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563: Accelerating Your Career by Thinking Like a Rocket Scientist with Ozan Varol

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Ozan Varol discusses how to make giant leaps in your career by thinking like a rocket scientist.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How success can hinder growth—and what to do about it
  2. How to turn worrying into productive preparation
  3. How rocket scientists see and use failure

About Ozan:

Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned award-winning professor and author. He served on the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers project, and later pivoted and became a law professor.

He’s the author of Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life. The book is # 1 on Adam Grant’s list of top 20 books of 2020. The book was named a “must read” by Susan Cain, “endlessly fascinating” by Daniel Pink, and “bursting with practical insights” by Adam Grant.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Ozan Varol Interview Transcript

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

Ozan Varol
Thank you so much for having me on, Pete. It’s a delight to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, I’m delighted to dig into this. I really like thinking about thinking so this should be a rich conversation. To kick us off, could you maybe share with us an interesting behind-the-scenes story from your days working on the Mars Exploration Rovers?

Ozan Varol
Sure. One of the stories that immediately popped to mind, it was my first few months of working on the project, so this was back in 1999, and I’m serving on the operations team for the project, and that year was a particularly bad year for NASA for a number of reasons. But one story that I have in mind involves a spacecraft called a Mars Polar Lander, and that year, the Lander was supposed to land on Mars but, unfortunately, it crashed. The landing system failed.

Now, this wasn’t our baby but we were planning to use the exact same landing mechanism on our rover and, of course, our mission understandably was put on hold because what we thought was a safe way of landing on Mars had just failed spectacularly. And so, we were scrambling to find solutions and figure out a safe way of actually landing us on Mars. And I remember distinctly my boss, who’s the principal investigator of the mission, walked into my office one day, and he said, “I just got off the phone with the administrator of NASA, and he asked me a really simple question. He said, ‘Can we send two rovers instead of one?’”

Now, up until that point, NASA had been sending one rover to Mars every two years, so that was the default. And this question, it was such a simple question but one that none of us had thought of asking before. And, of course, we were going to fix the landing system but the NASA administrator reframed the problem because the problem wasn’t just this defect of the landing mechanism. Even if you fixed that, there are so many things that can go wrong when you’re sending this delicate robot 40 million miles through outer space, and crossing your fingers that it lands safely on the Martian surface.

So, instead of putting all of our eggs in one spacecraft basket and hoping that nothing bad happens along the way, we decided to send two rovers instead of one, and I’m so glad we did for a number of reasons. One, with economies of scale, the second rover ended up causing just pennies on the dollar, but on top of that, double the rovers meant double the science. They landed on two very different parts of the planet and we built these things to last for 90 days, they were named Spirit and Opportunity.

Spirit lasted for about six years and Opportunity, and I still get goosebumps when I say this, but it lasted 14 years into its 90-day mission just because someone there to step back and reframe the problem and see just the obvious insight that was hiding before everybody else’s nose.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really fun, and as you’re telling the story, I was thinking of, I think it’s from the movie Contact with Jodie Foster where they say, “Why buy one when you can have two for twice the price?”

Ozan Varol
That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
But it wasn’t twice the price instead it was much more cost-effective because you know what you’re doing and then it seems like that’s cool, like the learnings. I guess, it’s that the idea is the second one lasted so much longer because you learned some things and you finetune some things after doing the first or you just got a little lucky.

Ozan Varol
Not necessarily. I think we just got lucky. We had two shots on goal, one ended up being six years and then the other one just ended up lasting for 14 because we were able to send it to a different location on Mars where the geographical conditions, the weather conditions were different.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that was a fun story. Thank you. So, we’re going to talk about your book here about Thinking Like a Rocket Scientist. Well, first off, can you frame up the why for us. So, I’m thinking about professionals in particular, those with jobs who want to be awesome at them, why should we think like rocket scientists? What kind of benefits do we get? Or what about the landscape of work these days makes that a beneficial approach?

Ozan Varol
Sure. The world is evolving at a dizzying speed, and we all encounter these really complex and unfamiliar problems in our lives, and those people who can tackle those problems, with no clear guidelines and with the clock ticking, enjoy an extraordinary advantage regardless of what field you’re in. And so, the book isn’t about the science behind rocket science, so I’m not going to try to teach you the theory of relativity. More, it’s about taking these frameworks, ways of looking at the world, processes of thinking from rocket science, and then walking you through how you can employ them in your own life to make your own giant leaps.

One of the biggest conceptions about rocket science is that it’s celebrated as a triumph of technology, but it’s really not. It’s the triumph of the humans behind the technology and this thought process that they use to turn the seemingly impossible into the possible. It was the same thought process that allowed Neil Armstrong to take a giant leap for mankind. It’s the same thought process that we use when we worked on the Mars Exploration Rovers mission to send these rovers 40 million miles across outer space and land them exactly where we wanted. And it’s the same thought process that’s bringing us closer and closer to colonizing other planets. And, fortunately, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to think like one.

And one of the things I’ve done with my life after I worked on the Mars Rovers project and I left, I pivoted and became a lawyer, and then a law professor, and now I’m an author and speaker, is to take these principles from rocket science and not only employ them in my own life to very different fields, but also teach others how to employ them as well and how to think like a rocket scientist. And the book is a culmination of really a lifelong journey for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, so I’m intrigued. You laid out, “Hey, these are really cool results we got when you follow a thought process,” so that’s great. I’d like to have awesome problem-solving innovation abilities for sure. Can you maybe give us a cool story in terms of you saw someone, they were thinking non-rocket scientist-y, and they did something a little bit different with how they were thinking, and they saw a cool result? Could you give us a case study or a before-after tale that brings it together?

Ozan Varol
Sure. The one example that popped to mind that I talk about in the book is Alinea, which is the three-star Michelin restaurant in Chicago.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Chicago. That’s right.

Ozan Varol
Yeah, it’s an amazing place. And one of the things that they’ve mastered is thinking like a rocket scientist, I kid you not, across very different ways. So, one is even when Alinea was at its heights in terms of the accolades that they’ve won, basically every award that one could’ve imagined, and they were bringing in a ton of profit, they decided to take a sledgehammer to themselves. So, at the very top of their game, they said, “We’re successful now, we’re about to get complacent, and to fend off complacency, we’re going to tear the place down and start over again, and to get rid of the assumptions and the outdated thinking that’s cluttering the way that we’re running our business.”

And so, they created Alinea 2.0 which has also been massively successful. One of the other things that they do, so that refers to the principle from rocket science, from physics, really called First Principles Thinking, which is a way of looking at a system and distilling it down to its fundamental non-negotiable components. Everything else is negotiable. So, you hack through these assumptions as if you’re hacking through a jungle with a machete to get at the original raw materials and building it back up from there. So, when you apply that thinking, you go from being, say, a cover band that plays somebody else’s songs, to an original artist that does the painstaking work of creating something new.

And so, Alinea did that with Alinea 2.0. One of other things they did is, in the beginning, they would look at dishes and say, “What can we add? What ingredients can we add? What new spice can we try? What new cooking methodology can we try?” Now, they’re asking a question that rocket scientists ask, which is, “What can I remove? What can we take away? How do we get to the fundamental components of this dish to bring out their best as opposed to adding and adding and adding, which not only creates complexity, it can increase problems, but it can also take away from the taste of the dish as well?” And that’s a question that rocket scientists have to ask themselves and have to contend with on a daily basis because you run into constraints when you’re building a rover in terms of weight, in terms of space.

And the best way to, this is a quote I love from Antoni Gaudi, the famous Catalan architect, but he said, “Originality consists of returning to the origin.” And I keep that quote in mind, really, throughout my life, and ask myself, “How do I get back to the First Principles, to the origin, and build something up from there?” because that’s how creativity results.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really rich and, boy, a lot to unpack there. And so, when you come to, say, the fundamentals in a restaurant business, for instance, I think it sounds like, from the very ground level, you might say, “Okay, we need delicious food people love. We need an ambience that is enjoyable.” Can you share with us what are some of the noteworthy things that they ended up removing that made a world of difference? When you say tore it down, actually I’m not familiar. You know, I live in Chicago. Do you mean literally, like, demolish or sell the space and…

Ozan Varol
They literally demolished the space.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Ozan Varol
They literally demolished the space, literally demolished the menu, which sounds really, well, astonishing in so many ways. Like, “Why take something that’s successful and then destroy it and build it back up from scratch?” But the founders of Alinea knew something that most of us neglect, which is that success tends to breed complacency. So, when you’ve been successful at something, what most companies do is they look at the rearview mirror and keep doing what they did yesterday. Now that can work in the short term but it’s a recipe for long-term disaster. If you don’t disrupt yourself in some fashion, then others will do it for you.

One practical way to implement that mindset, because not everyone is going to be able to take a sledgehammer to their business the way Alinea did, is to apply this exercise called “kill the company.” And the mastermind of the exercise is an author named Liza Bodell, and I first read about it in…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we had her on the show.

Ozan Varol
Oh, great, yeah. I first read about the exercise in Adam Grant’s Originals, the book, and the exercise was conducted by Lisa working with Merck, and Merck’s CEO is Kenneth Frazier, and he wanted to bring more innovation to work, to Merck. Most CEOs ask the same questions, like, “What is the next big thing?” or, “How do we think outside the box?” Those questions have become cliché, which means that people are using the same ways of thinking, the same neural pathways essentially to try to get at novel answers but the answers don’t end up being novel because they’re just taking the same thinking that they used yesterday and applying it.

And so, the exercise basically, the way it ran at Merck, Kenneth Frazier asked his executives to play the role of a competitor seeking to destroy Merck, so this is called the “kill the company” exercise. Their goal was to put Merck out of business. And the executives played that role for an entire day and came up with ways to put Merck out of business, and then they switched perspectives and went back to being Merck executives, and the exercise was successful. So, this was sort of a metaphorical way of taking a sledgehammer to your company, not an actual one.

But the exercise was successful because we’re often too close to our weaknesses to evaluate them objectively. It’s like trying to psychoanalyze yourself. But when you step outside the box and actually look at the box from the perspective of a competitor seeking to destroy it, then you end up identifying problems that you may have initially missed because you’re looking at it from a completely different perspective. And you don’t have to be a business to be able to apply this mindset, by the way. You can ask yourself, “What might my boss pass me up for a promotion?” or, “Why may I not get this job that I’m applying for?” And then switch perspectives, and figure out ways to prevent the potential threats that you identify.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is excellent, and I think that’s really the most constructive productive way to worry that you can do as opposed to just ruminating, like, “Oh, no, all these bad things could happen.”

Ozan Varol
Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
You can be proactive. And I like that for prepping for presentations in terms of saying, “Okay, what is the question I fear most? Like, if they’re going to ask me something that’s going to make me look like an idiot because I don’t know and I’m not prepared, like what is that question?” And then, “Oh, I’m going to go find the answer and the appropriate response and approach for that.”

We had a guest talking about what he called red-team thinking in military terms, like, “Hey, if this whole mission goes south, and it’s a mess, like, how will it have gone south? Like, what would be the cause?” And that kind of brings some heads up about doing it. And it’s so great because I think, in a way, our brains are very adaptive coming up with dangers and risks and things to fear if we go there.

Ozan Varol
Yeah. And I want to highlight two things you said, Pete. One is the idea of actually not ruminating about these worst-case scenarios. There’s something really powerful about writing them down because, one, when you let them sort of ruminate in your head, they tend to get worse and worse, and writing them down, putting them down, actually takes their power away, in my experience at least. And then you can look at them objectively and actually come up with strategies to fend off some of those worst-case scenarios as opposed to just letting them sit in your head and get stronger and stronger.

And then the second thing which you mentioned with respect to your preparation strategy for presentations where you think about like the worst-case scenario or what could go wrong, that relates to one of the other principles I talk about in the book from rocket science, which people can apply in their own lives, called “test as you fly, fly as you test.” And the principle is really simple. So, rockets and rocket components are tested on Earth before they’re flown in space, and the goal in rocket science is to make the tests as similar as possible to the flight, and in some cases worse than the flight, because if you find the breaking point of a component here on Earth, that means, well, you break the component on Earth where it’s going to cause far less damage than it will in space.

But many of us don’t apply that principle in our own lives. So, when we do practices or tests or experiments, they tend to be widely disconnected from reality. So, if you’re preparing for a presentation, most people will practice their presentation in front of their spouse while they’re wearing sweatpants in a very comfortable known setting. But if you’re applying the test as your fly rule, you’d be practicing your presentation in front of strangers who are ready to throw curve balls at you. And maybe drink a few espressos before the presentation to give you the types of jitters that you’re going to actually experience in practice.

Same thing with job interviews as well. The way that most people do it is they give a set of questions to their significant other or a friend, and ask them to run through this predetermined list. But that’s so different from an actual job interview. So, the goal should be to bring the tests, the experiments, as close as possible to the flight.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that. So, we’ve gone through a few of the strategies, the book has nine. Can you share another one or two that you think can make a world of difference for professionals trying to be awesome at their jobs?

Ozan Varol
Sure. One is the idea of proving ourselves wrong. So, our goal in life, the way that most humans operate, is to try to prove ourselves right, to try to confirm what we actually know. But progress, whether in science or in life, occurs only through generating negative outcomes, so by trying to rebut rather than confirm our beliefs. So, try this for a week, switch your default from proving yourself right to proving yourself wrong.

So, when your focus shifts to proving yourself wrong, you end up seeking different inputs, you open yourself up to competing facts and arguments. And the point, by the way, of proving yourself wrong isn’t to feel good, it’s to make sure that your spacecraft doesn’t crash, or your business doesn’t fall apart, or your health doesn’t break down. In the end, the goal should be to find what’s right rather than to be right. And I give a couple of examples in the book about how you can apply that way of thinking in your life.

Another strategy or principle that comes to mind is a rebuttal or a riff on this mantra that’s so popular in Silicon Valley these days, which is the idea of “fail fast, fail often, fail forward.” So, countless business books tell entrepreneurs to embrace failure. There are now conferences like FailCon dedicated to celebrating failure where thousands of people get together and share their failures.

Pete Mockaitis
I believe you did a podcast about sharing failures.

Ozan Varol
Yeah, I do, exactly. Totally. And Silicon Valley companies are actually now holding funerals for failed startups complete with bagpipes and DJs and liquor flowing freely. And, yeah, I do have a podcast on failure. But the goal, I think, shouldn’t be to celebrate failure, but it should be to actually learn from it. So, if I could change the mantra, and this is one of the things I talk about in the book, from “fail fast,” I would change it to “learn fast.” And this is something I stress in my own podcast as well in trying to get people to share not only what they failed at or how they failed, but what they learned from that failure.

Just because you’re failing doesn’t mean that you’re learning anything. And research bears this out, I cite a number of studies in the book, one involving cardiac surgeons, for example. The study shows that cardiac surgeons who botched a procedure actually perform worse on future procedures because they don’t learn from their mistakes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a bummer.

Ozan Varol
Yeah, because what happens is when you fail, people instinctively, to feel good about themselves, they blame the failure on external factors. They say, “Well, I got unlucky,” or, “We don’t have enough cashflow to be an entrepreneur,” come up with some external reason for why we failed as oppose to looking at internal ones, the mistakes that we made, the bad calls we made, the bad decisions we made. And so, the goal should be, and this is the goal in science, of course, is not to fail fast but to learn fast, because all breakthroughs in life and work are evolutionary, they’re not revolutionary. People do things wrong. So, Einstein’s first seven proofs for E=mC2 failed, but he learned from his failure and applied it. Thomas Edison famously said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

We have an obsession with grand openings in society, but the opening doesn’t have to be grand as long as the finale is. And the way to make the finale grand is not to fail fast, but to learn from each failure.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. So, then I’d also love to get your view on next time we encounter a challenge that just seems tricky, puzzle-some, immovable, what’s sort of like the first thing you do, like the stop, drop, and roll, or the key questions you ask yourself, or the protocol, like, “Here we are, this sounds tough. Don’t know how we’re going to make that happen. Go”?

