don’t know what’s going on in the psychology of the smoker.

Josh Linkner
Part of it is you’re not shaming the person into compliance. You’re involving them, it’s an optional thing, and everyone likes to express themselves and so they sort of capitalize, you’re right, on this human psychology of things, but it’s this really fun simple thing that any one of us could have come up with.

And it’s funny, like to me, that is the perfect example of what the book is all about and what a big little breakthrough is all about. Again, most of us look at SpaceX, and like, “Yeah, that’s pretty awesome. But who’s going to do that?” Most of us cannot. But most of us can come up with the Ballot Bins in our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Okay. So, you mentioned we got mindsets, we got habits, we got tactics. When it comes to mindsets, you’ve got eight of them and you also call them obsessions. Can you tell us why the word obsession? And can you give us a quick overview of what are those eight?

Josh Linkner
Sure. So, just to give you a little backdrop. This is borne out of utterly 20 plus years of research on my own but in practical experience but, for the book, I interviewed people all over the globe. Some were people like Trewin that you’ve never heard of. I also interviewed billionaires, and celebrity entrepreneurs, and Grammy Award-winning musicians, and people from all walks of life.

And I tried to extract from these amazing people what are the commonalities, how do they think and act on a daily basis. And I kind of discovered these eight core mindsets. I call them obsessions because a mindset is sort of like, yeah, you think about it when you think about it. But an obsession is sort of like it’s ever-present. It’s a stronger word. And that’s how these people sort of live. These are ever-present guidelines as they think and act and perceive.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, what are they?

Josh Linkner
Well, I’m happy to share as many as you like but I’ll share a couple to start. And, by the way, most of these are counterintuitive. They’re the opposite of what we’ve been taught. So, one of them is called start before you’re ready. And, truthfully, most of us, we see an opportunity or a problem, and we wait, and we wait until we have a directive from the boss, or till we have a bullet-proof gameplan, or till we have ideal conditions, and the risk is that we just miss the opportunity altogether.

So, innovators of all shapes and sizes do the opposite. They just say, “Okay, I’m going to get started,” recognizing full well they don’t have all the answers. They recognize full well they need to pivot and adapt and adjust to changing conditions, and figure it out as they go but they don’t wait. They just get started and find their way.

Another one, again, most of these are counterintuitive, fall in love with the problem. A lot of times we’re all solution-oriented. We see a problem, and we’re like, “Okay, what’s the fastest idea that I could think of to solve the problem?” But then we become fixated on our solution rather than the problem itself and it may or may not be the best way to solve it.

The best innovators do the opposite. They become fixated on the problem they’re trying to solve. They bathe in it. They study it from all different angles. They look at it from all different lenses, and they are willing to quickly forego one potential solution in favor of a better one. So, they remain committed to solving the problem by whatever means necessary and that allows them to actually discover more innovative routes in doing so.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool.

Josh Linkner
One of them, there’s a couple fun ones. One of them is called don’t forget the dinner mint. And the idea behind the dinner mint, I’m sure you’ve been to a nice dinner, and at the end there’s, “Oh, here’s something, chocolate. Compliments of the chef.” And if you had ordered it, it would be nice, but because it was unexpected, it made all the difference in the world. And as a proportion of the restaurant’s overall cost structure, it was negligible, but that little dinner mint made a difference for you.

So, the translation for us as innovators, as everyday innovators, is when you ship a piece of work product, when you send an email, when you give a presentation, you say, “Okay, now that I’ve done what’s expected, what can I add? What’s a dinner mint that I could add? Maybe it’s a new fresh idea. Maybe it’s an extra formatting. Maybe it’s an over-delivery or a time saving.” But the idea is plus-ing it up with something unexpected to make it transcendent.

The root issue is that competence is not a competitive advantage with organization or a person. So, if you’re trying to get a promotion, you’re competing with four other people, just doing the job well and doing it on time and being pleasant, that’s table stakes. So, if you really want to get the promotion, you want to beat people to the punch, you have to look for what’s that little extra creative edge that you can add, extra little dose of creativity that can make you separated from the competitive pack.

