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KF #8. Manages Complexity

416: How to Find Insights Others Miss with Steven Landsburg

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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 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 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.

390: Five Practices for Flexible Course Correction with Ed Muzio

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Ed Muzio shares how teams can function better through smarter iteration.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How many organizations are planning poorly
  2. Approaches for greater clarity
  3. How to make wiser group decisions

About Ed

Ed Muzio is CEO of Group Harmonics and an award-winning three-time author. An expert in the scientific study of measuring and modifying human behavior, he is a sought-after consultant to business and industry worldwide and a popular media source. His new book is Iterate: Run a Fast, Flexible, Focused Management Team (An Inc. Original, 2018). He can be found at IterateNow.com.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Ed Muzio Interview Transcript

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

Edward Muzio
Hi Pete, thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, it’s good to have you. I’m excited to chat about your good stuff, but first tell us a little bit about you learning the piano at the same time your kindergartener is learning the piano.

Edward Muzio
My kindergartener had a talent for music, so we got a piano and got him in lessons. I’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano, so I asked the instructor in the one-on-one lesson, “Can I take lessons as well?” thinking he would say, “You’re kind of too old for this.” He said, “No, adults can learn. It’s a little different.” We go every week and he does his lesson for 30 minutes and I do my lesson for 15.

What I can tell you is I’m ahead of him now Pete and I’ll be ahead of him I’m guessing another six months to a year because I can take on more complex concepts, but he’s going to get ahead of me and never look back because he has no problem with repetitious activity. He’ll keep learning. He has no problem making mistakes and trying because that’s just how kids learn. They fall down, get up again.

He has a sort of infinite patience in the sense of he does get frustrated, but it’s sort of like his whole life is about kind of bumping your head and going on, so he has no hang-ups at all. Plus his brain is so flexible. I’m watching him get better and better. I’m going I have six months, maybe a year and then he’s going to just be amazing and I’m going to be still pecking away at one note at a time kind of a thing. That’s going to be it after that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I have a feeling he’s going to love that moment. I can remember when I beat my dad in chess and I knew he didn’t let me win. It was powerful in the sense that it’s like, “Whoa, I am capable of learning and growing to a point in which I have never been able to attain before.” I read a lot of books about chess from the library along the way. It’s like, “Wow, there’s something to this learning, this discipline, this sticking with things that yields cool results.”

Edward Muzio
That sort of try, fail, try, check, try, fail, try again loop is human powerfulness in learning action. He’s doing it. I think you’re right. I think when the day comes he’ll be pretty happy and I’ll be pretty happy too honestly.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, you talk about try, fail, try, fail that’s about as good a segue as you can ever get. You’ve got a book. It’s called Iterate. What is the story behind it?

Edward Muzio
Well, Iterate, it’s that same idea. Iterate is take a step, learn everything you can from that step – assuming the step was in the best direction you could figure out – but now check in again and see based on what you’ve learned what your next step should be. It’s a general concept.

Iteration is used by software programs that produce models for aircraft flight or weather. Iteration is used by plants as they grow. It’s incremental adjustment and it’s a learning loop, kind of like learning the piano, which is take what you’ve learned and incorporate it into the next step. My book, Iterate, is about what we know that management teams in really strong organizations do in that space to make sure the whole organization is iterating.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Well, so that sounds like a prudent, wise thing to do in terms of as you’re trying to accomplish things and make them happen. What’s sort of the alternatives that folks tend to try with less effectiveness?

Edward Muzio
Well, I like to talk about sort of the story of – you maybe have seen this in the book, but the story of walking to your car. You walk out the door of the office or the mall and you’ve got three minutes to get to your car. You start walking. What I just said happens. Every step is the best step you can take from there.

But what’s important about that is as you’re going along, you’ve got your feet, which is the workforce, and they’re detecting changes in the surface or they’re detecting it’s wet or something. They’re able to adjust without calling the CEO, which is your brain. Your brain set the pace and direction, get to the car in three minutes, but your CEO is not involved too much in the work of your feet.

Your feet use a resource. That’s blood oxygen. They can call to middle management, which is cardiovascular, get some more. If they need a whole lot more, that gets escalated even further. Then you do get the message in your CEO office, which is breathe harder or walk slower. At the same time you’re looking out over the horizon. You’re trying to see is that my car that I’m walking to, is there an obstruction in my way. You’re feeding information down.

You’ve got this sort of metaphorical organization, where information is flowing both up and down and it’s meeting at the right places and decisions are getting made at all levels just so that every step you take is the next best one from there. When you notice, for example, that you’re headed toward the wrong car, that’s the moment you change direction, not two steps sooner and not five steps after.

That’s the model. The alternative and what we see in a lot of organizations unfortunately, is this sort of make a plan and then manage people as if sticking to the plan is the goal. You make a plan, you start walking on the line, and then you have this scenario where the people are sort of metaphorically saying we’re not heading toward the car anymore and yet the institution can’t seem to turn.

That’s management by one strict plan at the beginning of the year. It is the alternative; however, it does not produce nearly the observable levels of growth or agility or market dynamic receptiveness or any of those kind of things than an organization, which can actually turn in small ways and big ways when new information comes out.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you mentioned a few potential indicators of performance or result. Can you share maybe any studies or research you’ve done that show what kind of a difference it makes when you iterate versus stick doggedly to the original plan?

Edward Muzio
There’s all kinds of anecdotal stories out there. What this book is based on is it’s based on actually about 70 years of research and experience. The research actually goes back to something called The Institute for Social Research, which was post-World War II, literally following managers around and writing down what they were doing and looking to see does management actually make a difference. Does it matter how you manage.

Then it tracks all the way up to we have information coming to us today about self-organizing systems like ant colonies out of the neuroscience field, which say ants kind of can find their way back and forth in these long lines because they leave a trail and they leave indicators of where they were and where to go next. That’s called … I believe. Don’t quote me on that.

We’ve got this sort of long line of research that all kind of comes together and says natural systems, computer systems, we know this is an effective way to solve problems. It’s intuitively obvious. You can go find the big bears in any space, like you’re look at sort of Intel for example. I used to work there during their growth years.

The famous sort of anecdotal story about Intel is in their early years they were competing with Motorola and someone from Motorola – this is folklore really – but someone from Motorola said, “I can’t get an airplane ticket approved in the time it takes you to adjust your entire approach to our market,” because they could just take this whole big company and just shift it.

That’s what we see in these inner shift companies is once we get these managers doing these simple five practices and doing them consistently, we start to see this agility emerge where we can stay the course for as long as we need to, but as soon as we need to turn, we can turn.

Pete Mockaitis
What are the five practices?

Edward Muzio
Well, the first one is called output and status broadcasting. I should say before I start, these are my words. One of the challenges in this work is language because if I say something that sounds like something you’ve heard of before, you’ll sort of assume I’m talking about that and that becomes problematic because really what we’re trying to do is describe behaviors.

As I talk through these, Pete, you have to sort of think about the behavior I’m talking about as opposed to the terminology. But just broadly speaking, there are five of them. The first, output and status broadcasting is managers are clear and repeated with their teams, everyone else about what they’re trying to produce with the resources they have under their control.

Secondly, they produce dashboards and plots and a particular kind of forward-looking data that shows two levels of the future, so they can sort of show graphically “Here’s where I thought I was trying going to go. Here’s what I now think is going to happen. Here’s the difference between those two things,” so that conversations can be held about the difference. That’s number one.

Number two is what I call work preview meetings. That’s those conversations. That’s management teams getting together saying where do we see this future variance, where do we see a difference between the goal we’re trying to achieve and the likely outcome of the path we’re on and what might we do with our resources to compensate for that.

One of the great sort of tragedies I think of North American management in general is that so much time is spent in meetings looking backwards, “Here’s what was done,” “Here’s a graph of everything I made up until this week,” “Here’s a list of all the things that got done last year.” Some of that is fine, but all you can do as a manager is move resources around at this moment to affect what happens in the future.

If you’re not mostly spending your meeting time talking about that, how do we change the resources around or not based on what we now understand about the future that we didn’t understand before, you’re having a problem. That’s work preview meetings.

That also gets into the third one which is called group decision making. That’s just the issue of once you’re in one of those meetings and you detect a variance, it becomes complicated what you should do about it and there’s some particular information about how to make good group decisions, things like, for example, voting is not a rational way to make decisions because people get focused on obtaining support rather than good information. It’s all around sort of coming to a good decision.

