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521: How to Generate 100 Ideas in 10 Minutes with Dr. Roger Firestien

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Dr. Roger Firestien says: "The creativity comes in the stretch, the innovation comes in the stretch."

Dr. Roger Firestien shares his simple method for generating more original ideas.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The four guidelines for generating ideas
  2. Why silly warm ups seriously help brainstorming
  3. The magic number for creative ideas

About Roger:

Dr. Roger Firestien has taught more people to lead the creative process than anyone else in the world.

By applying Roger’s work in creativity:

  • Clorox solved a 77-year-old problem in 15 minutes;
  • General Motors came up with a $1.50 solution that saved the company $50,000 a week;
  • Mead Paper developed a world-class line of products and saved $500,000 a year;

Called “The Gold Standard” of creativity training by his clients, he has presented programs in creativity

to over 600 organizations nationally and internationally.

Roger’s latest book Create in a Flash: A Leader’s Recipe for Breakthrough Innovation provides techniques

to grow personal and team capacity for tackling tough challenges and recession proofing any business.

Thank you Sponsors!

  • Blinkist. Learn more, faster with book summaries you can read or listen to in 15 minutes at blinkist.com/awesome
  • Alitu. Coupon code: awesomejob

Dr. Roger Firestien Interview Transcript

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

Roger Firestien
My pleasure. I’m happy to be with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m intrigued, so we’re going to talk about thinking and creativity. And I understand that when you like to think, one of your favorite things to do is drive tractors. What’s the story here?

Roger Firestien
I grew up in a farm in northern Colorado, and one of the beautiful things about being a part of my family is that my father didn’t say I had to be a farmer, right? And I got very interested in music, and the interest in music led to my interest in creativity. So, when I moved out to Buffalo, New York in 1978 to study creativity at the International Center for Studies in Creativity, I really never wanted to set foot on a farm again.

And a number of years ago, I went through some challenging times, and I ran into a fellow named Philip Keppler who owns a cattle ranch near Medina, New York which is about 40 miles northeast of Buffalo, where he grazes about 400 cattle. And so, Phil and I became friends, and I started to just go out to the farm to do what I call farm therapy. And what farm therapy is, is you go and you do stuff but you don’t have to make a decision on what you’re doing. My friend Phil says, “Let’s go move those bales up the north,” and we do it. my friend Phil says, “Let’s go move that tractor over there,” and we do it. My friend Phil says, “Let’s move those cattle over there to that pasture,” and we do it.

So, what it allows for me to do, and I do it regularly now, is that when I get stale with writing or when I get frustrated with what it’s like working in a university, in the International Center for Creativity, or running creativity consultancy firm, I go out there and I spend some time either driving a tractor, or working with cattle, or shoveling cow manure, or even falling in it sometimes, because what it does is it gives me break from what I usually do.

The other thing that farm therapy does to me is that, when I’m out there working on a field, and I’m supposed to, what we call bush hog, which is cut down a whole bunch of brush or anything, there is a tangible result from beginning to the end. You can see when it’s finished and there’s great satisfaction in that. In our work in teaching and writing, sometimes you often don’t see it.

So, farm therapy is what I recommend for folks who do businesses like us to be able to get away, get out in the fresh air, have somebody else make the decisions for them, and then oftentimes after that, I get some new ideas or some new insights for a new book I’m writing on, or program that I’m delivering, those sorts of things. It’s really taking a break both mentally and physically for how you spend your usual day.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I’m convinced. Farm therapy.

Roger Firestien
I’ll see you on the farm, Pete. We can always use another hand.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds like our next sponsor is a farm therapy offers.

Roger Firestien
International Harvest or John Deere, right?

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’m excited to talk about creativity and, in particular, I understand that you are capable of generating 100 ideas in 10 minutes, and we can all do this. How is that done?

Roger Firestien
Well, it’s not me that does it. It’s a group. So, let me tell you how it’s done. So, first off, let’s get a couple things clear here. One of the things we’re talking about is that we’re talking about an entire creative process here. Earlier on, in the 1950s, a gentleman named Alex Osborn, who happens to be the O in the advertising agency BBD&O, invented the brainstorming technique. But what Osborn realized was just an idea-generating technique isn’t enough. So, he also invented this process that helps you to define a problem, generate ideas, and then develop some plans for actions.

So, when we talk about generating 100 ideas in 10 minutes, it’s not difficult at all. And here’s the procedure that we follow. First, we’re talking about a group of about five to eight people, that’s about it, right? First thing you need to do is to go over the guidelines for generating ideas: defer judgments, strive for quantity, seek wild and unusual ideas, then combine and build with other ideas. Then, and here’s what’s really crucial, is we do a little warm up activity first, like a 5-minute warmup activity. And some of my favorite warm up activities are like, “How to get a hippopotamus out of a bathtub,” or, “How to improve a bathtub,” or, “What might you be able to do with 10 tons of orange jello,” right? Something fun, something sort of zany like that, and we use Post-Its, and we have people write down their ideas, say them out loud, and jot them up. And so, a warm up activity takes about 5 minutes.

Now, in addition to that, we also do this technique called forced connections, which is a technique that we use to combine different ideas from different perspectives. So, when you get stuck, oftentimes what tends to happen is you’re running down the same route. So, if I’m sitting here and if I’m working on a particular problem on, say, how to write a chapter for a book, and I get stuck, I might look around the room and see what ideas the lamp gives me, or what ideas my model rocket that I made when I was 12 years old gives me, or what ideas I get from pine trees at the backyard. And that’s the real essence of creativity, which is combining ideas in a different way than what they’ve been combined before.

So, we’ll oftentimes use pictures to help people to do that, from various aspects, pictures of food, or nature, or machinery, or people. So, then, let’s take a look at how to generate those 100 ideas. So, let’s say you’ve done a little warmup activity, and you’re working with a group, and you’ve generated about 25 ideas in 5 minutes. That’s not uncommon at all when you’re not judging ideas. Then, give the real problem that you want to work on to the group, take another 5 minutes, and oftentimes the group will generate between 25 or 30 ideas there.

Then we do a technique called brainwriting which actually helps people to write their ideas down. We use a little form where they write three ideas on a Post-It. It consists of nine squares. And what they’re doing this way is they’re working sort of in parallel. So, they’re all working at the same time. You don’t have to worry about a recorder, or a facilitator slowing down the process by getting those ideas up there. At the end of that 5 minutes, we usually have 60 or 70 ideas. It’s not uncommon at all to generate 100 ideas in 10 minutes.

Now, the thing behind that is, oftentimes then, what you’re going to find is about 20% of those ideas, about 20 or 30 ideas, let’s say 20% conservatively, are going to be good ideas that you can take and refine. Pete, what the formula really is in this is the generation of ideas doesn’t take long, but it’s the selection, the refinement, the building of those ideas, it does take the time.

