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589: How to Ask Better Questions that Lead to Breakthroughs with Stephen Shapiro

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Stephen Shapiro offers expert advice for shifting your thinking to uncover innovative solutions.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The biggest red flag in problem-solving
  2. How to work with—not around—constraints
  3. How an emphasis on solutions hinders us

 

About Stephen

For over 20 years, Stephen Shapiro has presented his provocative strategies on innovation to audiences in 50 countries. During his 15-year tenure with the consulting firm Accenture, he led a 20,000-person innovation practice. He is the author of six books, including his latest: Invisible Solutions: 25 Lenses that Reframe and Help Solve Difficult Business Problems. His Personality Poker® system has been used around the world to create high-performing innovation teams. In 2015 he was inducted into the Speaker Hall of Fame.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Stephen Shapiro Interview Transcript

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

Stephen Shapiro
Well, I’m very excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to have you. And I, first, want to hear a little bit about your childhood dream of being a gameshow host. What’s the story?

Stephen Shapiro
Growing up, I would watch The Gong Show which was one of my favorite shows because it was just so ridiculously goofy and, in particular, Chuck Barris, who was the host, was just, I mean, I loved how animated he was and how crazy he was, and I just became so fascinated with him. And, in fact, I got to meet him at BookExpo one year, which, to me, was sort of a weird dream come true.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Do you have a particular game show host voice or style that you would engage in, and could we hear a sample?

Stephen Shapiro
Oh, I think it’d probably be Chuck Barris, like, “Oh, man, this is like just the craziest act I’ve ever seen.” I just loved his physical animation, his voice animation, the craziness, the antics. It was, I don’t know. I just thought it was a lot of fun.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I think that in high school I actually won the award for, you know, the senior superlatives, like, “Most likely succeed, yadda, yadda,” Most Likely to Host a Gameshow, which was very specific and a peculiar category that they had. It’s not a game show but, sure enough, I’m hosting a show. The seniors were right.

Stephen Shapiro
Well, that’s awesome. So, if you were to do a gameshow, I’m just curious, what gameshow do you love? Like, if you were to be a gameshow host, which one would you want to be a host of?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, I’m not an aficionado by any means, but I thought the most ridiculous concept, which was cracking me up, was Awake, it was on Netflix, it’s newer. And it’s about people who are sleep-deprived and have to tackle these challenges because I’m a big fan of sleep. It’s a recurring theme on the show. And I think that that just very much resonates, like, “Yeah, I can’t do jack when I’m sleep-deprived,” and neither can many of these contestants.

Stephen Shapiro
Oh, that’s awesome. I’m going to have to check that one out.

Pete Mockaitis
They have to like count quarters, like, all night. It’s a goofy concept but it provides a powerful, I think, reminder for being awesome at your job is get enough sleep. So, that’s one tip. But I want to hear, you’ve got more than one, nay, 25 lenses that reframe and help solve difficult business problems in your book Invisible Solutions. And so, I’m intrigued because, wow, that’s a lot of lenses. I like that. So, lay it on us, you’re an innovation expert. What’s the big idea behind this book here?

Stephen Shapiro
Well, we’re always trying to solve complex problems and, unfortunately, the biggest mistake we make in trying to solve problems is to focus on the solution, because if we’re solving the wrong problem, we’ll never get the right answer. And we don’t take enough time to step back and say, “Am I asking an important question? Am I solving an important problem? And have I reframed the problem in a way that will allow me to get better or at least different solutions?” And so, it really comes back to the question. The questions we ask are going to drive the solutions that we get.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that makes sense to me. Could you perhaps make it come to life for us with a vivid example in terms of a person or a team banging their head against the wall, making minimal progress, because they weren’t asking a great question and then the transformation they experienced when they started doing right?

Stephen Shapiro
Sure. So, one which I really like because it demonstrates a really great thought process is a team of dental experts who were trying to create a whitening toothpaste. And pretty much all whitening toothpaste uses abrasives or bleach and they decided they wanted to tackle the problem, “How do we create a whitening toothpaste that doesn’t use abrasives and doesn’t use bleach?” and they spent a lot of time and spent a lot of money trying to come up with complex chemical compounds and new formulas, and they didn’t find anything until somebody shifted the question. And it’s a really profound question because it’s only two words, it’s, “Who else?”

And so, when they shifted it to instead of saying, “How do we, the dental experts, solve this particular problem?” they asked, “Who else has solved a similar problem?” And so, they asked, “Who else makes whites whiter?” and in this case, they realized it’s laundry detergent, and the company that was working on this problem, in addition to having a dental care division, also had a laundry detergent division, and they found the solution by talking to the people in laundry care…

Pete Mockaitis
Convenient.

Stephen Shapiro
…which is a completely…and it was a totally different solution, a crazy solution, but it actually worked.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Ooh, what do you know, we’ve got laundry experts in our same company.” That’s really handy. So, okay, “Who else?” that’s a handy question. So, then let’s talk about just that. So, you say, in many ways, it starts by asking better questions. So, what are some of the best ways we can go about doing just that?

Stephen Shapiro
Well, the first step is to recognize that we have a lot of assumptions in the questions that we’re working on. We do tend to limit our ability to find new paths because we tend to do what’s worked in the past. So, the first thing is to just really question, like, “We’ve always done it this way. We’ve never done it this way.” Once you start hearing people say that, that really, to me, should be a red flag to say, “Hmm, are we really moving in the right direction or are we just moving in the direction we’ve always moved in the past?”

And then, once you acknowledge that our questions tend to be not well-formulated, then you need a process of deconstructing the problem. So, in a lot of cases, for example, we’ll ask big broad questions, like, “Okay, how can I improve the business?” Well, that’s a big question. If I asked a thousand people who worked for a company to give me their ideas on how to improve the business, I’d probably get 10,000 ideas, of which almost none of them will really be valuable. So, we need to go through that process of stepping back, and saying, “What are we really trying to solve here?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Certainly. So, then that’s so broad. We might zoom into, I don’t know, well, now my strategy consulting hat is coming on, it’s like, “Well, hey, there’s either, financially speaking, increasing revenue or reducing costs.” And then you could talk even more broadly in terms of like environmental, stewardship, corporate responsibility. Like, improve business, I hear you, has many, many different lenses or layers to it. So, I guess what is the right level of broadness or breadth? Because in your example, I can see it’s too broad but I think you might get maybe too narrow in the sense of, “How can we increase our toothpaste revenue by 4% or more?” I feel like you’re probably going to be missing out on some real gems if you get that narrow.

Stephen Shapiro
Well, exactly. I mean, I call it the Goldilocks Principle because sometimes they’re too soft, the bed is too soft, or they’re too broad, too abstract, and sometimes they’re too specific, they’re too hard. And so, we need to just make sure we’re asking questions that are just right, and that takes practice. Like you were saying, there are some fantastic examples of where a problem was framed to assume that the solution came from a particular area of expertise, and by opening it up, new solutions were developed.

So, my favorite story is actually the Exxon Valdez oil spill back in 1989. For 20 years, for nearly two decades, they were trying to solve the problem of, “How do we prevent an oil water mixture from freezing?” and couldn’t find a solution. And when they shifted the question to something that was less specific that had nothing to do with oil or temperature, but it was actually a common food dynamics issue which is called viscous sharing, which basically means a dense liquid, if it’s put under force or acceleration, it will start to act like a solid. They found a solution in six weeks by somebody working in the construction industry working with cement. So, there’s that little art of being able to ask better questions, not too broad or too specific.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so lay it on us, it’s an art but for us non-artisans, how can we start to do a little bit better right away?

Stephen Shapiro
Well, the first thing is to ask yourself, “Am I assuming that the solution is going to come from a particular area of expertise?” And if it is, well, then try to broaden it. If it’s too generic… so I’ll give some of the lenses. That’s probably the best way to go. So, if I’m asking the question, “How do I improve revenues?” One of the lenses that I might want to focus on is what is called the leverage lens. The leverage lens is the first one, and it basically says, “If I could only solve one part of this problem, what would it be?”

[09:07]

So, you might ask, “Well, where do we get our greatest revenues right now? Who are our most profitable customers? Where are our most profitable geographies? What are our most profitable products? Wherever it might, how we maybe focus on that.” So, that might be the first step is to find the leverage point. Or you can use the second lens which is to deconstruct it, to say, “Well, I don’t even know what’s most important but let me break it down.” Like you did. “Well, revenues could be made up of a combination of a number of different factors. There’s financial factors, there are social factors, and so how do I break it down to smaller parts and figure out which one to solve?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, hey, let’s keep it running. Let’s hear about reduce, eliminate, and hyponym. I don’t know if I’m saying that right.

Stephen Shapiro
Oh, yeah, that’s perfect. So, the reduce lens basically says, “If we’re trying to solve something that’s too big, how do we sort of reduce it down to something smaller?” Let’s talk about the eliminate lens first because I think it’s a really good one. We, so often, ask ourselves, “What can we add? What features can we add? How can we make something better?” But we rarely ask, “What can we remove?”

So, like right now, everything is meeting on Zoom at this time because we can’t meet in person. Well, what most people have done is just automated the meeting. But what if you started eliminating meetings? What aspects of meetings could you eliminate? So, what can we remove from the solution that will, in many cases, give us a much more elegant solution? So, those are two.

But let’s talk about the hyponym and hypernym. Basically, what these are, are lenses which are about abstraction. So, if I want to make something more specific, what I’d want to do is take a word. So, for example, if I’m trying to solve a transportation problem, maybe I need to break it down into vehicle, which is a more specific version of transportation, and maybe from vehicle I could go down to car or motorcycle or bicycle. So, by changing those types of words, we now start shifting the language because the important thing is we could change one word in a problem statement and get a completely different range of solutions.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess hypo and hyper just mean less than or more than, or below or greater, I believe. Latin or Greek roots here.

Stephen Shapiro
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess you’re just suggesting that we have, as artisans practicing this art, we have the ability to choose specifically as opposed to like a synonym or antonym, meaning the same thing or the opposite thing, something that means the thing more narrow or more broadly speaking.

Stephen Shapiro
Right. So, for example, I wrote a book. If I look at a hypernym for a book, which is a higher-level thing, well, offering…

Pete Mockaitis
Media.

Stephen Shapiro
Media, yeah, or product, or offering. I mean, these are all higher-level words.

Pete Mockaitis
Content.

Stephen Shapiro
Yeah, exactly. But if you think about it, “How do I create a great book?” is a different question than “How do I create a great offering or a great product?” And so, we started to look at, “Okay, well, if it’s a product, what are the range of products we’re going to include with the book?” and that’s how we started getting into multimedia and a number of different tools that go along with it. So, you can just change one word and get a completely different range of solutions.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, I’m hearing you there. And then, by doing this, all those five lenses there give us an approach to reducing the abstraction and getting clear on, “Hey, what do you mean by book, or whatever word, or problem that you’re after?” So, then let’s just keep it rolling from your table of contents, if we may.

Stephen Shapiro
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Then on the flipside, if we want to increase abstraction, I guess the benefits of that are that we get a broader array of potential solutions that fit into there but, again, if you’re too broad, then you just might be kind of all over the place and not grabbing onto something. So, what are some of the best tools or lenses for increasing abstraction?

Stephen Shapiro
Well, so we talked about the analogy lens, which is the toothpaste example. And, by the way, the solution to the toothpaste example, I think, is actually pretty cool, because when the toothpaste people went over and asked the laundry care people, “How do you make whites whiter when you’re not using bleach?” They were told something interesting. They were told, “We don’t? We don’t make whites whiter. We actually make whites bluer. Laundry detergent is blue for a reason because it creates an optical illusion that prevents the reflection of yellow.”

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Stephen Shapiro
And so, the toothpaste they created actually has a blue dye in it that is the same blue dye that’s in laundry detergent. So, the analogy lens is all about, “Who else has solved a similar problem but in a different place?” And I think that’s just always a fun one to use.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s talk about a few more examples of analogies there. So, we’ve got the toothpaste whitening versus laundry whitening. Lay on us a few more examples for how we might draw analogies.

Stephen Shapiro
Sure. So, probably one the more powerful examples is how an oil pipeline engineer helped a cardiologist solve a medical problem. Basically, this cardiologist was talking to an oil pipeline engineer, he said, “Look, one of the problems we have as human beings is we get clots. We get clots in our body. And if the clot goes up into the brain or the heart, we’ll get a stroke or we’ll die. And we’ve not figured out a way of preventing that from happening and when it does happen, how do we remove it?”

And the oil engineer said, “We have that problem all the time. We call it sludge, which is basically dirt and muck that gets in the pipelines.” And he created this filter that goes in pipelines to filter out and break up the sludge. And the two of them worked together to create a product which actually goes in the body that does exactly the same thing, and it saves thousands and thousands of lives. And I think it’s just so fascinating that an oil pipeline engineer found the solution to our health problem.

Pete Mockaitis
That is cool. Well, what do we call that thing? I think I’ve heard of it before. What’s the medical device called?

Stephen Shapiro
It’s called the Greenfield Vena Cava filter.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, there you have it. That’s nifty. Well, then, I’ve heard of these stories and they’re kind of cool and fun in hindsight, like, “Well, how about that, that these different disciplines got together and then made something cool.” But I wonder, sort of when you’re in the heat of it, how would you go about getting those analogies flowing? Like, it probably wouldn’t occur to you, “You know what I got to do is I got to call a petroleum engineer or a pipeline?” You’d say, “Who else has solved a problem like this?” So, that’s one way to start triggering some of that. Although, if you’ve got no familiarity with oil pipelines, you may have no idea that they’ve solved problems like that. So, maybe can you walk us through perhaps a thought process by which we’re utilizing analogy to spark new promising pathways of exploration?

Stephen Shapiro
Sure. So, the first step is to pause and just say, “I never assume that I have all the answers, so maybe somebody else has the answer.” And when you ask, “Who else?” sometimes  you can just reframe it in a lot of different ways. So, for example, I focus on innovation. Okay. Well, who does innovation? Well, that’s a little broad. Then I start thinking about, “Okay. Well, I’m trying to solve difficult problems or I’m trying to make impossible things happen?” It’s like, “Okay. Well, who else makes impossible things possible?” And it’s like, “Bingo! Magicians.”

And so, I spend a lot of my time hanging out with magicians, studying the way they create their magic tricks because I learn as much from magicians about the thought process of solving a complex problem as I would with a fellow innovator. And it’s just that inquiry into, “Okay. Well, who else could it be? Who else could it be?” And it’s like if I’m trying to deal with something with speed, I’m trying to make something faster, okay, maybe I’d talk to a racecar team, or I might be talking to anybody who deals with speed and movement. As you start thinking about it, things become obvious pretty quickly.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that’s fun. And this reminds me, when you said speed, we had a previous guest who said that, “Ideas are feats of associations.” That was a nice little quotable gem. When I think about speed, I’m reminded of the book The Goal if you’ve read it about his theory of constraints and how his epiphany, aha moment, about how to make his manufacturing plant better occurred when he was leading his Boy Scouts on a hike. And there was one Boy Scout who had way too many items in his backpack which was weighing him down, slowing him down, and they could only move as fast as Herbie, the slowest-moving person. And he’s like, “Aha, one of the Herbies, the slowest-moving elements, the bottlenecks, in our plant,” and then away you go.

So, what I think was nifty about that is that, I guess, on the outside looking in, when you start going down that pathway of talking to a magician, “You know, let me talk to a magician or a race car team,” you have no idea yet what they’re going to say and how it may be applicable. But I imagine, is this far to say, once you get into the details of, “Oh, yeah, but we do this, or the wheels for that reason,” then it may very well be that that next level down that you’re starting to get those sparks of aha. Is that fair to say?

Stephen Shapiro
Absolutely. So, for example, an insurance company, their customers were complaining that when somebody filed a claim it’s like filing a claim into a black hole. They they didn’t know who their adjuster was, they didn’t know how much money they were getting, when somebody was going to show up to look at their house. And they’re working on this problem, and I love the way they found the solution, which was, having the question in their mind, “How do we create transparency in the claims process?” And it wasn’t like they sat around and they brainstormed.

Actually, as it turns out, they were sitting around and brainstorming, didn’t come up with an answer, somebody went off to order dinner, and came back and said, “I have the answer. It is Domino’s Pizza. Because if you order a pizza at Domino’s, you got the pizza tracker which tells you basically every single step of the process. Okay, the pizza is in the oven, it’s being made by a certain person, it’s out of the oven, it’s in the box, it’s out for delivery, it’s at your house.”

Well, they modeled what Domino’s did for the pizza tracker and created a claims tracker. So, it’s just amazing sometimes how the solutions can come from totally different industries. Pizza delivery and insurance, you would never think of having anything to do with each other, but actually you can get some great solutions when you start thinking that way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very cool. So, that’s the lens of analogy. Can you share some of your other favorite means of increasing abstraction?

Stephen Shapiro
In a lot of cases, you just need to start thinking more broadly. Again, it could be broader words. You can use hypernyms which is what we talked about before. To me, sometimes the best thing to do is just ask, “How do we make this less specific?” And that tends to be a very simple way of getting to a higher level. We can talk more about the lenses specifically, but I find sometimes those two lenses are pretty straight, those two categories, the reduce abstraction and the increase abstraction lenses are relatively straightforward. You just need to give it some thought. It’s the other ones that become a little more interesting because then they’re really starting to twist and turn the questions a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s hit those in just a moment, but I’ve got to know. Number seven, result. What is this lens?

Stephen Shapiro
So, the result lens is asking, “What is the outcome?” So, instead of focusing on the process, which is what we often do, and the process tends to be maybe the solution, “We need to focus on the results.” Let me give you a quick example of two lenses, one that increases abstraction and one that reduces abstraction for the same problem. So, some work that was being done in the UK around the education system, so the question was, “How can we improve the education system?” What they realized was that the education system was actually a means to an end. The goal, the result lens, would be, “Why do we have an education system? It’s to improve a child’s learning.”

So, when it was changed from education system to child’s learning, they then used the leverage lens, and they asked, “Okay. Well, if we’re trying to improve a child’s learning, what does science tell us in terms of the factors that have the greatest impact in a child’s learning?” And the greatest impact in a child’s learning, based on many studies, is actually positive parental involvement, not helicopter parenting the way some people do it, but like really getting actively involved in the child’s learning. And so, when that question was asked, the solution was found very quickly that there was an experimental school that had a 100% positive parental involvement. So, we focus on the result first and then we focus on the leverage lens and got a very elegant solution.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, we got to know, Stephen, what was the elegant solution? Tell us the story.

Stephen Shapiro
Well, the elegant solution was the school in Bogota, Columbia, of all places, where people are super busy, is they actually had parents come into the classroom and sit in the chairs that the students would sit in, and actually go through the process. It didn’t take a lot of time, but going through that experience gave the parents a deeper appreciation for what the children went through when they were in the classroom. And then, when they went back home, they were given some tools to help them engage the child during the learning process. I mean, here are people who are busy, they don’t have a lot of money, but they got 100% of the parents involved in that process.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think that’s so powerful in terms of there’s a world of difference in terms of hearing, “This is what the lesson was about,” versus, I don’t know how long they were in the seats, they’re probably kind of small.