That leads into the fourth one which is called linked teams. We can talk quite a bit about this one, but the idea is that it’s not an org chart. We don’t have a set of individuals each with their own goals. We have a set of teams run by managers and each management team has a set of goals and works as a team so that everyone’s looking up at their manager’s goals instead of fighting with their peers on their own goals. That way those teams link together and do the work for the organization. All of that is necessary.

The last thing is the fifth practice and that is what we call frontline self-sufficiency. That’s the idea that an individual contributor, someone on the frontline has what they need to do their job and to do it efficiently and is so empowered to do it – I hate to use the word empowered. It’s more specific than that. But the net effect is they have what they need, nothing is in their way.

They’re so enabled I guess I should say to do that work that they can actually forecast their output. We don’t have frontline supervisors telling the staff how it’s going; we have the frontline staff telling the supervisor, “I’m on track,” “I’m ahead,” I’m behind.” That’s what leads to those forecasts that I was talking about because that’s how management ultimately knows what’s going on.

That set of five things really keeps the organization always taking a step, looking forward, saying, “Here’s what we thought was going to happen. Here’s what we now think is going to happen. What adjustments should we make? Here’s our decision to make them. Let’s do that and move on.” Then just iterating that cycle over and over again as they chomp away at their goals.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s dig into a little bit of this now. When you mentioned having dashboards and you have two levels to the future, what do you mean by that?

Edward Muzio
Well, dashboards, by the way, is one of those dangerous terms because everyone has one and they already think they know what it means. I do use the word, but I always kind of worry about that. Here’s the concept. Let’s take a really simple example.

This can work for complex things too, but in a simple example, I’m producing something, the line that I run, and I’m supposed to make 100 a week. In a typical sort of North American management situation, I would come to you Pete if you’re my boss and I’d have a graph. It would show week by week how many I made up to today.

Maybe if it was a good graph, it would also have some kind of a plan or forecast line that would show, “Hey, I’m supposed to stay flat. That’s the plan,” or “I’m supposed to do 10% more every week until I ramp up to this level,” so that’s the future. That’s pretty standard in management.

The problem with that is, of course, what you’re going to ask me is, “Ed, are you going to hit that forecast?” Then there’s going to be a long narrative discussion in which I sort of opine about that. Then you try and sort of figure out if I’m trying to hide anything. It becomes this very ceremonial dance.

What we need instead is I need to have a second future on that graph. I need to have what’s done in the past. That’s fine. I’ve got my plan line. This is what I’m supposed to deliver. Then I’ve got a second line that says based on my best intelligence today, here’s what I think is going to happen.

Now that second line might be right on top of the plan line, in which case there’s nothing to talk about, or maybe it varies. Maybe I’m saying, “Look, I’m not going to get as many as I thought,” or “Hey, I’m going to overrun.”

If that variance is big enough, that becomes something that you, me, and my peers and your management team need to talk about because someone else may need to adjust some resources or I may need to adjust some resources to deal with that fact, whether it’s good or bad. Even if I’m ahead of the game, it’s still potentially an issue for somebody who’s going to get overwhelmed by my output. Difference is difference and difference needs attention.

Pete Mockaitis
You said that there’s the plan and then the projection is your best guess as to how things are going to unfold here. I guess what gets interesting there is that there’s – you mentioned the dance, there’s all these layers associated with expectation and authority and punishment, shoot the messenger activities or not.

It’s almost like you have to have a somewhat mature and respectful culture to even deal with the fact that a variance exists. They might just be like, “Ed, no, Ed. Do the thing we agreed that you would do.”

Edward Muzio
Right. It’s funny. The North American management – I always call it the North American management model – we have this sort of mythology. It’s beautiful mythology. It says, Pete, you’re my boss. You say to me, “Ed, look, these are your goals. Go and get them. I don’t want to hear it, just go and get your goals. Don’t bring me forecasts that are different. Just get your work done.”

That’s the mythology. By that mythology you tell my peers the same thing. Then we all bring you our goals and you knit it together into what your boss wants.

The problem with that is that I am going to have variance and my peers are going to have variance. At some point I’m going to come to you and say, “I can’t do this unless you give me some of Fred’s money.” Fred’s going to come and say, “Don’t do that. I need more of Ed’s money.”

You’re going to become – and you know this if you’ve worked in any kind of management space – you become the referee. You’re almost like a parent in a dysfunctional household, where everyone is bringing you their problems, everything is framed as mission critical, and it’s your job to sort it out.

Meanwhile, your boss is looking at you saying, “Is it going to happen?” Your boss is looking down at you, you’re looking down at me and my peers, and everyone is trying to sort out kind of are these people lying to me, are they telling me the truth. It’s a very non-trusting culture, but it’s also a very preoccupied culture with trying to sort of sort out information.

What I’m saying is, you’re right, it is a cultural shift. We sometimes start it by saying, look, no news is bad news because we don’t know what’s going on, bad news is good news because we want to see variance early, and good news is no news because if there’s no variance, we don’t need to talk about it.

What that looks like sort of mechanically is on that graph that I have, I’m going to carry my past production and my past forecasts. Part of what you’re sort of looking for from me and expecting from me is that my forecasts are pretty good.

I’m not allowed to change my past forecasts to match my past production, so over time you’ll see, “Hey, Ed’s pretty good at forecasting his work. When he says this is going to go off the rails, I have a reason to believe him, the team has a reason to believe him. We probably should adjust to that.” Otherwise it just becomes like you said, sort of a fingers in the ears, don’t bring me bad news and don’t tell me – just go fix it kind of thing, but that doesn’t really work.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m right with you there. On the second practice, the work preview meetings, can you give us some perspective or tools on what are some great ways to provide previews?

Edward Muzio
One of them is that graph. I’m going to come in and I’m going to say, “Hey Pete, I’ve got this problem. I’ve got some variance. I need to talk about it.” Once you’ve got a team that’s presenting that to you and recommending to you what goes on the agenda, that sets you up to say, “Okay, of all these different variances, I’m going to put this, this and this on the agenda.”

One of the practices is as the manager of managers, have people tell you 24, 12, whatever hours in advance, “Here’s my biggest variance I want to talk about,” and then you be in charge of building the agenda and say, “Okay, from my perspective, these are the most important ones.”

Once you’re in the conversation, we have something called the OSIR – O-S-I-R. It’s an acronym – the OSIR report. That just stands for objective, status, issue, and recommendation. You manage me to make that kind of report.

You say, “Ed, you’re going to make your report now. Tell us about the variance.” I’m there with you, my boss and my peers. I’m going to say, “My objective is X, Y, and Z as you know because you’ve heard this from me before because of my output and status broadcasting. My status is here it is on my graph. You can see the variance. You’ve seen my graph before. You know how to read it,” so that takes a minute.

“My issue is the root cause of my variance,” whatever that is. “I’m short on people,” or “Things are happening differently than I thought.” “R is my recommendation. I recommend to the team that X, Y, Z happens,” “that Fred give me some of his resources,” “that you relax my deadline,” “that I do this or that thing.”

What that does is in about 3 minutes, it tees up the conversation. It’s not 10 or 15 minutes of me talking about reasons and root causes. It’s me talking for a very short period of time, putting a recommendation on the table, a strawman, and then saying “Okay, now here’s what I think we should do. What are we going to do?” You’re the boss, Pete, but we as a team are going to decide together what are we going to do.

Pete Mockaitis
That is helpful certainly, especially because if your variance is bad, it’s probably very natural temptation to make excuses and to share numerous reasons, external factors that can contribute to it just so that the folks who are reporting to you don’t think that you are underperforming because you’re maybe sensitive about it. You’re not delivering on what you hoped to be delivering.

But when you sort of summarize it in terms of this is the expectations that we go in this format, it’s going to take three minutes, I think that could really go a long way in reducing the length of long meetings.

Edward Muzio
Well, it does. One of the pieces that’s important is we always say discussions of status and discussions of history are minimized, not eliminated, but minimized.

We do in that same meeting – the first thing that will happen for the first let’s say five minutes is me and all my peers will just put up all our graphs all at once, that’s that dashboard concept, and say, “Here’s what I’m doing. This, this and this are going well. This one we’re going to talk about in a few minutes.” My next peer goes and says, “We’re all on track here.” Next peer goes and says, “These three are a little behind. We talked about that last week.”