So, let’s say you have an hour meeting and you want to generate some ideas for solving a specific problem you’re working on. First, come in with a well-defined problem, starting with the words that would invite ideas, like “How to…” or, “How might…” Then, give a little break, a little warmup activity work to challenge 15 minutes, and you’ll have about 80 to 100 ideas. Then the rest of that time, the remaining 45 minutes or so in the meeting, that’s what you need to use to select those ideas and refine those ideas and decide which ones you’re going to move forward. So, that’s sort of a formula for about an hour, an hour and 15-minute meeting.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so lots of good stuff in there. Now, let’s talk about the warmup. I imagine the goal here is that you get people have an easier time generating lots of wild ideas about something that is not close to home than they do generating wild ideas about something that they see every day, and so you’re getting their brain in that zone via doing something a little bit more distant. Is that kind of the logic here?

Roger Firestien
Pete, you’re absolutely right. And we do a warmup for three reasons. First, to briefly train the group on the technique. You can’t expect a group to go in there and just get creative, like, “Okay, we need some creative ideas.” So, first, a little training on them. Next, to sanction the time for speculation. And when I say sanctioning the time, people will come in from a meeting and they’ve been busy with other aspects of the day and other things are going on, and so what we do is we draw a line, we say, “Look, the way you’ve been thinking before, judging, putting things into action, executing, we’re not going to do that right now. We’re going to speculate. We’re going to try out some new ideas.”

And then the thing also is to create what we call judgment-free zone where people aren’t judging their ideas. They’re just coming up with those ideas. And you’ve got it exactly, what we want to do is we want to create something that’s fun, whimsical, non-threatening, away from the problem to generate that energy and to also practice the technique.

And so, in the book Create in a Flash, we have a bunch of warm up activities listed on page 69. And so, the whole purpose there, Pete, is for people to defer their judgment, think differently, and sanction that time for speculating. Then you can go in and work on the type of challenge. And I have to tell you, my entire career, when I neglected to do a warmup activity, I did that twice, either I thought the group was already warmed up or I didn’t have time. And what I had to do was go back into a warm up activity.

And, oftentimes, people will say, “Well, warmup activity is silly.” Well, by design it’s silly. Or they’ll say, “Well, I can’t work with my CEO on this.” I’ve had CEOs, I’ve had army generals, I’ve had people in government do warm up activities, they love it because it gives them a chance to loosen up, to have some laughter, and then that energy from that warm up, you move into working on with the challenge at hand. Oftentimes, what tends to happen is, the reason why people are not successful in idea-generating sessions is, one, they haven’t warmed up or, two, they haven’t followed the guidelines for generating ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that makes total sense to me. And the warm up, I think that’s well-stated in terms of the warmup is producing an energy, a state of mind, a groove, and that’s just huge.

Roger Firestien
Thanks.

Pete Mockaitis
I find that when I’m giving a speech that goes amazingly versus, you know, fine between that…on that continuum. The difference is largely what kind of a state did I get into prior to in terms of was I curious and eager to connect with the audience, or was I kind of in my head in terms of I have these eight takeaways that I’m going to convey now.

Roger Firestien
Right. And here they are, one, two, three. I got to get them out, yeah. Yeah, that’s a challenge of every speaker. What I’ve also found too, and I‘m sure you found this too, it’s like less is more. So, yeah, but you get on that track, “I got to get these takeaways out there,” yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, excellent point then on the warmup, and I appreciate hearing about the general in terms of, okay, this is a serious person who has lives at stake who takes the time and finds it great. So, very cool.

Roger Firestien
And also, the thing about that is generals, people like that, will use that. For example, generals realize the value of training and being very, very well-trained. And what this does is it gives some training on something that they have no stakes in at all so they can experience the process, they can experience the procedures. And then when you work on the real challenge, and you’re trained already to do it. I mean, you practice target shooting before you have to go into combat. Same thing, you practice generating ideas in a really fun way before you have to apply them to the challenge at hand. And to your point too, it’s simple but it’s huge. It’s easy to do, it’s easy not to do. And so, it’s just that very simple thing when people do it, they’re successful. When they don’t, generally they’re not.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I also want to talk about, so we’ve got that five to eight people who are able to generate 25 to 30-ish ideas, lickity-split. And then you do some stuff with Post-Its and three-by-three which turn into a whole bunch more. So, can you go into some details, as to what are we doing with that three-by-three and the Post-It stuff?

Roger Firestien
Well, first off, the Post-Its is pretty common in this business, and we use it in those things called brainstorming with Post-Its. And so, the first 5 minutes is people are generally writing their ideas, they’re saying them, they’re getting them up on a Post-It, and then they’re going up on a flipchart that the facilitator is running, and that’s brainstorming with Post-Its.

This other technique, is called brainwriting. And it’s a really cool tool because what it does is have people work individually. And so, we have a little grid here and we have nine Post-Its on it, three across, three across, three across. We write the creative questions at the top, we say to people, “Write three ideas, put the form out in the middle, pick up a form somebody else has not completed, write three more ideas on that.”

And so, they’re writing ideas continuously. The beautiful thing about this, Pete, is that they already have ideas generated from their brainstorming with Post-Its that are up there on the flipchart. They can use those to build ideas off of this wonderful little brain-writing technique, they can build ideas off of it as well. And the key is to use both. First, is stick ‘em up brainstorming, or the brainstorming with Post-Its where you get all those ideas out in a very wide format, and then, using this brainwriting tool to help people to add onto those ideas to refine them. And, oftentimes, the second round with this brainwriting tool, the ideas are a bit more well-defined because people have to write the ideas down, they don’t say their ideas anymore.

So, they write three ideas, put the form in the middle, pick up a form somebody else has used, write three more ideas, so it’s three ideas and go, and three ideas and go, and three ideas and go. And they will often, say, you’ve come up with 30 ideas with brainstorming with Post-Its, oftentimes people will double that with the brainwriting, 60, because they’re warmed up, they have ideas to build off of, and they don’t have to compete for airtime to get those ideas out there.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say pick up a form, what’s on the form and what are we doing with that?

Roger Firestien
Well, if I can refer to the book, on page 78-79, also there’s PDFs that go along with this, if go to CreateInAFlashBook.com, there’s a downloadable PDF of this form called brain-writing, and all it is is just a simple little grid with nine squares. We put nine three-by-three Post-Its on it, and write these three ideas and go, and three ideas and go, so it’s really pretty not complicated at all but it’s a group process of getting those ideas out that really gets them going.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Let me get out of this, but aren’t you writing in both of these phases? So, brainwriting is not actually distinctively different with the writing because writing had happened earlier as well? I’m getting hung up on the word brainwriting.

Roger Firestien
Yeah, the distinction between brainwriting is, first, when you’re doing stick ‘em up brainstorming or brainstorming with Post-Its, you’ll write your idea on a Post-It, you’ll say it out loud, you’ll hand them up to a facilitator that will put the idea on the chart. By saying it out loud, other people in the group can build on that idea and add to it.

Now, with brainwriting, you’re not saying your ideas out loud. You’re simply writing three ideas down, putting the form in the middle, picking up another form, reading the ideas that other participants have jotted down, either building on those ideas or adding more ideas that are coming to mind. So, the second time, the brainwriting is, yes, you’re writing those ideas down, yes, you’re recording those ideas, you’re just not saying them out loud, and you’re doing three at a time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, from there, we got a whole bunch of stuff. What happens next?