And one other fun one, while we’re talking about fun ones, it’s called reach for weird. Most of us tend to gravitate toward the obvious tried and true approaches. Reach for weird is challenging us to find that bizarre, unexpected, unorthodox approach because sometimes those make all the difference in the world.

There’s a really fun example of that. There’s a little town in Iceland, and they were facing a problem in that traffic incidents involving pedestrians had risen 41% over a 10-year period. That’s people getting hit by cars. And so, how do you normally solve that? Well, you install more traffic lights, you hire more police officers, you issue bigger fines. The reach for weird approach, instead, is here’s what they did. They painted the crosswalks as an optical illusion.

So, as people are driving their car up, it looks like there’s slabs floating in thin air. And so, it completely encourages people to slam on the brakes instead of barrel through the intersection, solved the traffic problem, and it’s pretty fun for taking selfies. So, the little weird solutions that we may discard at first can ultimately lead to great gains.

Pete Mockaitis
That also reminds me of Katy Milkman. In her book, It’s somewhere in Europe, they wanted more people to take stairs instead of the escalator. And so, they turned the staircase into a piano, so like you’re making notes, and now it becomes just a whole lot of fun. You’re like do, do, do, do to utilize those. And that’s weird, no one had done it before, but it made the impact in terms of folks naturally think it’s now more fun to use those stairs because it’s a piano.

Josh Linkner
That’s a perfect example. I love her book, by the way. It’s a wonderful book. So, the other thing is the minds just interact. So, another one is called use every drop of toothpaste. So, the notion there is around being scrappy and resourceful. Even if we’re in a resource-constrained environment, because most of us don’t have billions of dollars to play around with, we can still be creative. And sometimes being that every drop of toothpaste can combine with being weird.

A quick example of that, you probably had this dilemma, I certainly had. You go to the market. You want to buy bananas. So, what do you do? Do you buy the yellow bananas or the green ones? If you buy the yellow bananas, they’re good today, four days later, the rest of the bunch is all mushy. You buy the green bananas, you have to wait like a month for a decent banana.

So, anyway, if you were in the banana business, what can you do about that? Not much. Well, this is the kind of fun one, it was a reach for weird approach, also using every drop of toothpaste because it cost them zero. They basically took the bananas off of the bunch and put them in a package organized by ripeness. So, imagine seven bananas next to each other, ranging from bright yellow to green. And as each day goes by, they’re perfectly timed, so your banana for that day is ripe.

And so, here’s the deal. First of all, they crushed the competition in terms of sales volume. Second of all, they’re charging three times per ounce of banana compared to the competitive set. So, really, it’s amazing. Weird is fun but weird simply works.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, Josh, what’s so funny is I have actually plucked bananas across multiple bunches to get that same gradation from green to yellow, and never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that, “Oh, they should just do this for me and charge me more.” I maybe even communicated that instruction to an Instacart shopper, or maybe I censored myself, it’s like, “This poor person already has enough on their mind. I’m not going to make their job any harder with my weird banana preferences,” but I thought about it.

So, okay, cool. So, those are some obsessions, some mindsets. And as you adopt those, and play, and role with those, it seems like you just get more ideas naturally because that’s what’s going on. I think, in particular, fall in love with the problem resonates because if you find that it’s enjoyable to explore and play with, as oppose to get rid of the darn thing as fast as possible, then you get more kind of reps or more minutes on engaged in the thing than kind of hurry up and find the answer and knock it out now, now, now, now.

Josh Linkner
That’s exactly right. And so, if you think about it, again, these three things, you got mindsets, we talked about a few of them; habits, we talked about a couple habits; and then we start to move into tactics. And, for me, I wanted this book to be a very pragmatic guide. It’s not just about your head in the clouds, go do be creative, draw all over the walls with crayons. It’s not that. It’s really saying, “Okay, how can we harness a skillset, human creativity, and deploy it for effective results?” And so, you get into tactics. Most of us, when we get together to come up with ideas, what do we do? What is it called?