There’s this very brief kind of quick status update that takes maybe ten minutes out of the hour if that. What that does, to your point, is it starts to let people see, so my peers and you to some extent, start to see, “Hey, Ed’s house isn’t on fire. He’s not just a collection of problems. He’s running this whole thing. It’s mostly going okay. Now he’s asking for help in this area.”

It’s a way of building trust because you’re right. If all we ever did was bring in our problems, then what happens is pretty soon my peers see me as nothing but a collection of problems. Then we lose trust. That little brief status at the front end, which educates us by each other’s graphs also educates us as to the fact that we’re trustworthy. Then from there we can go into that brief format and have a conversation. That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, then let’s hit the group decision making piece there. You mentioned voting is not the greatest of means to arrive at decisions. What are some key ways that we arrive at optimal decisions?

Edward Muzio
I always feel like I should preface this by saying this is not political commentary. This is business, small group decision making, but voting produces irrational result. Now, some people have said, “Well, we think that’s true in politics as well,” that’s to the listener to decide.

But what we know is if we put a group of people together and say, “We’re going to vote on the best answer,” then the focus turns to garnering support. I’m not going to worry too much about information. I’m going to say, “Hey, peer number one, if you go with me on this one, I’ll go with you next time. I’ll owe you a favor,” kind of a thing. That may be good for me and peer number one, but that’s not so good for the organization. We can’t do voting.

Consensus, which is we don’t do anything until we all agree has been shown to produce good quality decisions; the problem is the time. By the time we get everyone to agree, we’re too late for the business cycle.

We go into what’s called a consultative mode. Now traditional consultative decision making is Pete’s the decider, we’re all not the decider, we each talk to you one-on-one, and then you make a decision. That’s okay, but what we know is in these complex scenarios where everything is interdependent, I actually need to hear my peers talking to you and you need me to hear my peers talking to you because they’re going to raise an issue that I have information about.

We do what we call group consultative, which is each of us has a job to teach you what we know. That’s important. You basically say to us, “My agreement at this moment is off the table. Here’s how I’m leaning or not, but my agreement is off the table. Teach me what you know.”

Then I say to you, “Pete, if we don’t do this, X, Y, and Z are going to happen.” You say to me, “Ed, I think what you’re telling me is from your perspective, if we don’t do this, this, and this then X, Y, and Z are going to happen. Do I understand that?” I say, “Yes, that’s it.” Then that part of the conversation is done. It relieves me of the stress of feeling like I have to convince you to go my way. It also puts the focus on the information transfer.

You learn as much as you can from all the team members. In the process, they’re learning from each other. Then as the decider, we already know before we start it’s going to fall to you to make the decision. The decision you make is not necessarily the most popular decisions. It might or might not be.

It’s not a vote. It’s not a who spoke the loudest or who spoke the most. It’s you saying, “Hey, I’m the person in this seat and I’ve got the role of decider and based on what you all are teaching me right now, here’s my decision.”

Here’s another tip your listeners can use. Your decision isn’t done until the team can say it back to you both what was decided and your rationale for it. Not only Pete decided to give X number of dollars from Fred to Ed, but because he and we believe that Ed’s work in this area is higher priority or more immediate, whatever.

That’s important because we’re talking about managers, the managers have to be able to take that decision back to their teams and say, “Here’s what we as a management team decided and here’s why.” I call that commissioning. The decider makes sure to take the time that everyone understands both the decision and the rationale before we consider the decision to be complete.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, now when you started that conversation, “Hey, teach me what you know,” you said “I’m putting agreement to the side,” what do you mean by that?

Edward Muzio
Well oftentimes, I’m sure you’ve had these experiences and many of us have, we may know that you’re going to make the decision, right Pete? I’m going to say to you, “Pete, you’ve got to go my way and here’s why.” You’re going to start to detect some emotional content in there. I’m going to be animated and I’m going to maybe not even stop talking because I feel like you haven’t come around yet.

But once you say to me, “Look, we’re not at the part of the process where I’m going to agree with you or not. We’re just at the part of the process where my job is to understand you. Let me say back to you Ed what I think you just told me. Do I have it right?” If I say, “Yes, you have it right.” Then you say to me, “Well, do you have anything else to add, other information I need?” I go, “Yes, here’s some more.” We do that until I finally say, “That’s all the information I have.”

It’s a way of getting the information out of me while sort of relieving me of both the pressure and stress and also the reality of trying to convince you because then you can literally turn to me and say, “Ed, thank you. Thank you for the information. I’m going to consider that. I can appreciate that you’re – not only is this difficult for you logistically but it’s going to be really kind of an emotional thing for you. I’ve learned that as well. But I need to move on now and hear what the others have to say.”

It opens up the air time because everyone has something to contribute in terms of facts and information. Nobody feels that need to sort of filibuster until you come around.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, understood. That is helpful when you segment or separate those dimensions from each other. Now I’m curious, when it comes to frontline self-sufficiency, what tend to be the bottlenecks, the obstacles that mean we don’t have the frontline self-sufficiency, the recurring things that folks need but don’t have so they can’t do what they need to do?

Edward Muzio
On one level the frontline self-sufficiency is one of the easiest, maybe the easiest of the key practices to understand because the components all kind of tie together very simply. It’s really three things that lead to a fourth.

But your frontline employees need to have clear output goals, just to say that they know what they’re supposed to do and they can count it. They know what it is. That’s one’s pretty easy to understand.

Self-managed feedback, which means they are tracking their own work more frequently than management is tracking it. It’s not a question of management telling them what’s going on; it’s a question of them already knowing how they’re doing.

Then the third thing is what I call control of resources. That just means they have what they need to do the job. If there’s material or something they need, they can get to it. Again, that’s not always easy to do, not too hard to think about.

But the formula is goals plus feedback plus resources equals forecasts. What happens is once you have a workforce that’s equipped that way, they know what they’re supposed to do, they know if they’re doing it and how well they’re doing it, and how fast they’re doing it, and they have everything they need at their disposal to do it, then they start to be able to make those forecasts.

They start to be able to say when the boss asks on Tuesday or Wednesday, “What are we looking like for Friday?” They can say, “I’m on track. This is typical,” I’m a little behind, but it’s recoverable,” “I’m way behind.”

That’s the information that gets rolled up into that second forecast, that second future line where I say, “Hey boss, hey Pete, here’s what I know is going to happen in the next two to six weeks,” I’m getting that from the frontline because they’re the ones that actually know where we are. Without the frontline self-sufficiency, forecasting becomes sort of academic and hypothetical and the process does not work nearly as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. I’m also wondering when people don’t have those things, the goal is unclear or the feedback is incomplete or the resources are also incomplete, what are the things you see time and time again are among the most common things that are incomplete and missing from the self-sufficiency picture?

Edward Muzio
In terms of specifics, it varies, but I’ll give you a couple examples. One of the ones that’s often missing, not surprisingly, is clear goals. We have someone who they know their job is to let’s say get these orders filled, that’s a goal, but there’s not really a how fast or turn time or anything like that. If you sort of ask them how it’s going, they go, “It’s okay.” If you say “Are you on track, ahead or behind?” they sort of almost can’t answer you because it’s not a clear enough goal. That’s one failure mode.

Another one is maybe the foal is clear, but the resource control is an issue. It’s like you have to get these orders filled or whatever, but there’s a step in your process where you have to get approval for a shipment let’s say. Sometimes that approval takes two hours and sometimes it takes three days.

Then when I ask my frontline for a forecast, they’ll say, “Well, I’m okay, but I don’t know what’s going to happen because I’ve turned this thing in so it will be Wednesday or Friday.” That’s an issue of control of resources. It’s a different thing but it’s also in the way of that forecast.

It’s a good way to kind of look backwards and say if you can’t get a fair forecast or reasonable forecast, you can look back and say, “Okay, why can’t they do it? Is it because they don’t know what the goal is? Is it because they don’t know how they’re doing at it? Or is it because there are these things that are out of their control in the way?” It’s always one of those three.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. That’s a helpful framework in terms of segmenting that into discrete pieces. I guess I’m thinking about sometimes we have no idea because we’ve never done this before. It’s new stuff. I guess sort of like feedback is missing and maybe not so much from management but just from almost like the work itself. It’s like we’re entering new, uncharted territory and I don’t know how long it’s going to take for me to learn how to do this thing or to build this thing we’ve never built before.