Roger Firestien
Well, then what you do is you need to converge on those ideas, all right? And we actually talk about this, in addition to Create in a Flash, there’s 20 videos that go along with it. So, when you go to CreateInAFlashBook.com, you can actually see this process happening. And we have in the front of the book the directions to find those online videos so you’ll actually see what we’ve talked about happening, Pete. And that’s probably the best is go to the website there and look at brainwriting in action.

But after writing those ideas, we do a technique called highlighting. And the first thing we do in highlighting is we take just colored dots and we have the person whose problem we’re working on go up to the charts and mark what we call the hits. These are the ideas that are interesting, intriguing, workable, might solve the problem, you like them. You mark as many hits as you like. Then, from there, you take those hits, you cluster them together into themes, right? Then you restate that cluster as an action or as a new idea.

So, what you’ll have is a whole bunch of ideas for solving a particular issue that will cluster around a certain area. Those build into a concept, then you label that concept with a verb phrase, and then from there you can go further to refine the ideas and develop them. So, that’s the basics around generating them, and then focusing on them. What’s real crucial, after you spent all this time to generate these ideas to not just go up and pick one idea. Well, in that case, why did you spend all those times generating those ideas in the first place?

So, the converge is a very gentle converge. First, what’s interesting, intriguing, workable, how do those relate to each other. And then, once you got that, labeling the cluster with a concept or a phrase that really captures the action, the essence of that idea cluster.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And I’d also love to get your take on when we’re trying to create independently on our own, what are some of your pro tips to do that well?

Roger Firestien
Well, very simple, following the same things, creating on your own as you would create in a group. For example, artists have sketchbooks. A dear friend of mine is an artist, when you look through his sketchbooks, he’s got thousands and thousands of sketches in there just jotting down new ideas, just sketches and those sorts of things.

So, when you’re working by yourself, first, define the problem, have a well-defined problem, like, “How to reduce the cost of this project?” or, “How to raise the money for this project?” or, “How to get my leaves raked in my backyard without too much effort?” And then just defer judgment. Don’t judge. Jot down all the ideas that might come to mind. What you might find is the first 10 to 12 ideas, this probably will come pretty easily for you, you kind of probably thought about those ideas before.

The next one is you might have a bit of a challenge around, so that’s when we recommend using this forced connection tool. So, say, you’re looking at ways to reduce costs on a project, well, then you look around the room, and you say, “Well, what ideas does my telephone give me for reducing costs on this project?” Well, maybe an idea would be, communicate the need to it broader. Broadcast out why you need to do it. My phone has got push buttons on, so separate the project down.

And so, that will spur you on to come up with some more ideas, but I recommend people stretch for about 30 ideas. Now, they don’t have to do it all in one setting. The beautiful thing about the creative process and why tractor time or farm therapy is so helpful is when you step away from the challenge, oftentimes new ideas begin to surface there. And that’s when it’s important to have your smartphone with you to just say those ideas into a voice memo, or have a sheet of paper where you write the idea down, because oftentimes when we find that you start working on a challenge, other ideas are going to be coming in because it stirred your brain up to come up with more ideas and more concepts. We have some good research that shows that that seems to be the case.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious, this number 30, is there some magic to it?

Roger Firestien
Yeah, a bit of magic. So, one-third, one-third, one-third principle. And so, early on, when we were working with the creative process back in the early 1980s, I ran a consulting company called Multiple Resources Associates, and this was early on in a lot of the development of creative process where we really had to try and chart a place, “Where are we going to get breakthroughs when we’re working with our clients?”

And so, as we went through many, many, many, many transcripts, we often found that idea 30, 32, 33, 34, 35, that’s when the new ideas were coming. And so, this is also based on an early principle around the old brainstorming technique, and essentially, it’s this. The first third of your idea production, about the first 10 to 12 ideas, tend to be the usual ideas. These are the ideas you’ve of thought before. These are ideas that are already roaming around people’s heads.

The second third, from idea 12 to 20, or 25 or so, those are kind of the crazy ridiculous ideas. It seems that people have loosened up a little bit, they get a little crazy, a little goofier. They’ve exhausted the usual associations that they have around solving that problem. Then the next third, the third third, that’s where the pay dirt comes, that’s when people come up, begin to make new combinations using that kind of crazy stuff they came up with the second third, some from the first third, and that’s where the new ideas and insights begin to blossom.

And so, I say the idea 30 to 35, you’re bound to get some new insights there. But what often tends to happen is we sit around in a group and we generate 10 or 12 ideas for solving a problem, and we think we’re getting real creative, well, you’re not. All you’re doing is getting those ideas out there that already romping around people’s heads. The creativity comes in the stretch, the innovation comes in the stretch. But that’s what’s behind that idea of saving the quarter for about 30 ideas or so.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, I’d love to know, you talked about forced connection, hey, you look around, there’s a lamp, there’s a telephone. Are there any other ways you recommend bringing useful stimuli into the equation for association?

Roger Firestien
Well, I want to save your listeners a lot of money because the whole idea of forced connections is really the basis of what creativity is. There’s lots of books out there that give you 101 ways to come up with more ideas, those sorts of things, and they’re all based on the concept of making a sort of remote association, an association with something that’s not related to the problem at all, which is combining ideas that usually don’t appear to be related in any way.

Now, what we use is we use visual forced connections. So, if you’re in a session and the group is slowing down, we’ll have a series of pictures, lots of pictures, and they fall into four categories. One category is people, second category is nature, the third category is machinery or the non-living world, and the fourth category is food. And we’ll just have these pictures just scattered out over a table. When people get stuck, they can take a look at the pictures, see what ideas it gives them, use that to create a connection and come up with a new idea.

Now, you can use pictures but you can also use smells. You can also use sounds or music. You can also use taste. In other words, you’re working on a problem in some way, and you’re tasting cinnamon. What ideas that cinnamon bring to mind? Or you’re working on a problem and you see an ocean liner. What idea does an ocean liner bring to mind? That’s the basics of it, Pete. Taking a look at something or making connection with something that’s not related to the problem at all and use that connection to create a new idea. And that’s my go-to tool.

So, there’s other tools that you can use but if we’re going to give our listeners something that they can use consistently, it’s this forced connection tool. We have an interview on one of the videos of a gentleman named Dr. Robert Gatewood, who took one of my classes and he said, “I would leave class, and as I was driving, I’d be working on a problem, and I’d look around and I’d see what connections I might get from a stoplight, or what connections I might get from a building.”

And there’s an interesting story about forced connections if you want to go into that in a second, but I want to make sure that I’ve responded to your question here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, got it. It’s storytime.

Roger Firestien
Storytime. So, one of the people that we talk about is a gentleman named Wilson Greatbatch. Now, do you know who Wilson Greatbatch is?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t.

Roger Firestien
Most people don’t. You know what a pacemaker is?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Roger Firestien
Of course, you do. Wilson Greatbatch invented the pacemaker, and he actually lived about 10 miles from where I live, and I got the opportunity to visit with Dr. Greatbatch a number of times. Now, one of the things that led to the invention of the pacemaker was a lot of failures, a lot of trial and learn is what we call them. And Wilson Greatbatch is wonderful about reframing failure. He said, “I look forward to failure as a learning experience. Nine out of ten things that I worked on fail. But the one that works pays for the other nine.”