Ozan Varol
Sure. A couple things. The first is it goes back to the story I told about that simple question, “What if we send two rovers instead of one?” First, ask yourself if you’re tackling the right problem. Because, often, when we get a challenge or a problem, we immediately jump into answer mode, “Is the answer really efficient? I want to come up with a quick answer to this thorny problem.” But when you jump into answer mode, we often end up chasing the wrong problem. So, the first question is to ask, “Am I solving the right problem? Are there better problems that I could solve? Can I reframe this problem in a way that’s going to generate a better answer?” So, that’s strategy number one.

And then after you’ve done that, break down the problem into its smallest subcomponents. So, think about a challenge that you’re facing and, say, you want to get somewhere to an audacious goal in a year or two, and apply a principle called “backcasting,” which I talk about in the book, which is work backward from that desired outcome, and this is sort of the flipside of what we talked about before, Pete, in terms of imagining the worst-case scenario and working back from it. But working back from a desired outcome also works really well.

Work back from what you want to achieve and identify all the steps you need to get there. Because when you look at this, and I experienced this writing this book that’s coming out this week, just when this episode will be released, is when you look at this blank Word document with like 80,000 words to go, it’s really, really intimidating. But if you can take that big thorny problem and break it down to its smallest subcomponents through backcasting, then each step isn’t as intimidating. I can certainly, today, for example, write Subsection A of Chapter 1. But if my to-do just says, “Write book,” that’s really daunting, and this is one of the reasons why people procrastinate.

And so, identifying actual actionable steps is really important, not only because it’s motivating, but it also gives you some sense of progress so you can look back and say, “Yeah, this is what I accomplished today.” It also has the benefit of pivoting your focus away from the outcome to the actual process. So, we tend to, when we’re trying to achieve something, really hone in on the outcome but forget about the process that it actually takes to get there.

And so, for example, if you want to write a book, most people sort of fall in love with the idea of writing a book, and they want to have written a book, but not actually go through the writing process because it can be painful at times. So, doing this backcasting is also a good reality check because it makes you focus on the things that you’re going to have to do to get to that desired outcome.

And the final strategy is, after you outline these steps, so you’ve reframed the problem, found a better problem to solve, you applied backcasting and created some steps of getting there, I would suggest tackling the hardest thing first, the thorniest part of the project. Because if that thorny part ends up being insurmountable for some reason, you want to know that upfront as opposed to a year from now or two years from now.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really like that. I talk a lot about hypothesis-driven thinking and there are some overlap here when I’m working with aspiring strategy consultants or just teams that want to work better together in my training courses and such, and I think that is one of the best ways to prioritize. Sometimes you might want to start with something that you can sort of confirm very quickly in terms of like, hey, alright, so we can save a lot of time. But that gets to the same core. It’s like you’re tackling the thing that’s kind of like the highest risk in terms of, “Let’s get our answer on the highest-risk matter and then we can move forward.” So, when we talk about think like, I don’t know, a consultant, or like a rocket scientist, or like a lawyer, and I think about political scientists have sort of a whole another way of running their brain I’ve seen, and then maybe like designers.

Ozan Varol
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
I think of these very domains, and maybe there’s a book in here somewhere. But how would you sort of contrast sort of like the fundamental maybe priorities and principles of how a rocket scientist thinks differently than, say, a lawyer, or a political scientist, or a management consultant?

Ozan Varol
I think there are a couple of key differences because a lot of that, actually all of the principles that I outline in the book come from the sciences, and a lot of them take sort of a grander scale in rocket science because of the stakes involved. I mean, in none of these fields that you mentioned, whether it’s politics or law, or political science or law, or designers, I mean, in some cases, I guess, human lives are going to be at risk, but the scale involved in rocket science is so massive. Each time you fire a rocket, hundreds of millions of dollars, and for human space flight, lives are at risk. And so, all of these principles take on heightened meaning when you’re talking about rocket science. And a lot of the principles, again, come from the scientific field.

So, for example, I don’t really see lawyers, I’m a law professor, that’s my day job, I don’t really see lawyers think about this, but the idea of in science nothing is proven right. It’s simply proven not wrong. Only when scientists beat the crap out of their own ideas and fail to disprove them can they begin to develop some confidence in them and, actually, that’s something I rarely see in the legal field, for example. The very best lawyers that I’ve seen apply that thinking to some extents of actually trying to get to know the opposition’s argument better than the opposition does, but it’s not something that’s talked about because it hasn’t completely crossed over from the sciences into the legal field. And, again, many of the other principles, like test as you fly, for example, I’ve also really not heard about outside of rocket science.

And there might be some crossover, of course, but because the scales are so massive in rocket science, you have to build in all of these contingencies and ways of thinking in a way that you may not need to when you’re writing, say, an academic article on political science or drafting a brief for a legal case.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ozan, I’m actually very surprised by that response. I thought you would say, “Oh, sure, yes. In the legal community, as I’m a professor, I see it over there.” In a way, I’m a little disappointed if I shell out over 300 bucks an hour for a big law associate, not a partner, an associate, I’m not getting these thinking tools at my disposal. That’s kind of disappointing.

Ozan Varol
Well, if you get one of my students then, sure.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Ozan Varol
Because I try to get them to apply that rocket science mindset to law every day, but it works for some people, it doesn’t work for others.

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

Ozan Varol
No, I think we’re all set with the book.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, you gave us one quote. Is that your favorite or do you have another favorite quote to share?

Ozan Varol
No, the quote from Antoni Gaudi is really my favorite. Another one that I think about often is a quote from Warren Buffett where he says, “We get fearful when others get greedy. And we get greedy when others get fearful.” I tend to think about that in my own life, and ask when I see a lot of people doing something, and ask myself, “How can I do the opposite of that? Or what can I do to do the reverse?”

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

Ozan Varol
It’s about this study of college students. The experiment just placed these college students in a room, they removed all of their belongings, so they left the participants on their own, and they told them to spend time with their thoughts for 15 minutes. That’s it, just 15 minutes. Now, there’s also a twist to this. If they wanted, instead of sitting there bored for 15 minutes, the students could self-administer an electric shock by pressing a button. So, you’ve got two options: you can either get bored or you can shock yourself.

In this study, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to shock themselves instead of sitting undisturbed with their thoughts. There was one person who delivered 190 shocks to himself during the 15-minute period, and I think that’s a really shocking thought, and it’s because boredom is becoming somewhat of an endangered state. And that’s a dangerous development because boredom is so central to creating new insights. I give a number of examples of this in the book. But creative ideas arrive during these moments of slack not hard labor, but many of us are too busy moving from one email to the next, one meeting to the next, one notification to the next, that we don’t build in those periods of boredom in our lives. And as a result, our creativity suffers.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. I’m most intrigued by the gender difference actually because what’s that about?

Ozan Varol
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Ozan Varol
It’s called Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress by Christopher Ryan. His argument is really simple, and I think backed by really compelling evidence. He says that there is a serious mismatch between our genetic makeup and the modern conditions of Western civilization. We’re essentially apes dressed in suits, eating a diet, and living a lifestyle just wildly out of touch for how our bodies and minds were constructed. And he offers some ways of adjusting our lifestyle to better match our genetic disposition. It was a really fun read.

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

Ozan Varol
I just signed up actually over the past month and I’ve been obsessed with it is called Readwise, and you can access it at Readwise.io. It hooks up to your Instapaper, so that’s the app I use to save articles and read them later, along with your Kindle account, and it will sync highlights, and it will send you, I mean, you can pick the number, anywhere from, I think, 5 to 50 highlights every day. And so, you open your email in the morning, and these are highlights from a book that you may have read three years ago or four years ago.

And I tend to read books and paperback or hardcover, and there’s a way of typing your notes or importing your notes into Readwise as well. It’s really cool because sometimes I’ll read a book three years ago and I’ll just completely forget about it, and having this system in place where you get an email with these random things that you highlighted from the book is a really good way to help retention. So, I’ll remember things and then I’ll end up using, say, a research study in a book that I’ve read five years ago, and I’ve just completely forgotten about. I’m really loving that tool.

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

Ozan Varol
It goes back to boredom, but I’ve become very intentional about creating boredom in my life. And one way I do that is, I sit in the sauna for 20 minutes, I try to do this every day with nothing but just a notebook and a pen just to jot down thoughts that might occur to me. But some of the best ideas I’ve had in recent memory have come to me in that stifling solitary environment of the sauna.

Pete Mockaitis
Doesn’t the paper get wet?

Ozan Varol
It does. It does. But I can still read what I wrote so that’s all that matters.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a particular nugget, something you’re known for, you share and people quote it back to you frequently?

Ozan Varol
First thing that jumped to mind is, “It can be harder for you to survive your own success than to survive your failure.” And it goes back to something we talked about earlier in the conversation, Pete, about how success breeds complacency, and I give the examples in the book of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, two really tragic disasters that were preventable but NASA got complacent with its own success. And I talk more about that in the book and sure ways that people can use to fend off complacency and to identify the small stealth failures that tend to get concealed when we win because the instinct when we win is to celebrate not to look back at what may have gone wrong.

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

Ozan Varol
I have a weekly email that goes out to over 19,000 people called the Weekly Contrarian, and you can sign up for that at WeeklyContrarian.com. And then my book is Think Like a Rocket Scientist, it’s available wherever books are sold, and you can find all the purchase links at RocketScienceBook.com. And I do have a special offer for the listeners of your podcast, Pete. If people order the book by, let’s say, the end of April, I’ll give them a special bonus of ten 3-minute videos from the book with just action-packed insights, so practical strategies from the book that people can apply into their lives right away. And so, if you order the book, and forward your receipt to Rocket@OzanVarol.com, and just mention that you heard about me on this podcast, and you’ll get that video bonus.

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

Ozan Varol
Question the default. Instead of operating on autopilot and taking your assumptions, your habits, your processes for granted, take time every now and then to hang a question mark at the end of them, and ask yourself, “Do I own my assumptions or do my assumptions own me?” And just remember the research study about how employees at call service centers tend to perform better if they use browsers that don’t come as the default. So, if they use, for example, Chrome when the default browser is Safari, and it’s not because using Chrome magically makes you a better worker, but it’s because someone who questions the default when it comes to the browser choice, also applies the same mindsets to other areas of their job.

Pete Mockaitis
Ozan, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck with the book and your adventures.

Ozan Varol
Thanks so much, Pete.

460: The Fastest Way to Solve Complex Challenges with David Komlos

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David Komlos says: "It's not the problem you're solving; it's how you're solving the problem."

David Komlos teaches ways to dramatically shorten the process of solving your organization’s most complex challenges.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The 3 types of challenges and how to approach them
  2. The 10-step process to tackle challenges faster and more effectively
  3. How to structure a problem-solving meeting to get the best results

About David 

David Komlos, CEO of Syntegrity, is an entrepreneur, early-stage investor, and speaker who has helped change the way many global leaders approach their top challenges. From Fortune 100 transformation to international aid, content creation in sports and entertainment to improving access to life-saving products, David advises top leaders and enterprises on how to dramatically accelerate solutions and execution on their defining challenges. He frequently speaks on topics related to complexity, fast problem-solving and mobilization, and scaling talent. He lives with his family in Toronto.

Resources Mentioned in this Show:

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David Komlos Interview Transcript

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

David Komlos

Such a pleasure, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
You’ve got a book Cracking Complexity. What’s the story here?

David Komlos
Cracking Complexity is basically a book about 18 years of experience on how to get after big challenges quickly, whether you’re a manager, a director, a vice president, somebody who’s writing policy, someone who’s an analyst, someone who’s an up and comer, a high potential. There’s ways in which to get after the defining challenges that move you forward in your career, that make you a big contributor, that make you a great leader. And there’s actually a formula for how to get after big challenges. This book chronicles the formula and gives examples and cases along the way to make it interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, I’m thinking back to my strategy consulting days, complexity was almost like a dirty word for us in terms of if a business has a lot of complexity, that usually meant that a lot of mistakes and suboptimal resource allocations were happening. So, when you use the word “complexity” what do you mean by it?

David Komlos
We mean something specific. We mean a multidimensional, lots of moving parts, human challenge. We, actually, borrowed from Dave Snowden from his Cynefin framework where he says there’s a difference between complicated challenges and complex challenges. So, simple challenges, people solve on their own every day by connecting the dots, whether they’ve seen the challenge or not. When you’re dealing with a complicated challenge, it might be new to you, but it’s a solved challenge. It’s challenge that’s been solved many times before.

For example, a simple challenge is driving a car. A complicated challenge is fixing a broken car. You may not know how to do it, but there’s lots of mechanics out there that’s all they do 24/7, 365, right? So, the right approach is to take your broken car to the expert, the mechanic. Same thing when you’re also implementing an accounting software system. Don’t try to figure that yourself, bring in the experts who do that for a living.

Complex challenges are always the defining challenges, whether it’s turning around a product, or saving money, or figuring out a new policy for government, or figuring out how to grow faster as an organization, or gel better as a team, or understand your customers better and deliver a great customer experience. All of those are complex challenges which if there was a playbook, if there was a recipe, if there was a mechanic, so to speak, that you could just take this challenge to, he or she could just fix it like they fix all those other situations, that’d be great, but that doesn’t exist.

So, complex challenges are typically the headscratchers, the ones that you have to figure out fresh each time, and where it’s not just enough to solve with a really good solution, a really good plan, you really need a big group of people bought into the solution if you’re going to see sustainable execution happen, if you’re going to see people change their behavior, do what they’re supposed to do, you need them bought in. You can’t just tell them what to do. You need them bought in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Sure. Well, could you maybe rattle off three or four or five examples of a complex challenge for us just so we’re really thinking about the same thing here?

David Komlos
Sure. You might be trying to figure out how to stem the opioid epidemic in your state, or you might be trying to figure out how to deal with mental health challenges in your hospital, or you might be trying to figure out how to grow your product faster, capture more market share, or what will customers notice in the customer experience, and how do you get your company or your team to deliver a unified customer experience. Those are examples of complex challenges that are really common whether you’re in a small company, a medium-sized company, a large company, whether you’re in the government. You’re always trying to figure out how to do better more effectively, more efficiently.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Good deal. Thank you. Well, so then, you say that leaders often handle complexity the wrong way, or the linear way. So, could you kind of orient us to what would sort of the linear approach look, sound, feel like versus a non-linear way?

David Komlos
Yes. Well, I’ll give you an example. Let’s say you’re a car company, and you decide that you are going to stand out from all the other car companies by delivering an exceptional experience for people who are buying cars, people who are coming into the store to get their cars maintained or serviced, and that’s the way you’re going to stand out from the crowd, because quality is not necessarily that big a difference these days, right? Many cars are made well.

The linear way to approach this would be to do a lot of research first, and maybe strike a taskforce and have them do research, or call in a market research firm to figure out, like, “What do customers care about in the car-buying process? Or what do customers care about when they walk into a dealership to have their cars serviced?”