Edward Muzio
Yeah, that’s a reality. That can actually happen just like that, but one of the things we also know is there’s a whole major category of work out there that we call troubleshooting work, which is the phone rings – you think of a call center for computer repairs – the phone rings and the problem is put in front of me. If I’m the frontline worker, I don’t know what the work is until I get the problem.

In that kind of scenario, although it’s true that I can say, “Well, I don’t exactly know how long the next one is going to take because I don’t know what it is,” there are still tools we can use around those goals and feedback and resources to make forecasting possible.

One of the tools we use is batch queues. I can say, “I have this many issues, which are received and undiagnosed,” meaning it’s in my queue to figure out the problem, “I have this many issues, which are diagnosed but unsolved,” meaning I know what the problem is but I’m not done implementing it yet, and then “I have this many that are solved.”

Sometimes people will further segment those into something like category A, category B, whatever. These take longer than those. But when you start to see individual contributors who work on that kind of work use those kind of systems, what starts to happen is they can, again, start to make forecasts.

You’ll say midweek, “How are you doing?” now they can’t tell you what the next thing on the phone is going to be, but they can say, “Normally by this time of the week I have 15 things that are received and undiagnosed. Right now I have 42, so I am behind,” or “Normally I have this many of type B solutions to implement and I only have 10% as many right now, so I’m ahead.”

Even though we’re all doing things to some extent we’ve never done before, you can start to work around that a bit and still get some intelligence of the system about within some broad bounds, what does this week look like relative to your other weeks of doing things no one’s ever done before? We still need that information.

Pete Mockaitis
When it comes to forecasting, you mentioned being fair and you used the term ‘a fair day’s work forecast.’ What precisely does that mean and how would you contrast that with the alternative?

Edward Muzio
Well that I do a fair day’s work forecast is once I have those three things, if I’m a frontline worker, I’ve got those goals, self-managed feedback and control of resources, then I can know what I can accomplish reasonably.

I think traditional managers will be afraid of this, say, “How do I know they’re not going to sandbag or how do I know they’re not going to lie?” But what we know about humans is they tend to try and perform pretty well most of them. Once I sort of know what I can get done in a fair day’s work, I can start to make a forecast and say, again, “I’m ahead,” “I’m on track,” “I’m behind.”

That’s contrasted with in the North American management model, the boss tells me how much to do and then I either do it or I don’t. What happens? Well, for one thing, I can only do so much. My capacity doesn’t change by my boss’s opinion; however, my presentation of what I’m doing will change.

You’re going to tell me, “Get this much done or not,” and if I can’t reasonably do it and I want to survive, which I do because I have that reptile part of my brain that’s geared toward survival, then I’m going to paint a picture or tell a story or find a reason why that wasn’t possible and I’m going to sort of make it okay. If the boss is really setting unreasonable goals, nobody can do it, then whoever has the most reasonable story gets to keep their job. That’s how it plays out.

But now we’ve got some really bad information in the organization because we have these quote/unquote expectations that first of all aren’t realistic and now we’ve got this layer of storytelling on top of it, which is here’s how you get around that and that will get trained to new people.

This is where management ceases to be functional and starts becoming ceremonial. Now we’re getting the work done despite management instead of thanks to the feedback and adjustment of management. That’s what we’re really trying to avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I think it takes a pretty good level of understanding in terms of what’s really on your plate and what you’re really committed to in order to have those. I think there’s a lot of people in work/life experience almost sort of like a chaotic sea of just too much and it’s kind of just all a big old cesspool of requests and action items. For many it’s a matter of what is latest and loudest, the most urgent and terrifying fire that they need to handle. It’s not a really fun way to live.

Edward Muzio
No, it’s more than that. … your cesspool quote. It takes years off your life. It’s not even funny. It literally does.

That goes back to that output and status broadcasting, which is one of the things we advise managers at all levels is you need to have three or five or seven things which you can use – it’s almost like an elevator pitch – to summarize the output you’re delivering. That output and that story and that summary needs to be presented over and over again to your next level, your next level so that people understand what they’re doing because we’re all subject to overload. We’re all subject to that cesspool of endless stuff.

If there’s not a clear drumbeat from management saying here’s what we’re measuring, here’s what we’re doing, here’s what we’re forecasting on, here’s where we’re going, then it’s just easy to get lost.

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

Edward Muzio
I think probably the last thing I would say is as you think about this, as the listeners think about this, I’ve found that there’s some confusion in that we need some more language around managing.

When you become a manager you start reading and getting advice about how to manage people, I like to call that managing with a capital ‘ing.’ That is true for anybody who manages people. You have to set goals, you have to deal with compensation, you have to help them solve their issues, you have to help them develop. That’s all tremendously important.

There’s another category of work that I call management with a capital ‘ment.’ That is being a member of the broader team of managers who together work in concert with each other and coordination with each other to coordinate and adapt the resources of the organization to achieve its goals.

I believe that most of what’s written for managers is written about managing with a capital ‘ing.’ My book, Iterate, is written about management with a capital ‘ment.’ I think it’s complimentary and equally important and often overlooked.

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

Edward Muzio
One that I really like is – it’s from Pema Chodron, who’s actually a Buddhist, but she says, “We’re all capable of becoming fundamentalist because we get addicted to other people’s wrongness.” I like that kind of on a personal level, but I also like it on a group meetings level. We’ve all been in meetings where someone was a fundamentalist because they were addicted to everyone else’s wrongness.

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

Edward Muzio
There was a study done years ago by a very famous guy named Asch. It was about social conformity. The idea was five people are around a table and you show all five people these different lines. Two of them are the same length and you ask them which two. The first four people give the wrong answer, but they’re in on it. The fifth person – the question was will the fifth person speak out against the group or will they go along. Overwhelmingly they went along.

But the piece that I find myself quoting is that thing’s been – that’s from the ‘60s. It’s been redone a lot of times, but somewhere around 2005 – 2006, somebody did it again with an MRI machine on the subject. The question was are they just sort of rolling over and they secretly know the answer, but they’re not saying it or is their perception being changed.

Asch, himself, always thought it was just a question of people – they just didn’t have the something, the courage or the stamina to speak up. What we found out was it actually changes your perception.

Group think is more than we thought. It’s not just about a lack of courage. Your perception changes. That just I think highlights the importance of if you see a difference, speak out in a group because even if you’re wrong, just you speaking out might help the next person who actually sees the real thing to actually be able to see it. You’re actually helping the perceptiveness of the group.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s a nice implication to highlight. Thank you. Yeah. How about a favorite book?

Edward Muzio
I’m just finishing up a book called The Insightful Leader by Carlann Fergusson. It’s about – it’s sort of the flip side of the coin to play to your strengths, which is how any one of those strengths, like results orientation or something, can become a hindrance. I think she did a really good job of explaining it got you here, but also it can become a hindrance and how to sort of keep your strength and not overdo it.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Edward Muzio
A couple. Ladder of Inference by Chris Argyris. If you don’t know that one, you can Google it. It talks about how we build sort of our perceptions of what’s going on around us.

The other one is if you don’t know Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I won’t try and spell it, but just look for Flow. It’s about sort of having these great experiences of enjoying ourselves and it has to do with challenge and knowledge or ability being held in bounds. Those have been useful to me personally, but also professionally.

Pete Mockaitis
My hat’s off for correctly pronouncing his name. I imagine you’ve practiced it before.

Edward Muzio
I did one of my whiteboard videos – I have a series of whiteboard videos. I actually called his office and said, “Please just say his name to me enough times that I can get it because I don’t want to say it wrong.” Now I’ve got good notes on it.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve Googled it myself. Well done. How about a favorite habit?

Edward Muzio
It’s sort of boring but I live my life by my calendar. I’ve got my calendar on a separate monitor next to me at all times. I schedule everything from meetings to things I have to do. I think I would be I would guess 80% less effective if I didn’t live by my calendar. I feel like that’s a good one.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks who are listening to you?

Edward Muzio
It’s from my mentor actually. The quote is “You can’t make a pie one slice at a time.” His name is Bill Daniels. He taught me a lot of this stuff when I first got into this space. It’s about that idea of those linked teams, which are you can’t assign Ed to one thing and Fred to something else and Pete to something else and then knit it all together later. If you’re a team, you have to act like a team. You can’t bake a pie one slice at a time.