So, in my conversations with him, the idea for the pacemaker, he told me, actually came from a hazard flasher on the side of a road. So, he’s driving back from a meeting one time, he sees this construction site, he sees all these hazard flashers flashing. That flashing made the connection between the pacemaker electrical charge and this network with the heart. So, that’s one example.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, yeah.

Roger Firestien
Yeah, cool. They all are, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. So, trial and learn instead of trial and error.

Roger Firestien
Yeah, trial and learn because whenever you do something, you create a result. It might not be the result you anticipated, but the question is, “What can you learn from that result?” If you look at highly-creative people, they see failure in a different way. They see failure, they don’t attach a negative value to it. They see failure as, “Well, gee, that didn’t work. What else might work? What else might work?” Edison was famous for his quotes on this, but he was about halfway into inventing the lightbulb, and somebody asked him, “Mr. Edison, how many tries have you tried to invent a lightbulb that haven’t worked?” He said, “Well, I’ve succeeded in proving 700 ways it will not work. When I find a way that will work, I will be 700 ways closer to that.” And so, it’s that whole attitude about failure.

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

Roger Firestien
So, as far as creativity is concerned, and as far as things that your listeners can take away from, I think it’s really crucial that oftentimes people think that creativity is just coming up with lots and lots of ideas. But what I found over my 40-year career is that oftentimes, most of the time, what we think is the problem isn’t the problem at all. And that’s why it’s important to ask a lot of creative questions, which is what we talk about in the book.

Now, Pete, this is we talked about generating lots of ideas for solving a problem. You can use that same principle to generate lots of creative questions. So, if you’re coming up with creative questions, just differ judgments, strive for quantity, seek wild and unusual questions, combine and build other questions. And when you get those out, once again, 30 questions or so, look through those, find the best one, and then you’re going to to be much more on target for generating ideas.

So, I would say that’s one of my favorite things for your listeners to take with you. It’s like don’t accept the initial definition of the problem. And in my entire career, as I’ve facilitated hundreds of groups of creative problem-solving, there’s been one time, one time only, that the initial definition of the problem was the real problem. The rest of the time, that wasn’t it at all. It was somewhere else.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, by asking, you’re brainstorming different iterations of the problem or question to be solved, and in so doing, you’re sort of following the same process of zeroing in on which one seems the most resonant, workable, compelling?

Roger Firestien
Yes. What we do is we have you phrase those questions beginning with a phrase as a question. So, we use words like “How might…,” or, “How to…”, “What might be all the ways to…” And what those do is they setup the question as a divergent question. In other words, they’re opening your mind to search for ideas. So, “How to reduce the cost…” is very different than saying, “We don’t have enough money, okay?” That statement blocks your thinking. “How to reduce the cost…” tells your brain to begin to start to look for some ideas. So, using language in that way really helps to open up your thinking. It also helps to diffuse a lot of arguments and stuff as well.

So, if you’re in a highly-charged situation and people have different points of views, well, just phrase your point of view as a “How to…” or, “In what ways might we…” you get it up there on the chart and people feel heard, they feel valued that way. That’s one of the other things about the idea-generating process when you’re using something like brainstorming with Post-Its, everybody’s idea is valued, everybody’s idea gets up there, everybody’s idea gets heard, and so that builds teamwork. And the best way to solve a problem or the best way to build a team is to solve a problem together.

Pete Mockaitis
With that, could you now share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Roger Firestien
A favorite quote that I find inspiring? Yeah, yeah, I do have a favorite quote. Thanks. And this is one of my favorites. It’s from Create in a Flash, and I didn’t know this was by this person, but Mike Wallace, a columnist, I love this quote, he said, “If you don’t wake up in the morning excited to pick up where you left your work yesterday, you haven’t found your calling yet.” I just love that quote because if you look at creative people, if you look at people that are passionate about their work, that’s what they do. It’s like, “I’m ready to start tomorrow morning because I’m so excited to pick up where I left off.” So, that’s one of my favorite quotes, yeah.

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

Roger Firestien
Ah, well, I’ve got a bit of research. Actually, this is my doctoral research that we did back in 1987. And what we did was we compared groups that were trained in creative problem-solving with groups who were not trained in creative problem-solving. We gave them a real-life problem to solve, we took them over to the television studio on the campus, and we videotaped them while they solved the problem. When we analyzed the videotapes, we found the groups that were trained in creative problem-solving methods, the things that we’re talking about, participated significantly more, they criticized ideas less, they supported ideas more, they laughed more, they smiled more, and they generated twice as many ideas as the groups who were not trained in creative problem-solving.

Now, when we gave those ideas back to the business people that gave us a problem to work on in the first place, we found that the groups who were in creative problem-solving outproduced the untrained groups by about three to one on high-quality ideas. And the output of this is that they had more, better ideas to choose from, so they had a much greater array of ideas that they could choose from. Henceforth, a much greater possibility of solving the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it’s so interesting. So, three to one on quality, and two to one on quantity.

Roger Firestien
Yeah, just about like that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing.

Roger Firestien
So, again, Pete, what was that again?

Pete Mockaitis
So, you said it was three to one on quality.

Roger Firestien
On quality.

Pete Mockaitis
And two to one on quantity.

Roger Firestien
Yeah, two to one on quantity. Yeah, I’ve never really looked at it that way before, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that means that the average quality score, if you will, I don’t know, of a given idea was better still.

Roger Firestien
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
As opposed to, “Well, yeah, they had more good ideas. They had 10 times as many so some of them were bound to not suck.” It’s like, I don’t know, the average quality was higher too.

Roger Firestien
You know, that’s an interesting way to look at that, a great way to look at that. I’ve got to write another study, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Roger Firestien
Well, come on, “Create in a Flash: A Leader’s Recipe for Breakthrough Innovation.” We just released it. So, I love this book.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit, something you do to be awesome at your job?

Roger Firestien
A favorite habit. Well, I think, yeah, let me give you a couple of things. One is I’m in a wonderful position to be able to kind of control my schedule. So, one of my favorite habits is naps. And if you look at folks that are highly creative, they’ve taken naps, they’ve taken refreshers. And so, if you can sneak in a short 20-minute nap sometime during the day, that gives you what I call as two days. Because you work for a certain pace for a while, and usually about 2:00 o’clock or 3:00 o’clock, I tend to slow down. So, a little nap, a little quick meditation just to refresh, then you’re good for the rest of the day. That’s one.

And then the other thing is just really be aware that you’re always coming up with ideas, and just writing those ideas down whenever they occur to you. So, when I’m out doing farm therapy, I always have my smartphone with me because 99% of the time, I’m going to come up with an idea there to help me with something I’ve been working on, because your brain is working on it all the time just on a deeper level. You just have to get out of the way with your judgmental thinking to let those ideas begin to surface.

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

Roger Firestien
What you think is the problem is not the problem at all. And I think that’s really one of the biggest nuggets that I can give to people that would say when encountering an issue, or a challenge, or a goal, or an opportunity, don’t accept the first definition of it. Challenge your thinking about it to see the other angles of it, to see this might be a symptom. This might not be the main issue. So, I guess I would say challenge your initial definition of what you think the problem is. And, many, many times, that’s going to really help you to come up with some brand-new insights, insights you wouldn’t have thought of before.