Stephen Shapiro
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
They were in small seats for 15 minutes squirming, “Uncomfortable,” is to say, “Oh, okay. I see exactly what that experience is like in doing so. So, all right. Well, thank you.” Yeah, let’s talk about some of that changing perspective stuff. How do you recommend we go about making that happen?

Stephen Shapiro
Yeah. So, a lot of times, the best thing to do is look at the problem from a different angle. So, one of my favorite lenses is the re-sequence lens. And the re-sequence lens basically says that if your problem or even your solution assume some level of timing, how do we shift the timing on it? So, how do we predict or how do we postpone? How do we do something earlier? How do we do something later? So, for example, paint. If you go into a hardware store, it used to be that if you wanted green paint, you would walk down the aisle and you would grab a gallon of green paint. Now, if you want green paint, they ask you, “Well, what color of green? What tone of green?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, there are hundreds of greens.

Stephen Shapiro
Yeah. And then they mix it for you there. So, they postponed the mixing of the paint. They actually create the color of the paint after you know what color somebody wants. And that’s just a great way of getting lower levels of inventory, for example, greater customization for people’s needs. So, it’s like if you go into McDonald’s, if they make it to your order, well, that would be postponing it. They would wait until somebody comes in, but during the busiest times, they might have to predict, they actually might have to make 20 Big Macs so that if somebody walks into the store, they’ve got a Big Mac ready and they know that 15 people in the next hour are going to order Big Macs so we’ll have it ready for them, and it gives us a lot greater efficiency.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And let’s hear about the emotion lens.

Stephen Shapiro
The emotion lens says that we tend to ask questions that are very analytical, but what if we add some emotion to it? In many cases, positive emotion is really one of the goals. So, for example, instead of saying, “How do we engage our customers? Or how do we get our customers to like us?” “How do we get our customers to feel like they’re at home when they’re in our stores?” They actually have some emotion to it. Or maybe we can ask the question, “How do we create a wow experience for our customers?” Or if it’s our employees, instead of saying, “How do we increase employee satisfaction?” maybe it’s, “How do we get a five out of five on our customer surveys?” And so, it’s more of a positive spin and a more emotional spin rather than just numbers and facts. But you can also go on the negative side too which is pretty fascinating.

Pete Mockaitis
I liked the way you articulated that in terms of because, frequently, the difference between something that I really kind of get and resonate with versus just sort of like, “Hmm, okay,” it is the emotion element. So, if we’re talking about, I don’t know, employee engagement, okay, so there’s a term and a tool and a metric and best practices and all that associated with it. So, if you ask a question, “How can we improve employee engagement?” you’re going to get a very different set of responses than if you asked the question, “How can we make a work experience so awesome folks never want to leave?”

Stephen Shapiro
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
And they’re like, “Ooh, well, I’ll tell you,” and so things can really fly in terms of, “Well, I never wanted to leave this workplace because this manager really cared about my development and invested in all these things. I never wanted to leave this workplace because they had kegs of…” I don’t know, whatever, “…delicious beverage.” So, yeah, I really dig that. I think, there’s probably good science on the brain, neuroscience here, in terms of you are tapping into different part of the brain straight up when you are posing the questions in that way.

Stephen Shapiro
And what’s interesting is the way you originally framed it as, “How do we improve?” Anytime you say improve, you imply there’s something wrong. And so, the brain now starts processing the information differently, “Okay. Well, I’m trying to fix a problem rather than elevate and lift something up.” Even those very, very subtle words can have a huge impact.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think what’s intriguing about this is it’s almost like, maybe we’ll zoom out for a bit in terms of just how our brain works, I don’t think this is just me. Stephen, you let me know. Once a question is posed, it’s like, I’m just off to the races in terms of generating answers for it, and it’s just like, “Away we go sprinting forward. Like, I’m answer-generating machine.” And so, it follows that almost like…I’m thinking, I’m imagining like a compass here in terms of like 360 degrees. If you have a subtle difference in your question, that might be off by like just three degrees from the other question, I am effectively pointed in a new direction for my answer-generating brain that can lead to a wildly different final destination.

Stephen Shapiro
Spot on. Spot on. In fact, I think it’s useful for us just to step back, and since we’re talking about the brain, look, the brain’s primary function is survival. And so, if you think back to the way that we’re originally wired, we would, especially in times of a crisis, run quickly away from the threat. But the problem is if we run quickly, we might be running in the wrong direction which means we’re moving further away from the ultimate goal. And so, even though we’re wired to, as you said, identify the problem quickly, find a solution quickly, and move as quickly as we possibly can, that doesn’t mean that’s going to give us the best result.

And so, when you can put the pause button on it, it’s like Einstein reputedly said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I’d spend 59 minutes defining the problem, one minute finding solutions.” And I just think that’s…he never actually said exactly that but I love that, metaphorically speaking, as a mindset of saying, “Look, if we’re going to move somewhere, let’s move in the right direction.” But in order to do that, we need to make sure we know what the right direction is.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, Einstein, I mean, if you compare that to Justin Timberlake and Madonna, was it four minutes to save the world in the song? Well, that’s pretty impressive work, Einstein.

[30:02]

Stephen Shapiro
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Now, back to business, Stephen. So, that’s a bit about changing perspective. Let’s hear a bit about how you switch elements. What does that mean and how do we do it?

Stephen Shapiro
So, switch elements have some really great stories. I’ll give you one. So, one of the lenses is called the flip lens. And the flip lens is basically saying instead of solving for this, we solve for that. And the short version of a story that I love is an airport that had its passengers complaining that the bags took too long when they were waiting at baggage claim. So, they spent a ton of money trying to solve the problem, “How do we speed up the bags?” And they basically cut the wait time, they cut the amount of time in half from about 15 to 20 minutes down to 8 to 10 minutes. And so, they thought, “This is a 50% improvement. This is awesome. People are going to be excited.” But passengers were still complaining. They were still waiting too long. And they realized they couldn’t speed up the bags anymore. Then they had an epiphany. It only took the passengers 1 to 3 minutes to get to the baggage claim so that’s why they were waiting.

So, instead of speeding up the bags, they slowed down the passengers. They literally reconfigured the airport so that it would take, on average, 8 to 10 minutes for the passengers to get from the plane to the baggage carousel. And now they get to the baggage carousel, their bags are waiting. We experience wait time differently than we do walk time. And I think that’s just a really fun example of how solving a different factor, like, wait time is actually the speed of the bags and speed of the passengers, and they were only looking at one aspect of it.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’ve heard that software user interfaces will do this too in terms of what they are displaying so that you feel as though you’re waiting less even though the actual stopwatch time between when you’ve, I don’t know, clicked the thing and when you get what you want is unchanged. So, you could see that in the reality of physical space as well as digital spaces. So, that’s flipping. Tell us what’s the lens of pain versus gain?

Stephen Shapiro
Well, pain versus gain is basically saying that most people will take action to eliminate a loss, prevent a loss, or to eliminate a pain rather than trying to get a gain. So, if one of the things you’re trying to do is, let’s say you’re a bank, for example, and you’re trying to sell people financial wealth, and that might be a nice gain, but if people aren’t able to pay their bills right now, maybe the focus, the pain that you want to solve is, “How do you make sure that, even in a time when people are out of work, their bills are still being paid?” So, it’s flipping it so if you can be the aspirin for somebody’s pain, that will typically get greater reaction and adoption from people than it will be if you give them something nice to have.

Pete Mockaitis
And that financial bank example reminds me, I don’t know who said this but I think it’s so true, like about sort of about financial planners, financial advisors, they say, “Oh, if you call your client and wake them up at 3:00 a.m. to tell them about an investment opportunity that’s going to make them $20,000, then they’re going to fire you, and say, ‘Don’t wake me up.’ But if you can wake them up at 3:00 a.m. to tell them what they’ve got to do to avoid losing $20,000, they’re like, ‘Wow, this guy is amazing. I’ve got the ultimate financial planner on my team.’”

So, that’s handy in terms of sort of getting urgency. I wonder, we talked previously about positive emotions triggering happy things in terms of results of creativity ideation. I don’t know, when we focus on brainstorming about removing pain, is there a sense of constraint that happens on us mentally?

Stephen Shapiro
Well, you say it like constraints are bad. I’m actually a big fan of constraints. I think, in fact, constraints are the key to good problem-solving and innovation. So, we always say, “Think outside the box.” But come back to those first of lenses we were talking about, when we have a big broad abstract problem, well, we tend to just come up with a lot of boring, obvious, and irrelevant solutions. So, I say, “Don’t think outside the box. Find a better box. Shift the question.” Instead of speeding up the bags, how do we slow down the passengers? We could shift it from, “How do we reduce the wait time?” to, “How do we improve the wait experience?” We could change just a couple of words and now, all of a sudden, people don’t mind waiting if it’s a great way to experience. So, it’s really shifting the language, shifting the box and the constraints, but we still have constraints and those are valuable constraints.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You know, that reminds me, I’m thinking about one of my favorite restaurants, Bakin’ & Eggs here in Chicago, and it doesn’t seem that hard at all, I don’t know why all restaurants don’t do this. You can get a mug of coffee started and going and sipping as you’re chilling and waiting for your table, and it’s like I don’t even mind waiting for my table, it’s like, “This is part of the experience of Bakin’ & Eggs, is we’re over here with our coffee, chatting away with my party, comfortable. And, oh, here’s the table.” We feel great about it even though we still had to wait but the experience was awesome.

Stephen Shapiro
Yeah, that’s a great example. Another one, which is maybe more about distraction rather than great experience, but you think about Uber and Lyft. You get off the plane, you’re standing outside. What is everybody doing? They’re staring at their phone. So, what are they looking at? They’re looking at this, like, microscopic car that’s moving infinitesimally slow on their screen, yet somehow it gives them a sense of comfort to see it move like a millimeter every minute.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, it’s working, it’s happening, it’s in process.

Stephen Shapiro
Something is happening, so we feel movement, and that’s also a way. So, we can distract people, we can engage people. The point is there’s never one solution because there’s never one question, and the more we question our questions, the more we’ll be able to find better solutions.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, then the final set of lenses is about zeroing in. Can you regale us with this?

Stephen Shapiro
Sure. I think these are a great place to start. So, you have, for example, the real-problem lens, which is just to make sure, “Am I solving the right problem?” One of my favorite ones though is the real-business lens, and it’s to really even just question, “What business am I in?” So, for example, if you asked me, let’s say, a year ago what business am I in. I would say, “I’m a keynote speaker. I give speeches. I talk about innovation but I’m a keynote speaker.”

And then what I realized was, well, especially now where we can’t meet in person, being a keynote speaker, there are no stages to speak on. And if you’re so focused on being a keynote speaker, if that’s your business, you’re in trouble. But if you shift things, so I think of myself as a problem-solver and an innovator, so I help companies solve their problems and help them be able to solve their own problems. Well, that’s shifting my business. And by really asking, “What business am I in and what problems am I solving?” as a result of that, it helps me identify new opportunities.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, if I can put you on the spot, Stephen, could you give us a kind of a capstone finale story or example in which we are utilizing multiples of these lenses to get from stuck to somewhere really cool?

Stephen Shapiro
Well, let me give you a story that I think really wraps it up nicely. It only uses one of the lenses but it’s one we haven’t talked about and I think it really makes a powerful point. I lived in England for five years, and, of that time there, I worked for a Formula 1 race car team for three years. So, if you don’t know Formula 1, they’re basically fast cars. And the thing which I loved were the pit crews that would be able to change the tires, and back when I worked for them, fuel the car, do minor maintenance in a matter of seconds. And so, I would watch them and I was always amazed.

And I remember having a conversation with somebody from the Formula 1 team, I said, “How did they get them to go so fast?” And so, the way they would typically do is they’d sit there with a stopwatch and they would tell them to go fast, and they would time them over and over and over, and no matter what they did, no matter how hard they tried, there was a point that they couldn’t go one one-thousandth of a second faster. They decided to try a number of different techniques, and the one that they landed on that was quite interesting was they told the pit crew members, “You’re not going to be timed, but rather we’re going to be evaluating you on your smoothness, your style. And so, as you’re changing the tires, think smooth.”

Back when I worked with them, they’d fuel the car, think smooth. And they, of course, were timing them but had them go fast but thinking about their movements. And they found that they were able to shave off two-tenths to three-tenths of a second off of their best previous time. And the pit crew, when asked if they thought they were going faster or slower, felt they were going slower. And I call this the performance paradox which is one of the lenses, which is paradoxically sometimes the more we focus on a goal, the less likely we are to achieve that goal. And I think the same thing is true with solutions. The more we focus on the solution, quite often, the less likely we are to find a solution. But if we can stop, pause, and ask a better question, and make sure we’re reframing it and moving in the right direction, we’ll find better solutions faster paradoxically than if we just jumped and try to focus on the solutions.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Was it Coach John Wooden who said something like, “Move very quickly but don’t hurry”? Something. I’m butchering it. But that notion that really does resonate. And I think maybe in terms of, hey, if you’re keynote speaking, if you’re dancing, if you’re doing any number of things that have some precision and elegance to them, fixating on, “I got to nail this. I got to crush this. I got to knock it out of the park. I got to go fast, fast, fast,” can be just the opposite of what you want for that smooth flow, and then that can carry over. Share another one, please, if you could with the performance paradox. So, there’s the notion of speed. What would be another place where we overfocus on performance in a work story detriment?

Stephen Shapiro
One of the other examples which someone told me once, which I thought was just really fascinating, was he worked in a home for people who are the elderly. And one of the concerns that everybody had was that if you were to fall, you would break a hip or break a bone, and it’s one of the leading causes of trauma and death and everything else. And so, what they initially started doing is trying to get people to not fall. And the problem was when people started focusing on not falling, they would actually fall more and they would hurt themselves more.

So, what he did was he actually decided to totally do exactly the opposite. And he said instead of getting them to worry about not falling, he’s actually going to get them comfortable with falling. And he created classes around people falling, and “How do you fall?” and having fun with falling. And the second that people stopped focusing on not falling, they stopped falling. And so, it’s just interesting to just see, and a lot of it has to do with stress.

If you’re thinking about creativity, we know that if I put you under a stopwatch, and I said, “Come up with a thousand ideas,” or however many ideas, you would really struggle because the stress associated with the time will cause you that. And that’s why a lot of times when we’re goal-oriented in companies, we’re less likely to achieve those goals because we get so focused on the goal that we stop actually focusing on the process and the whole creative endeavor that takes place beforehand.

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

Stephen Shapiro
I think that the most important thing for me just to say is that being able to ask better questions to question your questions, I found to be one of the more important skills. I know in a lot of companies, people will tell you, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” My perspective is I don’t want solutions. I want better problems, well-thought out problems, reframed problems. And if you become a master of problem-solving and problem-reframing, according to the World Economic Forum, that is the number one skill that people in organizations need right now in order to stay competitive. And so, I think that’s hopefully just proof enough to keep focusing on that.

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

Stephen Shapiro
There’s one which is from Mark Twain, I won’t get it exactly right, but basically he said, “There’s nothing new. It’s impossible because basically everything is just old-color pieces of glass that get twisted and turned around and create something new.” And I love that perspective because I’m inspired to think about, “How do I, instead of trying to invent something every time, how do I connect new ideas in new ways?” And I think that’s just a great way to look at it.

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

Stephen Shapiro
For me, anything having to do with confirmation bias. Basically, anytime we have a strongly-held belief about something, we’re only going to find evidence to support that belief. And so, for me, that’s a really fascinating part of business and life is understanding that.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Stephen Shapiro
Probably, my all-time favorite book is Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a great title.

Stephen Shapiro
It’s a great book.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m intrigued. I’ve heard of the legend of Richard Feynman but I haven’t read the book. So, thank you. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Stephen Shapiro
One which just keeps me sane is something called SaneBox, which is an email tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I use it too.

Stephen Shapiro
It’s just like I look at my inbox and it’s very, very little, and then my SaneLater folder is like humongous, it’s like, “I won’t worry about it till later.” So, that definitely keeps me sane.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Stephen Shapiro
Hot tub. I try to, when I can in the morning, wake up, just sit in the hot tub to just meditate, quiet my brain. I find it just prepares me for the day.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget that you share that really seems to connect and resonate and gets quoted back to you often?

Stephen Shapiro
When it comes to innovation, the one which a lot of people resonate with is my expression, “Innovate where you differentiate.” So, not all problems are important, but if you can focus on the problems that actually help your organization stand out from the competition, and you put more energy into solving those problems, that really has a huge impact.

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

Stephen Shapiro
To learn about the book, InvisibleSolutionsBook.com. And there’s videos and tools, you can download the 25 lenses and everything from there. That’s probably the best place to just learn more about me and the book.

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

Stephen Shapiro
I think the challenge really is to, coming back to something you said earlier, we are solution machines. If we can just stop focusing on our ideas and actually put the pause button and make sure we’re really focused on what will create the greatest value, what will move us forward in the best way, what will create the most elegant solution, that will always give you a better result than if we just run with our top-of-our-head ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Stephen, this has been a treat. I wish you all the best.

Stephen Shapiro
Well, thank you so much. I really enjoyed this.

584: How Curiosity Can Help You Reinvent Your Career and Stand Out with Francesca Gino

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Harvard professor Francesca Gino discusses why we shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions and nurture our curiosity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The mindset shift that leads to great innovation
  2. Why our fear of judgment is often overblown
  3. How to resolve conflict peacefully with curiosity

 

About Francesca

Francesca Gino is an award-winning researcher who focuses on why people make the decisions they do at work, and how leaders and employees have more productive, creative and fulfilling lives. She is the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit at Harvard Business School and the author, most recently, of Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules in Work and Life. Gino is also affiliated with the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, the Mind, Brain, Behavior Initiative at Harvard, and the Behavioral Insight Group at Harvard Kennedy School.

Gino has been honored as one of the world’s Top 40 Business Professors under 40 and one of the world’s 50 most influential management thinkers by Thinkers 50. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Francesca Gino Interview Transcript

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

Francesca Gino
It’s awesome to be here. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I’m thrilled to be chatting. And, first, I need to hear a little bit about your motorcycle racing hobby. I don’t hear too many Harvard professors racing motorcycles, or maybe there’s a bunch of you.

Francesca Gino
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell us, what’s your story?

Francesca Gino
I actually thought that you were going to say, “I often don’t hear of moms with four small children.” So, they contributed a little bit of putting the hobby to the side since they are still quite small, but we’ll get back to it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when you’re racing, it’s not just riding them but you’re actually going trying to beat opponents with speed. What’s the story?

Francesca Gino
Yeah. So, I think I grew up in a family where the Sunday afternoon activity was sitting on the couch watching races, whether it was MotoGP or any type of races with my dad and brother. And so, I think that that stayed in my blood a little bit. And growing up in a small town in northern Italy, where you have a lot of freedom, so I had friends who were older than me and I started using their scooters and motorcycles much earlier than, I should say, before having the proper driving license for them. Maybe this is not a good start. I’m already saying about rule-breaking right off the start.