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

Edward Muzio
A couple places. IterateNow.com, that’s just I-T-E-R-A-T-ENow.com. That’s the site for the book. It’s got my bio and my social media handles and things like that. My firm is Group Harmonics and GroupHarmonics.com. That’s where our offerings and classes and stuff are.

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

Edward Muzio
I think the thing I would say is we’ve been talking about without talking about culture, the culture around us. I think people tend to feel powerless. On that walk to your car, it’s like the culture is the weather.

But the culture really isn’t the weather; the culture has actually been clearly defined by people who have thought about it a lot as the collection of habits we took forward from the past. The implication is what you’re doing now is going to become the culture of tomorrow. If you’re walking to your car, it’s not the weather; it’s your habits. It’s how you swing your arms, it’s whether you smoke a cigarette, those kind of things.

I think my challenge is if you’ve got a world where it seems like management is more ceremonial than functional, don’t just say “Oh that’s the culture, nothing I can do,” and throw your hands up. Instead say, “Oh, that’s the culture. What can I do differently today that people will notice and repeat tomorrow so that I can change the culture?”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, Ed, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you tons of luck with your book, Iterate, and all you’re up to.

Edward Muzio
Pete, thank you, likewise. Enjoyed the time and good luck with your show.

385: Unlocking New Ideas by Asking Better Questions with Hal Gregersen

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Hal Gregersen explores methods for asking better questions to address your biggest challenges.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to ask better questions
  2. The four-minute Question Burst method to spark new ideas
  3. How the most creative organizations use questions wisely

About Hal

Hal Gregersen is the Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management where he pursues his vocation of executive teaching, coaching, and research by exploring how leaders in business, government, and society discover provocative new ideas, develop the human and organizational capacity to realize those ideas, and deliver positive, powerful results.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Hal Gregersen Interview Transcript

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

Hal Gregersen
Thanks Pete. Wonderful to be with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m so excited to dig into this good stuff. Thanks, Janika, a listener, for connecting us. That’s pretty cool.

Hal Gregersen
Janika is exceptional at asking questions. Years ago she was a research assistant worked with me and helped me push the edge in some of my work back then and still does that today.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, I want to hear about different boundaries, if you will. You’ve lived in ten different states and five different countries. What are some of the key things you’ve learned from having been around?

Hal Gregersen
Oh, where do you start? Have you ever lived in – have you had the chance to live in more than one country, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, lived in is probably a strong word. I purchased groceries and I was there for a week, but I don’t know if it counts.

Hal Gregersen
I love it. I love it. As you well know traveling to a country and living in a country are two different things. The power of living in a different country is that – or even living in a bicultural family is that it doubles the probability that we’ll ask another that otherwise we wouldn’t ask and get a valuable new idea that otherwise we would never get.

All of that happens because we’re able to see the world through completely different values and lenses. One of the greatest gifts that we can give to ourselves or to those closest to us is actually a chance to live in a different place, a very different culture. They’ve been profound.

Part of that seeing the world through a different lens comes from being pushed to the complete edge of your experience. When I moved to France, I didn’t know French. At every level of my life, I was pushed to the edge. In work it was a completely new work routine. In our village and community, it was very difficult to get integrated. In our church context, it was similarly difficult to integrate.

To be truthful, Pete, for probably two or three years I was moderately to severely depressed, sometimes just wanting to pull the covers over my head and “I don’t want to get up and go to work today.” It just completely flattened me out, pushed me down. But sometimes it’s from the dirt of the earth that we sort of rise.

Out of that came some grounding, some very different ways of looking at the world and gratefully so. I never would have said that in the middle of it, but you have people who are around you who help you rethink and re-ask and reframe in ways that we’ve walked away from these five countries always with friends who are so close and deep that you can meet them 5 – 10 – 15 years later and it’s like it was yesterday.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. That’s cool. What a blessing. Cool. I’m speechless. Well, let’s talk about right now your work role is the director of MIT Leadership Center. What is that all about?

Hal Gregersen
Well, the leadership center was started over a decade ago. It’s a leadership center for all of MIT, including the business school, but even beyond. I came here four or five years ago.

When I landed I ran across this Foundation report, which basically said that the alumni from MIT have launched over 30,000 active companies. They employee close to 5 million people. They generate almost 2 trillion of revenue in the world, which is like between a ninth and tenth largest gross domestic product by county in the world. I’m like how do they do that.

We for several years literally studied MIT alumni and graduates to figure out what is it they’re doing that enables them to create this enormous change in value and approach to the world. What we landed on, Pete, was we call it problem-led leadership.

Leaders at MIT don’t step up to follow people. It’s all about what’s the challenge, what’s the problem you care so deeply about that I would love to work with you on it. That’s just how they operate. They pick big, huge problems. These are incredibly bright, smart, analytical people.

But they pick problems that are so big they cannot solve them themselves. As a result it’s this fascinating team dynamic of you’ve got this skill, I’ve got that skill. You step up; I step back. You step up; I step back. We just iterate and we bump into deep conflicts. Over time we actually solve things that other people often don’t.

It’s a fascinating way of looking at leadership. It’s all about waking up and showing up in the morning with what challenge and problem is so interesting to me that I can’t not solve it. Now contrast that with people who wake up and go to work in the morning wondering what’s the politics of the day in the workplace. That’s the antithesis of the problem-led organization.

That’s why I love MIT. This place just thrives on trying to figure out what are the world’s biggest challenges to solve. You and I both know there are big challenges out there. What’s really fascinating is that for the most part these folks are deeply engaged in actually solving some edges of the biggest problems.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really interesting because you think of people at MIT, there are associations in terms of utter brilliance and then also maybe some of the pejorative associations of some of that if you think about a computer engineering person. I’m sure that’s pretty unfair for a large swath of the population there.

But it’s really intriguing you think that you’ve got those brains and it’s almost like the only way you can get a rush or to have some real fun with that brain is to get a problem that’s just gigantic and go after it.

Hal Gregersen
Well, one of my former executive MBA students recently I bumped into him. He works at Metro Biotech. You’ve probably never heard of the place, but they basically take blood samples of cancer – people in cancer – who know they have cancer and they’re going to get treatment, but we have to figure out as oncologists, what treatment should we give them. Historically, it’s like a guessing game.

He and others at Metro Biotech, they literally have used some of the questioning techniques you and I are going to talk about, but they are just problem solvers and questioners of the core to the point that they’ve created this ability to draw the blood of someone that has cancer and to test it rapidly in a few days with different protocols of different chemotherapy protocols and they can pretty much nail it that this is the one that will work.

At one point, they were just stuck trying to figure out a better solution to what they were doing with their technology. They literally asked nothing but questions, a method he had learned from me in class and his team. It actually unstuck in a way that got them to get a better, more accurate answer and a quicker answer.

The cool thing about that is that one of his relatives was in cancer treatment or preparing to as they were doing it. It was one of those just-in-time solutions that came by asking a different question that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. We may look at MIT people as nerds. They’re certainly bright and they’re smart, but they really do solve problems that make our lives better.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Not to slam any MIT people. Huge respect all the way around. I’ve got plenty of nerdy tendencies myself.

Hal Gregersen
No, I didn’t take it as a slam, Pete. On the one hand they’re really good at that and on the other hand, the Achilles heel often is some empathy and perspective taking and figuring out what’s going on in the room beyond the problem being solved. There are challenges too that come of it.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m fascinated by this. This cancer treatment selection knowledge that has been created, is this kind of widespread and common practice now?

Hal Gregersen
More so. They are doing it around the world. The colleague of mine, the former student, he’s running the India operation now. They’re trying to do that all over.

Another guy named Jeff Karp, who’s affiliated with the MIT system and runs Karp Labs. He was trying to figure out how can you heal a baby’s heart when you’re doing an operation when it’s moving and wet and sticky, but you’ve got to hook it together and hold it together. He actually learned by looking at slugs and other different things in the real world how to create this gooey substance that actually holds the sticky thing together. It’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, let’s dig into this approach in terms of nothing but questions. You unpack a bit of this in your book, Questions Are the Answer. What’s sort of the broad thesis of the book?

Hal Gregersen
At the very core it’s so counterintuitive because usually when we’re stuck, we just double down and dig deeper and deeper for what’s the right answer here, what’s the right answer here. Counter intuitively, when we are operating at the edge of uncertainty, when we’re trying to figure out what we don’t know we don’t know, by definition there are not answers on that edge. We’re looking for something that isn’t there.