You would interview a lot of people. You might take different approaches to interview young people who are buying cars, older people who are buying cars, people who’ve never bought a car, and just ask them to think about how they’d buy a car. You might do a lot of synthesis around what’s going on out there, who the competition is, what kind of new car companies are coming out, what kind of new car companies are allowing you to test cars differently, buy them online, etc.

And then you’d start to get to the point where you’re making recommendations, and level setting other people in your organizations on what you’ve discovered, and then going back to the drawing board to make better recommendations, and doing readouts, and more interviews, and then postulating like, “Well, here’s what I think we should do.”

And then, when you’re done, you would have a persuasion campaign on your hands. Basically, now it’s time to convince everybody who wasn’t involved in my research and interviews and synthesis and thinking, and recommending, and going back to the drawing board. Now, I’ve got to get people on board with what my recommendations are, what my taskforce recommendations are, what my consulting companies’ recommendations are.

And those recommendations would’ve taken a long time to get to, and they may be excellent recommendations. They probably are excellent recommendations but the linear approach to solving basically takes a long while, places the onus on a small group of people, whether it’s an internal group of people or an external group of people, your team or your consulting firm. And by the time you get to the brass tacks, “What should we do to drive a better customer experience?” you have to persuade a lot of people who are not brought along for the ride.

The more novel way to do things, the better way to do things in the face of complex challenges, the non-linear way, is to involve all those people who you would contact for the research, involve all those people you would interview, involve the people who are going to make the decisions, involve the people who are going to make the recommendations, and so on and so forth, all together, all at once.

And by involving them all together all at once, you would basically help them get to a shared understanding of what really matters, what’s really going on, what doesn’t matter so much about customers and what they care about in the car-buying experience, the car-service experience. You’d have a lot of people challenge their assumptions together all in the same room, eyeball to eyeball.

And it would take a fraction of the time where people could collide with one another, if you will, interact with one another, so that by the time they finish coming up with what they think will really move the needle on the car-purchasing and car-servicing customer experience in a way to help your company stand out from the pack, they would not only have cracked the nut, but actually have bought into what they’ve solved, the solution they put in forth.

Pete Mockaitis
So, now, you say all the people, all together, all at once. Now, could that be hundreds or thousands of people?

David Komlos
It could be. Generally speaking, though, from my experience, you want to be working in groups of 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 people all together all at once, and sometimes you have to work with several groups of that size to spread. But, generally speaking, when you bring together a cross section of the organization, and experts, and advisors, and stakeholders from around the organization all together, it takes 30, 40 people to really be representative of the culture and of the system that you’re trying to solve for.

And so, you can actually get to a solution with far fewer people. Then the challenge is, “How do you get all those other people aligned?” And there’s ways to do that that are also faster than what we’re accustomed to by having people interact together in smaller groups but spread across your organization.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I guess I’m thinking, in this car example, so there could be multiple customers and multiple dealers and multiple sales staff at headquarters and multiple marketing people and then so…

David Komlos
And then people like yourself who used to work at management consulting firms or who are in management consulting firms, people who work for car research companies, you might bring someone in from Google, you might bring someone in from a completely different industry who has also shaped a specific customer experience and learned along the way what could work and to spur the innovative thinking.

There’s actually an important concept for your listeners called requisite variety. And what requisite variety says, “Only variety can destroy variety.” That’s really, really important and it’s not buzzword yet. It’s really important, something for the rest of your careers. When you’re dealing with a big challenge, it’s typically a multidimensional, lots of moving parts, kind of challenge. Like this car company trying to improve the consumer experience. You have to be as multidimensional as that challenge if you’re trying to really crack the nut on that challenge. And the way you do that is by tapping into the right variety of people.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. I guess what I’m just sort of imagining here is I think that we could have 20 to 60 dealers alone, or 20 to 60 customers alone. But you’re proposing in this world that we get 20 to 60 people which is everybody across all stakeholders.

David Komlos
Yup, you could. And, again, you don’t have to look at this as something exotic, right? “I’m going to bring together 60 people once and never again.” You could bring together 60 dealers; they want to do better. You can bring together 30 dealers and 30 company people. You can bring together 20 dealers. You know, the nice thing here is that when you’re solving for something important and complex, typically people have a stake in the outcomes, right?

They may see things differently. People may see the car-buying and car-servicing experience and what to do about it differently, whether they’re an owner of a dealership, or the car company, or the sales force, or what have you. But they all share a stake in getting it right. And when you bring a group of people together, they can determine what are the things they have to do together to make a change. They can also determine what are the things they should try.

And when you try different things, when you commit to trying new things, and actually tracking how those new experiments are doing, you can actually double down on the ones that are working, and get rid of the ones that aren’t. And when you double down on the ones that are working, you can spread them to other people who didn’t necessarily have a hand in coming up with that experiment in the first place, you only brought together 50 or 60 people, or 20 or 30 people, or on small teams 10 people. But now that the 10 people have solved for something, and tried something, and it’s worked, that’ll spread much faster.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I’m still just visualizing the room. I have 20 to 60 people in this room all together all at once, but I could also have 20 to 60 people who are all the same, like all dealers or all customers. So, how is this working?

David Komlos
Yeah, you would want to have, again, the right variety of people. You’d want to have a diverse group of people. So, as a manager, or as a leader, trying to get after a challenge, or if you’re the car company leader who’s tasked with figuring out, “What should the customer experience be?” you should be looking at, “Who are some of the dealers I’m going to bring together? Who are some of the sales folks, some of the marketing folks, some of the folks who’ve done research on buying patterns, and so on and so forth, all together?”

You wouldn’t want to just keep it at just dealers, or just company people, or just sales folks. You’d want to have a diverse group of people who can see the challenge of delivering a better customer experience from every angle.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess what I’m imagining here is if I have a dozen different kinds of stakeholders, then I might only have one, two, three, four of each. And that’s fine?

David Komlos
That is fine. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

David Komlos
Absolutely, Pete, because to solve the challenge, you don’t need 30, 40, 50 people of each particular constituents. You need a handful of individuals. In our book Cracking Complexity we talk about the 12 zones of variety, and all the different characteristics that inform those 12 zones. And when you go through the 12 zones, whether I’m bringing people together from functions, or geographies, or business units, people from the board, or strategy folks, or operational folks, or outside folks, folks like consultants, advisors and so forth, it allows you to think through, “Who should I be bringing into my meetings?” Even in small settings. And you don’t need, as you say, 15, 20, 30. You can have a handful of each constituency to really get after the challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, maybe let’s zoom out a little bit. So, you got a 10-step process here. Could you kind of give us the one or two sentences per step overview of how this goes down? And then we’ll dig into some more.

David Komlos
The first step is to acknowledge the complexity. So, a lot of people would rather not acknowledge that something is multidimensional, is a human challenge, it’s going to be a difficult one. It can’t just be solved the normal way. And so, they go down the wrong path in the approach they take. One thing that we like to say is it’s not the problem you’re solving, it’s how you’re solving the problem.

And so, you have to know what kind of challenge are you up against. And when it’s a complicated challenge, you should bring in the experts. When it’s a complex challenge, you have to take a different approach. That’s the approach that I’ll talk through now. But the first step is to acknowledge that you are dealing with a complex challenge. Same old, same old won’t work on it. You need a different approach.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

David Komlos
The next step, once you know it’s a complex challenge, let’s say it’s about growing faster. You’d want to construct a really, really good question. That’s the second step in the formula. And so, your question could be, “What must we do, starting now and over the next six months, to grow by 15% over the next two years?” Or you could have a different question but it would be a growth-oriented question. And the question serves as the invitation and as the guideline to the people that you’ve invited who we spoke of just previously, those different constituencies.

The third step is to say, “Well, if this is the question that I’m trying to answer, ‘What do have to do over the next three months to grow by 10% or 15% over the next 18 months?’ who are all the right people, who are all the right solvers, what’s the right variety of solvers that I need to target?” And so, when you think through, “Who are all the people I need to target?” you want to think about the usual suspects.

But you also want to think about the non-usual suspects, those people who are inside your organization who don’t necessarily get called into these conversations, like people from the field, for example, or someone who worked for a competitor, or people from outside your organization, like a futurist, or a consultant who may not necessarily have been in that conversation with you had you not thought about targeting all the right variety of people.

The next step is to localize the solvers. So, localize them, bring them together. There’s a lot of really good technology out there to have conversations in small groups, but what we find is face to face on the really important challenges is really important.

And then, the fifth step, is to eliminate the noise. Before you bring people together, you’ve got make sure that you circulate some sort of a fact base, some sort of level-setting language to get people as far as possible even before they get together. You can do that with pre-reads, you can do that with videos, you can have a conference call to level-set folks, you can send out a glossary of terms, you can do all of the above, you can do none of the above. It’s really important though to think about, “How can I get a diverse group of people who don’t necessarily see things the same way, who speak different languages? How can I eliminate some of that noise before we get together knowing that I won’t be able to eliminate all the noise?”

Now, the next step is, once people are together and they know what the question is, they know they’re going to talk about, “What can we do over the next three months to grow faster?” the next step is really important. Don’t pre-determine the agenda. Let your team, whether it’s 6 people, 16 people, 26, 36, 56 people, agree on the topics they think they need to talk about, they think they need to explore in order to answer your question about growing faster.

When you let the people themselves, having brought the right group of people together, when you let them determine what they have to explore, the ownership starts right away, and the engagement starts right away in contrast to pre-determined agendas, which can often bias the outcomes. Then we say, “Put people on a collision course.” What that means is when you bring 20 people together, Pete, or 60 people, or even 10 people, you really have to make sure all of those people are going to interact with each other many times.

So, if you bring together 20 people, you don’t want five people who are really keen on figuring out how to grow faster or how to deliver a better customer experience. You don’t want the five keen people to be talking to each other constantly with the rest of the others checked out pretty much, whether it’s because they’re just not engaged, they may be introverted, not feeling very comfortable contributing in that particular way, for whatever reasons, hierarchy may be dominating, the loudest voices may be dominating.

To put people on a collision course means to make sure that everyone is bumping into everyone many times in conversations. Because if you take a few steps back in the formula, you targeted the right group of people for a specific purpose. You said, “I need these people, the usual suspects and the non-usual suspects if I’m going to solve this fast.” And if you brought them together, if you went to lengths to bring them face to face, make sure that they’re all engaging with each other many times.

Now, another step in the formula is once they’re engaging with each other many times, you want to make sure that you are giving them a kick at the can a variety of times on the same subject. So, if Dave said, “We got to talk about X. We got to talk about Y. We got to talk about Z,” make sure they’re talking about those topics three, four times. Not just one kick at the can, many kicks at the can.

And then we don’t just make sure that people are bumping into each other many times, we don’t just make sure that we’ve got the right group of people talking about the right topics that they’ve identified as the right topics to discuss on a question they all care about, you want to make sure that they’re having really, really candid dialogue. So, what we do and what you can do very easily, whether you’re doing it this way or in small meetings, we assign people to teams on topics as members and critics and observers. And those people play those roles an equal number of times so it’s a fair approach on a variety of topics.

Members, their job is to really advance the topic as far as they can. Critics are in the room. You can think about it as a round table where the members are at the table, there’s a panel of critics sitting right behind them, listening very carefully, and then giving them critique, helping them to do better. And then you can imagine a group of observers at the back of the room just listening, not being able to contribute.

And what we’re really trying to create is a purposeful deliberate controlled explosion amongst all these people, an explosion of brain power. People listening differently, people contributing differently, people hearing each other differently, learning differently, and much more efficiently and effectively having very transparent dialogue, very candid conversation about the things that matter.

So, when you acknowledge the complexity and you form it in the form of a question, and you bring together the right people, you bring them together, you eliminate the noise, you get them telling you what they need to discuss to answer the question, you put them in meetings where they can collide with each other many times, and you have really good dialogue amongst them while they’re colliding, you get clarity and insights and action basically.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s good stuff. Now, let’s see, there’s a few things I want to follow up here now. So, we say construct a really, really good question. What makes a question really, really good? And what are some things to watch out for in that are kind of inadequate when it comes to your questions?

David Komlos
That in itself is a great question.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

David Komlos
Yes. So, you want your questions to embed one or more goals, so, “What do we have to do to hit 20% growth?” It could be, “What do we have to do to hit 30% growth profitably?” It could be, “What do we have to do to double the business while remaining a great place to work or a top employer of choice?” It could be, “How do we ensure all Americans have access to safe and affordable healthcare?” The adjectives that you use have to be very deliberate when you talk about the “we” in the question, “What must we do?” You have to be very specific about who the “we” is. Is it the team? Is it the business unit? Is it the enterprise? Is it the society? You want to be very specific about that.

A good question has a well thought-through time horizon. Is it, “What do we need to do now and over the next 18 months”? Is it, “What do we have to do now and over the next 90 days to get the full benefit out of the merger”? The time horizon is really important because the recommendations that you get is going to be geared towards the time horizon.

And then a good question has stretch goals but not unreasonable goals. A good question has stretch goals that make people feel that they can hit those goals when things have changed in contrast to unreasonable goals which just sort of deter people from wanting to even start to answer the question.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, when it comes to the you’ve got the member, the observer, and the critic, so how does that kind of play out with regard to, okay, you have a sub-topic, sub-committee? Like, could you sort of spell out just sort of how many people are talking about something? And how do you divide those numbers and people into those roles?

David Komlos
Yeah, let’s say you’re in a meeting, you’re having a meeting with 10 people. I would say, “Assign five of them as members, assign three of them as critics, and then assign two of them as observers.” And, of course, those people will change roles when you go to your next topic, right? But on this topic, talking about cost structure, or brand, or message, or segment, or whatever you’re talking about, have five members at the round table, three critics sitting just behind them, listening intently, and two observers near the back, not saying a word, listening very, very carefully.

Let the members have a 15-, 20-minute conversation really digging into the topic, whatever they’re talking about, and then ask them to pause, and then invite the critics for a minute or two each to provide their critique, and they can critique the process, “John seems to be dominating,” or, “I’d like to hear more from Jerry or Mary,” or, “I disagree with that recommendation,” or, “Did you know that?” or, “This worked really well in…” That’s the kind of critique you’re looking for. And make sure you’re not letting the critics become members. You just want them to give the members what they need to hear in order to advance their own conversation when they take the conversation back.

And you want the observers taking notes in the back because they will be given speaking roles, they will be members or critics of other topics as the day progresses, or as your next meeting progresses. And what you’ll find is that the members really, really dig in, they listen really well to what the critics have to say. The critic role is always a very powerful role to really sway the way a team is going always to the positive. It allows the team to sort of step back. It allows people to say, “You know, you’re at 100,000 feet. You need to get down to the ground.” Or it allows people to say, “You went right to detail before stepping back and really understanding the full breadth and depth of the challenge.” The critic role is really important.

And one thing I want your listeners to know is that when you start to assign people as members, critics, and observers, organizations get used to this, you’ll run much more effective meetings, and they’ll become very self-managing. The members are going to want to hear from the critics. The observers at the back will be bursting, waiting for their turn to get to be a member or a critic. It’s a very, very effective way to structure a half-hour meeting, a two-hour meeting, a two-day meeting.

Pete Mockaitis
And when we get the collision course going, I’m curious, people have a natural tendency to sort of just talk to people that they know and they are sort of affiliated with already. What are the means by which you get the collisions to happen?