Pete Mockaitis
No, we want it more exactly. sometimes I try to force a segue between the “getting to know you” part and the “your expertise” part, and this makes it easy. So, yeah, that’s all we need…

Francesca Gino
Exactly. How do you study what you study.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s totally rebellious. So, you’re breaking rules. That’s one of your main messages in your work and research and writings, is that it pays to break the rules in work and life. Can you give us some of the most compelling examples or bits of research behind that?

Francesca Gino
Absolutely. I was struck by the fact that I spend a lot of time in organizations, and often you go in, or at least that I started going in with a set of cynical eyes, if you will, and I would try to pay attention to processes, ways of working, or systems that, to the eye of a person who doesn’t work there, really make little sense. They didn’t seem optimal. I had all sorts of questions about them.

And then I would go to people, leaders and employees alike, and say, “Why is it that you do things this way?” Always the same answer, which was, “We’ve always done it this way.” And it’s interesting that it’s very easy for us to get used to the usual way of working and it’s tough to break away from that. So, I wanted to write this book to say, “Look, there are people out there who are very capable of breaking away from the mold in a way that creates positive change and brings all sorts of benefits to themselves and the organization.”

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, I knew that was what you’re going to say in terms of the answer is, “We’ve always done it that way,” which I think really means we don’t actually remember the original purpose and impetus for how this got started but we’re going to keep doing it.

Francesca Gino
Yeah. And also we stop asking questions. Think about, I mentioned the four little children, so I’m in the land of curiosity, pushing boundaries, asking questions. And if you look at the data, you’d see something quite striking, and in my mind, also sad. Curiosity peaks at the age four and five, and then it declines steadily from there.

And I thought, “It can’t be true. Maybe when we get into our jobs, the ones that we love, curiosity is going to pop back up.” And I was wrong. I collected data across jobs, industries, roles, hundreds of people, and at first, when they start a new job or a new role, you see the curiosity is high, some variation across job, across roles, across locations, but not much. And you go back to the same people eight, nine months later, curiosity had dropped by at least 20% across the board. And I think it’s because we conform, we get used to the usual way of working, and we stop asking questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that you’ve actually done the research. Actually, not like I’m surprised but, you know.

Francesca Gino
You know.

Pete Mockaitis
There are authors who borrow from the research of others, and authors who do their own research, and you are in the latter category, so I’m going to really have some fun with you here. So, how do we measure curiosity? And just what is the extent of that decline? Like, is it like you’re half as curious as you were when you were four or five? Are you like a tenth as curious as you were at four or five?

Francesca Gino
As a scientist at my core, I really puzzled over that data because I was like, “What happens? And why is it that kids so naturally ask questions and stay curious but somehow they grow older, we all grow older, and that disappears?” And it was kind of an interesting exercise because I recognized that, even as a parent, I do things that probably are not good for curiosity. My children ask a question, I give them an answer instead of saying, “Why do you think the sky is blue?” or, “Why do you think we have to pay for things when we go out to the grocery store?” And it’s a different way of reacting. Or they make a mistake and you have that worried face that tells them that, fundamentally, “Yes, we’re learning but I would’ve been happier if we didn’t mess up things around the house.”

And so, it brought much more attention in my own behavior, in my own reactions to what others are doing. And now I’m giving you some examples as a parent but I have equally good example in my role as leader of my own group or the interactions that I have with colleagues. How do you react when they say something that you might disagree with? Do you seek to understand and show curiosity? Or do you just shut them down? And so, there are lots of meaningful opportunities where I think maybe unconsciously we just shut down the conversation and, with it, we shut down curiosity.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. The subtle things in terms of non-verbal shows of disapproval with a facial expression or a tone of voice.

Francesca Gino
In fact, I’ll give you a story that actually comes from a business, it turns out to be a yummy one since it’s a three-star Michelin restaurant that in 2016 became the best restaurant in the world. It turns out it’s an Italian restaurant so I’m saying this with a little bit of pride even if I have nothing to do with it. But this is a restaurant where the owner and chef that opened the restaurant decided to go to traditional Italian dishes and completely reinvented them.

Now, I find that to be profound. First, it took courage. I don’t know how much you know about Italians, but I can tell you that two things are true. First, there are lots of rules when it comes to cooking, from all the ways you pair a certain type of pastas to certain type of sauces. In fact, I’m married to an American, and, to this date, my husband doesn’t understand why is it that every time he has pasta, we’d have fish-based sauce, he can’t put Parmesan cheese on top of it. It’s just wrong. You don’t do it. It’s against the rules. And, second, we cherish our old ways, especially when it comes to recipes that have been passed on for centuries.

And so, here you have a guy who went exactly to that context with an open mind, with curiosity, and he started saying, “Look, why is it that we cook the dish this way? Maybe it made sense 20 years ago but not today.” And he completely reinvented traditional Italian dishes, and has been very successful with that. So, quite an inspiring story. And if you spend time with him, you realize that in every interaction, he really takes on the opportunity to look at the what-if or why.

In fact, there is a beautiful story, it’s one of my favorite out of the restaurant, when it’s a very busy night, and one of his sous chefs is working on the last dessert of the night, and it’s a lemon tart, and the name of sous chef is Taka. He’s obsessed with attention to detail. He’s Japanese. He really cares about doing his work well. And, as Taka is working on this dessert, he’s arranging all the different pieces, and, all of a sudden, the tart dropped to the floor, and now he had a mashed tart. And at that point, Taka started to panic but chef Massimo Bottura walked into the kitchen and saw the mistake.

Now, ask yourself what it is that you would’ve done. I can tell you that many leaders in his position would’ve started yelling, but Bottura didn’t. And not only that, he looked at the plate, and then, at Taka, said, “Taka, I think we have a new idea for a new dessert.” And, sure enough, they come out with a new dessert, it’s a deconstructed lemon tart, and is now the most popular dessert at the restaurant. And if you look at it, you look at this mashed tart on the plate, and the name for the dessert on the menu is “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart.”

It’s just a beautiful example of, even in situations where there are accidents, he’s able to turn them into sources of inspiration. I think it requires a shift in mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is beautiful, and you do sort of see sort of that childlike perspective in terms of…

Francesca Gino
That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
…”Oh, this is interesting that this is all over the floor now,” as opposed to, “This is a disaster that it’s all over the floor now.” Just to make sure that we check the box though, can you share, how do we measure curiosity? And what is the level of the decline from four to being grown up?

Francesca Gino
You’re going to check yourself, right? So, there are scales that colors I’ve developed to measure curiosity, and so it’s often self-reported. So, I ask you a bunch of questions that allow me to understand in which situations you keep on looking for information because you really want to discover something. And it’s not just learning because there is an objective, but you fundamentally want to get to an answer because of the pleasure of that discovery process.

And so, there are many different other personality factors that are related to it, like being open to experiences, but curiosity is on its own category, if you will. And if there are people that are interested, I’m happy to share the scales since they exist and you can measure it on yourself. In the data that I collected, I was looking at adults, and the drop of 20% were adults from the day they started a new job to nine, ten, some cases eight months later. And so, that’s where you see the drop in a way that allows you to ask the question, “Why is it when we join organizations, it’s almost as if curiosity gets squeezed out of us?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you. And it’s a shame, I guess I’m thinking about how when I’ve been at my best, when there’s a new person who comes and ask sort of new-person questions, you know, I mean, sometimes that’s sort of annoying, like, “Oh, isn’t this all covered already?” But when I’m on my game, “Oh, what a lovely fundamental question to ask, and I guess I didn’t look at it that way, way back when I invented this process.” So, that’s beautiful.

Francesca Gino
But you’re saying something important, that reaction of, “Oh, maybe this was covered already.” So, when I am the person joining and coming into the organization, I’m thinking, “I’m not sure but I think I have this question, I’d love to ask it.” Often, we don’t ask it because we’re fundamentally fearful that there’s going to be a judgment. And what’s interesting about small children, when they’re three or four, that is not there at all.

In fact, just this morning, I was talking to my son and he was noticing that his underwear got way too tight. And so, he had this nice red marks around his belly, and he turns to my nanny and said, “Hey, do you also get the red marks on your belly because of wearing tight underwear?” And you should’ve seen the embarrassed face on my nanny who knows him really well. But, again, that’s an example where it’s a perfectly fair question, and he’s just curious about asking. He had no way of thinking that there is going to be a judgment attached to that question.

And I think that that’s what we learn and what we become fearful of as we grow older. We’re much more aware that there are other people who might judge us in all sorts of ways, and, fundamentally, we want to belong and be part of the group, and so we stop asking questions.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d also love to hear more about, so we’re talking about curiosity, and it’s almost like we’re just assuming and taking for granted that curiosity is good, and I like it, it’s fun, it’s interesting, keeps things spicy and interesting. Could you lay it out for us sort of what difference does it make if you have a team who is highly curious versus highly not curious?

Francesca Gino
Yeah. So, that’s a really important question. There is a business case for curiosity. Curiosity leads to more creative ideas, more innovation. It actually leads to better team performance because the team tends to be much more open in discussing ideas. It leads to conflict resolutions more quickly, which I think is interesting and potentially counterintuitive. And it also leads to broadening of networks.

So, this is the data that I collected in a large study with a Canadian bank where what we found was that if you look at curiosity as a trait, so you have a certain level of curiosity versus not, or higher or lower, and then look at things like, “How do people communicate over email across functions or across departments?” What you see is that the more curious people are, the more they tend to reach out a variety of people in a way that really help them as they move throughout their career, in this case in the bank, but also in performing well in their jobs. So, I think that the outcomes and implications of being curious are actually quite profound.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you.

Francesca Gino
I’ll give you another one that is more recent. It came from the fact that we’re living through a crisis. So, when we’re curious, we are better able to look at stress as something that can enhance our performance rather than finding it to be paralyzing. So, I think that in thinking about this idea of staying agile and transforming ourselves, staying curious is quite important.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then so how do you recommend that we go about continuing keeping curious?

Francesca Gino
I think of curiosity as a turbocharger. And, in fact, back in 2018, I had a book coming out called Rebel Talent, and curiosity is a really big talent that these rebels seem to have. And when I was thinking about what I had observed leaders and the police across organizations do to retain their curiosity, some of the suggestions are very simple. And then, since I’m a scientist, I went off and backed them up with data. But here are some simple ideas.

First of all, adding learning goals for ourselves. So, I think whether in our professional life, sometimes also in our personal lives, we have some form of performance goals for ourselves, or a little mission that we want to accomplish. Adding learning goals can be incredibly helpful not only in making our performance higher, but also in retaining our curiosity.

Pete Mockaitis
And now when we talk about learning goals, I can imagine there’s…what are the best practices in structuring those? Because I could articulate a learning goal many different ways which will have many different implications for when I get to claim victory and how I go about approaching it. So, how do we formulate that ideally?

Francesca Gino
I’m curious now to see what you have in mind. So, I would keep the same timeline that you have for your performance goals so that the two track together, and what we know from theories and a lot of writings around goals is to make them somewhat difficult but within reach. So, having said all of that, if I think about one of my learning goals since this little crisis started was to learn piano. I’ve never played piano before. And the way now that’s happening is with one of my children actually teach me what he knows, and often is just memorizing songs rather than really understanding the philosophy behind it. So, keeping ourselves honest. But, again, even with that caveat, I think that it’s making me ask a lot of questions about something that fundamentally I don’t know in a way that it’s quite positive.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And I imagine that would be some carryovers into other domains. I’m thinking about Einstein and the violin, that was one of his things. And he thought this was absolutely an excellent use of his time and energy and genius, and working with children in particular, because they ask great questions, and they got things moving mentally in other areas.

Francesca Gino
Yup, that is good evidence that often not being entrenched and deeply specialized in a context or in an area of study can be helpful as you’re trying to come up with something creative, because you just have a fresh perspective rather than thinking through the old lenses of looking at that problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s one thing is to set some learning objectives. And it sounds like, to the point of how they’re articulated, maybe it doesn’t matter that much, but you tell me. Like, learn the piano, I mean, I could articulate that in terms of, “I will learn five songs on the piano. I will be able to play songs picturing 16th note triplets on the piano.” Like, we can have all sorts of levels of specificity or depth or not. What do you think?

Francesca Gino
I think that just the general idea of having learning goals is important. Specificity, I think, can help us so that you track your progress, which can be very motivating, so I love that part in what you said, but not necessary per se.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, that’s one practice is the learning objectives. What else?

Francesca Gino
I love the idea of becoming people who actually model inquisitiveness for others. What are the opportunities to ask questions more often without that worry of being judged? In fact, many years ago, I took some improv comedy classes. It was actually a Christmas present for my husband to go to classes together. He hated it at first, but then since the course was 10-week long, he actually got used to it and really got to love it.

But what I’ve learned from improv, one of the lessons which really was an important one, is that curiosity and judgment cannot coexist. I think that it sounds simple but is actually profound. Think about when we’re suggesting ideas in a meeting, or we’re just brainstorming, or we are talking, or we’re disagreeing. I think that curiosity can really be helpful. And when we model it for others, so we’re the first one asking questions, really trying to understand the point of view of the person suggesting the idea, or as a statement whose different from our own, we end up faring much better. And so, I think a lot about, “What are the opportunities where I can ask more questions without the fear of being judged?”

Pete Mockaitis
And let’s talk about that fear for a bit. To what extent is it real versus all in our minds? And is there a way we can clear the air or address it with our counterparts that we’re talking to? How do we tackle it?

Francesca Gino
So, surprisingly to many, asking questions is something that leads to positive outcomes. So, this is a question that my colleagues and I actually studied. And what we found is that when we ask questions in conversations, in meetings, others end up judging us more positively, and they also end up trusting us more and liking us more. And we looked at this in all sorts of context, from meetings at work to speed-dating events. Question-asking does not lead to the type of negative outcomes that we somehow expect to see.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess part of it probably depends on what the question is. My wife and I, we have this recurring joke when we had our first child. There was a class on taking care of your newborn at the hospital, and we just thought it’d be funny to say, “Wait. Time out for a second. I keep hearing us saying the word ‘baby.’ What’s that?” So, I guess that, beyond the ridiculous, like, we all know what a baby is, I guess there’s some kind of a threshold in terms of if the question…I mean, they say there are no stupid questions but there, kind of, are some, you know. But then, again, there’s the judgment. Help me out, Francesca.

Francesca Gino
Yes. So, absolutely, there are limits in the sense of there might, in fact, be questions where if you went through a welcoming process, like the example that you were using, you should know the answer. But I have to say that we often err on the side of not asking where we should ask. What we tend to forget, which I think is quite interesting, is that we feel that you are going to feel the cost of giving us an answer or helping us figure out whatever it is that we’re asking about. And what we forget is that it’s actually flattering for you to be asked.

So, for instance, we’ve looked at this in the context of asking for advice. And what we find is that people feel fearful that, “I’m going to create cost on your time, on maybe a meeting that you don’t want to have, when, in fact, the fact that I’m asking is actually quite flattering to you.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You know, that’s true. And I’m thinking about my buddy Mawi here who’s episode number one. He’s a real mentor and inspiration and friend. And he will often ask me questions, and I think, “You’re so much smarter than I am and better at this business, this industry that we’re in.” But I do, I really do feel flattered when he asks and not at all sort of put upon, so I think that makes sense. So, we like them more, we trust them more, and we feel flattered when they ask the question maybe because we perceive that they are really interested, or really committed, or really think that we have something to offer. Or are there any other sort of explanations or mechanisms by which that result comes to be?

Francesca Gino
So, you are mentioning then that people feel that they have something valuable to offer and that feels good. It doesn’t feel like something negative or something at a cost. So, I am hoping that the evidence that we produce in this discussion is going to help people feel a little bit more comfortable next time that they want to ask or express their curiosity. And, again, I’m not suggesting that they come out with questions if they don’t have any, but what I’m suggesting is that, with authenticity, if there is something that you’re curious about, not to be afraid of being judged.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Okay. So, with that perspective understood, we have a little bit of insulation from the fear just knowing, “Hey, actually, you’d probably be better off asking those questions.” Do you have any additional tips for the fear or things…? Are there any magical phrases you might use to preface your questions that feel like they give you a little bit of cover or can be secure for you?

Francesca Gino
Hmm, it’s interesting. We have not looked at that but I guess giving an explanation for why you’re asking can always be helpful because you’re just giving the other side a little bit more context for where your question is coming from. I should also say that one important application of what we’re talking about in the use of curiosity is in situations where you’re in disagreement with somebody.

And I’ve seen this happening so many times at work, also in family conflict where you’re in a heated situation, we are butting head-to-head, and the thing that we end up telling ourselves is, “Oh, maybe, you’re not as committed as I am to this cause, or to this project. Maybe you’re not as smart as I am or maybe you don’t have the right capabilities as I have for this project in moving this forward.”

And if at that very moment, we remind ourselves of the importance of curiosity, there is a really important shift that happens. Because, let’s imagine, let’s say, okay, now you’re zoned out, you’re as committed as I am to this, or you’re as smart as I am in approaching this, then you’d really start saying, “Then why is it that your view is so different from mine?” And you really want to investigate and seek to understand, and so you’re going to ask a lot of questions that the other side, or the other people involved, are really going to welcome.

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

Francesca Gino
No, the other point to keep in mind is, which has become a reminder for myself, is going through the day with more “What if…?” or “How could we…?” so that you consider alternatives. So, I’ve become pretty good at trying to remind myself, and then hopefully implement the idea of asking, “What could I do?” rather than, “What should I do?” since the ‘could’ retains your curiosity and actually allows you to expand on the possibilities.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, clever. Thank you. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Francesca Gino
“Break, transform, create.” This is a quote that comes from Chef Massimo Bottura, and it’s a great reminder of how we can all benefit from breaking away from tradition, routines, the usual way of working, and transform these routines to create something better in our own success.

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

Francesca Gino
These days one of the pieces of research I’m reminded of, which I love, is the research that Carol Dweck has done on the idea of growth mindset. Thinking of others as people who have a lot to offer and ooze intelligence and competencies can be developed rather than thinking of them as people’s intelligence and competence as fixed. That leads to very different interactions where we get to invest in them and in their development rather than not.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite book?

Francesca Gino
A favorite book is the book called “Yes, And.” It’s a book that Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton from Second City wrote about what it is that we all stand to learn from improv comedy.

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

Francesca Gino
A favorite tool these days is Zoom.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Francesca Gino
As I’m becoming much better at trying to leverage virtual and make it fun.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Francesca Gino
A favorite habit of mine is arriving at a time when I’m sitting down for dinner with my family, my four kids and my husband, and asking my children what are the two or three things that they’re grateful for.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite nugget, something you share that people seem to quote back to you often and you’re known for?

Francesca Gino
I gave it to you already, “Rebelliousness can be constructive rather than destructive.”

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

Francesca Gino
I would point them to either my personal website FrancescaGino.com or my book website RebelTalents.org. The book website has an interesting test potentially for those who listen in that can tell them which type of rebel they are. And if they come out as a pirate, it’s a very good thing.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m picturing the eye patch and the sword and the hat.

Francesca Gino
You’d be surprised. You’d be surprised. It was actually a really interesting organization to study as I was working on the book because, at a time when it was about 200 years before slavery ended in the United States, they were the most diverse organization on the planet. So, just for that, I think they get a lot of credit, especially in a world like the one that we’re living through today. And they also were interestingly organized. So, the crew was in charge of choosing the captain, and the crew could actually rule the captain quite easily if the captain was not behaving well towards the crew.