But asking a different question will actually unlock a new answer that we otherwise would never have seen. It’s almost by definition when we’re working in a world or on the edge of uncertainty and the unknown, questions are the answer. When we’re stuck, whether it be at work or in life, when we’re stuck, we’re just asking the wrong questions. The path out of that stuckedness, the window, the door to something better is actually that key of asking the right question.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, very intriguing. Can you maybe give us an example?

Hal Gregersen
For example, I met, when I lived in France, Andreas Heinecke, who 30 years ago – plus years ago, he’s a reporter in Germany working I think at a newspaper. His boss brings a new employee in and says, “This guy got in an accident. He used to be able to see, but now he’s blind. Andreas, could you help him figure out how to be a reporter?” Andreas is like, “What? What do I do here?”

But Andreas when he was a little kid had a hearing disability. It made it a little hard. Kids made fun of him, so Andreas was sensitive to this man’s situation. His first question was, “What kinds of tasks could this person do as a reporter,” which is a good question. It opened up some opportunities there.

Then he worked it and worked with this guy and worked the question to the point that it became a different question, Pete. The new question was “Where could someone without sight thrive at work? Not just do a few tasks, but thrive.” When he asked that question, he thought about it and he realized they would thrive at a workplace that’s dark, pitch black.

He created Dialogue in the Dark, where literally people like you and me, they pay an amount, we go to one of their exhibits all over the world and we go through the dark space guided by blind people, who are adept and professional in the dark. You and I have to learn how to cross streets, navigate restaurants, navigate buying food, navigate walking in the park, all in the dark.

What he’s done with that is he’s created this experience where as we interact with the dark-sighted people, we gain deeper empathy for others who don’t have what we have. We learn things and we have our assumptions challenged. This has happened with ten million people now. They’re one of the largest employers of blind people on the earth.

All of that came from Andreas reframing a good question, which was “What could this blind person do as a reporter?” to “Where could a blind person thrive?” Then it turned into this social enterprise that literally has made a big impact, especially for those working in it as the blind folks, but also the ten million-plus visitors who genuinely walk away having seen the world differently.

Pete Mockaitis
This is fascinating. You said the question evolved. How can we facilitate/accelerate this question evolution?

Hal Gregersen
Well, this is the tricky thing. You haven’t done it yet. Maybe you will. I think you just might. But most reporters ask me the question, “Well, Hal, what are the questions I should be asking?” which is not a bad question at one level.

I can say, “Well, Pete, I think you should start with trying to figure out what’s going on in the situation? What’s working, what’s not and why?” Then once you understand what’s really going on, it’s like, well, let’s try some prescriptive future … questions, like “What if this?” and “Why not that?” and “How might this?” and so on. Those are giving you a list of questions.

But what I discovered in interviewing 200-plus of some of the world’s most creative leaders. Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Daniel Lamarre, the CEO of Cirque de Soleil, Ed Catmull, who is the CEO and the founder of Pixar and now Disney Animation Studios, Diane Greene, who founded VMware. I can go on with a list of just amazing people, who are sustainably innovative and creative.

When I ask them, “How do you find the right question when you’re stuck?” They didn’t give me a list of questions. What they said was, “We intentionally put ourselves in situations over and over and over so that the right question for the context emerges and opens up doors and windows that would never have opened.

Now that probably sounds like, “What are you talking about? That’s just some big theoretical blah, blah, blah,” but that’s what it was. They put themselves in conditions where questions came to them that otherwise wouldn’t. They were so unique to the situation, like Andreas Heinecke’s was, that it often led to the creation of the business, some of which today are worth billions of dollars.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re putting yourself in that situation, that context, what does that mean exactly? It’s just sort of like taking on a challenge bigger than you have any idea of what you’re doing or what does that context insertion look like?

Hal Gregersen
It starts with either having a challenge or it starts with a problem or an opportunity, but then it’s putting myself in situations where I’m going to ask different questions. Here’s the conditions, at least that I discovered with these 200 people. Put ourselves in conditions where we’re wrong, not right, where the situation makes us feel a little bit uncomfortable, in fact maybe quite uncomfortable.

When most of us are wrong and uncomfortable, our instinct is to run from it, but these folks embraced it in a way that they were reflectively quiet. As a result, the question emerged that unlocked doors that otherwise weren’t there. It’s being wrong, uncomfortable and reflectively quiet. What kinds of situations do that?

I can give you a quick example. Literally, over a decade ago, it was my first interview with Marc Benioff, who founded Salesforce.com. He’s originally a sales person for Oracle. He’s doing a great job. He’s incredibly successful. He’s always at the edge of the organization, constantly bumping into customers, getting positive and negative feedback about what’s working and what isn’t.

By the end of 15 years, he’s slightly burnt out while he’s incredibly successful and he’s got this challenge that he’s been trying to figure out, which is “How on earth can small- and medium-size enterprises take full advantage of this large enterprise software when they can’t afford it?” That’s what he’s trying to figure out. Part of that comes from his own family history of small and medium enterprises.

Anyway, he’s trying to figure it out. But he doesn’t have an answer. He takes a year-long sabbatical, but he doesn’t sit around on his behind. He does what he’s been doing for the last 15 years. He gets up, he gets out, he talks to people all over the world, rich people, poor people, government leaders, business leaders, religious leaders, just a whole range of folks from different perspectives.

He’s constantly bumping into himself being wrong and a bit uncomfortable about answers that he’s hearing and questions that are getting asked, but he’s reformulating and reformulating and trying to figure out this issue of small – medium enterprise and large enterprise software. Then he’s swimming with the dolphins and he finally gets the question, which is what if we sold enterprise level software like Amazon sells books on the internet.

He did not find that question looking in a book of questions to ask. That question today seems inevitable. It seems self-evident, but back then they thought he was an idiot when he asked it. But he’d done that hard, wrong, uncomfortable, quiet homework over and over to where the question emerged that otherwise wouldn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
The homework, when he’s talking to these people, what’s he asking these people?

Hal Gregersen
It would range from – some of those questions I mentioned earlier, Pete. I’m not exactly sure what he was asking, but my hunch would be he’s trying to figure out first of all what’s the terrain. “What’s working in your world? What isn’t?” And trying to create a safe enough space that people actually give him honest answers. That’s the tough thing.

Those are simple questions, Pete. What’s working, what’s not, and why? But creating a safe enough space for people to give you the honest answer, that’s a tough one.

When I met Marc a few years ago walking through the World Economic Forum meetings, I was visiting with him. I said, “Mark, how do you ask the right questions?” He looked me right in the eye – he’s about my same height at six foot four-ish – and he just said one work, “Listen.” Then he was quiet.

I’m like, “What’s he doing here?” I think what Mark was doing was figuring what kind of listener is Hal Gregersen. Is it just ears? Is he all here? Is he 100% present? Then after a few seconds, he waited and then we had a 15 minute or so conversation about what does it mean to listen, ranging from Jewish Kabbalistic traditions to the whole – it was a worldwide kind of conversation about what does it mean to listen.

I think that’s what he was doing. He was posing questions. “What’s working around here? What are you frustrated with?” Then he shut up.

One of the diagnostic questions of whether or not we’re good in these conditions of raw, uncomfortable and quiet is when we ask a question, how long do we normally wait on average for someone else to answer. 1,001, 1002, 1003, 1,004, 1,005. If people are answering our questions within one to two seconds, or we’re filling in the space with some follow up question or our own answer, pretty much everybody in the room already knows the answers and the question is probably not even worth asking.

The real question are ones where it causes someone else and/or us to step back, think twice, reflect a bit. It’s usually a three-second pause rate. Then we start a conversation. It’s not just a back and forth. It’s a conversation to try to figure something out.

I’m live here in Massachusetts and one of the former governors, Deval Patrick, he once told me in an interview I had with him, he just said, “It’s the power of the pause, Hal.” He said, whether it’s working as a consultant when he was young as a Bain consultant or whether it was – I think he was at Bain – whether it’s being the governor, he said “It’s always that last one or two seconds after you ask a question that if you’re just quiet and listen and people know you care, people will start offering you information.”

Again, it might be information that can make you feel really uncomfortable and really wrong about how you’re looking at the world, but it’s the stuff that changes things.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely, thank you. Now I’m curious. Let’s talk about listening well such that the other person is feeling safe. I guess one of the key is just be okay being silent for more than three seconds. That can take you fairly far. What are some of the other best practices in terms of listening well and creating that psychological safety such that folks will really tell you the truth about what’s working, what’s not working, etcetera.