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

Roger Firestien
Go right to my website RogerFirestien.com, it’s German. And you can go there, you can take a look at the programs we have available. And if you find the Create in a Flash button, you can click on that and find all those videos for free to download, printable PDFs along with that brainwriting form that we talked about. So, RogerFirestien.com.

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

Roger Firestien
Yes, I think the final call to action would be when you’re working on a challenge, step back from it, right? In other words, first, spend some time figuring out what the real problem is, don’t accept the initial definition of the problem. Challenge your definition of the problem. Step back from it and then be ready to capture those ideas whenever they occur to you. And that I think would be the biggest thing, because we’re coming up with ideas all the time.

And, oftentimes, I think you probably have, Pete, the occasion where maybe you’re falling asleep at night, an idea comes in, and you go, “Oh, I’ll remember that,” or you’ve taken a shower and say, “Oh, I’ll remember that.” Well, no, you won’t, okay? Get that idea down as soon as it comes to mind. So, the big takeaway to help people become awesome at their jobs is one of the things that we know is that when you’re away from work, that’s when you’re going to probably have some of your best ideas. Very few people tell me that they get their best ideas at work. When you’re away from work, that’s the time when the ideas are going to surface, so be ready to capture ideas whenever and wherever they occur to you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Roger, thanks so much for sharing, and I wish you lots of luck and many great ideas.

Roger Firestien
Thank you, Pete. This has been a delight. I really appreciate it.

518: Why to Never Go With Your Gut with Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

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Dr. Gleb Tsipursky says: "When you have comfort... that's the time to most suspect your decision."
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky explains why we often make disastrous decisions—and how to make smarter ones.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The biggest decision-making mistake people make
  2. Three handy debiasing techniques
  3. Five questions to guide everyday decisions

About Gleb

Known as the Disaster Avoidance Expert, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky protects leaders from disasters by developing the most effective decision-making strategies via his consulting, coaching, and training firm Disaster Avoidance Experts. A cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist, Dr. Tsipursky writes for Inc., Time, and CNBC. A best-selling author, his new book, available on Amazon and in book stores everywhere, is Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Gleb Tsipursky Interview Transcript

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

Gleb Tsipursky
Thank you so much for inviting me, Pete. It’s a pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to learn all about you have an interesting brand for your business. It’s called Disaster Avoidance Experts. Tell us, first of all, what do you mean by disaster? What are we avoiding here?

Gleb Tsipursky
Any sort of things that seriously impact your bottom line in a negative way. Now, that might mean things like having a key employee leave, or having your website crash unexpectedly, or lacking a succession plan as I mentioned before. Let’s say, what happens if you have a disability and you can’t work for a while. What happens then? If your key client leaves and you’re really dependent on that client, that’s a problem. So, that’s one area of disaster, things that seriously impact your bottom line in a negative way.

Another area of disaster which people think about less, but just as impactful, is when you don’t take advantage of opportunities. So, let’s say your competitor goes bankrupt and you have all your money and resources devoted to your current business plan, that means you can’t take advantage of the competitor’s bankruptcy to get their employees, key employees on board with you. You can’t take advantage of your competitor’s bankruptcy to get their clients if all of your money and resources are devoted to something else.

Or other sort of opportunities to open up, let’s say the political situation. You know, you have some tariffs going on so people are changing their supply chains and you have an opportunity to be their new supplier but you’re already locked into contracts that keep you with others, with people you’re currently supplying to. That’s another problem. So, people don’t think about missing opportunities as disasters but they could be just as disastrous as threats. So that’s what I mean by disasters.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I’m intrigued then, what in your client experience would you estimate is the biggest disaster that you’ve helped somebody avoid?

Gleb Tsipursky
Oh, the biggest disaster. Well, that’s a tough one because it really depends on how you think about jobs or careers. I do a lot of coaching for executives which includes coaching on their careers. So, I’ll give you an example. There was this executive who was thinking about making a job switch to create an enterprise, to be a startup leader, and we talked through the situation. He was excited. He wanted to make the jump. We talked through the situation kind of what was he excited about, what were his long-term plans.

And what we discovered was that he was excited about the idea of a startup, he was excited about kind of the financial potential of a startup, the impact on the world. But when I talked to him about, “Hey, do you know what it’s like to work in a startup? Have you ever worked in that environment?” it turned out that he wasn’t really prepared for the chaos and stress of that is involved in a startup, and especially the failures.

When you start up a business and entrepreneurial in you knows, you have a ton of failures, not the whole business itself, but when you’re trying to figure things out, how your system is going to work, how your processes are going to work, who are going to be your clients. He really wasn’t prepared for that. He was very much a perfectionist and he took failure poorly so he really wasn’t prepared for the chaotic entrepreneurial nature of a startup and especially a failure, so he decided not to go for it. He stayed in corporate America and spent the rest of his career there. He was quite happy and he would’ve been very stressed out if he went for a startup. So, that’s one example with a personal career move.

Now, another career, another situation would be with a company. There was a company that I was consulting with which was a midsized manufacturing company here in the Midwest about 2,000 people, and they were going to buy another company of about 1500 people, another mid-sized manufacturing, this time in the Southwest. And so, what happened was that they really were excited about buying it. They looked at the company. They looked at the company’s financials; the financials looked good. They looked at the company’s products; the products looked good. They would fulfill a gap that the buying company currently had.

But what they didn’t think about, they didn’t really think about the internal systems and processes of this company, the company culture. Now, I worked with a company that was my client for a while to get their internal culture more team-oriented and more flat, less hierarchical. But the company that they were going to buy was much more hierarchical and its culture was much more hierarchical top down, and its internal systems and processes were much more hierarchical top down, so, honestly, they would’ve really clashed in a really bad and harmful way.

And I’ve seen companies, I mean, if you think about mergers and acquisitions, you look at the research on this topic, about 80% of mergers and acquisitions fail. So, this would’ve definitely been one of those 80% that failed, and I’m very thankful that my client decided to avoid that merger and went and stepped away from it. So, those are two disasters that I helped leaders and businesses avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I’d love to hear then, in terms of humans and decision-making, what have been some of the most striking discoveries you’ve made about how we go about decision-making and often poorly?

Gleb Tsipursky
I think the most important thing that I have discovered, and I have been doing this, just to be clear, for over 20 years in consulting, coaching, training and decision-making, so I’ve been doing this for a while. I’ve also went into high academia. I researched this topic. I’m a cognitive scientist and behavioral economist, that’s where my research is, and research level doing peer-reviewed research.

What I found was that, really surprising and very bothersome, was that people very much tend to go with their gut, with their intuitions, what they feel is what they do. So, they equate the feeling of rightness and correctness and intuitiveness, “This is the right thing to do. I feel it in my gut.” They equate that with truth and the rightness and what’s best for their bottom line, what’s best for their long-term goals, and that’s terrible.

Our gut evolved for the savannah environment. It’s evolved for small tribes of 15 people to 150 people, and the saber-toothed tiger-response when we need to flee from a saber-toothed tiger. That’s what our gut is adapted for. We are the descendants of those who jumped at a hundred shadows and successfully avoided that one saber-toothed tiger. In our current environment, that’s really bad to jump at a hundred shadows. We get so much stress, so much problems, there are so many people who are anxious and depressed because of these excessive reactions from our gut. But people still trust their gut, they trust their feelings, they trust their intuitions, and they make really bad mistakes as a result.