David Komlos
Okay. So, Pete, I will say at the commercial level, so to speak, the most sophisticated version of the formula, we use algorithms. So, we literally use algorithms to solve for N times, N minus 1 connection points, where N is the number of people. So, if there’s 20 people, there’s 20 times 19 connection points, and we let an algorithm assign people to teams in a way that makes sure that not only are they on the right teams, but they’re going to bump into other people on the other teams as they iterate.

When you don’t have an algorithm, you want to pay attention to who’s on which team as best as you can, and you want to rotate people through a variety of topics during a three-hour meeting, and you want to have a variety of meetings on those same topics. So, I would recommend to your listeners that, let’s say you have a five-point agenda to talk about a specific challenge that you’re trying to address or seize a big opportunity, if you have five topics, cycle through those topics at least twice. And feel free to cycle through those topics three times.

So, you should meet on them one through five, one topic through five, and then do that again, and do that again. And with different people playing member, critic, observer roles on the different teams and rotating, you will have people bumping into each other in the right way, or approximating that as best as possible. And you’ll see a real lift on the cross-pollination and the learning that’s happening from one discussion to the next.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so, understood. Now, there’s a few approaches here that are different from the norm. Could you share a word for the skeptic in terms of some of the eye-popping results that have come about in terms of getting the job done well and more efficiently than traditional approaches?

David Komlos
Yes. So, skeptics deserve to be skeptical.

Pete Mockaitis
And the observers are observing, the skeptics are skepticking.

David Komlos
Yes, exactly, and they deserve to be. I mean, there’s a lot of different mouse traps out there that profess to have solved, you know, for how to go about solving things and just don’t live up to that. Speaking from experience, I would say the good news here is you can try this yourself. So, the next time you’re planning to solve something, you’re planning a meeting, start by inviting some of the non-usual suspects. And, of course, the other people will say, “Why is Bob, or why is Terry being invited to this meeting? They have nothing to do with what we’re talking about.” Invite them nonetheless and be open about that.

Take an iterative approach to the agenda items in your meeting, even if you’ve pre-determined the agenda. If you don’t feel comfortable leading the agenda up to the group, pre-determine the agenda, have a finite number of topics, five, six, seven topics that you want to discuss to get after a challenge, and go through two cycles of meetings, and assign a portion of your people as members, and a portion of them as critics, and judge for yourself. And that’s doing it in a very sort of grassroots brass tacks way.

It only takes two hours or an hour of meeting to see the difference between your normal meetings. And then you will have experimented with something that’s not costing you money to do that you can decide to amplify and do more of if it works. And then if you’re really, really interested, read more about the formula and use it on a larger scale. The only way to get skeptics to not be skeptical is to try something on a small scale and then scale it up.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you’re in the midst of some of these conversations, do you have any favorite prompts or questions or scripts that you find yourself kind of reaching for again and again and again?

David Komlos
Yeah, we counsel people in a few ways. I like that question about prompts. And so, if you don’t have customers in the room, what would your customers say? If you don’t have the regulator in the room, what would the regulator be saying? If you don’t have any naysayers in the room, what would the naysayers and cynics would say? If you don’t, for some reason, have the implementation angle or the PMO in the room, what would they be concerned about, or what would they be saying?

And then one other prompt that we give all the sponsors of the sessions that we do which are usually a day and a half minimum, we say, “It’s okay. It’s totally okay and very, very welcome, in fact, the job of the people who have been convened here is to speak their minds and open their hearts and say everything that needs to be said. The only thing that will be looked down upon is if you don’t say something here, and say at the water cooler two weeks later. Put everything on the table here, not in two weeks. We’re all here. We’re all here together to solve something and get after it, say what has to be said here not later.”

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

David Komlos
Just that for your listeners, many of us have been conditioned that solving big challenges, whether at the team level, the business unit level, higher up, and getting people to change, that’s an arduous, long life cycle, long task. And what I want people to know is that solving and change can be incredibly fast when you’re approaching the challenge the right way.

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

David Komlos
Well, I love the movie The Matrix and I like it when Morpheus says to Neo, “There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”

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

David Komlos
I really love two books, and I don’t know if you’d put them under the guise of research. But I do love Crossing the Chasm and learned a tremendous amount from that book, Geoffrey Moore, the author. And then Jim Collins’ Good to Great is also one that I refer and reflect back on regularly.

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

David Komlos
Something that helps me be awesome at my job is a full floor-to-ceiling whiteboard.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. And how about a favorite habit?

David Komlos
Intermittent fasting.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, I’ve done that before. Tell me about it.

David Komlos
Well, basically, I eat between noon and 8:00 at night, usually finish around 7:00, and then I don’t eat. I just drink water. And I find that that gets me up in a really good place. The body gets used to it. I’ve got the right level of energy in the morning. I can get a lot of great work done. I’m not wondering about what I’m going to eat. Not even thinking about it. I get right to work or focus on my family. And then when noon hits, I eat.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and listeners?

David Komlos
Yes, requisite variety. Only variety can destroy variety. That really resonates with people.

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

David Komlos
I’d point them to CrackingComplexity.com.

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

David Komlos
Bucket your challenges for the rest of your career. For the rest of your career, look through the lens of requisite variety, “Who are all the right people that I need to bring to something, not just the usual suspects?” And when you look through the lens of the right variety of people, you will more often than not bring the right people to the challenge. And that’s half the battle.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, David, thank you for this. I wish you lots of luck with all the complexity you’re cracking, and have a good one.

David Komlos
Thank you, Pete. You, too.

416: How to Find Insights Others Miss with Steven Landsburg

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Steven Landsburg says: "The world is full of people doing things that I don't understand... train yourself to stop and ask yourself why they're doing those things."

Economist Steven Landsburg offers key questions to push your thinking beyond the obvious to generate helpful insights.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to jog your brain out of complacent thinking
  2. A common assumption that often leads people to make poor decisions
  3. Two exercises to help expand your thinking beyond the obvious

About Steven

Steven E. Landsburg is a Professor of Economics at the University of Rochester, where students recently elected him Professor of the Year. He is the author of The Armchair EconomistFair PlayThe Big Questions, two textbooks in economics, and much more. His current research is in the area of quantum game theory. He writes the monthly “Everyday Economics” column in Slate magazine, and has written regularly for Forbes and occasionally for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He appeared as a commentator on the PBS/Turner Broadcasting series “Damn Right”, and has made over 200 appearances on radio and television broadcasts over the past few years.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Steven Landsburg Interview Transcript

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

Steven Landsburg
Thank you so much for having me here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom and to learn about your skills with aerial silks. What’s this about?

Steven Landsburg
Well, that’s a little bit off the topic I thought we’d be talking about, but I’m happy to talk about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, let’s warm it up a little.

Steven Landsburg
Aerial silks is like what you see in Cirque du Soleil where you’ve got a long piece of fabric hanging typically 24 feet from the ceiling, and a performer will climb on the fabric, and you wrap your body in various ways so that when you let go you fall almost to the floor, but the fabric catches you before you actually land.

Pete Mockaitis
And the crowd gasps.

Steven Landsburg
And the crowd gasps. I’m not quite as good at it as those performers you see in Cirque du Soleil, but I’ve been doing it for some years. It’s my hobby. It’s what I do in the evenings. I enjoy it a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
That is so fascinating. You’re an economics professor, and this is what you do for kicks.

Steven Landsburg
It’s a good workout. It’s less boring than most of the other things I used to do to workout, and it’s fun.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I just wonder like where do you sign up for that? Do you see a flyer, you’re like, “Oh, cool. I’ll give this a shot.” How does one begin?

Steven Landsburg
I got into it because I’ve got a lot of friends, as it happens in Boston, who all simultaneously got excited about this at the same time, and there was a place for them to go take lessons in Boston. I live in Rochester, New York. There was no place here, so I used to do it from time to time when I visited my Boston friends. But then I was very excited after a couple of years of that when the studio finally opened up in Rochester, and I went and took a lesson. It turned out the instructors were fantastic, so I’ve been going ever since.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. I can’t come up with a brilliant segue way on the spot. We’re going to talk about mental acrobatics now. In your book, Can You Outsmart an Economist, you lay out a 100 puzzles, not just for funsies, but rather with the particular goal of training the brain to think and operate better. That sounds so cool. I’d love it if you could kick us off by sharing maybe one of the most surprising and fascinating insights you’ve gleaned from us humans and our thought processes from this puzzle creation and working process.

Steven Landsburg
Well, it’s all about thinking beyond the obvious, and it’s all about looking at human behavior that you might be inclined to dismiss as just irrational or pointless and thinking a little deeper and asking yourself, “Why are people behaving the way they’re behaving?” Try to put yourself in those shoes, try to see what kind of incentives they were facing, and try to figure out what’s really going on.

Steven Landsburg
Here’s an example. I’m a college teacher. At the end of every semester my students fill out these evaluation forms to say how they liked me, and every college teacher in the country faces the same thing.

Pete Mockaitis
And every year you nail it.

Steven Landsburg
I do pretty well actually. I’m happy to say I do pretty well. But there is very strong statistical evidence that physically beautiful teachers do better on those forms than other teachers who appear to be equally well-qualified, equally good. Systematically, the most beautiful teachers do best on these things.

Pete Mockaitis
So, now we see why you do pretty well on these. Steven, huh?

Steven Landsburg
I’m afraid I do well on these despite [crosstalk 00:03:38]. But the question is, why are students so consistently favoring the most physically beautiful professors? Now, the simple, straightforward, obvious answer is that students are a little bit shallow, and like everybody else, they are swayed by things that aren’t actually relevant, and so they’re making evaluations that are not really accurate evaluations of the teaching quality. They’re letting all sorts of other things influence them.

That’s the obvious explanation, but I think it’s the wrong explanation. I believe what’s really going in is this. Beautiful people have a lot of job opportunities that other people don’t have. Not just in modeling, not just in the movies, but in retail, in sales beauty helps in anything where you have to deal with the public. A beautiful person who chose to be a college teacher, on average, is going to be a person who gave up a lot of other opportunities in order to be a college teacher. On average, that’s going to be somebody who’s enthusiastic about college teaching and is probably pretty good at it.

On the other hand, and again speaking about broad averages here, people who are less attractive had fewer other opportunities. Maybe some of them went into college teaching because it was the only thing available to them. You would expect in any occupation, even an occupation where physical beauty doesn’t matter—especially in an occupation where physical beauty doesn’t matter—if beautiful people go into that occupation, on average they’re going to be the best because they’re the ones who gave up the most in order to go there.

As I say in the book, if you show me a lighthouse keeper with movie star good looks, I’m going to show you the world’s best lighthouse keeper because if he gave up a career in Hollywood to keep that lighthouse, he must really love lighthouse keeping. The whole idea of the book, Can You Outsmart an Economist, is to think one step deeper like that about all of the various little and big mysterious things that we see as we go through life.

Pete Mockaitis
Steven, you’ve really got me hooked and intrigued by the particular example with the beautiful professors. I think it was the Rate My Professor with the chili peppers, you know, the chili pepper havers. That seems like a very plausible hypothesis.

Steven Landsburg
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
That could add up and explain things and make some sense. Now I’m wondering, “Hey, is it true?” I guess the way we’d maybe test that would be you have to have almost actors with the same mannerisms and vocal inflection, maybe even lip-syncing an audio.

Steven Landsburg
I cannot prove to you that this is true. As I say in the book, there are a number of puzzles here where I don’t know for sure that I have the right answer, but I think I have an answer that’s got a pretty good chance of being right and a good reason why it’s got a pretty good chance of being right. For goodness’ sake, the message is not that you should just believe me. The message is that you should try to think the same way and try to find some other explanations. Can I give you another example of the same sort of thing?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. Yes. Maybe just one more tidbit on that first.

Steven Landsburg
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re right. What’s fun about it is, you’re right, we may not know it to be true, but it is teeing up a great extra question or piece of research, and I think it’s just keeping me a little bit more just mentally limber in the sense of now I’m a lot more fascinated by this question than I was beforehand, and I figure we’ve got one fine hypothesis which can very well spark additional hypotheses and in so doing, I’m just doing better thinking.

Steven Landsburg
Yes, absolutely. But there is evidence for very similar phenomena. For example, barbers. Barbers today are about exactly as productive as they were 200 years ago. It takes just as long to cut somebody’s hair now as it did 200 years ago. The equipment hasn’t gotten all that better. Nothing has changed in terms of the productivity, and yet the wages of a barber today compared to 200 years ago are 25-35 times as much. Why did that happen?

Pete Mockaitis
This is adjusted for inflation?

Steven Landsburg
After adjusting for inflation. Yes, of course. The real purchasing power of the wages is 30-35 times as much as it used to be. Why did that happen? The answer most economists believe, and we do have a lot of evidence on this, is that 200 years ago, a lot of people became barbers because there was nothing else to do. Today, people who become barbers have a lot of alternative, possible occupations. There are so many other things you can do which have gotten more productive: factory work, being a tailor, anything like that.

Steven Landsburg
The machines are so much better now. Everybody is so much more productive, and so those occupations have drawn a lot of barbers away into those other fields where there’s greater opportunity. The remaining barbers face less competition and therefore command higher wages. So as long as wages go up in some industries, that pulls up wages in the other industries even where no productivity change has happened. It does it by pulling people out of that occupation, making less competition and driving the wages up.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s also interesting that I think of barbers nowadays as like a specialty like, “If you just need your haircut, you go over to Great Clips or wherever and fork over just a few bucks.” Whereas a barber, oh boy, they’re going to get a fancy brush, and they’re going to put some foamy gel or foamy shave cream on your neck and use a straight blade. That’s the barbers I love to go to. I don’t know if barbers back in the day were more sort of commonplace with regard to, “Yeah, this is where you go for your haircut.”

Steven Landsburg
But even the guy at Great Clips today is earning 35 times what [crosstalk 00:10:05] 200 years ago.

Pete Mockaitis
No offense to the Great Clips listeners out there. But there’s the branding. It’s kind of value-oriented. It’s there. Intriguing. We’re looking beyond the obvious and practice how do we get into that habit? Are there key questions that you ask yourself? One of them was just about thinking about the incentives or underlying things. How else do you kind of jog the brain out of just complacently taking the obvious approach?

Steven Landsburg
A lot of it is thinking about incentives. A lot of it, of course, is just practice. You train yourself to think this way all the time. The world is full of little mysteries. You look around, and you train, analyze. The world is full of people doing things that I don’t understand and you train yourself to stop and ask yourself why they’re doing those things.

I’ll have more examples of that sort of thing for you later on if you want them. But in another direction, another thing I touch on a lot in the book is not taking statistics at face value but looking a little bit deeper, looking at what underlies the numbers that seem to tell a story sometimes, but when you look a little deeper they’re telling a very different story.

For example, at the University of California at Berkeley some years ago somebody noticed that the admission rate for graduate programs for male applicants was about three times as great as for female applicants even when they were equally qualified. A man applying to graduate school at Berkeley and an equally qualified woman applying to graduate school at Berkeley, the man had three times greater chance of being accepted.

You look at that statistic and you say, “Wow, that looks like discrimination.” A lot of lawyers took that seriously. They took it so seriously that the university ended up being sued for discrimination. This case ended up in court. The case fell apart when somebody noticed that the discrepancy was entirely accounted for by the fact that for some reason, at that time and place, women were consistently applying to the most selective programs and men to the least selective programs.

I’m making this up. I don’t know that it was the law school and the medical school. But the law school, let’s say, accepts almost everyone who applies, male or female. The medical school takes a tiny fraction of those who apply, male or female. They both treat everybody equally, but for some reason, men tend to apply to the law school, women tend to apply to the medical school. That’s going to cause men to be mostly accepted and women to be mostly rejected even though there is absolutely no discrimination going on.