Pete Mockaitis
Brainstorming.

Josh Linkner
Brainstorming. Here’s the problem. Brainstorming was invented in 1958, and I’m sorry, a lot has changed since 1958. And so, I kind of view brainstorming as outdated technology, an outdated tactic, because, actually, brainstorming is wildly ineffective. We tend to share our safe ideas; we hold our crazy ones back because we don’t want to look foolish.

So, the whole dynamic of brainstorming, where you’re spitting out ideas and everybody else judges them simultaneously and shoots you down and tells you, like everybody else becomes the idea police, and then you’re responsible if an idea doesn’t work out. It really, at best, yields mediocre ideas.

So, over the last many years, and I’ve interviewed people all over the world, I’ve developed a toolkit of 13 way-better techniques to generate ideas. I call them idea jamming because I don’t like brainstorming. And I’d be happy to share a couple of them. They’re actually really fun and they’re way more effective.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty.

Josh Linkner
Here’s one that works beautifully. It’s called role storming. So, role storming is brainstorming but in character. In other words, you’re pretending that you’re somebody else. Here’s a thing, if I’m in a normal brainstorming session and I’m brainstorming as me, and everybody else is judging me, again, I’ll share my safe ideas, hold my crazy ones back out of fear. But if I’m role storming, in other words I’m pretending I’m somebody else, I’m free.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I’m playing the role of Steve Jobs. No one’s going to laugh at Steve for coming up with a big idea. They might laugh at Steve for coming up with a small one. So, now I’m liberated. I’m playing Steve Jobs, I’m not responsible, I can say anything I want.

And it’s funny, man, I did this with a group of executives one time at Sony Japan. I met this guy. He was the stiffest human being I’ve ever met – dark suit, white shirt, his tie is strangling him. Anyway, we got him role storming as Yoda.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Josh Linkner
I’ve never seen personal transformation like this. This guy’s jacket is off, his tie is undone, he’s like leaping around the room, and the whiteboards were filled with ideas. And I didn’t teach him to be creative. He had that inside him but we needed to liberate him. He was in a role that forbid it.

So, the technique is actually really simple. Everybody in the room gets to choose anyone they want. You can be a hero. You can be a villain. You can be a movie star or a supermodel. You can be a sports legend or a literary figure. Anyone you want but you got to stay in character. And when you stay in character, attacking a real-world problem or opportunity, you’ll be blown away with the creative results.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, so let’s hear a tactic or two.

Josh Linkner
Sure. Another fun one, I recommend people trying, this is called a bad idea. It’s a bad idea brainstorm. So, presumably, we get together, we got a problem to solve, we’re responsible for coming up with good ideas. But the problem is, again, all this pressure, we get consumed with incrementalism. So, instead, here’s a way you do it. It’s a two-part brainstorm.

Step number one, set a timer for like 10 minutes and everybody in the room starts by coming up with bad ideas. What’s a terrible way to solve the problem? What’s the worst thing you can think of? What’s immoral or illegal or unethical? Again, you’re not going to do them. You’re just coming up with bad ideas.

Now, part two, crucially, is you then stop and examine the bad ideas, and say, “Wait a minute. Is there a little kernel? Is there a nugget in the bad idea that I can flip around to make it a good legitimate idea?” And so, what happens is you push your creativities so far to the limit, way beyond what you would ordinarily think, then, yeah, you need to ratchet it back to reality a bit, but it’s better going all the way and having to ratchet it back than trying to push spaghetti up a hill. So, that’s a fun one.

One that’s really simple, I call it the judo flip. So, let’s say, again, you’re trying to seize an opportunity or solve a problem. Start by taking an inventory. What have you always done before? What does conventional wisdom dictate? What is traditional thinking? How are things have normally been done in our industry on a problem like this?