The most fundamental thing I convey to my clients that has helped them so much is to distance themselves from this feeling of rightness, from this feeling of comfort. When you have comfort, when you’re comfortable about a decision, that’s the time to most suspect your decision because you’re often going to make the most wrong decision when you feel most comfortable with it. It’s counterintuitive but that’s the civilized thing to be, just like it’s counterintuitive to eat with our fork and knife. We had to learn how to eat with forks and knives. Now, it would be very weird if we don’t eat fish and steak with your fork and knife, but that’s something you had to learn to do. But we still make decisions as though we eat with our hands.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So much there. I think that makes a lot of sense, is to know there’s a wide distinction between the feeling of rightness and truth. And often, when you’re the most comfortable, that is not an indicator that it’s right, and especially if in the sense when you’re trying to do something new and different and challenging, or that sort of stretches you in some way, it’ll naturally be uncomfortable. So, I guess I’m wondering then, so are you saying then that intuition has no place? Or how would you contextualize and position intuition in the scheme of decision-making?

Gleb Tsipursky
So, intuition is a complex concept, and we need to separate two things here. We have to separate gut reactions which have to do with our evolved tribal intuitions, and that’s kind of coming from our instinct, from our savage primitive environment. That’s when we were babies and we responded to things. That’s intuition, that’s inborn, that’s genetics, and that’s really, really harmful in the modern world.

In a modern business environment, you don’t want to use the genetic, inborn intuition, that tribal response where you think, where you look at a person, and if the person seems like that person is like you, you will like that person much more. That’s the halo effect where we tend to like other people who look like us, who think like us, who feel like us, who have our color, our skin color, and someone who have our politics, our value sets. That’s very dangerous. And, of course, we don’t like people who don’t have that. That’s called the horns effect.

Now, in the current business environment, it’s very bad to use this tribal sensibility to make decisions because then you’ll hire other people, let’s say you’re a business leader, you’ll hire other people who are like you, and then you’ll be making very bad decisions because you’ll be all thinking alike and you won’t question each other’s decisions. Same thing if you’re a solopreneur, you’ll be collaborating with other people who are like you and you will not be getting the huge benefit of collaborating with different people. So, that’s kind of one area where you want to very much be aware of these inborn intuitions.

Now, where intuitions are helpful. Here’s an area where they’re helpful. They’re helpful where you have learned overtime to make good, quick, effective decisions. For example, right now, pretty much any professional has learned how to look for their email and quickly separate the spam from the quality email. You don’t need to think about that for a long time, you just say, “Okay, this looks like spam.” Leaders, people who are in leadership positions, have learned how to organize judgment and decision-making, delegation effectively. How could you delegate effectively to other people? You can do that effectively now but that’s a learned habit.

Now, people who have been working effectively for a long time have learned good productivity and organization systems. They’re really productive. They know how to do that. But, again, they had to learn these things. So, now they feel intuitive just like eating with your fork and knife feels intuitive. But what they are is healthy learned mental habits. It’s kind of like driving a car. You have to learn how to drive a car. It took a lot of time. It took a lot of effort. I remember driving, learning how to drive a car myself. I failed my first driving test. I couldn’t pass it the first time. Now I can drive a car very easily and it feels like I’m driving on autopilot, which feels like I’m using my intuition, but what I’m actually using is healthy learned mental habits. So you want to differentiate those savage primitive instincts from those healthy learned civilized mental habits, that natural state to the civilized state.

And so, the intuition is useful when you’ve been doing the same thing in a specific domain for a long time and you’ve been correct there. What you don’t want to do is apply to new domains. So, for example, many business owners trust their ability to hire people based on interviews. They have someone come in, they talk to this person, they hire this person or not. Extensive research has shown that that’s a terrible decision, that’s really bad strategy for hiring people because they don’t have enough experience in hiring people. They don’t really know how to do it effectively and some people might be offended by it when I say that, but, hey, I’m just telling you what the research shows.

Another area is when you sell your business. When people are selling their business, they make many, many, many mistakes because they haven’t done this before, and they haven’t done this often. Same thing in mergers and acquisitions, they haven’t done this often so they don’t know what to watch out for. So, any new area, anything you haven’t done before, anything important and significant, anything emotionally salient, anything that really pulls at your emotions, you want to be especially aware of and not use your intuitions.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess I’m curious in particular about intuition when it comes to, let’s say, the matter of trusting another person. You know, it seems like they have a proposal for you, maybe it’s a business-related thing in terms, hey, there’s this new vendor. They can provide this thing at this price and they seem to have all the right answers and check the right boxes based on your criteria but there’s just something inside you that says, “You know what, I kind just don’t trust this guy. I think he’s going to not deliver the goods.” Is that a particular type of intuition and what’s your take on that one?

Gleb Tsipursky
Yeah, that’s bad. If you don’t know this person for a long time, it’s likely that it’s your tribal intuitions. If this guy is a slick salesman, and he’s able to sell you it’s because it’s a famous salesperson technique to make it look like and appear like he is similar to you. They try to mimic you, they try to use your wording, so this person is most likely just not a very good salesperson and doesn’t fit your idea of what it looks like your tribal member should be. So, you don’t want to trust your instincts around new people.

This is going to offend a lot of people. It already has. The research shows it offended a lot of people, and it’s okay. I’m just telling you what the research says. You shouldn’t trust your instincts around new people. You need to look at that person and say, “Hey, is this person any way significantly different from me, different in race, ability, gender, sociality, politics, the way this person speaks, this person’s background?”

I’ll give you an interesting example. So, I was doing a presentation for over a hundred HR professionals at a diversity inclusion conference here in Columbus, Ohio. And Columbus, Ohio is, of course, famous as the home of the Ohio State Buckeyes, our football team, “Go, Bucks!” and it’s very, very popular around here. So, our big rival is the University of Michigan up north, the Wolverines, not very popular around here.

Pete Mockaitis
“Yeah, those Michigan people.” I went to the University of Illinois. It’s fun to hate people who went to Michigan. No offense, Michigan listeners.

Gleb Tsipursky
There you go. Well, let’s hate Michigan, I agree.

Pete Mockaitis
Not everybody but some of them are really obnoxious so you got to stick it to them. Please continue.

Gleb Tsipursky
I know, I’m joking. But, anyway, what I asked these HR professionals who are leaders in diversity inclusion here in Columbus, Ohio was, “Hey, would you hire somebody who’s a University of Michigan fan?” So, out of those hundred people only three people indicated that they would hire a University of Michigan fan, and these are experts in diversity inclusion. They would not hire a Michigan fan. Just because that person is a Michigan fan that would exclude that person from hiring, so that shows you the importance of tribalism in something so, you know, I mean, everyone likes to hate a Michigan fan but, honestly, it’s kind of a trivial thing which is extremely rude for. It’s just about which team. It doesn’t really matter for your work performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Maybe in that context, I wonder if they were sort of afraid to raise their hand because people would look at them and go, “Ugh!”