Sometimes there is real discrimination, but in the case of Berkeley there was clearly not. Once you look at the numbers carefully, there was clearly not. The case was thrown out of court as soon as somebody realized this. However, before, a lot of lawyers made a lot of money.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. That is intriguing. I find that’s often the case with … Hey, I’ve just done this recently with my podcast data. I’ve got some Apple engagement data which will tell me what is the average proportion of an episode that gets listened to. But that is by no means a fair indicator of which episodes are the most engaging because some of my episodes are much longer than others.

Steven Landsburg
There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I actually went to great lengths to come up with a fairer comparison point, which was, what percentage of listeners got to minute 25? It’s kind of what I’m using, so it’s like whether the episode was 33 minutes or 54 minutes. It’s fair enough to see was it interesting enough for you to hang out for 25 minutes?

Steven Landsburg
That sounds just right to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

Steven Landsburg
I’m glad you’re doing that.

Pete Mockaitis
Likewise, with download numbers with regard to, “Hey, what are the most downloaded episodes ever?” It’s like, “Well, some of the episodes have been around longer.” They’ve had more opportunity to be downloaded, and some of them appeared during hotter streaks in which there were more total listeners listening to everything. I’ve chosen to index them to the recent episodes. But anyway, I’m right with you. Sometimes you got to dig deeper than the data on the surface.

Steven Landsburg
I won’t go into the details because I think you need a piece of paper in front of you with some numbers on it. But equally well, there are cases where you can look at statistics that seem to be clearly showing that there is no discrimination whereas, in fact, there is a lot of discrimination underlying the numbers. Again, I’ll give you some examples in the book. The numbers can fool you in either direction.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s interesting. Could you maybe walk us through some particular categories of bias or things that you’re seeing again, and again and again that can lead us to some optimal decisions?

Again, there’s the statistical stuff. There is a chapter. Again, I would hesitate to try and give these examples on the air because they involve a few numbers, and I think it helps a lot to see the numbers on the page in front of you. But there are examples in the book of simple little games that you can play where you’ve got a choice of what kind of prizes you want to be eligible for, and you can decide whether you want to play for these prizes, or decide whether you want to play for those prizes, play the game, see how things turn out.

Consistently, people prefer certain sets of prizes to others in these games. They prefer playing certain ways to playing other ways. If you allow them to play the way that the majority of people choose to play, the combination of games that they’re playing guarantees, absolutely guarantees, that at the end of the day they will lose money. They are making choices that guarantees that they will lose more money in the games they lose than they will in the games they win.

Those are the choices people instinctively make. Clearly, those are not good choices to be making. I think we can learn a little from that about how we should be more careful about the choices that we instinctively make.

Pete Mockaitis
You say we prefer certain ways. Are there a couple of summary principles that point to the nature of our instinctive preferences that can serve optimally?

Steven Landsburg
For one thing, we’re often too quick to suppose that other people are behaving irrationality when in fact they’re behaving very purposefully in ways that we don’t understand. I recently bought a Sony television set. I was surprised to discover that it’s absolutely exactly the same price no matter where I shop. I can go to Best Buy, I can go to a discounter, I can go to the internet. It’s exactly the same price everywhere except from a couple of places on the internet that are pretty skeevy-looking and where it’s pretty clear you’re never going to get your television set.

But it’s the exact same price everywhere and it turns out that the reason for that is that Sony requires all of their retailers to charge the same price. At first that might look like Sony is trying to keep the price up, but you think about that and it doesn’t actually make any sense because Sony doesn’t care about the retail price. They care about the wholesale price, and they have total control over the wholesale price. They sell the television set for $1,000 to the retailers. Why should they care whether the retailer resells it for 1,200, or 1,500, or 2,000?

It looks like Sony is just being irrational there. A person might be tempted to say, “Boy, Sony hasn’t really thought this through.” But, you know, Sony is in this business. They thought it through. You’ve got assume that they’ve thought this through, and there is a good reason for it. It turns out that the good reason is this: what they’re trying to combat is people like me, who, if the price were different at different places, I would go to Best Buy where they’ve got fantastic customer service, they’ve got all the models on the wall, they’ll talk to me for two hours about the pros and cons of the different models, and then I’ll go across town to the discounter and buy it cheaper.

The problem with that is if enough people do that, Best Buy will stop carrying the television sets, and Sony does not want that. So they’re requiring the discounter to keep the price up not because they care about the retail price, but because they care about the discounter stealing customers from Best Buy and giving Best Buy an incentive to stop offering that customer service. They care about the customer service because that makes people more likely to buy Sony.

Again, if you look at something somebody is doing, it doesn’t seem to make sense. Sometimes we have an instinct to say, “Wow, they never thought that through,” but usually, they have thought it through if it’s something that’s important to them, and then you can learn something by thinking a little deeper about why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s interesting. To go maybe meta there for a moment, we’re too quick to assume and suppose that others are behaving irrationally. I suppose that is adaptive for us because it’s just easier. There’s less energy required from our brains to be like, “Huh, that was stupid of them,” as opposed to really thinking, “Hmm, what was behind that? What could they be benefiting? What are the implications?” That’s a lot more work.

Steven Landsburg
Sure. Part of my message is that that work can be a lot of fun. People like solving puzzles. People enjoy crossword puzzles, they enjoy Sudokus, they enjoy brain teasers. You can harness that love of doing puzzles to doing this kind of puzzle. I think it does make you a little more insightful. It is a little more work, but there’s no reason that that work can’t be a lot fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s say that you’re at work and a puzzle presents itself. I guess I have to make an example, so we can get kind of concrete. But I want to hear your steps, or approaches or what you do for a second and a third. So let’s just say we are thinking, “You know, we’re having all of these dissatisfied customer service calls. They call and they’re not pleased with what has happened on the other end of the line. We want to fix that.” How would you begin to disentangle this and solve the puzzle?

Steven Landsburg
That’s such a broad question. It’s a little hard to answer without knowing more about the nature of the business and exactly what’s coming in on the calls. I guess I would start with listen to what they’re saying, and engage with them, ask some follow-up questions, and don’t jump to the conclusion that you understand exactly what they’re upset about. Sometimes, especially when people are upset, they’re not so good at articulating what the problem is, and so you got to slow them down and try to pin them down on the details of exactly what has made them unhappy and what could have made them happier.

Beyond that, I think so much depends on exactly all of the details that you didn’t give me in this hypothetical story, but starting by listening to people is probably always the right place.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love to get your take when it comes to the asking and the listening. You’re right. Sometimes you don’t quite get what you want. I’m thinking about entrepreneurs who ask, “Hey, would you buy this at $20 a unit?” And people say, “Absolutely.” They say, “Well, great. I’ve got some in my car right now.” He’s like, “Oh, never mind.” What we ask of people is often not reflective of their true behaviors. Any ways around that?

Steven Landsburg
Always be trying to look beyond the obvious. What are the incentives that are driving the way people are behaving? In your case, of course, people are saying yes probably because it’s the easiest to get you to shut up.

If you stop and think about what they’re trying to accomplish, what you’re hoping they’re trying to accomplish is to give you accurate information, but they’re not interested in whether you have accurate information. They’re interested in moving onto something they find a little more interesting. Just having that level of insight into what other people are trying to accomplish will help you interpret what they’re telling you.

Pete Mockaitis
Very much. I think about that with regard to surveys where your answer could make you look bad in terms of, “Yes, of course, I recycle always,” because to admit aloud is probably even harder to do than, say, an anonymous survey that you don’t recycle, or you recycle very rarely when it’s only super convenient for you or whatever the thing may be. The incentive at play here is just not feeling like a jerk or a loser.

Steven Landsburg
Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
So—
Go ahead.

Steven Landsburg
No, go on.

Pete Mockaitis
So then you got a bunch of puzzles in your book. I’d love it if you were so kind as to spare us from those. That would be kind of too complex without the visual aid to work with, but could you perhaps share one that we can work with auditorily alone that you think offers some pretty substantial mental expansion when you work through it?

Steven Landsburg
Okay, here’s one from the political world. Coal miners get a lot of attention from politicians. There’s a lot of pressure to make life better for coal miners to keep their wages up, to keep their working conditions better. Fast food cooks are far more numerous than coal miners. You don’t see any of that with the fast food cooks. Politicians they campaign in West Virginia, they make promises for what they’re going to do for the coal miners. We don’t see any of that for so many other unskilled occupations, which have many, many more people in them.

What is it about the coal miners that causes them to get all this attention that the other people don’t get? The answer to that question-

Pete Mockaitis
Can I try?

Steven Landsburg
Go ahead. Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
My guess is that if you think about incentives, the politicians are receiving some election campaign money from energy companies that have a vested interest in coal being alive and well and flourishing.

Steven Landsburg
Why do they get that from the coal companies and not, say, from the restaurants?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s another layer.

Steven Landsburg
Why are the coal companies putting all that pressure on them to say, “Take care of our employees,” and the restaurants not putting all that pressure on them?

Pete Mockaitis
My knee-jerk reaction is that the fast food companies have plans to automate away many of their workers as soon as possible as I’m seeing with the McDonald’s order kiosk, but there could be any number of factors.

Steven Landsburg
This has been going on for decades, and decades and decades. The answer that most economists will give you and that I absolutely believe is the correct one is this. If politicians respond to the needs of coal companies, coal companies will benefit. If politicians help fulfill the needs of the restaurants, what will happen is new restaurants will open to take advantage of that. It’s much easier to open a new restaurant than to open a new coal mine. There’s a limited amount of places where you can open a coal mine. The coal mines are already there.

If we make life better for the coal miners and the people who employ the coal miners, the people in the coal mines will benefit. If we make life better for the restaurants and the people who are employed by the restaurants, new restaurants will spring up to take advantage of that and the benefits will be dissipated. They will spread out until the new restaurants will drive down prices of the old restaurants to the point where the old restaurants don’t benefit much anyway and therefore they don’t bother lobbying for these favors. They don’t bother lobbying for things that new entrants can come along and take a share of.

This is the same reason why all around the world, farmers get all kinds of largess from government whereas, motels, for example, do not. Farmers find it worthwhile to lobby for government favors because there’s a limited amount of farm land. They don’t have to worry about new farms cropping up in the middle of New York City. If you treat the motels well politically, new motels will open up. The old motels will suffer from the new competition almost as much as they benefit from the government benefits.

All around the world in all times what we see is that government largess is directed towards those industries that it is difficult to enter and not to the industries that it’s easy to enter. There are strong patterns of that all over the place. What we see follows those patterns just as theory predicts that it would.

Pete Mockaitis
That is thought-provoking. Hopefully, not disheartening.
I was listening to this podcast which was just an audiobook called The United States is Lesterland. It was all about the people who donate to campaigns. Apparently, there’s approximate the same number of people who donate to campaigns as there are people named Lester in the US. That was the analogy, and it kind of got you thinking about the incentives and how they’re aligned. It did make you feel so great in terms of government “by the people, for the people” kind of a way.

Steven Landsburg
Shall I go onto another example?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it. That’s good.

Steven Landsburg
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
We were thinking about incentives and the next layers of incentives. Let’s do it.

Steven Landsburg
Let’s move away from politics and go to something much more within the family. All over the world there are cultures where for one reason or another we have a lot of evidence parents prefer sons to daughters overwhelmingly in some places.

Pete Mockaitis
We just had a daughter, and we think she’s wonderful for the record.

Steven Landsburg
I have got my one child as a daughter. I always wanted a daughter. It was perfect. But there are many places around the world where there is an overwhelming preference for sons. What would you expect then at the adoption agencies in those places if you go to those places where people are striving for sons? When you go to the adoption agencies, who do you think gets adopted more easily, the boys or the girls?

If you didn’t think very deeply, you would expect it to be the boys. That’s what people want. They’ll go to the adoption agencies, they’ll ask for boys. The opposite is true. At the adoption agencies and those places they ask for girls. The more the boys are preferred in those cultures, the more it’s the girls who are most easily placed by the adoption agencies. What’s the reason for that?

Again, it kind of looks crazy on the surface, but if you think about the incentives people are facing, it’s pretty clear in a place where people really want boys, they will sometimes take a perfectly healthy, perfectly functioning, intelligent, cheerful girl-child, and put her up for adoption just because they don’t want a girl. It’s a very sad thing, but it happens.

Boys tend to get sent to the adoption agency only if there’s something really wrong with them behaviorally, or if they’ve got an illness or something like that. When you go to that adoption agency, you look at the kids and maybe you can’t see for sure, but if you live in that culture, you’re pretty aware going in that a lot of the boys in that agency are going to be there because they were problem children. A lot of the girls in that agency are going to be there just because they’re girls.

Even if you prefer a boy, you don’t want a problem child. You may prefer a healthy well-behaved girl to an unhealthy ill-behaved boy, even if you prefer boys. Going into the agency, you know statistically what you’re most likely to find there, and so you turn immediately to the girls.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a name for that phenomenon? There’s a reversal based upon the reaction to the incentives. There’s got to be [crosstalk 00:32:52] name for that.

Steven Landsburg
There ought to be a name for that, isn’t there? I don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
Because I’ve heard this sort of a thing in a number of different scenarios. Well, maybe that will be your legacy, Steven.

Steven Landsburg
I’ll work on it. I don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
No pressure.

Steven Landsburg
But again, the idea is that you see people behaving in a way you don’t quite understand, and you think a little deeper about it, and then you do understand it. It’s fun to understand things. It works not just for people but for animals. What happens if you take a big strong pig and a little weak pig and you put them in a box and you make them compete for food?

Now, economists thought about this question and made a prediction, and then the biologists did us the favor of actually taking a big strong pig and a little weak pig and putting them in a box and letting them compete for food.

Pete Mockaitis
Because they’re macabre, these biologists.

Steven Landsburg
The pigs behave exactly as the economists would predict, which might not be the way that everyone would predict. In fact, it’s the little pig who eats better, and here’s why. The little pig gets most of the food. The box is set up so there’s a food bowl at one end and a lever at the other. You got to push the lever to make the bowl fill up with food.

The little pig has absolutely no incentive to push that lever because if the little pig pushes the lever the big pig will grab all of the food. He’ll push the little pig. The little pig will come down to the bowl. The big pig will already be there and will push him aside. He will eat 100% of the food. Because of that, the little pig quickly figures out there’s no point in pushing that lever.

If the big pig pushes the lever, here’s what happens. The little pig waits by the bowl and eats most of the food before the big pig can get down there. The big pig pushes the lever and then comes running the length of the box. Once the big pig gets there, he pushes the little pig out of the way and gets the dregs, gets the little bit of food that’s left just enough to give him an incentive to keep pushing that lever.

The little pig eats most of the food. The big pig does all the work, and again, it’s perhaps the opposite of what you would have expected at first, but it’s exactly what you would expect if you took the time to think through the incentives, and it’s also exactly what actually happens in the real world.

Pete Mockaitis
That set up that totally makes sense. I guess if there was just food in the middle and there’s a free-for-all, then—

Steven Landsburg
Then the big pig would get it all.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s just sort of simple kind of pushing around factors. Steven, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear some of your favorite things?

Steven Landsburg
Well, I certainly want to mention that if anybody is intrigued by some of these examples and wants to see more, they can go to outsmartaneconomist.com. It’s all one word, outsmartaneconomist.com. They can read the first chapter of this book for free, read some reviews, and get some information on how to order the book. If you are intrigued or think you might be intrigued, go to outsmartaneconomist.com and read the first chapter and see if you like it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, sure thing. Now could you share with us a favorite quote that you find inspiring?