Then you draw a line down the page, and next to every previous entry you simply ask the question, “What would it look like if I judo flip it? What would it look like if I did the polar opposite?” And what happens is that oppositional thinking can unlock really fresh ideas and help you break free from traditionalism.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. Well, so I’m curious, those are some great things to do. What are some things we should stop doing?

Josh Linkner
One thing we need to stop doing is, really, the ideation process. Again, I call it idea jamming, really needs to be separate from the executional process, and we tend to squish them together. As mentioned, I come up with an idea, and the first thing you say, if you’re in the room, is, “Oh, that’s not going to fit in the PowerPoint slide. And, Jim, the boss, is never going to support it. That’s going to break the budget.” And so, we get so focused on the executional challenges that we extinguish our ideas prematurely.

A better approach would be to send your analytical brain out for Starbucks and let the ideas really fly. One of the things I like to do is I call it idea spewing. So, in other words, if you have an idea almost, or even call it idea sparking sometimes. An idea, it sort of means, “Oh, it’s an idea.” So, that merits scrutiny. But a spark or a spew, that implies that it’s early version. It’s the clay that has yet been molded to perfection.

And so, that helps us prevent the premature extinguishing of a good idea because, often, it’s not the first thing that comes to mind. It’s the idea that leads to the idea that leads to the next idea that’s the killer. And if you extinguish it prematurely, you can really cut yourself short.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. Well, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Josh Linkner
Sure. The core thing I would really reinforce to people is that every single person on this planet has creative capacity. Period. And, again, I’ve researched every academic journal neuroscience up and down. We all have the ability to be creative. And we can do so in our own ways.

Like, I play jazz guitar pretty well. I can’t draw a stick figure if I try. So, just because, if you’re listening, you can’t paint on canvas, doesn’t mean you’re not a creative person. You might express your creativity in the way you interact with a colleague or the way you solve a problem on a project. But, truthfully, we can all harness and build this.

And I always like to think about it like this. If you’re outside your home had an oil well, like you just learned that, oh, good news, in your backyard, on the property that you own, there’s a billion dollars of oil sitting under there. Pretty sure you wouldn’t be like, “Nah, forget it. I don’t really have time for that.” You’d be like, “Yeah, I’m going to go buy a drill and suck that, get that resource to the surface and use it.”

Well, I would suggest to everybody listening that we have that oil well and it’s inside of us right now. That’s dormant creative capacity. I have it, you have it, we all have it. And so, that’s our oil well. It’s waiting to be tapped. And when we bring it to the surface, we can unlock fresh possibilities which manifest in terms of winning more customers, and getting the promotion that you want, and making more money, and pursuing your calling, and driving impact. All those things that we crave, gaining competitive advantage, etc.

So, I just feel like if that dormant capacity is there, and we know we all have the ability to bring it to the surface, why not learn the mindsets, habits, and tactics to fully deploy it so that we can enjoy the results?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. All right. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Josh Linkner
One of my favorites is a Chinese proverb, “Man who says it can’t be done, should not interrupt man doing it.” I’ve always loved that. It’s just so impactful.

And I have my own quotes, and I don’t really boast or anything. I say this with humility, but I’ve said this again and again as I was building my own company so much that my people got sick of hearing it, is that, “Someday, a company will come along and put us out of business. It might as well be us.” And that applies to us personally, too. Like, I feel that someday, like the Josh of tomorrow is going to put me out of business. Might as well be me.

And the notion there is that challenging ourselves and our organizations to proactively reinvent, to rethink our approach, to be the one to put ourselves out of business rather than waiting for someone else to do it. And that also ties to another quick quote, “If you don’t like change, you’re probably going to like irrelevance even less.” That’s from General Eric Shinseki.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Josh Linkner
One thing that’s so cool to me is that the littlest adjustments can actually unlock the biggest gains. So, there’s one study that I read about out of a university in Italy, where they brought people together, same demographics, age, education levels, divided them in two, and they showed each group a video, and then asked them to take a standardized creativity test.