Gleb Tsipursky
No, no, I mean, that’s indicative, that’s why they wouldn’t hire this person, right, because they know that other people would be like, “Why the heck did you hire this University of Michigan fan at their job?”

Pete Mockaitis
I would hire them and tell them not to let people know that they’re a Michigan fan.

Gleb Tsipursky
It’s not a viable scenario. It’s not a scenario we should have, but that’s the way our brains work. So, just because someone is from the University of Michigan. So we should not trust our intuitions about new people. That’s the critical important thing.

What you want to do if this is a new person, you want to bring in someone quite different from yourself if you are kind of serious about using this person as a new vendor, and use this external trusted advisor to evaluate this person and see what they say.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah, that makes sense in terms of, you know, and then the intuition still is serving a function. It has given you some bit of information which may be confirmed or denied, and that probes you to go a little further in your investigation versus if they weren’t there, you might be like, “All right, we’re good to go. No need.”

Gleb Tsipursky
And that’s something to be afraid of also because if this person is a slick salesperson and sells you a bill of goods, if you feel very comfortable with this person, you want to step back and see if this person is using typical salesman techniques like copying you, mimicking you, echoing you. These are techniques that you can learn about and protect yourself from. But if you don’t know, if you just go with what’s comfortable for you, and you don’t protect yourself from this comfort feeling techniques, then you will be sold the bill of goods.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Okay. So, that’s handy. Well, then let’s talk now about cognitive bias. First, could you define that for listeners who are not familiar with the term? And then list out just a couple of what you’ve observed to be the most pervasive and disastrous cognitive biases in the workplace.

Gleb Tsipursky
So, cognitive biases are mistakes that we make because of how our brain is wired. A lot of it is due to our heritage. Like I mentioned before, tribalism, the flight or fight response. Other aspects are due to just our information processing is imperfect, just the way we process information, our brain is far from perfect, and so that is why we have systematic errors that cause us to deviate away from the perfect decision-making.

So, the perfect decisions are decisions that most benefit in the workplace, so just in the workplace, most benefit your bottom line. In other life spheres, it’s going to be decisions that most benefit your life goals or your professional goals, or whatever goals you have. So, that’s the perfect decisions, the ones that can give you the most benefit. Cognitive biases are systematic errors that cause us to deviate away from these perfect decisions. I gave you an example before already of the halo effect and the horns effect. Another cognitive bias that a lot of people get struck by very problematically is called the planning fallacy.

The planning fallacy is an interesting one because it’s where we tend to assume that everything will go according to plan. We invest a lot of resources. I mentioned before what are disasters. Disasters are when we don’t anticipate the risks and when we don’t anticipate opportunities. So, we invest all resources into our plan, and when problems happen or opportunities happen, we don’t have enough resources to take care of them, and we don’t anticipate, we don’t look for these opportunities or threats in advance, and we are unable to address them because of that. So, that’s the planning fallacy.

And you’ll often hear the phrase “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Again, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” This is a common phrase. It’s very common, just like “Go with your gut” is a common phrase. They’re both wrong. They’re both problems. You don’t want to go with your gut and you don’t want to think that failing to plan is planning to fail, because our plans, we tend to make perfect plans. So, what you want to think about is never go with your gut and, for the other one, you want to think “Failing to plan for problems is planning to fail.”

Again, failing to plan for problems is planning to fail. What you want to do is plan for what kind of problems might come up and address these problems in advance. And the same thing for opportunities. What kind of opportunities might come up and address these opportunities in advance, as well as reserve some resources for unexpected threats and unexpected opportunities, so that’s the planning fallacy, that’s one.

Another one that a lot of business leaders run into is overconfidence bias. Overconfidence bias is our tendency to be way too confident about our decisions. And, honestly, the higher up a leader is, the more experienced somebody is, the more they tend to be confident and the more biased they tend to be, the more excessively confident they tend to be. Not everyone, but this is the general tendency.

So, for example, we found research that if somebody says, “I’m 100% confident about this. Yes, I’ll bet the company on this. I’ll bet my career on this.” They’re only going to be right about 80% of the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, interesting. Those who say, “I’m 100% sure about this,” are right 80% of the time.

Gleb Tsipursky
That’s correct and that’s horrible because they lose the company and they lose their careers, so 20% of the time, so this is very dangerous for people who say they’re 100% confident definitely in this thing, just because of the way our brain works. So, we have to be very careful to develop a sense of humility, and this is really important. Humility is such an underappreciated business emotion. We need to be able to have this sense of humility, have this sense of, “Oh, hey, I might be wrong, and it’s okay. Let me step back and let me evaluate this situation. Let me be less confident than I intuitively am. Let me ask others for strategies.”

My book Never Go With Your Gut goes for a whole bunch of strategies that you can use to evaluate the situation, address threats, seize opportunities. So, you want to be more humble, and that is one of the critical emotions that you want to develop in order to get yourself to use these strategies effectively.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’ve got a number, a dozen, of de-biasing techniques. Could you share what’s perhaps the most one or two powerful or efficient means of really helping remove some bias and improving the decision-making of every professional?

Gleb Tsipursky
Well, I’ll share a very quick one, and then some more complex ones. The quickest one is counting to ten. Your mom probably told you, “Count to ten before you do something emotional, especially when you’re angry.” And that actually works. The recent research has shown that counting to ten, delaying your decision-making works quite effectively for day-to-day decisions. That’s really one good useful strategy that you can effectively deploy. Counting to ten, taking the time to think about it at least for 10 seconds before day-to-day decisions. So, that’s one.

Another one that many people don’t use but it’s incredibly helpful is making predictions about the future. Again, making predictions about the future. Let’s say you are in a meeting of the C suite, and people are saying, “Hey, this product will go great,” or, “This product will not be good at all that you’re about to launch.” Have everyone make a prediction, have everyone make, “Hey, here’s how I think it will do in the next 6 months,” and make sure that you check back on what happened 6 months ago, that way you’ll calibrate.

How well do you think your business, if you’re a solopreneur, is going to do? Or, if you’re the business leader, how well do you think it’s going to do? How well the specific aspects of your business, how well as they going to do? How well is the client, a specific client, going to be with you? How much will they order? Thinking about these things. Make predictions about the future and then check yourself, and you will slowly improve your ability to make good decisions because you’ll calibrate yourself over time. So, that’s another one that I want to mention.

And another one that I think is incredibly important is to get an outside view, or have an external perspective. Step back from your current context. So, people tend to be greatly overconfident, business leaders especially tend to be very optimistic. I’m an optimist myself. I tend to be too optimistic. I think the grass is greener on the other side of the hill, things are less risky than they seem. However, what’s really helpful for that optimism and overconfidence is stepping back and say, “Hey, if somebody else was launching a product just like that, how do you think it would work? What is the typical situation for mergers and acquisitions?”

So, a typical situation for mergers and acquisitions is that 80% fail. So, if you’re going through a merger and acquisition, you shouldn’t think that you are better than all the other business leaders who’ve gone into mergers and acquisitions. You should assume that the most likely situation, four out of five times you’ll fail, so you have to really work hard to make sure that your specific merger or acquisition is going to be so extremely good that it overcomes this very, very high typical rate of very smart people. I mean, business leaders who do mergers and acquisitions are pretty smart people, and you have to make sure that it will not fail and it overcomes a pretty high barrier. So, those are three things that I would share with people.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so, you also spent a period of time discussing our human tendency to try to minimize loss. And so, what’s going on there and what should we do about that?