Steven Landsburg
A favorite quote. I’m going to go with ‘Look beyond the obvious.’ I think that’s the quote that is most appropriate to what we’ve been talking about here. Always look beyond the obvious.

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

Steven Landsburg
All these little stories you can tell about the way people behave and the studies that point to intriguing unusual little bits of behavior that then we can try to explain. Again, I like to look at those many, many small things rather than trying to point to one big thing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, and how about a favorite book?

Steven Landsburg
A favorite book in any area?

Pete Mockaitis
Right?

Steven Landsburg
Let’s see. Well, I’ve just finished reading a couple of these books by Steven Pinker, the evolutionary psychologist and linguist. I find them very insightful. He thinks a lot about human behavior. He thinks a lot about what’s going on a little deeper than many people do. He’s not an economist, but he is looking at the same kinds of questions people look at; why do people behave the way they do? What underlies a lot of apparently irrational behavior? How do we explain that behavior as actually being in the best interests of the people who are behaving that way?

Steven Landsburg
The one book of his that stands out to me is called The Blank Slate. I certainly recommend that one. There are so many good books in economics. There’s a textbook by Armen Alchian and William Allen called Exchange and Production. I expect that title sounds pretty boring, but it’s actually an extremely lively book and a wonderful book to learn fantastic amounts of economics with very little formalism, very little mathematics. Just a lot of storytelling but wonderful stories. That’s another book I would encourage everyone to get a hold of.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool? Something that helps you be awesome at your job.

Steven Landsburg
My computer, without a doubt. I’m never without it.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Steven Landsburg
A favorite habit. I guess I have a favorite/unfavorite habit of doing that half-hour on the treadmill every morning no matter what. I hate it, but I am very happy with the fact that I have cultivated that habit. I don’t let myself miss it. I hope it’s doing some good for my health. God knows there could be a study coming out tomorrow showing just the opposite, but as far as I know it’s good.

Steven Landsburg
I think cultivating the habit of doing things that are really good for you, even when you don’t want to do them, is probably a good amount of habit.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget that you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers?

Steven Landsburg
That thinking is fun. Thinking a little more deeply about things not only does it make you more able to cope with the world, not only does it make you more able to make decisions better and understand other people’s decisions and interact with other people in politics, in markets, in the family, but the main the reason to think deeply about things is that you have a lot of fun along the way.

Pete Mockaitis
And your final challenge or call-to-action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Steven Landsburg
Buy my book.
Pete Mockaitis
Okay, right on. Steven, thanks so much and good luck to you.

Steven Landsburg
Thank you very much.

409: How to Crush Complexity with Jesse Newton

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Jesse Newton says: "Look for opportunities to crush stupid rules within your company."

Jesse Newton makes the case for simplifying your organization’s complex processes and getting rid of distractions.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The five factors that drive organizational complexity
  2. Key questions that clarify what’s truly important
  3. The communication mistake people make when simplifying work

About Jesse

Jesse Newton is the author of Simplify Work; Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity, and Engagement. He is the founder and CEO of Simplify Work; a global management consulting firm that helps organizations throw off the shackles of debilitating complexity and reignite top performance. His clients include McDonalds and PepsiCo. Prior to launching Simplify Work, Newton was a senior member of Booz & Company’s Organization, Change and Leadership consulting practice and also spent a number of years consulting around the world with Ernst & Young’s People & Organizational Change practice.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Jesse Newton Interview Transcript

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

Jesse Newton
Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to connect and talk about Simplify Work.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m excited too. I was intrigued to learn that only a few people know that you are a New Zealander. How is this the case? Do they assume it’s Australia or what happens?

Jesse Newton
Well, people see that I’m living here in Chicago and they make the automatic assumption that I’m American. Then when I start talking, they immediately realize that that’s not a Chicago accent.

Then to your point, they automatically go to Australia or England. I even get South Africa. Then people are totally stumped. I have to say, “Well, there is another country in that part of the world and New Zealand is it.” I’ve been over here for ten years and it’s been a fun ride, but still, as you can tell, have not been able to let go of the accent.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, don’t ever let go of it. I think it’s fun. I think it will serve you well in many regards. I had a great manager at Bain who was a New Zealander, Blair Nelson, great dude. He would explain why they’re called Kiwis and we’re not talking about the fruit. He’d go through that.

What’s your take on Flight of the Conchords with Bret and Jemaine and what they’ve done for the New Zealand image?

Jesse Newton
It’s funny. There are a couple of shows and movies that have done incredible things for New Zealand’s image, at least from an awareness standpoint. You’ve got The Flight of the Conchords, massive success; Lord of the Rings; The Hobbit. People think that New Zealand is a land where goblins and wizards and dragons cruising around. It just sort of adds to people’s interest I guess in the place.

But it’s funny, a couple of shows have really raised the awareness, especially here in America, of New Zealand.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we saw Bret and Jemaine live when they were at Millennium Park in Chicago and that was fun. I think in addition to all these goblins and creatures, it’s a land of hilarity and very creative music. We’ll give you that one too.

Jesse Newton
I’ll take it. I was actually at that performance too. I thought it was ….

Pete Mockaitis
Oh no kidding. Well, we could have been in the beer line together.

Jesse Newton
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And we wouldn’t have even known it.

Jesse Newton
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Your latest work, you’ve got a book here, Simplify Work. What’s the big story behind this one?

Jesse Newton
Well, like yourself, I have a management consulting background. I’ve been lucky enough to work around the world and with over 100 organizations. Basically, every company that I’ve been exposed to has really battled with complexity, so people getting stuck in just meeting overloads and reporting to multiple managers and trying to keep on top of emails and just unclear global matrixes, where people have no clue who’s responsible for what.

It inevitably results in people getting sucked into this complexity, losing focus of those few strategic priorities and becoming very reactive, becoming reactive firefighters. People just get stuck in this ongoing repetitive process of coming in and going through the emotions versus being very clear about what’s truly important, most important, and really prioritizing time, energy, and focus on those few things that matter most.

The experiences coupled with a ton of research really led me to write the book. I really am hugely energized by it. I think there’s just a ton of opportunity for organizations to let go of all those things that are getting in their way, to really liberate the best thinking in their people, liberate innovation, and also employee engagement.

People don’t like coming in and having to spend a huge tract of their week doing administrative tasks or having to submit expenses or spend half the year doing budgeting. They want to come into work and feel energized and passionate about the really interesting, creative opportunities they get to focus on and deliver real impact on the business. That’s done through careful design both from an organization as well as individually at what we can do to help to crush complexity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’d love to hear, you said you did lots of research. Could you unveil some of the most compelling research that suggests just what’s at stake or what’s possible in terms of the scale of how bad and evil and toxic complexity is or the scale of just how amazing of a difference it makes when you arrive at that simplicity?

Jesse Newton
Sure, there are a couple little sort of statistics. There was some surveys, some research done by the Boston Consulting Group a few years ago. Something like 73% of organizations classified their operations as overly complex.

Coupled with that from an employee engagement standpoint, there’s a statistic that I think Deloitte did or there’s some research that Deloitte did that drove to a statistic on 80% of employees being not engaged, not actively disengaged, but just disengaged but not actively disengaged. Basically people are coming in, they’re checking out, they’re going through the motions, not really coming in and energized and ready to put in all of their effort and focus and capabilities into the job.

I’m picking that and connecting that with this complexity piece. There’s just this gigantic opportunity for companies to take a blank piece of paper and rethink how work is managed in their companies.

Then looking into the common sources of complexity – there’s five things. We look at strategy, structure, we look at process, system, and culture. Each of these important elements of an organizations really fuel organizational complexity within the business. Happy to talk about those a bit more, but then the other important piece is we, individually, also are responsible for driving complexity as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you maybe give us an example of an organization or some individuals in an organization that were just crushed by the complexity – they weren’t crushing the complexity; they were crushed by the complexity – and what that looks, sounds, feels like in practice in terms of their experience and productivity and how they came out on the other side and what the new world looks like?

Jesse Newton
Absolutely. I’ve got one direct experience, one … example and then another one that is from research. The first is from an organization that I consulted with recently, in the last two years. It’s a global consumer package goods organization. They were really battling with complexity. I was working with them in a commercial function, so sales and marketing.

They had really high-paid global experts spending a huge tract of their week doing those administrative tasks that I mentioned earlier, the expense processing, the budgeting, and basically were getting more and more angry and disconnected with the company because of their lack of time to do the most important things.

Interestingly during this project, they were hit by this huge global cyber-attack. The entire organization went down. People could not connect to the internet. They couldn’t connect to their email or their calendar, which meant that they couldn’t attend any meetings. All calls, all communications were driven online. This outage lasted for a couple of weeks.

Then when they reconnected and in discussions with these leaders across the marketing sales functions, I was gobsmacked when I heard that they actually felt incredibly liberated during the outage. They said for the first time in a very long time, they didn’t need to attend all of these extraneous meetings. They didn’t have to produce all of these extra reports and fill in templates and navigate through all these different sort of email channels.

Instead they were able to think about “All right, which individuals do I need to connect with directly to drive my most important priorities?” They picked up phones and scheduled face-to-face meetings. Sales people went out and reconnected with key clients and closed deals and built relationships. When I came back, I was very surprised to hear that.

Coming out of that, let’s take this as an example of how complexity comes to life within this particular function. Then let’s get very specific about those specific things that are getting in your way. Let’s do an inventory of the meetings that you attend. Let’s be very clear on the different reports that you need to fill in and the templates you need to fill in. How much time are you spending on each of these different activities?

Then let’s be very creative in how we remove those things or redesign how you get your work done so that those other extraneous things are minimized or handed to a different group or other ways of basically helping them to get more focused on those most important priorities.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Thank you.

Jesse Newton
The second piece was Apple. There’s a great example of when Steve Jobs re-entered Apple in ’97, he’s famously focused on simplicity. You see that in the design of the products. But organizationally, he also drove simplicity.

When he rejoined Apple, there was something like 26 products at Apple. Then he did a review of these different products. Apple strategy at the time was we need to have a product in every industry segment. We need to have a presence there because we’re a top leading IT company. When he joined and did the review, he funneled it down to about I think it was 6 products, so from 26 to 6.

The focus shifted from presence in all of these different industry segments to let’s make the best products that are going to change the world. That transition to a few enabled the organization to focus. His guiding orientation around focus and then top quality really drove that transformation of Apple, which then has led to the company becoming incredibly successful. A couple of quite different examples there on the power of that simple focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so could you orient us then? You’ve got five sort of drivers of complexity. If you were trying to bring about some simplicity, where would you start? Or since you’re a good consultant, you know all about the 80/20 principle in action, what would you say are the biggest drivers that really give you a whole lot of bang for your buck with regard to getting that simplification going with a modest amount of effort?

Jesse Newton
Sure, sure. The approach can be distilled into three simple steps. Really, the first is you’ve got to get clear on what’s most important. This could apply to an organization. It could apply to a function, a team, or an individual. That first focus on “Okay, let’s take a step back and think about what are the true priorities? What are the few things that are going to deliver the greatest impact?”

I think that’s critical. It has to be there because without it, you can’t effectively prioritize. You can’t say no to things without that clear understanding of strategic priorities. I would say that that first step is critical.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How do you do that well?

Jesse Newton
Well, it depends on what part of the organization you’re focusing on or whether it’s individual. But if you’re at an organizational level, it’s strategy, so which products are winning, which services are winning, where is the organization going to win in the future. It’s those types of questions. What are our best capabilities? How is the market evolving? General strategy questions that you would expect at that level.

At an individual level, so if it’s someone … function, it’s “What are my priorities? What are the group’s priorities for the year? How does that translate to me? How can I deliver the greatest impact relative to those group level priorities as well as the organization’s?” and then work backwards from there. It’s sort of answering those sorts of questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you offer a few more sort of sub-questions, if you will, with regard to zeroing in on the group’s biggest priorities and how you arrive at those. I guess sometimes the group knows it and they tell you and sometimes they don’t and it takes a little bit more work to get there. Then at your own level, thinking about how you can make the biggest level of impact that bubbles up to the group. Do you have any extra favorite clarifying questions?

Jesse Newton
Like, “Are you clear on the company strategy mission and values? What is the purpose of your role? How do you contribute to the business of success? What are your priorities?” I list out a number of those types of questions within each of the areas.

What I think would be more valuable to sort of get to your question is those categories to focus on at the individual level, which I talk about in the backend of the book, those are really around “How do I reduce clutter? How do I get clear on what’s most important for me individually? How do I stop interruptions and distractions? How do I really nurture my own energy? How do I optimize email and meetings and plan effectively?”

Those types of questions I think, given the context of this podcast, would be quite helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh absolutely. I love them all. Let’s tick into each of them. How do we reduce the clutter? What have you found to be some best practices?

Jesse Newton
Yeah, for sure. From a clutter perspective, it’s everything from look at your desk. Is your desk covered in paper? Take time to get your desk clear.

Look at your filing cabinet. I used to be one of these people where I would put documents away that I’d think I’d get back to or that I think might be useful, but when you actually go through and do a review of all the paperwork you’ve got in your filing cabinet, you can probably get rid of 75% of it, which was certainly my experience, which is massively liberating. Just having a clear desk, having a clear filing cabinet enables you to think more clearly.

Likewise with all of the documentation in your laptop on your hard drive. Is it a spaghetti of different folders with numerous documentation? Go through and actually cull all those things that you don’t use. Make it really clear how to access the bits of information you use all the time. Clutter is a big deal.

I’d also encourage people to look at clutter in their own personal environment. Go into your wardrobe and look at your clothing. I still also have shirts that I would think I would wear at some point but never actually did, so just get rid of it. There’s a lot of value behind this whole minimalism movement that’s become quite popular. It is very liberating to get rid of all the extra unnecessary stuff.

Then this getting clear on what’s most important at the individual level, there’s two parts of it. Obviously, we talked a little bit about work and your role within an organization, but what I say in the book and what I encourage is that get really clear on what’s most important to you from a personal perspective, whether it’s family or health or religion or whatever it may be.

But get clear on both your personal and then work priorities. Then organize your time around it so that you optimize it for both. You’re basically focusing all the time that you have during the day and week on those activities that are most important to you, which leads into the third piece around planning.

Probably one of the greatest things that an individual can do to crush complexity is to plan effectively. Be very disciplined about your calendar and carving out time to think, and to collaborate, to respond to emails, to attend the most important meetings. But then also spend time with kids or do whatever you want from a health perspective, etcetera, etcetera. Being very disciplined about managing a calendar is also really important.

The avoiding distractions and interruptions. Our phones are like magnets. We’re just drawn to the phones. We’ve built these habits around needing to check our phones every few seconds let alone minutes.

During the day, if you’re trying to do something that requires deep thinking, work that is innovative or if you’re trying to solve some problems, it really impacts your productivity when you’re being interrupted by a WhatsApp message or a Facebook post or a LinkedIn message. It takes energy to regain that deep focus.

One of the suggestions is be very clear about when you do your best work or how much time you think it’s going to take to produce a piece of work that requires that deep thinking. Then shut off all the distractions and interruptions. Turn off your browser. Even turn off your email. Put your phone upside down and put it on silent. But allow yourself to really focus on that most important activity.

Optimizing email and meetings is another one. From an email perspective, one of the causes of people becoming over reactive is just the needing to respond to the latest fire or having to keep up with these huge email chains.