And, to me, that raises the question, that is one that I ask myself quite often, which is, “Am I the captain that my crew would choose as its leader today?” And you can ask it if you’re a parent, you can ask it if you’re leading a group of people, you can also ask it in relationship to how you relate to your friends, or to your spouse, or to you colleagues.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is some fascinating stuff. I had no idea about this and the history of pirates. Where would you recommend, if there’s a book or a resource I could pick up, to educate myself on pirates?

Francesca Gino
So, there, I’m going to be self-serving since I did a lot of integration across resources as I was working on the book. So, I would read one of the chapters in “Rebel Talent” that talks about the pirates.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m scanning your table of contents right now. Oh, “Becoming a rebel leader: Blackbeard, “flatness,” and the 8 principles of rebel leadership.”

Francesca Gino
That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
Page 191. Thank you. All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Francesca Gino
I would love for people to think about ways in which they can break away from their mold. As I was working on the book, I was surprised by how much courage it takes, because we’re breaking away from tendencies that we all have as human beings, but also how really satisfying and exciting the experience is. So, if you’re like me, after you tried the rebel life, you’d want to go back.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Francesca, this has been fun. I wish you lots of luck in all of your rebellions.

Francesca Gino
Thank you so much.

566: How to Start Focusing and Stop Firefighting with Mike Michalowicz

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Mike Michalowicz shares how to zero in on the most important issues to fix next.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to identify what you need to fix next.
  2. A crucial question you’re forgetting to ask.
  3. The tremendous energy unleashed by providing context for goals.

About Mike

Mike Michalowicz is the entrepreneur behind three multimillion dollar companies and is the author of Profit First, Clockwork, The Pumpkin Plan, and his newest book, Fix This Next: Make the Vital Change That Will Level Up Your Business. Mike is a former small business columnist for The Wall Street Journal and regularly travels the globe as an entrepreneurial advocate.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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Mike Michalowicz Interview Transcript

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

Mike Michalowicz
Pete, it’s my joy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Well, I’m excited. I’ve really enjoyed your audiobooks, and you’re kind of a goofball which I am too, so I think feel free to cut loose here. It’s interesting. We had another guest, Simon Sinek, who dubs you as a top contender for the patron saint of entrepreneurs, which is high praise.

Mike Michalowicz
Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m familiar with some stories of saints, and often they include heroically facing adversity. And one of my favorite stories from you involves a tough night at dinner, and some people coming to your aid. Can you share that with us to frame up what you’re all about?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah, yeah. So, I started my entrepreneurial journey very early in life right after college and had a couple of early wins under my belt. I sold my first tech company. I was in computer technology. My first tech company was a private equity exit. My second company was a Fortune 500 acquired us, and I’m like, “I am hot shit. I know everything,” which, by the way, seems like to be the impetus or the start of a downfall for many a person when we believe we know all. And I was just full of arrogance and ignorance.

Well, I started a third business that I leave off my CV conveniently as an angel investor, and I sucked at it. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought, “Hey, I’m so smart I know everything about business. As long as I’m here, we’re making money.” I started 10 companies, and within a mere six months, all of them were out of business. I was paying bills for businesses that didn’t even exist anymore and, also, just blew money on just arrogance.

The big house, I got a place in Hawaii for our sabbatical, our family sabbatical. I just blew money on cars and all stuff. And it took me two years, I got a call from my accountant, he says, “Mike, you hit rock bottom. I think you should declare personal bankruptcy,” something actually I didn’t do. I thought I was responsible. But, as a consequence, I had to lose my possessions. We lost our house 30 days later, cars, everything.

I came home the night I heard this from my accountant, and had to face my family because I hadn’t been telling them the truth of the struggles. I really did think, you know, I had a bank account that was dwindling at an exponential rate, somehow, someone would come in and save the day and acquire this mess I had created, but nothing happened. And I came home to my family and told them, “We’re done. We lost it all.” And I was sobbing. I was just devastated. And I had to face my wife, and say, “I’m sorry. We’re losing the house, and we’re losing our cars, and we’re losing our possessions.”

My daughter was nine years old at the time, and she’s sitting there, and I said, “I’m so sorry but I can’t afford for you to go to horseback riding lessons.” That was like 25 bucks for a group session. And she stood up and just ran away. Everyone was crying. And she ran away. I thought she was running away from me. She ran away to her bedroom to grab her piggybank, and she ran back down to me as fast as she could, and she says, “Daddy, since you can’t provide for us, please use my money to support us.” I think I’m getting chills just thinking about it.

I’ve said that story so many times it’s still as devastating. I was so ashamed of who I was, and the arrogance, and the ignorance. And then I forced my daughter, my nine-year old daughter, to save me? Well, that triggered years of struggle for me to reconcile that. I actually went through a depression, I drank, and ultimately discovered that that moment actually has become a source of light, a seedling for me, to realize I didn’t know much about entrepreneurship, that I had to fix these things. And that became a spark for being an author.

I write my business books to solve problems not only for others but for my own problems, my own misunderstandings around business, and simplify the journey and, hopefully, prevent others from experiencing the fallacies and the arrogance and ignorance that I did.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is powerful, and thank you for sharing that again with our audience here.

Mike Michalowicz
My joy.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you are renowned as an author for entrepreneurs and small business owners. And in chatting with your publicity folks, I was like, “Well, I love Mike’s flavor, but we’ve got a little bit of a different audience here, which is more so professionals, kind of in the middle of the hierarchy as opposed to the owners.” But there’s a lot of great sort of tools and frameworks and approaches that are totally applicable in your next opus here, “Fix This Next.” So, can you orient us a little bit in terms of what’s the book about and why is it helpful?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah. So, what I did is I wanted to figure out, “Is there a common DNA or structure for businesses?” And I’m convinced I found it. And it’s something that we all can use regardless of our title or role. We all have a responsibility for the health of the business because collectively it moves us altogether. So, what I did was I wanted to see if there’s a common DNA.

And I, first, started looking at humanity ourselves – me, you, everyone listening in. If you look at the essence of who we are, we’re identical. If you peel back the stuff we judge, the skin, the height, male, female, and we look at the essence of it, the makeup is basically the same. If I was having a heart attack, the doctor wouldn’t say to me, “Where’s your heart? Do you keep it in your foot? Is it in your ear?” No. The heart is in the same place for all humanity, so they know how to operate on us.

Well, the same is true for business. If we peel back the skin of the business, a manufacturer versus a professional services company, or vice versa, we will find there’s a common structure, that’s what I call the business hierarchy of needs. The business hierarchy of needs, I translated from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which defines human needs.

So, this is a quick session on Maslow. Maslow studied human needs and discovered and argues that all of us have base physiological needs. We need to breathe water, I’m sorry, breathe water. Breathe air, drink water, eat food. And if those needs aren’t being satisfied, then we can’t survive. But once they’re satisfied, we go to the next level which is safety needs. We need protection from the elements or harm. Once that’s satisfied, we move onto the longing, the need for relationships, and so forth. And we keep on climbing up ultimately to self-actualization.

But, if at any time, a base-level need is not satisfied, let’s say you and I are having this conversation, we consider it intellectual conversation, we consider it as part of self-actualization, if I start choking on the food I’m eating, well, all of a sudden, my Maslow hierarchy brings me right down to the physiological need of getting that out of my throat.

Well, our business has a hierarchy of needs too. Real quickly, they are sales, that’s the foundation, that’s the creation of oxygen for business; profit, the creation of stability for an organization, without it a business can’t sustain; order, the creation of efficiency, consistency; then there’s impact, which is the creation of transformation, it’s where we have service to our clients beyond the transaction, beyond the commodity; and the highest level is legacy, the creation of permanence, where there’s no dependency on the people that are running the operation, the company is designed for its continued service, and others can come and go, but the business lives on permanently.

The difference between Maslow’s hierarchy and the business hierarchy, while they’re very similar, is one great distinction. Maslow talked about human needs and how we are biologically, neurologically wired into our needs. If you and I, Pete, are walking down a dark alley, and we get the creeps, like someone is going to kill us, what will we do? We will, hopefully, turn around and walk out. And we should because our senses – sight, smell, touch – those senses are triggering, “There’s danger here.”

But the thing is we, as business professionals, are not neurologically wired into our business. We say we trust our gut. I think this is what we got to do. I can feel it. But, really, we need the empirical data to evaluate exactly what the true needs in our business, focus on that, resolve that, and then move onto the next need, resolve that, and so forth, and continue to progress forward.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, certainly. And so then, let’s talk about the particulars for how that really can be transformational for folks. I’d love to hear some tales about some professionals, some organizations, who applied some of this rigor to great effect.

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah. So, I’ll share a coffee shop that does this, and the team rallied around it with what’s going on. As we’re recording this, with the economic crisis, COVID, this company is responding. And let’s evaluate the business hierarchy needs just a little bit further. So, the business hierarchy needs, the five levels, the foundational need is sales. Now, again, the sales is the creation of cash. If your product, your service, your company, your division does not have consistent sales, is not bringing oxygen into that division, so we need to address that first.

And you address it to the adequate levels of supporting profit. That’s actually the simplest base question, “Do I have enough sales to support profitability? If I don’t, we have a sales issue. If we do have sales so we have profit, but we’re not profitable, we actually have a profit issue. Do we have enough margin? Are we controlling the debt we have, and so forth?” Once profit is addressed, we ask ourselves, “Is it adequate to support the layer above it, which is order, efficiency?”

Now, one argument I want to make here is that we’re not ignoring efficiency. You have to have some order and efficiencies in our sales process when we’re doing that. You have to have some system for profitability. I’m just saying this one becomes your concentrated effort. You don’t ignore sales when you’re working on order. You continue it but they must work in relation.

When you get to the order level, this is where it becomes our concentration to resolve efficiency. Now, actually, let me start off with this story because I think it’s the best. This is Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, it’s in the SEC conference. I mean, talking about an organization, thousands and thousands, actually, I think tens of thousands of employees, a massive organization. They implemented the business hierarchy of needs in their own form. They did this before I wrote the book, but they’re far in this process inherently.

And what they noticed back in, I believe, it was the early 2000s, that the school had noticeably less applicants than any of the other SEC schools. So, the first thing we do is, when we have a problem, we ask ourselves, “Where does this reside in this hierarchy?” Well, application is as similar as prospects. They have less prospects, and that’s a sales-level need. So, the company identified, “Okay, we have a need in the sales level, the most foundational level of the business hierarchy.”

Then they asked, “What’s the triggers behind it?” And they went through a process called OMEN. I write about it in the “Fix This Next” book, but OMEN stands for Objective, Measurement, Evaluation frequency, Nurture. It simply means identify what the problem is, measure the process, regularly revisit it, and tweak and change things as we move along, nurture.

They identified this challenge of not getting enough prospects, and they start interviewing prospects of why they aren’t signing up. And they find that the primary reason is the campus ain’t so pretty. One of the biggest determining factors of a student picking a college happens within the first five minutes of visiting a campus. It’s their first impression. And back then, Ole Miss didn’t have such a pretty campus. So, they realized, “We have an issue.”

They then went to their frontline, the people that beautify the campus, the landscape maintenance team, and they said, “We need a more attractive campus. What do we need to do?” Well, interesting, and this happens sometimes in the business hierarchy that needs get interlinked. And the maintenance team said, “Well, we want to do beautification projects. We don’t have enough time.” Now, their campus is a thousand plus acres, that’s a lot of acreage to maintain, and they only have a crew of a certain size, and so Ole Miss was forced upon a decision, “Do we double or triple our team, or do we enable our team to find alternative solutions?”

Well, it wasn’t in their budget to triple the maintenance team so the team had to figure it out. And one thing they noticed is the biggest time-consuming element, now this is an efficiency thing, an order level, one of the challenges at the order level was how long it took to mow or maintain the properties. When they were mowing, the fastest way to mow a property is to go in a straight line. But when they were coming upon trees, they had to navigate around the low-hanging limbs. When they got to a mulch pattern, that was in a square, they had to kind of jostle around that pattern. And when a garbage can was in the grass, they had to kind of go around and get out with the weed whacker.

So, the team said, “If we want to increase efficiency here, cut the limbs off the tree so we can go right under them, 10 feet high,” which, by the way, is a great way to beautify trees, they raised the limbs. They said, “Change the square patterns and angular patterns of mulch always to an oval so we can do sweeping motions right around it and continue on.” They made decisions to increase efficiency which allowed them now to maintain the property in half the time, freeing up the other half of their time to work on beautification of the campus.

Well, fast-forward only a mere few years, Ole Miss became the most beautiful campus. It has the reputation for the most beautiful campus in the SEC conference, perhaps in all of the nation, one of the top-rated campuses on attraction, on its beauty. And you won’t be surprised, they had an exponential increase in their prospects, their applications. So, that’s an example where leadership identified, “We have a problem.” But instead of just saying, “We got to fix the way this place looks,” they looked at the hierarchy, and said, “This is a sales issue. Where do prospects first enter the campus?” That was their first beautification project was near the administration building where students will come in, the students center, and so forth.

They spoke with the frontline, the people that are closest to the problem, and got their direction. And in this case, they killed two birds with one stone. They brought efficiency to their organization at the order level while addressing a sales issue. So, that’s an example of how this business hierarchy of needs is a great way to diagnose and pinpoint what we need to work on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is awesome. And, boy, way back in the day, we interviewed Jeff McManus, who leads up the team.

Mike Michalowicz
Oh, yeah, Jeff is the leader of that team. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, yeah, he shared some more elements to the story, so that was fun. Well, so then, I imagine then in a business or an organization, you’re going to come up with dozens or hundreds of problems or opportunities, as my favorite reference, that you’d notice that could benefit from some attention. So, if you’re thinking about the hierarchy of needs, how do you determine who wins? I mean, do the sales issues always win because they’re at the base of the needs? Or, how do we kind of navigate and triage that?

Mike Michalowicz
Great question. As opportunities or challenges present themselves, you always address the base level first because if the base is compromised, the entire foundation of the structure is. I set a reference to that coffee shop so let me explain how they did this. This coffee shop was growing, and multiple team members, they built a second location, they then opened a roastery facility where they’re preparing coffee. And what they noticed is they’ve been in business for 13 years, and rapidly growing coffee companies. It’s called Cottonwood Coffee, by the way, in South Dakota.

And the leader of that organization, his name is Jacob, noticed that when he looked at the business hierarchy of needs, that they had some sales issues and prospect attractions and so forth. But, also, said, “We’ve been in business for 13 years. We’re one of the most established providers in this area. We’re beyond sales issues. We’re really about impact and legacy of being of service to our community.” And he tried to continue the focus there but the business kept on kind of getting stalled in its growth. Well, finally, he said, “You know what, maybe it is a sales issue.” And he went back to the community they were serving and how they were serving them. And by getting back to the base, all of a sudden, that opened up sales and it allowed them to build up the rest of the structure.

Picture this like building an actual structure building that has five levels. If you want to build a tall building with a big top and you want to have a huge impact, you can’t have a little needlepoint structure below it. It’ll collapse on that. It won’t be strong enough It’s like a pyramid. You must have a foundation that’s adequate and substantial to support the level above it. And that level must be adequate to support the next. If, at any time, we want to grow up stronger at a higher level, we need to make sure the foundation is appropriate to support it. So, this is not a ladder. You don’t just climb up and aspire to be at the top. You cycle through, constantly strengthening the base and the lower levels to support the higher levels.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m hearing that. I guess I’m just imagining an organization in which it’s sort of like, “Okay, we got 60 problems/opportunities. They’re sprinkled across all of these dimensions, and some of them fall into sales.” So, I think it’s a good argument that you got to handle that before to really kind of flourish and have that foundation. I guess I’m thinking, in a way, you know, hey, sales, everything could always be better. So, how do you go about maybe doing the data collection or the benchmarking to say, “Oh, I thought our sales were fine. Oh, but maybe they’re not. I thought our profits were fine. Oh, but maybe they’re not”? Because I think they could always be better. So, what do you think of that?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah, everything could always be better, but it can only be better in relation. So, the simple question, and there is no specific number I can share, but what I can say is that, “Is the base adequate to support enough and substantial elements to the next level? Is sales strong enough to support our target and goal and profit?” And a lot of this is just communication.

I’m surprised at how many divisions. We have some public companies that implemented the business hierarchy of needs, and these divisions are taking on without consideration of the overall business hierarchy of needs. So, there’s a greater business hierarchy, and then within each division becomes its own little hierarchy so we got to work in relation to that. So, what’s the major corporate goal and need specifically?

Then we look back and we say, “In our division or in our field of responsibility, do I have adequate sales to support the profit expectation for me? And if so, then I actually have a profit issue if profit isn’t there. It’s not a sales issue.” Sadly, I see businesses go, “You know, we just need to sell more. We’re going to sell our way out of this.” It’s the most common thing I see from business leaders, and it’s one of the biggest mistakes because sales do not translate to profit. I see businesses sell unprofitable items. And while their sales dollars go up, the profit margins are getting thinner and thinner, and the business is actually struggling more. So, it’s all in relation.

We need clarity from the next one who we’re connected to, the next leader that we’re working with, and, “What are the proper expectations to drive your needs? What are the sales expectations? What degree of efficiency? How many resources can we use to get this stuff done? And what are the turnaround times?” Those are questions we have to have clarity on. In that way, we’re speaking up the chain all the way to the leader or leaders of our organization to understand the needs and they drive them back down. So, it works in relation and it works through communication.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then it sounds like there’s expectation setting and communicating that’s going forward.

Mike Michalowicz
Oh, yeah, of course, right? It’s funny, I say of course and yet it doesn’t happen. I’m shocked at how many businesses have arbitrary goals.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s what I’m getting at is the arbitrariness. Like, how do we un-arbitrary them and make them based on something real?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah. And the similar question is, “Why and how is this serviced?” I worked for a Fortune 500 after they got acquired, and I was blown away by the lack of communication at least around goal-setting. There’s a lot of communication around red tape but there was not a lot of communication around goal-setting. And so, when I was told, “Hey, Mike, your department has to do X.” I said, “Why?” And they’re like, “Because that’s what we told you.” I’m like, “But what’s the reasoning behind it?” And that started an understanding of the importance of how it serves the company in a greater whole.

Now, in context, it actually empowered me in that division. I only worked there for a year before I went back out and started my own business, but then it gave me context of why I need to achieve, what I need to achieve. That’s a very empowering thing, so get the context.

Pete Mockaitis
I love that so much because when you ask why, they’re like, “What?” It’s like, “No one’s ever really asked me that before, Mike. I just got accustomed to telling people what they need to do, and then they try to do it.”