The only difference was the video they were shown. One group was shown a really boring video, like sheep grazing in a meadow. The other group was shown an awe-inspiring video, majestic, cliffs, and soaring eagles, and all kinds of stuff. That was the only difference. They gave them the same test. The awe-inspired group outperformed the boring group by 80%. And it wasn’t like they learned a new skill in that three-minute video. It’s just that the brains that we have, we are hardwired to be creative, and the slightest adjustments can unlock fresh possibility as evidence in that example.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that makes me feel better about paying more for the office space with a great view.

Josh Linkner
Totally. I mean, think about that. Artists, musicians, playwrights went to inspiring places for years to do inspiring work, but most of our offices look like a sensory deprivation chamber, and then we wonder why we’re not delivering great creative work. So, yeah, you’re right. Environment matters for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Josh Linkner
Recently, I thought Adam Grant’s new book Think is excellent. Jon Acuff’s new book Soundtracks is excellent. One of my all-time favorites is by Robin Sharma, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari which is excellent and spiritually inspiring to me. So, it’s always hard to choose one. I guess one that I’ll just add to the list is Grit by Angela Duckworth which is also incredible.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Josh Linkner
Yeah, my favorite tool, I think, is really having a guitar in my hand. And I think the nice thing is we all can have our own muse. But the notion is whatever your muse is, whether it’s a painting or music, it’s just like having it nearby. So, when I’m stuck on a problem, I like grab my guitar and start noodling. And, of course, the guitar doesn’t solve the problem but it helps me solve the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share, you already did one, that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and they quote it back to you frequently?

Josh Linkner
You know, I hear a lot about this concept of judo flipping, taking the traditional approach and flipping it upside down. I’ve had people come. I’ve been sharing that nugget for years and people come up to me years later, and like, “Hey, I was just in a board meeting and we couldn’t figure out what to do, and we judo flipped it.” So, that’s what I do hear frequently.

I think the other one I talk about often is this concept of option X. The general idea is that when we make decisions, when we’re trying to solve a problem, we very quickly go from unlimited possible ideas to a very short list. I think about it as A, B, and C. Somehow it becomes a multiple choice. And your A, B, and C choices are based on historical reference, they’re generally really safe, and we pursue those.

And I always just say, before you choose A, B, and C, just pause for one second, and say, “Wait a minute. Is there a D? Is there an E?” Or, I say, “Is there an option X?” which is that bold and provocative and unexpected idea that might make all the difference in the world.

One other quick add, I’ve written about this and I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, speaking of letters, reminded me. So, most of us pursue a career, and often it’s pretty safe, like we’re taught to play it safe. And then we build a secondary plan called a plan B, which is what happens if everything goes wrong, then that’s your plan B.

I would encourage people not to discard their plan B but have an extra plan, and it’s not what happens if everything goes wrong. It’s what happens if everything goes right. I call it your plan Z. So, the plan Z is expecting a good outcome instead of a bad one. And it’s like, “What would you do if you couldn’t fail? What would you do if you had a magic wand? What would you do if you’re pursuing your true calling?” And I’m not saying we should throw caution to the wind. Have a plan B. Awesome. But let’s not do that at the expense of also having a plan Z.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Josh Linkner
I would suggest you check out BigLittleBreakthroughs.com. Certainly, you can learn more about the book. But even if you don’t choose to buy the book, there’s a lot of free resources. There’s a free creativity assessment you can take, there’s a quick start guide, there’s all these downloadable worksheets on habits, mindsets, and tactics. So, it’s a good place. It’s a resource library, really, if you want to get your creativity on and take your game to the next level.

If you want to reach me, I’m on all social channels at my name Josh Linkner, and my personal website is just JoshLinkner.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Josh, this has been a treat. Thank you. And I wish you all the best in your creative adventures.

Josh Linkner
Thank you. You as well. I really appreciate the impact that you’re creating for everybody listening.