Hal Gregersen
Can I come back to your question-

Hal Gregersen
-from a different angle, Pete, which is there’s this method that I discovered 20 years ago called the Question Burst. I was with a group of people. I was stuck in a challenge. We were stuck collectively. It was about some gender diversity and equity issues in the organization.

The energy was low in the room. We were just languishing. I think you know those moments. I had this instinct from what I’d been reading from some things from Parker Palmer and other folks like how – just stop everything and ask nothing but questions. That’s what we did.

It was the days of blackboards. We had three or four blackboards in the room we were operating in. I said, “Let’s just fill these blackboards up with nothing but questions for the next 10 – 15 minutes. No answers to them, no explanations as to why we’re asking the question, just questions.” By the end of that process, it was like, “Whoa, what happened here?” The energy rose. Ideas to actually solve the problem surfaced that otherwise weren’t there.

Ever since then I’ve used this Question Burst method sometimes in four-minute bursts with individuals or with pairs or with trios or in groups of five or six, where it’s even longer than four minutes at times, but the rules are no answers to questions, no explanations of the questions for a very fixed period of time.

When we do that, we get to the end of that process and 80% of the time we’re emotionally in a better place, 80% of the time we have at least one new idea, 80% of the time we’ve reframed the challenge at least slightly. It’s like an amazing vehicle by which we see things differently.

That question burst is what I did with the senior executive at a company that was trying to listen better. That’s where I’m coming back to your question on how do you listen better.

I was talking with him about a challenge, which was one of their distribution facilities, where people were packing and shipping stuff, the workers felt like they were being treated inequitably. The reality was, they were being – with their pay. The reality was they were being paid higher than market rate for that region and area.

We did this question burst. I said, “Okay, let’s set the timer, four minutes, nothing but questions, no answers, no explanations.” We got 20 questions at the end of that. Then we looked through them. I asked him, “Which questions really resonated for you that they might help you solve this challenge?” These are two of the ones that were really crucial.

First question was “How often are you in that facility,” that packaging facility. His answer was he couldn’t remember the last time he visited it. The second question was “What do you see in their eyes when they’re expressing this sense of unfairness about pay?” He didn’t know, but he knew he needed to know. The good news is he got up, he got out, he got into the world, he got into their world and he started building the trust by which he could get answers to those questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah.

Hal Gregersen
That’s one of the biggest things is that we rarely get a catalytic question, a transformational question, we rarely get an idea that changes the world or it’s breakthrough. It rarely if ever happens sitting in our office.


Sitting in our office is a great place to be isolated, to be comfortable, to be right. That’s what offices are for generally. But getting up and out, where the situations would put us in front of people and places where we’re provoked and wrong and uncomfortable, that’s where the better questions surface.

Pete Mockaitis
I really like that. That really made it clear in terms of the being wrong and uncomfortable in terms of saying, “I don’t know and I feel like I should. I have done wrong by not getting there often enough. I’m uncomfortable by the fact that you’ve exposed this shortcoming or inadequacy in my management.”

Hal Gregersen
Yeah. Can I show you a personal experience about that?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah.

Hal Gregersen
Here at MIT they invited me to do a questioning workshop or seminar with some of the local administrative staff from the floor that I’m on in the area. I did and we sat down and it’s this, again, part of the workshop is this Question Burst method. We sat in trios. We each took two minutes to explain our challenge and then four minutes to generate questions. I was the third person in the trio.

It came my turn and I explained my challenge, which was, “It’s just really hard for me to work with administrative assistants. I’m not quite sure what to ask them to do or how to get them meaningfully involved with my work?” Then it was quiet. Okay, four minutes nothing but questions.

The first question that one of the admin assistants in this trio said to me, Pete, she said, “Hal, do you have control issues?” I’m not kidding. It was like this hot dagger that just got jabbed into my heart. I felt a bit flushed. I felt awkward. It was like, man, she went right to the issue, didn’t she?

What’s beautiful about this simple process of asking nothing but questions is that it forces us to be quiet. We can’t answer. We can’t respond. We have to live with the question. By the end of it I realized I need to rethink some things that I’m doing.

Pete Mockaitis
With the question burst approach – you mentioned your situation associated with administrative assistants. Other chimed in with their questions. Are you not generating questions? Are you just receiving questions?

Hal Gregersen
You want to try it, you want to give it a run.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s go for it. Yeah.

Hal Gregersen
Why don’t you explain to me a challenge? Here’s how it works. We explain a challenge to somebody. Here’s my opportunity or challenge. We have no more than two minutes to do that. That’s purposeful because if we explain it for more than two minutes, we start walking other people into our stuckedness. We tell them too much. It’s a two minute rule, just explain it in two minutes. Then at the end – if it’s less than two minutes, I get it, fine.

But then we just for four minutes ask nothing but questions about the challenge. Do you want to give it a run?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, sure thing. Now what I’m clarifying is, you are the sole question generator or are we both generating questions?

Hal Gregersen
I actually do this myself alone. If I’m doing it with somebody else, both of us, Pete, generate questions.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, both of us.

Hal Gregersen
But if it’s your challenge, on average you’re probably well off to listen mostly to my questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so I’ll you do the majority. All right, well, let’s go for it.

Hal Gregersen
Okay.

Hal Gregersen
The best use of this method is to pick a challenge that is really important to you, that you’re really stuck on and that you might feel a little awkward telling the world about.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Hal Gregersen
So go for it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think this counts. I do feel somewhat awkward, especially telling this world about it because I want to talk about the podcast itself in terms of I’ve observed in terms of the data from the number of downloads or the engagement in terms of how deep into an episode people listen, it’s rather clear that some episodes are hits and other yeah, okay.

I’d like them all to be hits.

Hal Gregersen
Yeah, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, how can I make that happen?

Hal Gregersen
Okay, so the challenge is how I can make everything a hit?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Hal Gregersen
Okay, here we go. I’m going to set my timer, four minutes and we’re going to launch into it. Are you ready?

Pete Mockaitis
I’m ready.

Hal Gregersen
Here we go. Here’s the other rule as we start. I’m inviting you to write all the questions down verbatim, word-for-word because sometimes if you switch the words that I say to your words, you miss the question.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I’m going to typing going because I type faster.

Hal Gregersen
Okay, just type as fast as you can. Here we go.

Can every podcast be a hit? Is that realistic? What makes you uncomfortable when podcasts don’t work? What kinds of people generate the most interest? Is there any commonality across it? Whom do you most care about as an audience member? If you could influence one person on planet Earth with your podcast, who would that be? Why does having a perfect hit rate work or high success rate, why does it matter? What is success on a podcast?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ll throw out a question. What’s the mix or breakdown of guest sources in terms of where are they coming from and what proportions?

Hal Gregersen
What podcasts hit emotions the hardest? How might you create better stories? What is the arc of interaction on a great podcasts versus a not so great? Does anyone you know as a podcaster have a perfect track record? How might the podcast format make a perfect track record impossible? What metric of influence matters most to you? There we go, four minutes, done.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. That’s cool.

Hal Gregersen
Let me ask you a couple of quick questions. Do you feel compared to before we started four minutes ago, do you feel the same emotionally? A little bit better or a little bit worse?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I definitely feel better because a number of the questions get me thinking, “Yeah, okay. Does anyone you know have a perfect track record?” It’s like, well, no. I can see it the iTunes popularity little icons associated with their episodes is some are definitely 5x others in terms of what iTunes calls popularity. I feel better there in terms of okay, 100% is not something that I should feel bad about not hitting. There’s that.

Hal Gregersen
I hear you. I hear you.

Pete Mockaitis
I feel better there. Then I feel kind of reflective in terms of whoa, yeah, that’s heavy. Also, I’m excited about sort of ideas associated with – we talk about what generates the most interest.

It’s sort of like, well, shucks, I can just sort of put two things together in terms of we tagged every episode by the topic, subtopic and competency covered just recently. I’ve also gotten a bit more savvy with the Apple engagement data in terms of how to make real sense of it. It’s like well, why don’t I stick these two things together and we’ll see what we see in terms of some themes and commonalities.