Mike Michalowicz
They just do it. Yeah, it was shocking. And part of it, too, I think was just history, “That’s what we always do. We just pick 10% higher.” “Well, why not pick 50% higher?” “Well, because we never do that.” So, that context. And it isn’t to be challenging in the confrontational sense. It’s we’re challenging in seeking clarity. And just because, in that case, the leader of our department wasn’t telling me that, didn’t mean it was right to ignore that, that I had a responsibility to step up and ask, which made us both better leaders, I think, as a result.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s cool. So, then let’s zoom into the professional who’s somewhere in the middle of things, and they then communicated a target, “We need to reduce the manufacturing waste rate by 10% or the conversion rate of clients needs to be increased by 10%,” it’s like something. And maybe have a good conversation about, “Well, why?” “Oh, I see how that makes sense, interrelates and fits with the other dimensions.” How do you go about making that happen in terms of determining what to fix next within a narrower scope of your responsibilities?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah, so this is where we present the hierarchy of needs. So, you talked about conversion, you talked about manufacturing, the factor of efficiency.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, so two separate kinds of…

Mike Michalowicz
Two separate things. One was an order level; one was a sales level. So, what we do is we go back to our department leads and say, “Listen, I’ve been given direction in this hierarchy, and there’s two different demands.” The default is we always go to the base. But do we understand, is that a necessity? Because the leader can be giving you arbitrary goals. Do we have adequate sales to, first, drive that efficiency and will have a greater impact on our business? Or do need the sales in place first in order to make the investment in building the efficiency? So, we have to figure out the sequence.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Like, you might be too small to make investing in the super cool technology or robot, but what?

Mike Michalowicz
Oh, my God. I see companies that have so much potential efficiency but so low flow because it becomes actually less efficient. I worked with a major playset manufacturer, one of the bigger ones there, over $100 million in revenue, and what’s so fascinating is they had this massive equipment, and the complexity in setting it up was so time-consuming. Now, they had the demand. Once that system was set, it was just ring out process to process, so the gain was in more volume. But if they just placed one playset through that, the 16 hours of setting up, someone could hand-paint three playsets on their own. It’d be faster, actually, to do hand painting. So, this stuff always works in relation.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great perspective there. Okay. Well, then I’d love to hear, in terms of sort of what’s the alternative, like if we’re not thinking in this way, I guess it’s not arbitrary and you’re not motivated and inspired because you’re not connected to the why. You could misallocate your resources and attention on things that don’t really matter. Could you sort of share with us kind of what does life look like when you’re doing this versus not doing this? And what are some of the best and worst practices to making sure you’re doing this well?

Mike Michalowicz
So, with the business hierarchy of needs and the fix this next process, the first thing we always talk about is what’s called lifestyle congruence. It is the base of motivation, “How does this serve you? If you do something, how does it serve you?” And this is how all humanity is wired. So, there’s more than just the organizational needs. It’s how the organizational needs translate to the service of you? Does it give you an opportunity to climb the corporate ladder? Does it give you actually more time, more free time? What objectives are you serving on your own? So, it’s that interpersonal relationship.

Without the hierarchy of needs, without the understanding, I’ve seen business professionals get into a very much an action-reaction mode, meaning there’s some trigger, a request, a demand, that incessant string of email coming in, and we just put out fire after fire after fire. Something comes in, we react to it, but there’s no contemplation.

So, the business hierarchy of needs, the differentiator is an action, a trigger that happens, but now there’s contemplation between the action-reaction. There’s an intentional pregnant pause to say, “How is this of service to the organization? How is this congruent with what I’m trying to set as my own objectives?” And now we move much more deliberately.

The business hierarchy of needs helps us focus on the next impactful thing to do. Without it, people focus on the next apparent thing, and there’s a constant stream of apparent issues and so it becomes a randomization. Those divisions, those leaders often make a few steps forward, and a few steps back, and a few steps forward. The ones who are deliberately identifying the most impactful thing and act on it are much more effective in moving forward consistently, and growing to their objectives.

Pete Mockaitis
Right on. Well, can you walk us through maybe a couple more examples of there’s someone, and they are…we got a set of responsibilities for a division, and then they are doing some real smart prioritization of fixing the right thing next.

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah, so I was working with a corporation which I want to leave nameless, but since the COVID incident, they’ve lost a massive volume of customers. Actually, the experience, it’s more massive churn. They’re losing customers but they’re gaining. And I may or may not have said to the board of this company, maybe I just gave it away there, I said to the board of this company, and we had an impromptu discussion. The company was working on the impact level.

Now, by all means, you don’t ignore sales. They had sustainable sales and it continues to grow on its own but where the concentrated effort need to be was on impact of being great and great service. All of a sudden, with this shift and this drop in clients, because these clients were not business or a B2B business, and these other clients coming in, now all attention went to sales. The leadership team redirected their focus and said, “How do we cater to this new market? How do we serve these customers that are leaving us almost at a whim because of fear? How do we protect them and retain the core function?” They provided very necessary function for these businesses. Without them, they may go out of business. You need this function. And then, “How do we re-address it?”

So, very quickly on the dime, they saw an issue present itself just when this case broke, or they noticed the metrics, the empirical data of a drop of customers, and all leadership looked there and said, “We will achieve legacy and impact. We have been satisfying that but, for now, we can’t stop building that third and fourth floor of the building. We got to get back in the basement because we have a crack in the foundation,” and leadership went down there, they responded very rapidly as a result. And the story will reveal itself over the next months, perhaps a year or two ahead, but their quick response and deliberate response has put a tourniquet on potential massive loss if they just said, “You know what, we’re going to just continue to focus at this level and not redirect our attention.”

And I think they would’ve been made aware of it because they always looked at the business hierarchy of needs and are asking, “Where do we need our attention now?” They’re responding quicker than if they weren’t considering that hierarchy.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love it if you can give us, are there any sort of shortcuts or really kind of quick questions or indicators or acid tests that might make you say, “Aha! I have a hunch that I need to focus my energies over here.”

Mike Michalowicz
Yes. So, quick indicator is if you’re taking on debt, if you have increasing demand on budgets, and you don’t have increasing sales, so if debt is increasing in excess of sales and profit, that’s a massive indicator that we actually have a profit issue, there’s a margin issue in the organization. One of the shortcut techniques that I love I see companies implementing right now is in repositioning. If an offering, if you are not buying an offering, to try to sell harder, particularly at the macroeconomics that’s occurring now, it’s not usually a right response. We’re using a technique called one step prior.

Here’s what it is. You look at your final offering. I’ll just use the restaurant because probably everyone on this call has experiences with a restaurant. When you go to a restaurant and you sit down, they deliver food to your table. That’s the end product. But if we look one step prior to that, well, what are they doing? They’re carrying the food to you, they’re delivering it. Well, that’s an offering in itself, the delivery of food, and some restaurants are responding that way. What happens one step prior to that? Well, there’s a preparation of food. A restaurant could make that an offering, make it a new product by recording the 10 most popular recipes and deliver that as a new product offering. What happens one step prior to that? Well, there’s the procurement of raw materials, the inventory, the meats and vegetables. Maybe they can sell that.

So, I see organizations reconsidering if they’re to stop in sales, or you some empirical data with a drop off, one option, too, is reconsider the packaging in the first place, and that’s a real simple shortcut to do that.

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

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah. So, the last thing I just want to mention is, well, there’s a resource for you, if I can share that, and there’s a process. So, I’ll do the process first, it’s called OMEN, it stands for Objective, Measurement, Evaluation frequency, and Nurture. Once we identify what to work on, you can use OMEN as a simple structure to measure and ensure the progress, the results you want.

Then there’s a resource that I’m encouraging people to use because it’s totally free and it’s a quick evaluation for your division, your business. It’s at FixThisNext.com. So, if you go to FixThisNext.com, you could go on a free evaluation. You can take a 5-minute, this is a series of questions, to really pinpoint what to work on next. And there’s no download. The results appear on the screen, and you can take action on it. So, it’s a good compass or guidance tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Thank you. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Mike Michalowicz
Oh, I have it above my desk at home, and I’m going to bring a big one and put it in our hallway here at our office, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” In my final assessment of business and life, the most successful people are the ones who are most joyous, it’s the ones who truly are simply themselves, and allow the business to be a platform to be more of themselves.

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

Mike Michalowicz
Right now, I’m studying quantum physics, and I’m studying this concept of [31:47] but basically that we’re in a box universe. Actually, that’s not even the right term but that all time has happened simultaneously. So, the past, the present, and the future has already all occurred. It’s all available. It’s time slicing effectively, and so it’s a mind wrap. I’ve been studying it intensely and really trying to wrap my head around it, and it’s changing our perspective of life itself.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! Could you point us to a book, a resource, to get in that?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah. Well, Stephen Hawking has some good resource around that. “Simple Answers to Big Questions” is a good starting point, and then the BBC has some really great basic teachings in some of these ethereal concepts.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book in general?

Mike Michalowicz
Well, I say current one, it’s appealing to me, it’s called “100 Days of Rejection” by Jia Jiang, I think, is his last name. And it’s just this guy who studied the power of intentionally being rejected. It’s really a cool concept.

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

Mike Michalowicz
A favorite tool? We use a tool called Voxer here in our office for rapid communication. It’s a really cool way to batch communication and keep a record of communication. I think, particularly, in the virtualization of business that’s really being enforced now, you have to, that we need a new way to have still a semi-tactile experience and engage, and this has superseded voicemail or email. It’s just a better form of communication for us called Voxer.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think my friend Lisa who’s also on the podcast, Lisa Cummings, loves Voxer. And how about a favorite habit, something that helps you be awesome?

Mike Michalowicz
Well, every morning, I exercise. And after that, I do a singing bowl. It’s a bowl that you hit and you can rub a stick on it, and it rings. And I use that for meditation or prayer time. It’s just a great way for me to put thoughts out into our world and universe, and it’s a great way to sense relief too.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you move the bowl and do you say anything or just think or…?

Mike Michalowicz
No. So, a singing bowl, it’s like a bowl, like a cereal bowl made of metal. You tap a stick on it and it makes a chime sound. And then, as you move the stick around, the vibrations continue so the chime actually gets louder and louder, and you can make it softer, and there’s ways to change directions on the chime. And the visualization I use, is it puts out sound waves or vibrations into the world, and so as I have my thoughts, and I put thoughts out for the goodness of humanity, of people, health, I can see it visually going out. So, it’s kind of a cool visualization tool and an audio tool.

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

Mike Michalowicz
You know, one thing that’s been really powerful is “People speak the truth through their wallets, not their words.” And I’ve used that as an asset. It’s measure people by their action, particularly when we’re in a business. Are they willing to spend or not? Because if they’re saying, “We support this. We love it,” and they don’t spend, they don’t support it. They don’t love it.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve lived that a few times.

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah.

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

Mike Michalowicz
So, you can go to FixThisNext.com to do that evaluation. And if you want to learn more about my research of business and business operations, you can go to MikeMichalowicz.com. But here’s the deal, Pete, no one can spell Michalowicz so I have a shortcut. It’s Mike Motorbike, as in the motorcycle, it’s my nickname in high school, so I still own it. So, MikeMotorbike.com. And if you go there, all my research is available for free on blogs and podcasts. I also have my books there. I used to write for the Wall Street Journal, and it’s all for free at MikeMotorbike.com.

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

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah, listen, this is the time to step up. And the world kind of got punched all business leaders in the face right now, and it’s also asking you to turn up the heat because we need the economy to keep going. So, the call to action is really a call to arms. It’s time for us as business professionals to step up, step forward, and start kicking some ass.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Mike, thank you. This has been a lot of fun. I wish you all kinds of luck as you’re fixing things next.

Mike Michalowicz
Exactly. Thank you.

565: How to Get Out of a Rut and into Your Flow with Jonah Sachs

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Jonah Sachs says: "Stop thinking of yourself as an expert. Start thinking of yourself as an explorer."

Jonah Sachs discusses how a simple shift in the way we think helps us achieve more.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why the experts are often the most unreliable
  2. How to make any task more exciting and engaging
  3. How to turn anxiety into fuel for creativity

About Jonah

Jonah Sachs is an author, speaker and viral marketing pioneer. Jonah helped to create some of the world’s first, and still most heralded, digital social change campaigns. As co-founder of Free Range Studios, his work on Amnesty International’s blood diamonds viral film was seen by 20 million people and was delivered to every member of congress, helping drive the passage of the Clean Diamond Act.

He later helped to create “The Story of Stuff,” which, viewed by over 60 million people, marked a turning point in the fight to educate the public about the environmental and social impact of consumer goods. Jonah’s work and opinions have been featured in The New York TimesThe Washington PostCNNFOX NewsSundance Film FestivalNPR. Sachs also pens a column for Fast Company, which named him one of today’s 50 most influential social innovators.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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Jonah Sachs Interview Transcript

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

Jonah Sachs
Hey, thanks for having me, Pete. It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m really excited to dig into your wisdom. And you’ve got an interesting turn of a phrase – unsafe thinking. What does this mean?

Jonah Sachs
It’s just the idea that if the world is changing around us, our careers are changing around us, business is changing, that what once was safe, relying on what we once knew, what we’ve always done, what’s worked for us so far, is actually incredibly dangerous, that if the world changes we need to change with it. And so, trying to help people get out of that sense that they need to seek safety and really jump in in a smart way to unsafe thinking, which is about kind of breaking all your own rules.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Well, so that’s a fun phrase there because unsafe, we think, “Hey, safety is important. We don’t want to do anything that’s not safe.” But here you are advocating, “Unsafe thinking is what’s up.”

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, definitely. I’ve just had my own personal experience of running a business for 15 years that eventually I did sell. But going through this process of being on the wild cutting edge of viral video in the early 2000s, and then getting into that place that so many businesses get once they reach a certain level of success that so many people get to, which is you’re just trying to recreate what you did before. But the internet changes so fast, and every industry changes so fast these days, that that falling back on what you know what you know is just deadly. And it became deadly for my business. And so, I kind of took this quest to learn how to break through and to teach myself new ways to think.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so, can you share, specifically, you say it became deadly, how did that unfold?

Jonah Sachs
Yeah. So, I started this company called Free Range Studios when I was 22 years old with my best friend from high school, and we had no idea what we were doing basically. We were doing social change, advertising, and somebody once asked us, “Can you make an internet video?” We’d never seen an internet video before back in 2000 but we figured we’d give it a try. And I think that kind of beginner’s luck, that kind of just joy of doing what we love to do, really helped us break into an industry or start an industry in a way. We were getting 20, 40, 50 million views on some of these socially-conscious activism videos.

And then, as time went on, and we tried, more and more people were coming to us, saying, “Can you reproduce that video you make? Can you make me something like that?” We had 35 employees, we were trying to churn it out kind of like a factory. And what I was noticing first was, “Look, we need a lot more structure here. We need a lot more rules. We need a lot more ways of getting people to just do what we know works.” And the more rules I put in place and the more management consultants I worked with, the less fun everything became, and the less excitement there was in the work, and, frankly, the less creative the work was.

And I kept thinking, “All right. Well, how do I put better rules in place? Or how do I discipline people more to get them to just be creative?” And I realized at some moment when people started quitting, when I just looked at our work and I was like, “Yeah, this looks like the same stuff we were doing five years ago,” that all those rules and processes were actually getting in the way of creative breakthrough. And I didn’t know how to get out of it. It was actually a really difficult life moment for me. Really depressing and I doubted myself.

And so, I started reading neurobiology texts, social sciences, and asking how people that I really admired how they were able to break out of these ruts. And I found that almost everybody who was successful got to this point at some point, what makes them continue to be successful is they found a way to break out of it, and that’s what I was really after when I was doing the research for this book.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, speaking of research, I’d love it if you could share some of the most hard-hitting studies and numbers associated with the benefits of stepping out and doing some more unsafe thinking.

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, certainly. So, one of my favorites is they did a bunch of research on expertise, and they did kind of a broad study of about 20,000 expert predictions, and they found that the most vaunted experts over 10 years in each of their fields in business, in politics, in invention in business, were worse than dart-throwing monkeys at predicting what was going to happen in the future. So, they were worse than random chance at making predictions. And how could that be?

Well, they went a level deeper and they found that the more you were quoted on TV, the more social currency you had, the more likely you were to actually be even more wrong than your average expert. So, experts tend to be less accurate in making predictions than someone who’s just a complete beginner in many fields when the world is changing quickly around them. Not only that, the worst thing you can do is believe yourself to be an expert.

Once you believe you’re an expert, then you get even more stupid. So, in a couple of controlled studies, they showed that people who first said that they knew a lot about financial terms, primed themselves to then say that they knew what the meaning of fake financial terms were. So, they would ask them a bunch of terms, and say, “Are you familiar with all these terms?” And some of them were completely fake. The people who claimed that they knew more were the ones who were fooling themselves into believing and too proud to say, “Oh, I’ve never heard of that.”

So, basically, as we gain expertise, we gain also the ability to have impact in our field, and so we start to move up this curve of impact and quality. But at a certain point, most people start to go back down. It’s kind of an inverted U. And you get to the top of that U the minute you believe that you’ve become an expert.

And so, what I learned from that is that you have to break out of that sense that you know what you’re doing. You have to break out of that sense of clinging to what you bring to the table, what maybe people are paying you for, they’re looking for expertise so they’re paying you to have the answers. Really, in a world that’s changing quickly, you have to have more questions. And so, I looked for research on how that actually works. How do you actually break yourself out of that expert’s trap? And there’s a couple of things that do that.

One is kind of humiliating yourself, getting used to the idea of acting and showing yourself to be a beginner and to be an explorer rather than an expert. I tell the story of a CEO of a 56,000-person company. The company was going kind of down the tube when he was brought in. He knew he didn’t have the answers for it. He brought together 5,000 of his employees in an arena, and this is in India where kind of CEOs are known to be sort of emperors in a way or thought to be. And instead of giving his presentation, he started doing this Bollywood dance.

And he was kind of a heavy middle-aged guy, he’s sweating profusely, he’s a terrible dancer, and the arena is kind of rocking it but no one is dancing with him, and by the end, everyone is kind of laughing and wondering what’s going on, and he kind of just sits down and he starts to give the presentation. And he basically said, from that moment, he was able to pull himself down off that pedestal. He was able to admit that he didn’t have all the answers. He was actually asked by the employees then to go give the same presentation to everyone in the company.

So, when you do whatever you have to, to break that sense that you stand above, you start to break that expert’s trap. Other things you can do is engaging in fields where you know nothing. We’re so specialized these days in our work, and we’re so desiring to kind of keep going where we know. If you break out and start to…I think singing lessons is something I’m terrible at, but I do it because I begin to get more creative by stepping into a field in which I have no expertise. People who live abroad for six months are shown to be more creative than people who haven’t had those experiences.

So, the whole take away from that piece of research, which I really love, was stop thinking of yourself as an expert. Start thinking of yourself as an explorer. And the weird thing about it is that when you do that, you will find that people who follow you will not have less confidence in you. There’s a lot of studies now that show that people prefer leaders who are humble and self-effacing to those who act like they have all the answers.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, there’s so much good stuff in there, and that really resonates in terms of like experts and predictions. Like, I can’t help but shake my head when I’m reading financial predictions stuff, it’s just like, “Well, you sound smart because you’re using all the words, and you have a theory, and it kind of adds up that, okay, that theory might indeed result in those financial results.” But, in practice, it’s like Back to the Future or something. It’s like if you could really predict like that, you would just be crazy rich and it’s unrealistic.