One suggestion is one email, one action. Don’t just continue to manage email during the day. Carve out time to manage email during the day. It could be every two hours or every three hours or whatever it may be. But don’t allow email to continue to interrupt you during important work.

When you’re dealing with it, act on it in the moment. If you can respond immediately, do so. If you think that you know it’s going to require more time, whatever it may be, then create that time on your calendar and be disciplined about going back to that.

But one of the things that contributes to people becoming overwhelmed is that they lose track of all these different emails they’re supposed to respond to and they forget about some. They become increasingly reactive to it versus in control.

The meetings, really question whether you need to attend every meeting. Have the conversations with the team and managers around optimizing the time. When you’re really clear on what’s most important for you in your role, you can be a lot more deliberate around what meetings you attend and you can say no to things because you’re very clear on your top priorities. That piece is important.

Then finally, nurture and protect your energy. I don’t want to sound too philosophical or like a Buddhist monk, but there’s a lot of value in meditation. I think the whole idea of human energy is going to become more of a buzzword in the next couple of years because we’re increasingly discovering that our energy is key to performance.

Having little mindfulness moments at work give you shots of clarity and energy. It helps to really elevate thinking and consciousness so you don’t get stuck worrying about the minutiae by being caught reacting to things. It helps reestablish that macro perspective.

Understanding your own energy and doing the things that it takes for you to recharge your batteries like going for a walk or that five-minute meditate or whatever it may be, will really help to keep you focused and also not burning out trying to keep up with everything. Those are the few things. I hope that’s helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you. Can you talk a little bit more, you said with email, one email, one action. How does that work in practice?

Jesse Newton
Yeah, going through your Outlook, pull up an email. The idea is as soon as you’re looking at an email, you want to be able to action it immediately. If you can’t, if it’s going to require a lot more work, if you have to connect with different people, whatever it may be, then that creates time on your calendar to come back to it.

The purpose being that you’re not losing track of email and you’re not letting them build up. It’s an efficient way of keeping on top of email without letting them sort of result in an email overload if you like.

Pete Mockaitis
That would be in contrast to, “Oh, got to do more stuff on that, just skip it.” You’re saying, “No, no, we’re not going to just skip it, but rather we’re going to put it somewhere,” in this case maybe an item on the calendar, so it’s out of the inbox and then it’s a calendar item?

Jesse Newton
Right. Or if you don’t need to respond to it, delete it. Or respond to it there and then if it requires a response. But you’re not creating more work for yourself in the future. You’re dealing with it in the moment, which is enabling you to keep up on the constant stream of emails.

Pete Mockaitis
When folks are trying to go about simplifying their work, what are some of the mistakes or challenges or hang-ups you see folks bump into when they’re embarking upon this?

Jesse Newton
I think make sure you have the conversations with your team and leaders. What you don’t want is to all of the sudden be not attending a range of meetings and potentially you’re impacting relationships without the context.

I would encourage people to sit down and just have a chat and say “Hey, I want to be really diligent about wasting my time and I’m clear that I need to achieve these things. I’m driving towards these objectives. Therefore, I’m going to be making decisions going forward on which meetings I really need to attend or how I respond to emails,” whatever it may be. I think just clarify that what your intent is when approaching simplifying work.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. Thank you. Okay well then, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Jesse Newton
No, I think, again, the opportunity is huge for organizations and for individuals. I think taking that big step back and either looking at your company or at how you approach work and thinking through strategically how can you do the best work and what’s most important.

What are the things that are getting in the way that are sucking my time or distracting me or pulling me away from the most important activities and what can I do or what can be done to really remove those things and redesign the way you do work to enable that focus I think can really serve to liberate peak performance.

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

Jesse Newton
Well, I’m not sure about favorite quotes on the spot. A couple of books that I read recently that I’ve really enjoyed reading that sort of reinforce a couple of important points. One of them is Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Have you heard of this book?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah.

Jesse Newton
Yeah. I’m the eternal optimist. I’ve always felt that the world is getting better. It was just wonderful to read that book and to see the facts and data behind how we are actually as a society improving. I think from an organizational maturity perspective and the … of simplify work I think it continues to sort of build on that idea of improvement, of progression.

We are now finally moving away from 20th century ways of managing work. Organizations are becoming sort of savvy around how do you tap into people’s intelligence and creativity, innovation. It’s not just about control anymore, which is very exciting. I think emerging technology will just continue to fuel that shift from an organizational structure perspective.

Then the second is Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. He’s a neuroscientist and has written a book on how you can basically change the structure of your brain by the way that you think and in particular … moments of positivity. You can basically build more of a bias towards optimism and happiness and contentment.

I think building on that, what I was mentioning earlier about managing and nurturing energy and the power of mindfulness and meditation I think this book is pretty revealing on the science behind actually changing the structure of your brain and building the right habits.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Can you share with us a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Jesse Newton
Favorite tool. Well, I think it’s just coming into work every day and having that reminder of “Okay, how do I – what’s the most important thing to get done this day?” and then immediately jumping into it. It’s just an ongoing – that reminder of “Okay, whatever is critical, I’m not going to put that off and do it in the afternoon. I’m going to do that out of the gate and focus more time and energy on that one piece.” That’s just one orientation that guides the work that I do.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget when you share it that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and listeners?

Jesse Newton
I think it’s just this idea of how do you increasingly tap into peak performance. We so easily get pulled into distractions or get interrupted or we get stuck doing repeatable tasks or in this … reactivity. I think the idea of being much more proactive and deliberate and focused can really serve to liberate peak performance, can help people to really tap into energy and passion and focus.

I think that’s the nugget. I really hope that people sort of step back from the book and feel inspired by the new found reality they can create both within the organization and their life by simplifying it.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jesse Newton
Sure. I think look for opportunities to crush stupid rules within your company. Maybe time bound it. You can try and crush one stupid rule every two weeks. Or all the meetings that come in, question whether you need to attend those, likewise with email.

Approach work through a critical eye. What are the things that are pulling me from top priorities and really question if those are needed. And then have those conversations with your teams to discuss whether all of those things are necessary.

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

Jesse Newton
Simplify Work, the book, it’s available on Amazon. I’m available on LinkedIn. You can contact me by email at JNewton@SimplifyWork.com. I’m happy to get in touch and discuss the idea of Simplify Work.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well Jesse, it’s been a good time. I wish you lots of luck in your simplifying and all your adventures.

Jesse Newton
Thank you so much.

393: Freeing Up Extra Time Through Optimizing, Automating, and Outsourcing with Ari Meisel

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Ari Meisel says: "If you make something 20 seconds easier or 20 seconds harder, you can make or break a habit."

Ari Meisel breaks down his secrets to greater productivity…from virtual assistants, to the best productivity apps, to easier ways to make decisions.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How working at your peak time makes you many times more effective
  2. The power of the 20-second rule
  3. Why you should consider using virtual assistants

About Ari

Ari is the best-selling author of “The Art of Less Doing“, and “The Replaceable Founder.” He is a self-described Overwhelmologist whose insights into personal and professional productivity have earned him the title, “The Guru’s Guru.” He can be heard on the award-winning Less Doing Podcast, on international stages speaking to thought leaders and influencers, and for those who prefer the written word, Ari’s blog posts on Medium offer immediate and actionable advice for entrepreneurs seeking replaceability.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Ari Meisel Interview Transcript

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

Ari Meisel
Well, thank you for having me Pete. It’s good to talk to you again.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah. Well, I think we’re going to get into so much good stuff. I am all about less doing. But first I want to get your take on what’s the story behind you being on the cover of a Rage Against the Machine album?

Ari Meisel
Yeah, it’s the 20th anniversary of that. It’s funny. It’s been coming up a lot lately. The Evil Empire album from Rage Against the Machine, I was 11 years old and Mel Ramos, who is a famous artist and was a friend of my father’s, who’s an art dealer, made that painting for me as a birthday present when I was 11.

The band saw it a few years later in one of his books and they just liked it. They used it for their cover. I never met the band. I was never a fan of the band. I had a billboard of my face in Times Square when I was 15 years old.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, check you out. Well, and your fame has grown since then.

Ari Meisel
Yes, totally. I think it all stems back to that very moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, starting early, that’s good. Can you give us a little bit of a quick background on your company, Less Doing? What are you all about?

Ari Meisel
I empower entrepreneurs to become more replaceable. That’s what I do. That means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but the ones that get excited by that are the ones that I usually do the best with. Essentially we’re teaching people how to optimize, automate and outsource everything in their business in order to be more effective. We do that through a number of systems that we teach and processes and methods, but essentially we teach people to be more effective.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we love effectiveness here. Most of our listeners are not entrepreneurs, but I definitely thing that there are some applicable tidbits. Now, you unpack a number of these in your book called The Art of Less Doing. Is there a unique spin that the book takes?

Ari Meisel
Yeah. Originally when I got into this sort of world, the focus was on individual productivity for the most part. I was helping individuals be as effective as possible. Over the last several years, this has developed into much more of a business methodology for growing faster with less pain basically. The Replaceable Founder really takes that framework of optimize, automate, outsource and applies it to businesses.

The goal is to make people replaceable. The reason we do that is so they can have more focus, freedom and flexibility. The way that we do that is through looking at the way that they communicate, the way that they manage and execute processes, and the way that they have their project management system set up.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. I like your alliteration here. You’ve also got the three D’s. What are those?

Ari Meisel
That’s for email and decision making in general, which is to deal with it, delete it or defer it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, tell us, how do we navigate? When is it best to choose to do versus to delegate, to defer?

Ari Meisel
We use email to teach the concept, but it’s not about email. The email problem for most people is not an actual email problem, it’s a decision-making problem. The first thing here is to understand that the three of them are there because those are the only three choices that you should have to make.

Most people treat not just email but decisions in general as if it’s a unique opportunity to make a thousand different decisions every time. It’s not.

If you limit yourself in your choices to three, then you can say deleting is saying no, dealing with it means you can deal with it right now, which could include delegating it, so you get in that sort of habit as well. Then the third D is for deferral, which is the most interesting because that’s really taking into account how you use your time and when you’re best at different things.

Every one of us has a different time and sometimes place where we do different kinds of activities better, such as podcast interviews for example. You would not have gotten this energy from me a couple hours ago, which is why I try not to schedule a podcast interviews before noon my time. It’s something I’ve learned about myself.

Not to mention that my peak time, which is a period when any one of us is 2 to 100 times more effective than any other time of the day, that peak time for me is usually between ten and noon. I can’t do creative work before eight o’clock at night because there’s just too much going on in my head and I can’t write or be really creative.

Knowing that is really powerful because you can make an active decision. You’re not procrastinating; you’re saying, “No, I’m going to do this more effectively at this time, so that’s when I want to look at it.”

Pete Mockaitis
I really like that. We had Dr. Michael Breus on the show talked about the power of when and just some fascinating stuff associated with circadian rhythms and there’s actual biochemical things going on in your body at somewhat predictable regular times that point you to different states that let you be excellent at different sorts of tasks. Can you lay it on us again? What are your times and what are the capabilities you find you have uniquely available at those times?

Ari Meisel
Again, for me, the peak time for me is ten to noon.

Pete Mockaitis
When you say peak, you just mean, “I am unstoppably energetic,” or what’s peak mean for you?

Ari Meisel
The research basically says that for every person it’s different. There’s a time of the day that’s usually 90 minutes and you are 2 to 100 times more effective in that period. What they mean when they talk about effectiveness in that situation is that you’re most able to easily drop into a flow state.

Flow state for most people, that generally equates to a dilation of time. If you’ve ever found yourself in an activity where it felt like minutes had gone by, but it was an hour or two, that’s a flow state. We want that because our brain is just firing on all synapses in that moment.

My peak time is between ten and noon. In theory, I should be using that time for my highest and best use, which in my case is usually coming up with content or really interesting problem solving for whatever the problem might be.

Now, I know that I’m not good on the phone or podcasts before noon. That’s just something I’ve learned about myself. It’s not because I’m not a morning person, but maybe it just takes me a little while to sort of get in that mood or that mode.

Creatively, I can’t do creative work before eight o’clock at night because there’s a lot going on in my house first of all, but also we tend to be more creative when we’re tired because we’re less likely to sort of shoot down the bad ideas and things can flow a little more freely. But it’s different for every person. Some people, their peak time could be five in the morning. I’ve seen that. Some people it’s eleven o’clock at night and that’s when they do their best, best, best.

We all work out at different times or we should. We eat at different times. A lot of that you can see in Dr. Breus’s work. He’s been on my podcast three times because he’s so awesome. A lot of people think, “Oh, that’s interesting.” But you really can dial it in and use that timing to your advantage.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m right with you there. The peak then is you’re most likely to drop into a flow state. The creativity is a different animal than the peak?

Ari Meisel
Right, right, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very good. That’s nice. I guess we’re already digging into a little bit. You talk about optimizing, automating, and outsourcing. One of the components of optimizing is knowing thyself. We’re already talking about some knowing thyself in terms of the times that you’re best for different sorts of activities. Are there any other key parameters you really recommend folks zero in on knowing thyself/themselves well?

Ari Meisel
Sleep I think is another one too. Not everybody needs to sleep eight hours a night in one block. Many people should, but not everybody needs to. That’s not the optimal thing for everybody.

In fact if you look back at old research, well even new research now, the natural pattern of human sleep seemed to be these sort of two different bulk sleeps, where you got this core amount of sleep, then you’d wake up for a little while in the middle of the night and do things, and then go back to sleep for what was then became known as beauty sleep.

Understanding that just because the rest of your team or your environment or your friends or family, whatever, might be on a nine to five work schedule and a ten to six or ten to seven sleep schedule, it doesn’t mean that that’s what you should be doing.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great, so get clear on your real sleep needs and what’s optimal for you and not just sort of caving to the norms around you.

Ari Meisel
It’s so individual. It’s so, so individual. That’s the big thing. Understand that you can figure it out.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very good. Any other knowing thyself things to know?

Ari Meisel
I think a lot of people are just generally unaware of how they use their time and their space and their resources and their money and everything. There’s usually a huge benefit in just tracking sort of anything that we do. You can track things like with RescueTime, you can track how you’re using your computer or your Apple watch and see how you’re moving around or not. That kind of information can be very powerful if you just take the data that you’re producing all day every day and actually look at it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you give us an example of let’s say Apple watch or Fitbit, you’re looking at your steps or movement data and how that can inform a useful decision?

Ari Meisel
One thing I would say is just challenging what you might inherently think you know about yourself. There’s so many people – there’s a lot of people who when they use these tools, they can guess the number of steps they’ve taken in the day and they’re probably pretty accurate.

Most people before they do that kind of thing are very – they’re usually pretty off. Somebody might think that they were on their feet for ten hours; it turns out they were only on their feet for two hours. Or they think that they walked five miles, but they didn’t even walk a mile.

That in itself, being aware of the unawareness I think is huge and the discrepancies because once you get into this and you sort of get to know your body and you sort of inherently understand these things a little bit better. We can make better decisions or we can even understand when we shouldn’t be making decisions because if we’re tired or not in a good place to mentally do things, a lot of people just sort of power through it and then make bad choices. Then those sort of build on each other.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. Can you recall a particular bad choice you made when you were tired or poorly resourced?