Hal Gregersen
Okay, okay. You sound like you slightly reframed the challenge. It sounds like you got some ideas to do it differently. This is what I’m talking about. This Question Burst never solves the problem, but it creates progress and movement and that’s the point. It helps us move to a better and better question. Were any of the questions emotionally uncomfortable?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, some of them when it comes to “Well, how might you create better stories?” That gets me thinking to top, top podcasts that are really sort of narrative-story driven with sound beds and stuff.

Hal Gregersen
Right, right.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like oh man, those guys are like the best in the world and we’re just chatting. I’m just chatting with professors. How might I create better stories? Boy, it seems like there’s quite a gap.

Hal Gregersen
I hear you. There are ways of closing that. My suggestion, Pete, around this is what you just experienced, if you did this two or three times with other people, you would not only continue to get better questions and answers, but you would also engage in a very productive way more and more people who would care about your challenge and help you do something about it.

It’s really powerful not as a sort of one-time experience, but as a pattern by which we actually create these conditions where people are wrong and uncomfortable and quiet. It’s an artificial way of doing it, but nevertheless it creates those conditions because my bet is you wanted to answer some of those questions. Am I right?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure.

Hal Gregersen
I hate to say it, but probably every answer you would have said, it was not going to be helpful, useful. It’s probably wrong anyways. Anyway.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s cool, you mentioned earlier, it’s like “Hey, in four minutes, we generated 20 questions,” I was like, “Really? That’s a lot of questions for four minutes,” but sure enough I’m counting this up. We got 15 there.

It’s so funny you mentioned four minutes because I’ve just recently been noting that to be a great amount of time to sort of challenge myself to say straighten my desk. It’s short enough for me to not be intimidating, but also long enough to make some genuine progress and maybe even really feel like I’m in the zone and want to keep going. I’ve recently found four minutes to be kind of a magical time line for some stuff. How did you land on four minutes?

Hal Gregersen
Two ways. One is our sustainable attention span with full attention is a little under four minutes as adults. To me that was part of the four minutes.

The other part of the four minutes is there’s a project I found – it’s just in its nascent, early stage, but it’s called the 424 project, where literally if you or I spent just four minutes once a day trying to ask better questions about challenges and opportunities we care about, over the course of 365 days, we’ve just gifted ourselves 24 hours of our time, one full day, of just asking better questions. That to me is the other part of it.

Part of it is just sustained attention. Four minutes tends to be in one sense an upper end, but it’s also it’s kind of how might we help nudge the questioning capacity of others in the world forward.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. With that challenge then, you’re trying to find a new buddy each day?

Hal Gregersen
Absolutely. I was sitting down with someone who’s not only a friend, but we were doing a bit of coaching about some issues. He’s a CEO of a big organization. But his issue was quote personal. It was basically “I’ve been very close to my oldest daughter. She’s now a teenager, early teen and she’s starting to pull away with friends. How can I keep this relationship strong?” That was his problem definition.

We’re sitting at lunch having this coaching conversation and we got out some napkins, did a Question Burst, four minutes later, 22 questions later, just hear a few of the questions that we asked or I asked or he asked.

Do I listen enough or tend to act too fast? Do I push too hard? Do I helicopter too much? Do I recognize and praise what she’s best at? What talents complement yours as a father? When was the last time – what do her eyes say when she expresses concerns? What are her greatest worries? Who would she be if her last name wasn’t yours? What’s uniquely independent about her? What will you do when she gets married and moves out? What are her greatest areas of independence? These were tough questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. What I also love about these questions is that Question Burst is kind of quick and some of them I guess I’ve heard elsewhere like, “Oh, a powerful question is not one that has a yes or no answer.” Some of these do and that’s okay.

Hal Gregersen
It is okay. Some of them do, some of them don’t. They each can have their provocative element in one form or another.

At the end of this questioning process, this guy he realized – he actually got a little bit teary. He just said, “I’ve been focused on how not to lose her, but now I’m realizing that the real question is how can I support her growing and flourishing? How can I let her find her?” That’s a totally different question, but it ended up being the one that opened up a much better relationship.

The real issue just becomes how do we either at work or at home, especially at work on a productivity sort of logic, it’s not only how do I ask better questions, but how can I create a space where other people are regularly asking the tough questions to move what we’re doing forward. That’s the bigger issue.

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

Hal Gregersen
It’s the point I just mentioned, which is whether it’s Ed Catmull at Pixar having a room called The Brain Trust, where directors get complete unvarnished full of candor feedback about their movies when they’re building them, where they learn that it sucks or it’s the Lion’s Den at Cirque du Soleil that does the same thing or it’s a working backwards process at Amazon, where people read documents about new ideas for 15 minutes, they shut up and be quiet and then they know the questions are going to fly about the idea.

At these innovative organizations with innovative leaders, they systematically in their own unique way always create spaces and processes where the tough questions get asked and people know what’s going to happen. When that happens, we start moving the needle. We start doing things better. We start changing the world.

It’s not just about us, but it’s about are we creating safe enough consistent spaces for our team, for our organization, for them to feel comfortable being wrong and uncomfortable and quiet so that we can ask the toughest questions, because those are the ones that unlock our biggest blind spots, the things we don’t know we don’t know. That’s the key to the future.

Pete Mockaitis

Beautiful. Now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Hal Gregersen

I love Elie Wiesel’s quote, “In the word ‘question’ there’s a beautiful word ‘quest.’ I love that word.” End quote. The questions that matter are the ones that we have to work hard for. Once we find them, they are a quest, but once we find them they open up doors that otherwise we’ll never see and it can benefit us and others.

Pete Mockaitis

How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Hal Gregersen

Actually, way, way back, Stanley Milgram’s study on obedience to authority, where common people like you and me once we get in positions of authority. In that particular study, they gave electrical shocks to people that were life threatening just because their role expected them to do that. That’s a short version of the study.

I’ve learned over my lifetime, it’s really easy for power to go to my head. The biggest inhibitor of asking questions is power and privilege. The challenge for me as a human being or for me as a leader is how do I get beyond that isolation of power and privilege and get out into the world in a way that I don’t get trapped in my bounds of authority.

Pete Mockaitis

How about a favorite book?

Hal Gregersen

I absolutely love Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. He is so thoughtful about how do you build a sustainably creative organization.

There’s another book that’s a close second, if not first depending on the day, by Parker Palmer called Let Your Life Speak. It is a powerful inward auto-biographical look at his figuring out who he was and how to be whole with both the good and the bad that made up this person called Parker Palmer. It’s a profound book.

Pete Mockaitis

Thank you. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Hal Gregersen

I love the Headspace app. It’s a mediation app. It’s been super powerful for helping my head, my heart, my hands be more reflectively quiet. I can sometimes let anxiety and toxic worry just take over my life and Headspace has been a godsend to be able to not let that happen quite so much.

Pete Mockaitis

When you’re using Headspace, you just kind of march through the sequence that’s on there?

Hal Gregersen

Sometimes. Sometimes I start, but this isn’t one isn’t grabbing me. Right now I just started regrets because one of my challenges is holding onto regrets too long. I’ve still got to do the first exercise, which is write down all my regrets and then think about them briefly and cross them off before I go to section two. Some of them I work through, some of them I struggle with.

Pete Mockaitis

Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks that you’re working with?

Hal Gregersen

I love this one. I heard it from Tiffany Shlain. She founded the Webby Awards. Her father was an amazing physician. When Tiffany was growing up, her father told her over and over and over, quote, “If you’re not living on the edge, Tiffany, you are taking up too much space.” I think it’s just this invitation to push ourselves and others to the edge of whatever’s possible.

Pete Mockaitis

I love it. If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Hal Gregersen

Easiest way is HalGregersen.com. There’s a contact space there. Or come visit me at MIT.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Hal Gregersen

At the end of Stephen Hawking’s recent book, Brief Answers to the Biggest Question, his final chapter is on super intelligent – AI becoming super intelligent. He has a dystopian view of the world that it will take over.

My challenge and it’s why I’m not doing what I’m doing, it’s my next project, how can we nudge the questioning capacity of the world forward so that we as a human race, we will always ask the better questions compared to AI or super intelligence. Because if we don’t learn how to do that, we will lose that game. But I’m convinced somehow or another, we can continue to ask the better question.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Hal, this has been a ton of fun and powerful, transformative. I think that a lot of question bursting is going to be popping up across the world. It’s been a delight. Please keep doing the great work you’re doing.

Hal Gregersen

Thank you Pete. You too. I appreciate it.