Jonah Sachs
That is true. That is true.

Pete Mockaitis
So, okay. Well, so then that’s really interesting.

Jonah Sachs
Those people wouldn’t have to be writing books.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Right.
Well, so that’s great in terms of, especially, when you think you’re the expert then you’re in even more trouble because you’re not, I guess, seeking the dis-confirmatory – is that a word? The evidence that goes against the expertise…

Jonah Sachs
Yup, dis-confirmatory. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
…that’s there.

Jonah Sachs
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then let’s get into it in terms of how should we go about building in the practices so we’re engaging in unsafe thinking and reaching wise decisions as frequently as possible?

Jonah Sachs
Yeah. Well, the book is a long, long exploration of how we do that with kind of six or seven main areas we can do it in. And I can jump to a couple more of the ways that we start actually stepping into those practices. Before we do, I do want to also say that we live in a world now where this has also become this sort of negative feeling about experts in certain realms where I’m not arguing for the idea that, for instance, in the middle of this COVID crisis we shouldn’t listen to what doctors and scientists have to say.

We still, of course, live in a world where gaining information, education, understanding your environment is incredibly important. It’s just that even those doctors and experts perform better when they don’t hold themselves up to have all the answers, when they’re constantly in that curious mode. So, I’m not saying, “Just go listen to your uncle about what to do to treat a pandemic,” but I am saying that the more humble you are as an expert, the more flexible you’re going to be out in your environment.

But, yeah, let’s look at a couple other things that we can do to be more creative and to be more flexible in our thinking. One thing that I found that was just incredibly fascinating and really helped me break out of a few of my traps was this idea of attuning the level of challenge that you have to the level of competency you have. And that’s so often what gets us stuck. When we reach an impasse, and we want to fall back on what we’ve always known, and we find it’s not working, that’s often because our skills are not perfectly tuned yet to the challenge that we’re taking on.

So, if you want to understand this, you look at kind of motivation, right? And there’s been a lot of work done on motivation, and you probably heard some of this stuff about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. They used to think that people were only motivated by rewards like getting raises, making more money, status, all that kind of stuff. But then about 20 years ago, they started to really realize that there’s more deep motivations that people carry with them, that when you actually give them rewards at times, they start to be less motivated.

There are some interesting studies that show that young children who are asked to do art projects are more creative when you don’t offer them candy for who’s going to make the best piece of art. So, that’s called intrinsic motivation. But we often run out of intrinsic motivation when the going gets tough, and that’s when we go back to our stereotypical thinking, and that’s when we begin to really fail.

So, where do you draw that motivation from? Well, usually we think of intrinsic motivation coming from things like, “Oh, I have a passion for the work that I’m doing,” or, “Oh, I’m an artist,” or, “I’m an inventor,” and yet we all have so many tasks we have to go through that are not necessarily intrinsically motivating. Any piece of building a career is going to be of varying degrees of excitement. We have to do them all well to make our careers work.

So, how do we keep that motivation and that creativity up? Well, that’s where this theory called flow theory really becomes important. This researcher named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, you’ll never be able to spell it, I had to train myself to say it, but he was a rock climber, and he began to ask himself this question, which was, “Why do I go out there, nearly break my bones, rip up my fingertips, kind of give up all my money in time so that I can try to get to the top of a mountain from which I’m just going to come right back down? Where’s the motivation coming from in that?”

And he began to form an early theory, which is now one of the best-tested creativity theories, which is that people, when given a challenge that’s just at the edge of their skills, will tune in and almost obsessively work on that problem. It’s why people play so many video games because the video game is always just a little bit better than you are, and it never gets too far ahead, and it never comes too far behind.

So, when you find yourself in a situation where your motivation is beginning to flag, you’re probably out of flow. You’ll know you’re in flow because you’re working for 12 hours and you hardly notice it, or you just can’t wait to get back to that project. You know you’re out of flow when you’re procrastinating, you’re putting it off, and you’re phoning it in. So, what do you do? It’s not really the task itself. It really has to do with whether your skills are just being pressed and just at the lower level of the challenge itself.

And so, what I ask people to do, and which I find to be extremely effective, is, “Look at that thing that you’ve been trying to do, look at that thing you’re procrastinating, either it’s not challenging enough for you, therefore, you’re getting bored by it and becoming rote. So, how could you change the way that you do it so that you gamify it, in a sense, you add challenge to it? Or, on the other hand, it might be a little too far beyond your skillset to do it well. In which case, even when you’re in a hurry, it really makes sense to step back and brush up those skills.” Again, that’s where we go to breaking that ego of the expert, and saying, “I got to learn something here.”

So, the next time that you’re finding yourself flagging and losing motivation, I would really try to chart where your skills are, where are challenges, and where they’re departing. If you’re bored, you know it’s not challenging enough. And if you’re overwhelmed and exhausted, you know it’s too challenging. And in the book, I just give lots of ways for companies to be organized that way, for people to break up tasks into different phases to keep that flow going. So, another tip, that’s what really gets that creative brain going. When you get in flow, you really do better work.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Jonah, I would love it if we could really kind of go through a number of levers or tweaks to make something a bit more or a bit less challenging because I don’t have a whole lot of ideas here. Hey, there’s some humble self-effacing action there.

Jonah Sachs
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess, in practice…

Jonah Sachs
I thought you were the expert here.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I guess if I want to make it more challenging, sometimes I’ll set a timer and see if I can do it faster within a timeline, or I might try to see if I could do a whole batch of them, like, “Have you ever done three in a row?” to turn that into some more challenge. And if it’s too challenging, sometimes I’ll just try to split it into just the tiniest increments, like, “Step one, open up the email where they ask me to do that thing. Step two, list out each deliverable that they want in that email. Step three, open a blank Excel spreadsheet…”

Jonah Sachs
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, it really does help in terms of, “Oh, I’ve been avoiding it. This is hard. I don’t know where to start.” It’s like, “Okay. Well, you do know where to start. It starts by opening up the email.” So, that’s really all I got in terms of tricks to make something easier or harder. What else do you recommend?

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, I’ve got a few of those, of these kinds of tips. And what you’re talking about, in some ways, are these fairly rote tasks, which are very important actually to doing them well. The high level of competency in rote tasks is actually key to creativity. When you’re not doing those things well, you’re acting like the mad professor who’s super creative but not very competent, you’re actually putting a lot more stress on your brain and decreasing your creative abilities.

But I do want to differentiate between really creative tasks and tasks that you just kind of have to slog through. So, talk a little bit about the tasks that you just want to slog through. I looked at a lot of research about how bad, and you’ve probably heard about this, how bad we are at multitasking, and how much stress it puts in our brain to do a number of things at once. So, you might be doing something like, “All right, I’ve got this slog thing, it takes me an hour and a half to update my CRM, or to send out this email, or both.” Take a screencast of what you’re doing for about 10 minutes, see how many times you’re switching apps, see how many times you’re actually working, or checking your email, or picking up your phone, actually look at what you’re doing.

We live in a world where usually we’re doing two or three things at once. And things that seem really hard and take a long time, actually take very short if you shut out all outside distractions. It’s actually part of staying in flow is shutting out distractions. The novelist Jonathan Franzen, he apparently used to put hot glue into his ethernet port, back in the day when you needed a wired connection, and worked out of a windowless non-airconditioned office where no sound could get in. He basically shut out all outside, and he said it was the only way he could work.

And I think it’s really interesting because so few of us do work that way. So, one, shut out the distraction that is probably causing things to take twice or three times as long as you thought they were. It is not easy but sometimes when we see how hard it is, we realize how addicted we are to distractions. So, that’s one of them.

Another one is to break up, just like you’re saying, break things down into tasks, some things, smaller tasks. The creative side of your tasks require intrinsic motivation, and you don’t really need to get rewarded for that. You kind of want to isolate the parts of the task that you really enjoy, and, like I say, if there are parts of the creative side, if you need more inspiration or training, give yourself that time because sometimes we need to up that ability.

But other things that have been shown to really work are to think about a problem very directly and hard for about 15 to 20 minutes, make sure you have all the parameters of the problem, and then go for a walk, take a shower, take a nap, step away from it. It’s usually the background processing in your mind that will come up with original ideas when you’ve ran out of other ideas, because what happens in that first 15-20 minutes, the most obvious solutions come forth, and then it’s when you let your mind rest that new ideas. So, for the more creative ideas and more creative tasks, I recommend this sort of on again, off again burst of creativity and focus, and then open-minded for solution-searching.

And then, finally, because, again, we can go on all day just about this one piece of it, but there’s a lot of research to suggest that some tasks really do require external motivators. And so, sometimes you have to treat yourself like a parent if you’re really procrastinating, and say, “I’m going to give you that cookie, or I’m going to let you watch that TV, or I’m going to give you that reward, if you do these three things,” and set small goals for yourself, and give yourself small rewards.

A lot of people report like having that little treat at the end is a strong signal to their brain and a strong dopamine hit that makes the task not as hard as it once seemed. So, these are all kinds of ways essentially of managing energy through the long task of doing things that are hard as opposed to just reverting to going back and doing the things that are easy.

I can tell you that if your main mode of operation is to always work on the things that are easy for you, you are basically atrophying at your desk, and won’t be long until you’re way underperforming to your potential.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, certainly and that really connects there in terms of it can feel unsafe to do the thing that’s really hard and you’re not quite sure you could do, but it’s so essential to do that. I want to follow up on that point you made, that certain tasks really can benefit from treating yourself like a child and there’s going to be a treat if you do this. What are the sorts of tasks that seem to benefit most from that reward-treat-carrot action?

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, those tend to be the more rote, less creative, left brain type of tasks. So, you have to do things very precisely, you know how to do them, they’re difficult only in that they take attention and they take diligence. Those are things that tend to do better. And if you’re working with employees too, those are the kinds of things you want to give people extrinsic motivations to do, “Clean something thoroughly,” whether that’s a bathroom or a database, “Make sure that we have received all our receipts and accounted for them.” Those are the kinds of things that you want to give external motivation for because there’s really not that much excitement from a job well-done. You’re just expected to do it well and you have to, but there’s no real intrinsic joy in doing it.

Something like, “Come up with a new slogan,” “Pick new colors,” “Come up with a creative solution to a problem that we’ve never solved before.” Those are all things you don’t need to give rewards for in that sense. You will want to celebrate people’s creativity, give them more open space, give yourself more open space, and try to dial back that pressure to do it quickly is always helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, I want to talk about sort of the social dimension here of unsafe thinking. So, we talked about kind of managing yourself and your productivity and the challenges you take on, adjusting the difficulty. Now, it can be tricky and feel unsafe to challenge someone else’s viewpoint in a meeting to say something, in however you say it, to convey, “I disagree. I think that there’s an alternative which may serve us better,” can be quite intimidating and feel unsafe for people, maybe rightly, because there’s retribution and animosity, or maybe wrongly, it’s just a boogeyman. But, tell us, what are some of your best practices, pro tips, for engaging in unsafe thinking and articulating that with others?

Jonah Sachs
Oh, man, this one is really, really hard because so many workplaces are the sort of schizophrenic mixtures of both really wanting creative employees and really beating them down when they don’t fall in line with company flow. And so, let me just start by saying there’s this fascinating study that looked at teachers, asking them, “All right, first, rate all of your kids in your class from your most creative to your least creative.” So, they put them on a spectrum, obviously, without telling the kids.

Next, they said, “Who are your favorite students and who are your least favorite students?” And, across the board, without exception, less creative kids fell into the favorite student category, and more creative kids were in the troublesome category that teachers actually didn’t like. And when asked, “How important is it for you to teach creativity?” teachers said it was the number one most important thing that they wanted to do. So, this tells us exactly that, by fourth grade, we’re already getting these mixed messages, “Be creative and fall in line.”

So, let’s move that into the workplace, what’s happening in the workplace. Meetings are so often hated and so often deadly because there’s this thing called shared information bias, which tends to happen. It’s this deep psychological problem in groups that happens in a meeting. Okay, so 10 people come into a room, right? They’re having a meeting because it’s important for them to share information. They have to find out what they don’t know from the other people, that’s why they’re meeting, otherwise, people just work alone at their desks.

What happens usually is the leader of the group will set the tone, they’ll say what they know about the problem or about the situation, and that makes sense, and then asks for everybody’s input. Well, it turns out that what people value and report liking in meetings is saying what someone else has said before. And usually so the leader says what everybody already knows because the leader is always speaking, and then everybody feels a psychological pull to rephrasing or somehow agreeing with what the leader said. And, in fact, people tend to even forget what they wanted to say once this shared information bias starts to come up.

And so, what happens is everyone knows something, everyone knows A, B, and C when they enter, D, E, and F are held by a couple people in the meeting, everyone gets together, and everyone leaves still knowing A, B, and C, no one mentions D, E, and F, and the company is stupider for it. It doesn’t work. So, there’s all these things that need to happen for that to be changed. Some of those things need to happen at the level of the organization, some things can be done by individual contributors who don’t have the power.

Let’s talk real quick about the top level of the organization. Leaders should not speak first in meetings. They don’t need to give the context. Let somebody who doesn’t usually speak start the meeting with what they know. You will get information that you did not expect. And they find, often, that low-status individuals in an organization, for a number of reasons, have some of that hidden information that’s most needed because it’s not what everyone is talking about. It’s what’s being seen from the edges. And information from the edges is a key ingredient to being more creative in a group. So, that’s one.

Number two, you can teach in your organization a kind of respectful disobedience. They do this in the airline industry, they do this in the Navy, they actually role-play and practice for the co-pilot to say that they have a different opinion than the pilot. That turns out, because in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the pilot was kind of the king of the cockpit and no one wants to speak up to usually him, we had way more airline crashes. But when co-pilots, and even flight attendants, were specifically trained to be disobedient, to speak back to power, and say what they observe, airline crashes have plummeted, because one person simply can’t know everything that’s need to be known and they have biases and make mistakes.

So, in your organization, teaching what’s called intelligent disobedience, which means that you’re going to be totally loyal to the company, but you’re going to speak back when you know something is wrong is a huge plus. From the individual contributor level, what do you do in a group? One, to get over that problem of actually the amnesia that comes from shared information bias, I recommend writing down, before you get to the meeting, everything that you want to say. It’s hugely valuable. So, if you have the courage to speak up, this will help you not forget what actually your point of view was. And by the end of the meeting, if something hasn’t been said that you have written down that you still think is important, make sure it gets out there, and you will then be contributing something that was otherwise missing.

Second, just keep in mind that employees who engage in intelligent disobedience, those who kind of speak up and are willing to outwardly say they disagree, are considered more loyal and more effective by managers, this has been well-studied, than those who quietly disagree and pretend they do agree. So, basically, if you’re going along with the flow, but you’re not wholeheartedly agreeing, people actually recognize it and it’s seen as a sign of kind of subversion. If you’re willing to speak up, and then go along with decisions once the group has made them, being loyal to the larger group, you’re going to be seen as more creative and a more effective collaborator. So, that fear may be a little bit unfounded.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s interesting indeed. I’m putting myself in the leader’s shoes, yup, it’s preferable to have someone openly tell you they disagree than to grumble and quietly muddy the waters with their subversive, I think is a great word for that. At the same time, I guess there’s that teacher effect that you mentioned that the creative ones are more kind of inconvenient because they don’t fall in line, “The meeting is going to take longer if you have a different opinion that we need to cover as opposed to you just sort of nodding and agreeing or else.” But at the same time, that’s what the meeting needs to do, is surface this stuff that wouldn’t get surfaced otherwise. So, in a way, it seems like your leader has to have a little bit of awareness and virtue, I guess, in order for them to appreciate what’s happening there with that intelligent disobedience.

Jonah Sachs
Yeah. Well, first of all, if you’re a leader and you’re turning your hair out because your employees are not creative enough, it’s just important to internalize that message that if you are subtly or directly calling for agreement and for efficiency, that you are the problem, it’s probably not your employees. So, getting that, opening that space for disagreement is going to be the source of your creativity.

Yeah, there’s another kind of key leadership tool here, I think, but it’s also something that team members can help to build. And Google did a landmark study on it, I spoke with Steve Kerr, the coach of the Golden State Warriors, he kind of uses it as well, and it’s kind of a little bit counterintuitive when you think about unsafe thinking. It turns out the most unsafe workplaces, the ones that are the most creative and willing to think outside the box, are the ones that provide the most psychological safety to people within that group.

I know that sounds crazy but what I’m trying to say here is that if everyone feels a sense of belonging, if they feel that their job is protected, and they feel that they matter to the team, they are more likely to be able to go against the grain, to say the things that might sound crazy, to open up their mouth when they see things are going wrong. There are these great studies of you could judge a company’s creativity by setting up a prediction market. So, see how often people are agreeing with what the CEO says when you’re actually asking them in front of the CEO, “Do you agree?” But then have a side market where people bet on whether the outcomes or the choices are going to work or not, and you’re going to get the real opinion.

So, prediction market is actually a better way to know if people agree with you than just kind of asking them. But if you create a sense of psychological safety, you don’t need that kind of output. You get to say, “Look, in this arena of creativity, everybody is equal. We fight it out, we go crazy, we are willing to look at ideas. And when you fail, we don’t punish you. We actually reward smart risks rather than just success,” then you’ll find people are willing to start taking those chances.

Now, you don’t want absolute chaos, that’s why it’s very important for groups to be cohesive when they move out of that exploratory phase and into the execution phase. But in exploratory phases, take a look at, “Are you building psychological safety within your organization?” There are lots of tools for doing that. And, again, that’s how Steve Kerr, when he got to the Golden State Warriors, kind of unlocked all the creative potentials of that team to take them to, whatever, five NBA Championships in a row, was by first setting up psychological safety in the locker room so they could get more unsafe on the court, and he kind of walked me through that, and I tell that story in the book.

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

Jonah Sachs
I guess I’ll just say that one of the things that I found most fascinating has to do with the real psychological mechanisms, and this is just kind of one more tip that I think is helpful when you understand this. I came to understand something that I call the safe thinking cycle. So, what happens is the world change around us, and that creates a certain amount of anxiety. What we’re doing is no longer working. We sense it because we’ve stepped up into a new position, and we’re not quite able to perform in it yet, we need to learn more, or what we’re doing no longer works, or there’s a new competitor in the space, or anything like that. We get a signal of anxiety.

Now, we’re programmed by evolution to see anxiety as a threat to our bodies basically. Anxiety out in the African savannah would mean that there was an animal about to eat you. And in those cases, what happens naturally from anxiety is that our peripheral vision shuts down, our nonessential bodily functions begin to slow down, and we really fall back on what we know works. So, we take what’s called stereotypical actions.

So, anxiety will, first, lead to the sense of, “Okay, I got to do something differently.” But by the time you start thinking what to do differently, you’re programmed by evolution to fall back and do something expedient and safe, and then things get worse because you haven’t reacted to the stimulus, and the cycle just repeats and repeats and repeats. And so, that’s where most people find themselves. The more stressed out you are, the less likely you are to take new and creative actions.

The way to break this cycle is not to respond differently or to force yourself to respond differently. It’s actually to reframe what anxiety means. And this has been a really fascinating look, for me, into sort of a whole bunch of different both kind of biological science and psychological science. But people who effectively break this cycle are those who tell themselves that anxiety is not a signal of danger, but a signal that they’re on their creative edge.