Ari Meisel
I mean a lot of it usually comes out with my wife and arguments that I wouldn’t normally have. But there – it’s funny actually. I think about a month ago my wife and I had a fairly aggressive argument. It was so out of the norm that she actually stopped and she’s like, “You’re acting like one of the children right now. You should go take a nap.” I can usually operate on pretty low amount of sleep, but this was a bad few days for some reason. I stopped and I realized I was acting like a toddler.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. That’s well said. Cool, that’s a little bit about knowing thyself. Can you dig into a bit of the concept of the external brain? What is it and how should we tap into that power?

Ari Meisel
For the external brain is the idea that we really can’t use our brains the way that we think we can. The human brain is really, really bad at holding onto information. It’s great at coming up with it, but really not so good at keeping it. We try to use working memory for something that it really isn’t, which is long-term storage.

If we have systems in place – and when I say systems it’s important because a lot of people have tools or methods maybe or gadgets, but a lot of people lack systems. If you have a system in place to actually track your ideas, capture your ideas and put them in a place where not only you can save them, but actually act on them later, that makes life a lot less stressful and a lot more effective.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah, I’m so with you there. I’m thinking back to David Allen, episode 15 here for us. He said it very well, I might not get it perfect, but says, “Your brain is for having ideas not for holding them or for remembering them.”

Ari Meisel
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s been so huge for me is getting it out of my head and elsewhere. Personally, I love OmniFocus for the actionable things. Someone said, “Oh, this is a great restaurant,” “This is a great podcast.” “You should check out this church,” or place to go. I was like, “Oh cool. I will.”

It’s sort of like all those rich little life ideas don’t float away. They land somewhere and they can be acted upon in sometimes a year plus later, like, “Oh, I am going to watch that movie someone recommended a year ago. I’m so glad I had that recommendation ready to be accessed.” I dig OmniFocus for that and Evernote for more words basically in terms of maybe paragraphs plus. What do you dig for your external brain?

Ari Meisel
Trello.

Pete Mockaitis
Trello?

Ari Meisel
Yeah, I use Trello. I was a really big Evernote user for a long time, but I sort of fell away from it because with Trello it’s more speaking to that idea of having a system. I might capture things all day long from various sources, whether it’s a voice note to my Amazon Echo device or to Siri or a picture of something or a screenshot or I’ll forward an email, and they all go to one place. They all go to one list in Trello as an individual card, each one.

Then at the end of the day, it’s one of my sort of nightly routines is I look at that list and I can sort those ideas into various places. One might be for someone on my team to deal with, one might be for my wife to look at, one might be for me to read later, whatever it might be. But that sorting process is very important to me. You can’t really do that in something like Evernote. With Trello you have that sort of visual idea, like moving things around. It feels very congruent for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing. Can you unpack for us the categories? They start by getting dumped into a singular kind of inbox, collection bin. They then go to, “Hey, read this later.” They go to teammate or wife or another person. What are the other kind of categories that it might fall into?

Ari Meisel
Let me think. It could be assigned to a virtual assistant. That’s certainly one. It could be something that I want to talk about in one of my webinars. That would be like, I do a tech talk Tuesday webinar, so it could go to that. There’s not too many. That’s the thing is you don’t want to have too many different options.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then I’m wondering over time I imagine, if you’re anything like me, you have way more ideas that you’re excited about than you can take action upon. Let’s talk about some of the automate components, the decision matrix. What is that and in particular how might you apply it to, “Hey, do I do this or do I not do this?”

Ari Meisel
Well, that decision matrix is the three D’s. Saying no, for example, there’s just a lot more things that we should say no to. If anything, for some people it needs to be the default is to say no. If it’s not a heck yes, then it’s a heck no kind of a thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you for the children who listen to the show.

Ari Meisel
Yeah, right. That’s one thing. Dealing with it means you can deal with it right now like in the next three minutes. If you can’t – and in dealing with it right now, that could include delegating it – but if you can’t do that right now, and you can’t say no, then you have to defer it. At that point you pick a more optimal time for you to do it. That’s the point of it is you don’t have to put too much thought into what, when and why.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious to hear then when it comes to the heck yes and heck no, it sounds like that’s kind of a visceral your whole person is resonating with something is what lands you at a heck yes or do you have a more systematic approach by which you are determining “Yes, I shall pursue that and no, I shall not pursue the other thing?”

Ari Meisel
One is just understanding your resources, knowing if something is even possible, which part of that comes honestly from having that clarity of thought that comes from having a system like this. It sounds very circular, but it’s true. That’s the big one.

But the other one is also having the places to sort of delegate into that can possibly deal with it. What I mean by that is I have a number of virtual assistants. I have people on my team that I might think it’s a yes, but I have a system in place to sort of send it over to one of them to then validate that idea or at least move it a little bit farther down the field.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, understood. You’ve also got a concept called set it and forget it. How does that work? Is this an infomercial?

Ari Meisel
Yeah. That’s how I think through automation. Automation to me should be something that we just sort of set up and then it just runs in the background and we just don’t have to think about it anymore. That could be simple things like a trigger through an IFTTT, for example, that if something happens here, then do something else over here. Or a process that is in place that people can go through a very detailed checklist, but it’s still that – that’s how you should be thinking about automation.

It’s not something that you should have to monitor or watch. I forgot who it is actually, but somebody, a friend of mine describes automation is just something that means he doesn’t have to do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, automation means I don’t have to do it, which is great because in a way, that expands your mindset or how you’re looking at it beyond that of software, robots. Automation can very much include people, people engaging processes, which include a high or low-tech application there. If you don’t have to do it, then that means it’s been automated as far as you’re concerned.

Ari Meisel
Right, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Well, you mentioned IFTT, if this, then that. It’s so funny I’ve looked at this app several times and thinking, that’s just cool. I’m sure I could probably find some use for it and yet I haven’t. Tell me, what are the most game changingly useful things you’re using IFTT for?

Ari Meisel
First of all, any time you find yourself in a situation where you say ‘every,’ so like every time this happens, every time a customer signs up, every time I book a podcast or video, every time I record an interview, every time I send a Tweet, every time I hire or fire someone, that ‘every’ should be a trigger to think about automation because typically that should mean it’s something that’s repetitive.

That’s one way of thinking through it. All those things that we do on a regular basis, on a repetitive basis, those are things that should be automated. I’ve automated hiring processes, content dissemination, even using machine learning to segment out potential customers from people on my email list. All of those things can be done with automations.

But at a really simple level, if you want to look at the things that you know you should be doing, but not you’re not doing them, that’s a great case for automation, like, “I’m on Facebook and I know I should be on Twitter and Instagram, but I’m not.” Okay, well you can automatically at the very least post all the things you put on one place into all the others.

I know that I should have consistencies so that if I change my Facebook profile picture, I should probably change my Twitter one as well. But those are the kinds of things most people are just like, “Ah, I’m busy so I’ll just let that one go for now.” A lot of those things where you should be doing them and you’re not, you can pick up the slack with automation.

Pete Mockaitis
When you say things you should be doing, I think one of the first things that leap to mind could be exercise, meditation, and sort of things that are boosting your effectiveness across the board. You talked a bit about attaching a new habit to an existing one, how does this work?

Ari Meisel
There are a lot of people who are way better about habits than I am. My friend James Clear, who wrote Atomic Habits, is one of the better ones to be honest.

But if we have a good habit in place already, like most of us probably brush our teeth, then you – and you want to bring in a new habit, then you can associate it with the existing habit. That’s like an anchoring effect. It just makes it a lot easier to implement that habit.

The other thing that I like is generally if you make something 20 seconds easier or 20 seconds harder, you can make or break a habit that way as well. The most obvious example of that is if you want to drink more water throughout the day, have a big thing of water at your desk, you don’t have to get up and go get water. If you don’t want to eat cookies, don’t have cookies in your house.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s nice, so 20 seconds easier or 20 seconds harder can make or break it. Well, then I’m wondering then if there’s a threshold number of seconds that’s like beyond that, “Ah, it’s just too much,” like “If it’s 35 seconds, okay, okay, fine, but if it’s 55, forget about it. Ain’t going to happen.”

Ari Meisel
Yeah, all the research I’ve seen is around 20 seconds.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Good. That’s helpful. Okay, cool. That’s a bit about the automation side.

Now let’s talk about the outsourcing. You mentioned virtual assistants a number of times. Most of our listeners are employees and not entrepreneurs or business owners, but I can tell you that when I was an employee, I used virtual assistants to great effect. Can you unpack a little behind this? Virtual assistants, what are they really, really good for and where do people go wrong when they try to make good use of them?

Ari Meisel
Even in your personal life you should be using virtual assistants because it allows you to focus on what you do best and delegate the rest as has been said before. I use the VAs for over 100 hours a week in my personal life with my four kids and booking travel for me and my family and signing up for after school things and insurance.

You have to understand the return on investment there is not necessarily something that you’re going to be able to directly measure in dollars. It’s just going to make your life better.

The biggest problem with outsourcing in general is if people try to do it as a first step and they can’t. If you take an ineffective problem and you just hand it over to somebody else who has less information, less context than you and expect some magical result, it’s just not going to happen. You have to start with the optimizing first, then the automating, then you can get to the outsourcing.

Because also if you give work to a human being that an automation could do, then you’re effectively dehumanizing them, which doesn’t work either. We have to get better at communicating what our needs are. A lot of that comes from going through and creating an optimized process to begin with.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a great point in terms of “I don’t like this. You handle it,” often doesn’t give you some great results on the other side.

Tell me a little bit when you talk about that optimization, what I found is some of the hardest thinking that I do, which has been just tremendously rewarding in terms of the return has been how do I take this gut feel type decision and turn that almost into an algorithm that we can use to determine – to get pretty far.

For example, I get tons of incoming podcast guest pitches. It’s like, “Oh my gosh.” One by one by one, I was sort of looking at them is like this is nuts, but every once in a while there were some really amazing people who came in. I thought “Well, I can’t just ignore them all.”

I really had to stop and think. It’s like, I want guests who are relevant, who are authorities, and who are engaging. Now, what exactly do I mean by relevant? What exactly do I mean by authoritative? How would I assess or measure or evaluate that? What exactly do I mean by engaging? Now, I can have that – it just goes in terms of the pitch lands and someone evaluates it per all my parameters and then I only look at a small set of finalists.

That’s been huge for me. Is there a particular way that you think about turning things from, “Okay, I can handle this,” until it’s so darn clear that someone else can handle it repeatedly?

Ari Meisel
Delegation is a muscle. You need to practice it and do it and it becomes a lot more natural. It’s not necessarily even so much that there’s an algorithm. But if you say there’s only three choices in these situations and that’s it. There’s only three choices. You sort of create innovation by artificially restricting your options.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, I dig. Can you give us an example of that in practice?

Ari Meisel
I mean, that’s one, the three options. If you say there’s 20 different things you could do, but you say, no, you only have three options. That’s a good one.

For me, if you artificially restrict time. A lot of people say “There’s no time in the day. There’s no time in the day.” It’s just not true. It’s just that priorities are messed up and people don’t have good systems.

If I told somebody that works a nine to five job what would you do if you could only work till four, you had to leave at four? For most people that’s pretty straightforward. That’s a fairly easy way to think through it. “Oh, I would skip lunch,” or “I’d take one less meeting,” or something.

But if you say to the same person, “What would you do if you could only work an hour a day?” that’s a very different question. That creates a whole different – you need a totally different way of thinking to make that work.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You’re already getting the wheels turning for me. It’s like, “Well, I would have to figure out how to have other people do the things that I’m no longer doing,” is what I would do with that hour, kind of like wishing for more wishes, if you will.

Ari Meisel
Yeah, right.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. When it comes to these virtual assistants, boy, how does someone find them? Where would you recommend they go, they research, they explore? What are some first steps there?

Ari Meisel
I’ve worked with over 20 different virtual assistant companies over the years, including owning one myself. In that time my favorite one is a company called Magic. People can go to Less.do/Magic to get connected with them. There’s a reason for that. There’s dedicated assistants, which I think create just another bottleneck that you give to somebody else. Then this is what’s more of an on demand model.

Magic has 15 people. Half of them are in the States. Half of them are in the Philippines. They work seamlessly as like one giant entity that really knows your preferences, understands what you need, and their response time is about 30 seconds 24/7. They can do all the different things. They charge I think it’s like 51 cents per minute or something like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s cool. I’ve seen ads for Magic, but I’m like, okay, well, I’ve used a lot myself. Are they any good? It sounds like you’ve been around the block. You say, “Oh yes, Pete. They are legit.”

Ari Meisel
Oh yes, Pete. They are ….

Pete Mockaitis
That’s valuable information. One of my favorite places I’ve gone to is OnlineJobs.ph, which is for hiring people in the Philippines, but you’re going to significantly more work upfront in order to select that winner. That is a bit of work, but I found that on the backend it’s oh so rewarding when you have those champions.

Ari Meisel
Right, yeah. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. You also talk about outsourcing your outsourcing. What does this mean?

Ari Meisel
I’ve had Magic manage other outsource reliers. In outsourcing we generally have the generalist and we have specialist. Generalist would be the admin sort of VA. The specialist is more like the graphic designers and the programmers and stuff like that. I’ve had Magic manage them in some cases, so then I’m not even having to deal with them. I can have sort of one point of contact.

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

Ari Meisel
No, that’s the main thing. We have a couple different programs that we offer. We have something called a Replaceable Founder, which is a really great online course and now a one-day intensive workshop that we actually offer here in New York City. That’s something that I would recommend people checking out at Replaceable.fr.

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

Ari Meisel
Yeah, I sure can. I just have to pull this up. Too long, but it’s long enough that I can’t remember it. It’s a Robert Heinlein quote, if you’ve heard of Robert Heinlein.

Pete Mockaitis
I think I see his name in text in my mind’s eye, but I don’t recall anything more.

Ari Meisel
He wrote Tunnel in the Sky. He wrote some of the – he was sort of an Isaac Asimov contemporary.

But anyway, he said, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, con a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right, thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Ari Meisel
Oh, that’s a good one. The Zeigarnik Effect probably. Bluma Zeigarnik in the 1920s in Berlin was a Russian doctoral student. She discovered this part of the brain that not only pushes us to complete the uncompleted, so it’s like the voice in our heads that pushes us to complete the uncompleted, but it’s also where we sort of process open-ended information.

Pete Mockaitis
So we know that that part of the brain exists. Are there any kind of key implications for how we live our lives differently knowing that?

Ari Meisel
Yeah. Yeah, it’s a really important understanding for us because we actually are more able to recall that kind of information than in any other setting.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Ari Meisel
My favorite book ever is Emergency by Neil Strauss.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Ari Meisel
Favorite tool. That would be Trello, really Trello.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Ari Meisel
Favorite habit. My nightly sort of brain dump, sorting of ideas that I do in Trello. It’s huge for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your folks, that gets them nodding their heads and retweeting and telling you how brilliant you are?

Ari Meisel
Well, I hope so. I think just this concept of being replaceable. It opens up a lot of ideas and philosophies and emotions for some people to understand that that’s a really good thing. It’s not just about replacing yourself in terms of the functions that you do and bringing other people to do them and empowering them, it’s also about re-placing you to the sort of glory and comfort and happiness that you once had.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s clever. Re-placing, to place again yourself.

Ari Meisel
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s profound. Thank you.

Ari Meisel
Thank you. There we go.

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

Ari Meisel
They should go to LessDoing.com. We’ve got this really cool little free mini course that people can go through. That’s a bunch of videos. Actually, if they go to Less.do/Foundations, they can get into that.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Ari Meisel
Seek replaceability in everything that you do. If you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well Ari, this has been a real treat. Thank you for taking the time and good luck in all you’re up to.

Ari Meisel
Thank you.