So, if what you’re doing is moving away from situations that cause anxiety, you’re actually creating further and further anxiety. And there’s a lot of psychological research that shows the more we concentrate on avoiding a feeling, the more we’re going to have it. The more you move towards that anxiety and say, “Okay, that anxiety is a signal that I should move toward it not away,” that is where we can experience the anxiety, and then take new action in its face.

So, it was very counterintuitive to me, nobody likes that feeling of anxiety, but if you can take it as a signal that you’re in your creative zone, when you feel it, that can really reshape your relationship to the creative thinking cycle.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, that’s really good, and I think we might characterize anxiety all the more broadly, not just the, “Oh, crap, something terrible is going to happen” sensation, but I guess maybe also like I think about just sort of learning and growth mindset stuff. It’s just sort of in terms of awkward or dread, like, “Ugh, I’m not any good at this. Oh, I feel stupid.” It’s like that whole family of unpleasant feelings you can associate to, “Oh, I’m at the edge of creativity, or of growth, or of breakthrough,” as opposed to, “Oh, this is a thing to retreat from.”

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, for sure. For sure. The things that are like worth doing but don’t make you anxious are the things that you have been doing for a really long time, probably for a decade. So, the first time you give a speech in public, you might feel terrified. Once you’ve given that talk 20 times, you don’t feel scared anymore. If all you’re doing is giving that same talk again and again and again, your days are kind of numbered.

So, it’s great to fall back on the things that we know when we know we can do well. I would say give yourself at least 15% to 25% of your time though doing things that you suck at, and that will make you just a much better, more flexible thinker.

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

Jonah Sachs
I still love the bumper sticker, I don’t know who even said it, but, “Don’t believe everything you think,” always makes me smile, and I kind of take that as a motto for myself.

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

Jonah Sachs
I looked at a study that showed that people, when given a chance between feeling medium-level electric shocks and being bored, would usually, after about 10 minutes, choose the electric shocks. So, when they put four people into a white plain room, and said, “You can have the electric shock and leave, or you can stay for another 10 minutes,” people mostly took the electric shock.

And just amazing to me, I think probably a hundred years ago, 50 years ago, maybe even 25 years ago, we were pretty good at sitting with ourselves and sitting with our own feelings and ideas. The fact that we’re at a place where most of us would rather be in pain than quiet is definitely a sign that there’s a lot of white space, a lot of opportunities for those who could be a little bit more mindful and take their time through processes, and be in that zone where creativity arises, which is in that quiet zone.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Jonah Sachs
Well, I’m reading right now a book called Station Eleven. It’s a post-pandemic science fiction book about a future in post-pandemic. And sitting through a pandemic right now, I’m kind of enjoying its beauty and its quiet, looking at what the world sometimes becomes.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Jonah Sachs
I have been really appreciating using Asana lately. It’s a fantastic product and helps me organize the millions of tasks that I try to keep. And I’ve tried many, many different tools, and have really struggled to use one again and again. I’m on kind of month 18 now with it and I find it’s really sticking, so that’s my tool.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Jonah Sachs
I think I mentioned the one that I’m most excited about, which is doing things that I’m bad at and staying out of my comfort zone, so continuing to press, although I’m not improving as fast as I like, continuing to press on my singing is my latest habit that I’m trying to stay in.

Pete Mockaitis
And, now, how about a favorite nugget, something that you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, and they quote it back to you often?

Jonah Sachs
I find that the thing that most gets quoted back to me from my work, actually, comes from my first book Winning the Story Wars, maybe it’s because it’s been out for so long. But I kind of had three key tips for how to communicate and how to build your own personal brand and tell stories. And that was be interesting, tell the truth, and live the truth, and that gets repeated back to me as a sort of three pillars in life that are always worth following.

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

Jonah Sachs
JonahSachs.com.

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

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, I would just say it all really comes down to move towards the things that scare you, get out of your comfort zone, and if you’ve been saying that you’re going to do things differently, start doing something different today.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jonah, this has been a treat. Thank you and keep on rocking.

Jonah Sachs
All right. Great talking.

551: How to Save Massive Time, Energy, and Frustration by Solving Problems Before They Happen with Dan Heath

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Dan Heath discusses how upstream-thinking can help solve problems before they even show up.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The power of “upstream thinking”
  2. How to get to the root of the problem
  3. How to avoid the blame game at work

About Dan:

Dan Heath and his brother, Chip, have written four New York Times bestselling books: Made to Stick, SwitchDecisive, and The Power of Moments. Heath is a senior fellow at Duke University’s CASE center, which supports entrepreneurs fighting for social good. He lives in Durham, North Carolina. The Heath brothers’ books have sold more than three million copies worldwide and have been translated into thirty-three languages.

Items Mentioned in the Show

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Dan Heath Interview Transcript

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

Dan Heath
Hey, thanks for having me on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I am so excited to speak to you in person and digging into the wisdom of your book here “Upstream.” And so, I want to maybe hear from you on the personal side, talking about preventing problems instead of reacting to them, is there an area in your own life where you’ve applied some “Upstream” mindset principles to get some good results?

Dan Heath
Yeah, there actually is one, and it’s so utterly mundane, I’m almost embarrassed to share it, but here was my epiphany. And, keep in mind, this was while I was writing a book on upstream thinking, and by upstream, I mean the quest to solve a problem before it happens. So, anyway, as you know, I’m a writer and, for whatever reason, I tend to do my best writing in coffee shops. So, I had this coffee shop I go to every morning, and I sit in the same place, and I order the same thing. And so, as a result of that, I’m constantly shuffling my laptop back and forth. I have a proper office that stays largely abandoned, and then I go to this coffee shop to write.

And so, I go to the coffee shop, I plug in the laptop, and then when it’s time to go, I pack everything up, I pack up the power cord, I get back to the office, I unwind the power cord, plug it in there, and it’s just a lot of power cord shuffling, and it’s just like an everyday annoyance. And I’ve been doing this for years. I mean, for years, I’m packing up, unpacking my power cord a couple of times a day. And then, in the course of this research, it occurs to me, “Hey, what if I bought a second power cord, and one of them could stay in my backpack when I go to the coffee shop, and one of them could stay permanently wired on my desk, so when I get back and I put my laptop down, I just easily plug it in.

And it was like this great relief where this little everyday annoyance was just gone forever. And then I started kicking myself, like, “How could I get in this mode where for years…?” I mean, it’s not like this was some major hardship obviously, but it was an annoyance, and it never needed to be one. And that’s the spirit of “Upstream” the book, in a very mundane personal story.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I actually totally connect and relate to that. And I think about travel in terms of I’m always sort of reassembling my toiletry bag 3-1-1 and just get two of the things, and just leave the thing in the suitcase forever.

Dan Heath
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
So, lessons learned.

Dan Heath
And I think this is also true in relationships. Like, every couple has something that they bicker about, “Oh, you left the toilet seat lid up again,” there’s just some recurring irritant, maybe many, depending on your relationship. And so, I also got to talk to some people who’d figured out how to solve those kinds of problems. I met this guy named Ritch Marissa, and he and his wife, their thing was the hallway light. So, Ritch would go outside, often just to take the dog out or something, and he would flip the hallway light on. He’d come back in and he would inevitably forget to turn the hallway light off, and that bugged his wife, and so this was just like a little nagging problem for them.

And one day, Ritch Marissa has this epiphany, and realizes, “Hey, we don’t ever have to do this again. I’ve got it. I know how to crack this.” And so, the next day, he filed for divorce. No, I’m kidding. That is just a cheap joke. No, what he did was he went to Home Depot and he bought something I didn’t even know existed, which is called a light switch timer, and this is like a little panel that goes where your light switch is, and there’s buttons on it with different timestamps, so he can just press the five-minute button, the light comes on, and after five minutes, it turns itself off.

What is just so profound to me about this, I know these are little things, but it’s just a signal that, in our lives, it’s so easy to get into these patterns where we can fight the same problem again and again, and it’s like it takes a miracle for us to snap awake and realize, “Hey, with the right intervention, this could be gone forever.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, that’s resonant and it’s exciting, and I think it really just, even for the relationship itself, that’s a loving action. That’s going to say, “Hey, honey, I heard you, I listened to you, and I’m doing something about it,” and so not only do we have that irritant gone, but we have kind of, “Oh, that was really nice of you. Thank you,” going for you.

Dan Heath
If only more of our relationship problems could be addressed with a $10 gizmo from Home Depot, the world would be a better place.

Pete Mockaitis
Home Depot on Valentine’s Day is a peak day for them. Well, cool. So, then we talk about upstream and this notion of solving problems before they happen. I’d love to hear, have you made any particularly surprising counterintuitive discoveries about our human nature while digging into this stuff?

Dan Heath
I think what really captured me about this topic, because I’ve been thinking about this, I checked the other day, and literally my first Word file where I started taking notes on this upstream topic, was in 2009, so this has been on my mind a long time. And what kept me with it really involved the definition of a hero. So, when I say hero, what associations start popping to mind? It’s probably a policeman, or a firefighter, or a first responder, or a lifeguard who saves someone. It’s people who save the day, that’s a hero.

And it occurred to me at a certain point that there’s a whole another class of people who keep the day from needing to be saved. Someone invented a smarter building code that reduced the incidents of fires in buildings. And someone else consulted with lifeguards at public pools and taught them how to scan the pool in a better way and to position their chair in a smarter place. And a high school coach who’s mentoring teenagers in a way that keeps them out of trouble with the law. And these are upstream heroes.

These are people who stop emergencies from happening, and yet they hardly ever get any glory. In fact, their work may be largely invisible. We may have no idea what they did. I mean, how would we? How would we know that the consultant at the swimming pool kept a child from drowning one day? And so, that idea just captured me that there’s this whole invisible set of heroes whose identity we may never know even though they’re having a profound influence on us.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is powerful. And so, you’ve got a number of excellent tales that you’ve got some of the best story teasers on the back of your book that I’ve ever encountered, so well done. Well done.

Dan Heath
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
You and editor and team for those. So, maybe let’s just bring this to life with a little couple of those. So, tell us, all right, so there’s a school district, they had an issue with dropouts, and they did something upstream to prevent a whole lot of dropping out. How’s that story unfold?

Dan Heath
Oh, this is one of my favorites in the book. So, this is the Chicago Public School district, massive school district, I mean, this district has a $6 billion budget which is the same as the city of Seattle. So, when you talk about a difficult change environment, I mean, this is it. and if you want to hear a depressing stat, back in 1997, the graduation rate at CPS, Chicago Public Schools, was 52%. Like, if you were a student at CPS, you basically had a coin-flip’s chance of graduating. And it had been true for years.

And in a situation like that, people start to habituate to that level of success. If you were a teacher, or an administrator in this system, you’d certainly bemoan the fact that you’ve got a poor graduation rate, you regret it, but it almost comes to seem inevitable that, “Well, it’s a shame, but this is a complicated world. These kids come from difficult environments. Their K through 8 education didn’t serve them very well. And so, what are we going to do about it?”

Well, there was a point that came when they realized, “Maybe we can do something.” So, some academics, including Elaine Allensworth, figured out that there was a test they could perform in the ninth-grade year that could predict with 80% accuracy which students would graduate and which wouldn’t. And the test, I don’t mean like the SAT. All I mean is the test was, “Did the student take five full-year course credits and passed them successfully?” and, “Did they fail more than one core course?” Core course like Math or English. And if they received five full-year credits, and they didn’t fail more than one course, one was okay, but two was a real warning flag, then that meant they were off track for graduation.

And so, for the first time, it’s like they had a kind of smoke detector for dropouts, they advanced warning, they had time to do something about it. And so, this becomes a way of opening the door to changing the way the system worked. And some of the things they did, I’ll give you two examples, one was they realized some of their own policies were sabotaging kids. So, this was like the “get tough on discipline” era in schools, and it was routine at the time. For a couple of kids who shoved each other in the hallway, they’d get a two-week suspension. They just doled those out like candy.

But the research shows if you take a kid who’s kind of on the borderline, and you kick him out of school for two weeks, what happens is they come back, they’re lost, they feel bad that they’re lost, they end up failing the course, and then if they fail a couple of courses, they’re off track for graduation. It’s this absurd situation where nobody realized that by handing out a two-week suspension, they might well be dooming them to dropping out of high school, but that’s what the research showed.

The other thing is they reorganized the way that they worked. So, all of the freshmen teachers, traditionally, they would just stick to their own within the discipline. The Math teachers would meet with Math, and English with English, and so forth. Now, they formed what they called freshmen success teams where they met across departments and they would go student by student. I mean, they would be sitting around the table, literally saying, “Okay, Michael. How are his grades and his subjects right now? How has his attendance been the last couple of weeks? Have we been calling his home when he’s missing school? Can we get him some extra tutoring?” And they’re figuring out, on the fly, how to take these kids who are at the risk of being off track and getting them back on track.

And what happens is, as the years go by, and as they learned how to get ahead of these problems, how to encourage attendance, how to get extra resources for the students who need it, they start moving the needle. They start moving the needle at the freshman level. More and more students are now on track versus off track. And then, four years later, when it comes time to graduate, this early warning system pays off. And, now, the graduation rate in CPS is something like 78% or 79%. I mean, I can’t overstate the magnitude of a change that has to happen in a system like CPS to move the graduation rate by 25 points. It’s just astonishing work.

And for every student that graduates that, in an alternate reality probably would’ve dropped out without this work, their lifetime income is going to go up by $300,000 to $400,000. I mean, this is a massive, massive effort that started with the upstream notion to think, “Hey, what if we could prevent some of these kids from dropping out?”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. So, that’s so powerful right there. It’s like, “What is the smoke detector, or the early warning system, which then, in turn, lets us prioritize and wisely concentrate resources or interventions to prevent the issue from occurring there?” So, I think that can have all kinds of applications in all kinds of settings, professionally and personally, in terms of, “What might make high-performing, high-potential employees want to drop out or exit the organization? What are some of those tests you can run?”

Dan Heath
That’s actually a great example. And I think a lot of organizations, we constantly hear about the big data revolution, and I think in many cases it’s overblown. But I think this is one case where it’s not, where what data is so powerful at doing is figuring out ways to detect that problems are coming. And I’ve spoken with a number of HR leaders that have figured out very diagnostic tests for knowing when employees are in trouble, when they’re at the risk of leaving.

I’ll give you another example on the customer side. So, LinkedIn, we all know LinkedIn, they sell a very expensive package to employers who are doing a lot of recruiting on the site, and it’s a subscription. What they figured out years ago is the way it would work is the employers would subscribe to an annual thing, and then about month 11, the sales reps would start really putting the full-court press on the customers just to make sure that they were going to renew because that’s how everybody was measured, is what’s the retention rate. And, churn, as most of you probably know, churn is a measure of how many people are not renewing. And so, churn is always what you’re fighting in a subscription business.

And so, they would send in the rescue troops in month 11 to make sure these customers are going to renew. And somebody started digging through the data, and they made a curious discovery that they could predict as early as the first four weeks of a customer’s subscription who was likely to renew and who wasn’t. And, at first, they were puzzled, they’re like, “How could we possibly know from the very start who’s going to renew and who’s not?” You would think that it would take time to figure that out. And they dug in and they realized the deal was people either got value from LinkedIn almost immediately or they never did.

So, they realized, “Aha, we’ve got to get out of the business of rescuing customers, and we’ve got to get in the business of making sure customers have a bang out first month.” And so, they put a lot of resources into onboarding customers, and they would do a lot of handholding where if you’re hiring a developer in Atlanta, they would get on the phone with you and walk you through step by step, “Okay, here’s how to define your target profile. And I’ve actually written some copy for you for emails that you can send out to prospects.”

And the effect of this work is, over a period of four or five years, if memory serves, churn rate was cut in half, even as the company’s revenue absolutely exploded. And that is an intervention that’s probably worth tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in value, simply by paying attention to, “How can we see problems before they happen?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s huge and it totally makes sense in terms of you’re getting the value or you’re not getting the value, and you can know that pretty early. So, Dan, hey, keep it coming with these stories. So, you also mentioned that there’s an online travel website, and they were able to cut 21 million customer service calls by doing something a little different with their website. What was that?

Dan Heath
This story is almost hard to believe. So, this is a story about Expedia, and in 2012, there’s a guy named Ryan O’Neill that was digging through a bunch of data, and he found something that even today I find hard to believe, which is that, at that time, for every hundred customers who booked travel, a flight, or a hotel, or rental car, whatever, 58 of the hundred would end up calling the customer support center for some kind of help.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow.

Dan Heath
Which would seem to nullify the whole point of the online travel model. It’s sort of like if you went to a gas station where you could swipe your credit card at the pump, and then 58 out of 100 times something went wrong where you had to go inside. Like, you’d be pretty irritated with that business. And so, he starts to dig in, “Well, what in the world is going on? Why are so many people calling us?” He figures out the number one reason that people are calling is to get a copy of their itinerary. That’s it. Number one. Twenty million calls were placed in 2012 of people asking for a copy of their travel itinerary, and he’s just kind of slapping himself in the forehead, and he’s thinking, “How could this happen?”

Well, there’s a good reason why it happened. I mean, Expedia is a big profitable business. It’s not like these people were ignorant or unskilled. What happened was they were organized to neglect this problem. So, there was a whole set of people whose job it was to get customers to the site, and then there’s a whole another set of people whose job it was to make sure that people who came to the site, ended up booking something, and there’s a whole another set of people whose job was to keep the website running smoothly, and a whole another set of people whose job it was to take the customers’ calls and resolve them quickly.

But if you look across this whole ecosystem and you ask, “Whose job is it to make sure customers never need to call us?” The answer was, “Nobody.” It was nobody’s job. And if that goes even worse than that, that nobody would even benefit if that were true. And so, the top executives at Expedia realized they’ve got a problem, and they formed a special taskforce and put them in a war room, and they challenged them, “Hey, let’s keep these customers from needing to call us.” That’s the shift upstream. “Rather than get more efficient at handling customer calls,” which had been the way they’ve measured themselves to-date, “let’s just keep these calls from happening.”

And the solutions came very quickly, as you’d well imagine. They gave customers ways to get their own itinerary, and they added different trees to the IVR, “Press 2 if you need a copy of your itinerary,” and they changed the way they sent the emails with itineraries so they wouldn’t get in the Spam folder. And what happens is those 20 million calls essentially vanished, they go to zero over a very short period of time.

And I think what this tells us is something interesting, which is organizations always push for specialization. We’re divided into silos, we’re pressed to specialize, and there’s good reason for that. It makes things more efficient. It makes us more productive. But it can also be a deterrent to solving really thorny complex issues because we stay in our silos, and those silos create blinders. And so, all of a sudden, really obvious questions like, “Hey, why do all these customers need to call us if we’re an online website?” It’s like it gets purged from our existence because of the way we’re organized.

And I think that’s the promise. If you’re listening right now, and you’re in a big organization, let me promise you, there are issues just like this, these silos-spanning issues, that are waiting for someone to discover them and organize a response, and that’s the upstream mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
And those are great opportunities to bring your career upstream or up the hierarchy when you identify and you get proactive, and then you make some real value happen by tackling it. That’s huge.

Dan Heath
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then we’ve heard some fun stories. Now, I want to get your view on kind of what are the fundamental principles or key questions to ask to surface these opportunities all the more readily and to not let them just sit under the radar for months and years?

Dan Heath
Yeah, let me identify, I’ve got a couple of skills that I think people can consciously build that will make them better upstream-thinkers. And the first is anytime you’re trying to prevent a problem before it happens, you’re going to be dealing with complicated systems, and you’ve got to understand the system, and, in particular, you’ve got to find some point of leverage, somewhere you can tinker with the system to get a different result.

So, in the case of Chicago Public Schools, they had this discovery that, “Hey, ninth grade is the critical time when we can take a student who’s off track and get them back on track.” So, one way to get closer to problems to identify a point of leverage is to immerse yourself in the specifics of the problem. So, I’ll give you an example. There’s an organization called the Crime Lab that’s associated with the University of Chicago, and they do a lot of research on, “What policies could potentially help reduce the crime rate?”

And so, years ago, during the forming of the Crime Lab, they were asked to work on the problem of gang violence, which is a recurring problem in Chicago. The problem there has to work on was homicide, and the lore was that the homicides were the result of gang violence.

And so, they started by questioning that premise and tried to get closer to the problem. And the way they did it was they went to the medical examiner who always writes a report on why young people died, or why anybody died, and they went through the last 200 reports of homicides of young people and they just read through the situations to train their intuition. And, yes, there were some that were the result of gangs jockeying for power or what have you, but what was far more common was a situation where some teenagers got in a fight over something stupid.

One example was a couple of groups of guys, one of the groups accused one of the guys on the other group of stealing someone’s bike, and the fight escalated. And in some places, a fight like that might’ve ended in throwing some fists. In this case, one of the kids had access to a gun and somebody got shot. And that became, what they discovered in these medical examiner reports, as they got closer to the problem, they saw this is not fundamentally about gang violence, that if they wanted to intervene to reduce the number of homicides, we got to somehow be able to speak to these situations that are normal teenage disagreements that escalate out of control.

And what they eventually did is they created a program that trained young men in high schools how to resist that urge to go nuclear when you get mad or when you get in a disagreement, to build a little bit of self-control and reflectivity in situations like that. But the way they discovered that point of leverage, which turned out to be quite successful, was by getting closer to the problem.

Another example, the same thing, that I write about in the book is there were some architects that helped design big public spaces like airports, and they’ve been asked to think about how to make those spaces more convenient and more accessible to older adults, and these were young architects. So, how do you get closer to an issue like that when you’re not in the target population? And they discovered something that’s called an age simulation suit, which is something you can wear to help you feel, not just learn about it, not just hear about it, but feel for yourself what it’s like to be older.

So, there are elbow braces that mimicked the reduced movement you get in your elbow joint. And as you age, you lose dexterity in your fingers, so they have these gloves that simulate the loss of dexterity. And they wear something called overshoes which simulate nerve loss in your feet, which makes it a little bit harder for you to perceive where the ground is. And so, they wear these age simulation suits, and they walk around DFW just to feel what it’s like to be old. And any business traveler listening to this knows DFW will make you feel old, just in general, much less without an age simulation suit.

But they start figuring out, “Hey, we need another step on the escalator because it’s really hard to get your balance when it’s moving as quickly as it is.” And they realized that there aren’t enough opportunities to take a rest, that these big hallways are intended to help people get where they need to get quickly, but older people need breaks, and there just aren’t good spots where they can put their hand on a railing or take a seat for a moment, and they realized they need some rest stops.

So, just to zoom out to the bigger issue here, what I’m saying is whatever industry you’re in, whatever role you have, there’s always going to be recurring problems in your organization. And one systematic way that you can get better at helping your organization solve those problems is to be the person who has the instinct to get closer to the problem, to go through those medical examiner reports, to put on an age simulation suit to give yourself a better instinct about what it’s like to navigate these spaces. I think that’s an upstream skill that we can all cultivate.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And I imagine the hang-up and the reason people don’t do that is they might say, “Oh, my gosh, who has time to look at 200 of these reports or to find this special suit and to go through it?” And so, I guess, in the moment, I would imagine that can feel like, “Where will I find the time?” But if you zoom out, boy, I imagine there’s huge multiples of time saved associated with doing this stuff.

Dan Heath
You have put your finger on what may be the fundamental tension of upstream thinking. And I want to tell you about a study that I think really brings this tension to life. So, a woman named Anita Tucker, who’s just a fascinating thinker, at one time she ran a frosting plant for General Mills, I believe. And now she is an organizational researcher, and, at one point, for her dissertation at Harvard, she followed around nurses. So, she shadowed them during their day, and she figured out that nurses are basically professional problem-solvers. There’s always something weird popping up that they had to deal with, and sometimes it’s small stuff, like they ran out of towels, and they had to figure out where to get a towel for a patient.

Sometimes it’s bigger stuff. Like, Anita Tucker tells a story of a nurse who was trying to check out a new mother from the hospital ready to take her baby home, but the security anklet that they put on babies had fallen off and so you can’t check out the mom without that, so they went on this frantic search, “Where is the anklet?” It turns out it was just in the baby’s bassinet. So, easy, they checked out the mother and were done.

Three hours later, the same thing happens again with a different mother, and this time they do another search, they can’t find it, and so they have to go through another set of protocols to resolve the situation, but they managed to get the mother out. And so, when Anita Tucker first encountered this story, she thought, “Hey, these are nurses being really resourceful. They’re scrappy, they manage to work around problems, they don’t let things stand in their way, they don’t go running to the boss every time something goes wrong. It’s an inspiring portrait.”

Pete Mockaitis
These were the heroes.

Dan Heath
Until you realized that what she’s describing is an environment that never learns, that never improves, because when you work around problems, and when you heroicized people who work around problems, what you’re guaranteeing is that those problems will recur.

Pete Mockaitis
Because you get glory by addressing them.

Dan Heath
Exactly. And it didn’t occur to the nurse who check out two mothers in three hours that had problems with the anklet falling off to ask, “Hey, why is this happening? What can we do to stop this from happening? What’s the root cause? How can we make sure we never have to solve this problem again?” And I want to be clear here, I’m not throwing stones at nurses. I think that this study could’ve been done on any profession that it would’ve come down to the same conclusion, which is our lives are so busy and so full of emergencies and issues to be dealt with that we get in this trap of, “Let’s just get through it. Let’s just work around. Let’s figure out how to get by.” But what we have to realize is that is a trap. When we work around problems every day, we guarantee ourselves to have to deal with them again tomorrow.

And so, when you said, what it feels like in the moment is, “Oh, my God, where am I going to find time to go through to 200 medical examiner reports?” that’s exactly the issue, is in the short term, it is extra work, it is stepping outside of that cycle of workarounds, but it’s basically the only ticket out of that self-perpetuating cycle of firefighting. And that’s something, that trap of firefighting, is something that I call in the book tunneling. It’s actually a term from some psychologist in a book called “Scarcity.”

But I love that mental image of tunneling, that that’s the trap we get in where we kind of lose our peripheral vision and all we’re doing is making our way forward, “How can I get through these problems as quickly as possible to get onto the next set?” And we start to lose sight of the big questions, which is, “Is this tunnel going the right way? Is there an easier way to get where we’re trying to go? Are we even pursuing the right goals?” When you’re in the tunnel, the only real direction is forward.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and that totally connects and resonates. Like, even just biochemically, it seems like, “Okay, all right, my back against the wall. We got to hustle. We got to hurry. Let’s do, do, do, go, go, go,” and then it’s that vicious cycle.

Dan Heath
It is. And I empathize with the nurses because what are they suppose to do? I mean, honestly. So, the mother is trying to get checked out, they can’t find the anklet. What would we advise of the nurse in that moment? Is she suppose to conduct a root-cause analysis of the circumference of the anklets and contact the manufacturer and talk about product improvements? It seems absurd. It’s almost like we can’t envision another reality other than the tunneling reality.

But just to give you a feel for a way out of the tunnel, what many health systems have done is start to hold standing meetings, sometimes called safety huddles, where a bunch of nurses and doctors and staffers get together in the morning, it might be a 20-minute meeting, and they talk about, “Okay, what near misses did we have yesterday where someone was almost hurt or we almost gave somebody the wrong medication? What can we learn from that? How can we improve our processes to make sure it doesn’t happen again?” And then they look forward to that day, “What’s coming today that’s more complex than usual that we should think through?”

And I think that’s a perfect example of how you can escape the tunnel, even if it’s just for a 20-minute meeting, because that’s the forum where that nurse could’ve said, “You know, something weird happened yesterday. We had two mothers with the same problem happened to.” And that’s a meeting where you could deputize a subgroup to work on that and figure out what was going on and solve it. So, I think it may be too much to ask of humanity to figure out how to get out of our tunnels because it’s such a powerful instinct. But if we can even escape them for short periods, we can make much smarter choices.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love that. And so, maybe while we’re just sort of imagining workplaces at large and recurring problems that may have the potential to be solved once and for all, what are a couple of things that just leap to mind for you that we should have our eyes open toward as professionals?

Dan Heath
One thing, I think, has to do with a sense of ownership. So, in the book I talk about what’s curious about downstream actions is that they’re often obligatory. If someone shows up at the hospital having a heart attack, the surgeon can’t opt out of that work. Or if a preschooler has an accident, the daycare worker can’t opt out of the diaper change, right? When there’s a problem that presents, we have to deal with it. Versus, upstream problems, curiously, are sometimes voluntary. People have to step up and say, “This problem, it wasn’t something that I created but I’m going to be the one to fix it.” And that’s something that relates to accountability.

I’ll give you an example from the work world. I talked to an administrator named Jeanie Forrest who works in the Yale Law School. And when I talked with her, she was having this staff issue that she was dealing with. So, there were two staffers, these are disguised for obvious reasons. The boss, let’s call her Barbara, and the director, we’ll call Dawn. So, Dawn had filed a complaint about Barbara, her boss, for belittling her and kind of undermining her in certain situations, and this had landed on Jeanie Forrest’s desk. So, she asked the two women to come in, and Jeanie Forrest said, “You know, this situation is my fault. I had heard rumors that you two weren’t getting along, and I sensed it myself. And you know what I did? I just stuck my head in the sand and I thought, ‘Well, maybe this will go away.’ So, that’s on me. This is my fault.”

And then she turned it around and she said, “I want each of you to tell the story of this situation as if you’re the only one in the world responsible.” And at first, the women had a hard time honoring the spirit of that request, so Barbara, the boss, said, “Well, every time I ask something of you, you shut me down and you give me weird body language.” And Jeanie Forrest said, “Barbara, that sounded awful lot like you’re blaming Dawn. Can you try that again?” And Barbara said, “Well, you know, I could’ve done a better job explaining. I thought that you should just accept what I said and I dismissed your questions. But I could’ve done a better job being patient.”

And Dawn, for her part, said, “Well, I just accepted your huffing and puffing, but the truth was I just really didn’t understand, and I should’ve made it clear. Hey, I‘m not being resistant. I just don’t understand what you want. Can you help me?” And so, they end the meeting on this kind of detente and they tried to change their relationship. And I emailed Jeanie Forrest six weeks later just to see what have happened with this, and she wrote back and said, “They’re working together productively and cheerfully, it’s a little insane.”

And what I want to highlight about this is I think it’s a kind of metaphor that so many times in life, we have the sense that the problems are happening to us, that we are the inheritors or the victims of problems, but this reframing thing that Jeanie Forrest did of telling the story as if we’re the only ones responsible, it helped all three of the people involved realize, “Hey, we have agency here. Like, we could’ve made different choices, and we can make different choices going forward. We have influence here. We have power.” And I think what that means for upstream efforts is, often, we may find ourselves voluntarily taking charge of something that we had nothing to do with causing.

I was talking to some people from a large software company who were organizing a taskforce on sexual harassment. And it wasn’t a problem of their making. They weren’t the harassers, they had nothing to do with the environment. But they said, “This is a problem that needs solving. What if we sign up to be the people who try to solve it?” And that kind of enlightened volunteerism is something I find very, very inspiring about upstream work, and it goes back to that notion of upstream heroes, the people whose work can be invisible even though it has profound impact.

Pete Mockaitis
Dan, this is so much good stuff. Tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Dan Heath
The final thing I might mention is, and this is something I feel you could carry through with you your whole career, is to be cognizant of the downside of measurement and metrics. We live in a measurement-obsessed culture, especially in business these days. And measurement is wonderful, it makes us more efficient, it gives us clear targets, but there’s always a downside to measurement, and much of that downside has to do with gaming and the way that measurement alters our behaviors in ways that are sometimes good and sometimes bad.

So, as a concrete example of the bad side, there was a policy passed in the UK for hospitals where they required hospitals to see patients in emergency rooms within four hours of their arrival, so enlightened intent, “We want to make sure that patients are seen, that these crazy wait times, 12 hours, 16 hours, would go away forever, and that we force hospitals to reinvent their processes.” So, very enlightened. What happens is a lot of hospitals started doing this thing where ambulances would bring patients and stay in the parking lot until they thought the patients were within four hours of being seen, and then they would rush them inside so that they can meet the four-hour rule, right? A perversion of the intent of the policy even though they technically met the statistical definition of it.

And that’s something that you’re going to see in your career again and again and again and again every time there is a sales incentive or a bonus offered. You can bet it’s going to do some good and some bad. But I’ll tell you, most of your colleagues are going to be woefully naïve and think only about the good side, and you can be the one that says, “Hey, let’s kick the tires a little bit here.” One test you can run is what I call the lazy bureaucrat test, and that is if someone wanted to ace the measures or incentives that we’re setting out with the least effort possible, what would that look like?

Or another one you might call the defiling the mission test, which is imagine that we ace all of these measures that we’re setting, and yet our work ends up harming the mission, the reason we’re all here. What would that look like? Like, in the case of the ambulances waiting in the parking lot is a great example of defiling the mission. You’ve aced the measures but defiled the point of healthcare which is to pay attention to patients and their needs. So, I just want to leave that as a provocation that you can be the person whose attention to the dark side of measurement keeps your organization out of a lot of nasty traps.

[39:03]

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, Dan, I can’t resist now. You dropped a couple test on us and those were so good. Do you have more that you can reveal?

Dan Heath
Yeah, actually, there’s another one that I’ll steal from Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, and that is he said, “Any time you’ve got a quantity measurement”’ so you’re paying people, maybe you’re paying the janitorial crew based on square footage cleaned, or you’re paying your data-entry people based on the quantity of documents entered.” He said, “Any time you got a quantity measurement, you’ve got to counterbalance it with a quality measurement,” because what you’ve got to realize is if you incentivized people to clean more floors, what comes part and parcel with that is they’re going to do a worse job per square foot in the service of getting to a larger area.

Or they’re going to go so fast on the data entry that they’re making lots of mistakes for the sake of getting through more documents. So, the way to balance the scales is to combine quantity with quality, where quality might be some kind of spot checking of how good the rooms looked after they’re cleaned, or with data entry, to make sure that there’s some metric that specifies how good the precision was between the entry and the original document.

And ever since I became aware of that test from Andy Grove, I’ve started seeing situations where really smart people put it into place. Like, even in the police force in L.A. For years, police were adopting these metrics of reduce crime, reduce crime, reduce crime, and that leads to things like stop and frisk. Stop and frisk is effective at reducing crime but it has this just grotesque side consequence of subjecting a lot of innocent people to abusive treatment. And so, they’ve learned to counterbalance the focus on reducing crime with a measure of community trust, “How much do you trust the police? Do you feel like they’re doing a good job looking out for safety?” And that’s a beautiful way to kind of restore order or a sense of balance to the work. So, that’s another one I would add to the quiver.

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

Dan Heath
My favorite quote, this is from a guy named Paul Batalden, who’s a healthcare expert, he said, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” And that quote has become just like a brain worm for me. It’s so enlightening because it tells you in situations like Chicago Public Schools that at one time failed 48% of its students. It tells you the way CPS is setup is designed to fail half its students. So, if we’re going to get different results, we have to change the system.

But I think it’s also true in our own lives. I think that’s what’s so powerful about this quote, is if you find yourself perpetually dealing with the same dissatisfactions or the same frustrations, it’s a sign that the system is setup wrong. How do you change the system? We can’t just hope our way to a different result.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Dan Heath
This is definitely not my favorite book but I thought, in the wake of Clay Christensen’s recent passing, he wrote a wonderful book called “How Will You Measure Your Life?” that I think is a great excuse for all of us, just to be self-referential here in this podcast, to step out of the tunnel and think about the big picture and where we’re headed, and “Are we making the right micro choices to get the kind of macro results we want in our lives?”

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Dan Heath
Let me give you a small one. There’s an online tool called Toggl, and it has turned me into a time-tracker, and that’s what it is, it’s a time-tracking software that allows you to just see how you’re spending your time and devoted to categories. And I’ll tell you, I am not like a natural personal productivity person, okay? I am not the kind of person who puts labels on file folders, so this was unnatural for me. So, take heart if you’re a naturally-unorganized person. And it has really changed my day-to-day work. It’s made me much more cognizant of how I spend my time, and I’ve gotten strategic about it. Like, I’ll actually, from time to time, just do a check-in and see, “Am I putting hours against the things that are most important to me?” And that little tool made it a lot easier.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite habit?

Dan Heath
I’m going to throw out my coffee shop habit. And, look, I know everybody’s going to have a different one. But something about going to the same environment really brings out the best work for me, and I think it’s because it’s just like everything in the environment at the coffee shop now is a trigger or a cue to me to get into writing mode. It’s like it helps me get over that hump because I have so many associations with the look of the place, and the smell of the place, and the taste of the coffee, and it’s like my sensory environment is helping me replicate that state of getting into thoughtful writing mode.

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

Dan Heath
With this new book, what I found that resonates with people is this idea that the need for heroism is usually evidence of systems failure. If you think about we celebrate a lifeguard who jumped into the pool at the YMCA and saved a drowning child, obviously we want to celebrate that lifeguard, he may saved a life, but the need for them to jump in the pool and do the saving, maybe evidence that something was wrong with the way things were operated. Was the lifeguard chair too far from the pool and they have blind spots? Or was the lifeguard on their phone? Or was the lifeguard looking at something interesting happening in the pool and they had dropped their discipline of scanning the pool every 10 seconds? So, I think we should distrust heroics in a way, that if we’re repeatedly relying on heroics to get the job done, then maybe something bigger is at stake.

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

Dan Heath
Come visit me at UpstreamBook.com and there’s resources on the site that are free, there’s a lot more about the book if you’re interested, so, yeah, come there.

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

Dan Heath
I would say in the next week, let me challenge you to find a way to get out of the tunnel that you’re in, whether that is just taking an hour off of work and going and sitting in a coffee shop with your phone off and thinking about the big picture. Whatever that looks like for you, escape the tunnel and think about how you might knock down some of those recurring problems and irritants in your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Dan, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you tons of luck with “Upstream” and all your adventures.

Dan Heath
Thanks so much, Pete. It’s been a real interesting conversation.