Gleb Tsipursky
Yes, so we as human beings tend to minimize loss, and that is a big problem because we don’t look sufficiently at gains, and this is a tendency called loss aversion. So, for example, when somebody, let’s say, has invested their money, and loss aversion, the tendency to minimize loss is there are a couple of cognitive biases around that.

So, for example, when somebody has invested money into some project, let’s say, I was working with a client who invested 2.5 million into a manufacturing project. And the client was really reluctant to look at the situation and see the external environment changed. It actually changed because of the recent tariffs, and there was nothing nearly as much demand for the product anymore because of the changing supply chains. And I was helping this client, I was pointing out the situation, and he was really reluctant to let go of his vision of the future. So, he didn’t want to lose this. He didn’t want to lose his vision of the future because he invested a lot of emotions and he felt a lot of positive emotions over it, and he didn’t want to perceive himself as someone who made a mistake, as someone who’s a loser. So, that’s one of the worst emotions for business leaders.

When I do trainings for business leaders, and I talk these examples, “What are you most afraid of?” Failure is probably the biggest, biggest most common thing I hear about. People don’t want to be perceived failing, they don’t want to be perceived as losers, so they are trying to do a lot of things to avoid these losses, and they throw a lot of good money after that. So, he kept going quite a bit longer with that project than he should’ve. Eventually, he got out of it, fortunately. But that was a pretty bad investment. At the time he made it, it wasn’t really terrible but he put quite a bit more money into it than he should have. And that’s a tendency that’s called sunken cost where we tend to sink too much money, too much resources after previous resources we have made because we don’t want to feel like losers, and we don’t want to lose these initial resources.

What’s much more effective, the strategy to address this loss aversion, this sunken cost is to say, “Hey, okay, these resources, they’re lost. Let them go. Just from the situation where you are right now, what is the best decision to make for your long-term goals, whatever your long-term goals are in this professional activity, let’s say, for your bottom line?” The same thing applies to personal life, in relationships. So many people sink a lot of their time, resources, into relationships that really aren’t going to work out that they should’ve cut off a long time ago. So, that’s a common thing that happens in relationships unfortunately.

So, you want to be thinking about, “Hey, ignoring the previous investments, what’s the situation now?” Because of your previous investments, you might feel bad about them, but it doesn’t really matter from that perspective. You want to think about your current position. And from your current position, what kind of steps do you want to take to maximize your long-term future returns in all life areas? And so, that’s a strategy that you can use to address loss aversion.

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

Gleb Tsipursky
One of the things I want to mention, to make sure is that there are techniques that people can use to very effectively and quickly address their decision-making problems that we all tend to have, and these are five questions that you can use to avoid decision disasters. So, here are the five questions that you should use for everyday decision-making, and you can even use them for major decision-making when you don’t have time to do a more thorough technique.

First, “What important information did I not yet fully consider?” You want to especially look for information that goes against your comfort levels, that goes against your intuitions because this will tend to hide the kind of problematic aspects of your decisions. So, you look at information that goes against your intuitions especially.

Second, “What dangerous judgment errors, cognitive biases have I not yet addressed?” In my book, Never Go With Your Gut goes over the 30 most dangerous ones. Third, and I mentioned this before the program, “What does a trusted and objective advisor suggest that I do?” So, imagine a little bit little Pete on your shoulder, and think about, “What would Pete suggest that you do?” Or somebody else that you trust who’s an objective advisor to you. Now, those are the first three questions that have to do with making a decision.

We’re transitioning into the last two questions about preventing failure and optimizing success in implementing the decision. First, “How have I addressed all the ways this decision can fail?” Again, “How have I addressed all the ways this decision can fail?” Think about all the potential problems, realistic problems you can anticipate, and address them in advance. And the same thing for opportunities.

Finally, “What new information would cause me to revisit this decision?” Again, “What new information would cause me to revisit this decision?” You really should make this information identified as in advance of implementing the decision because in the heat of the decision-making implementation, you will tend to run into situations where you want to, “Oh, maybe I should change my mind. Maybe I should revisit the decision.” It’s much more effective if you already decided what would cause you to revisit the decision or rethink things in advance.

Pete Mockaitis
What I also love about that question, “What new information would cause me to revisit this decision?” is it can reveal your sort of, I guess, one-track mind, obsessed, like, “If the answer is nothing. This is what we must do.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s probably a red flag that there should be something that could possibly cause you to revisit it. And if nothing comes to mind, we’re probably not done thinking about it yet.”

Gleb Tsipursky
Yup, you’re not thinking about it straight is the problem, that pretty much any decision can be and should be revisited if you have specific information. And if you can’t falsify this decision, that you can’t falsify this choice, if you can’t say, “Hey, this would make me change my mind,” then you’re probably way too overcommitted to this decision

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

Gleb Tsipursky
Sure. I really like Ben Franklin’s quote that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That’s a very insightful quote, and it’s something that I live by, and I encourage everyone that I meet to live by because we tend to spend way too much time dealing with disasters as opposed to preventing them in advance.

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

Gleb Tsipursky
I really like a study where, and this was a good study, I don’t know from which university it was done, let’s say it was Ohio State, where a bunch of students were given a math test as an experiment. They were paid for the math test, and they were paid for how many questions they would get right on the math test, and they were given the opportunity to score themselves. So, everyone in the Ohio State was given the math test, and then there was one student who was obviously cheating, very obviously, very clearly cheating.

And this student, in one set of experiments, was wearing an Ohio State uniform, so he’s kind of part of the tribe. And at that set of experiments, many, many other students cheated, a whole bunch of other students cheated. Now, in another set of experiments, that student who was wearing a University of Michigan uniform…

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, those cheaters from Michigan. That sounds about right.

Gleb Tsipursky
Yeah, exactly. And pretty much nobody else was cheating at that experiment.

Pete Mockaitis
So, no one else ended up cheating. They were not influenced by the outsider.

Gleb Tsipursky
Yeah, nobody else. Influenced by tribalism. The first experiment where this person wore an Ohio State uniform, it’s like, “Oh, my tribe is cheating, therefore, this is a good thing. Therefore, this is appropriate.” The second set of experiment is the enemy is cheating, “No, we will not cheat. We will do the true, honest, ethical thing.” So, it shows us how much we’re influenced by tribalism. And so much of this is very, very applicable to culture within organizations.

So, whenever you see people within an organization cheating, it’s because this culture induces cheating. Whereas, if you see people in an organization being honest, it’s all about the culture causing honesty. We’re very much influenced by our culture and the people around us much more than we tend to believe we are.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Gleb Tsipursky
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This is the seminal book on cognitive biases. I really like it. It’s part of that older generation of scholars. Daniel Kahneman is part of the first generation of scholars on cognitive biases. I really like his work and I think it’s incredibly important as a foundational base for all future work that was done on this topic.

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

Gleb Tsipursky
Well, what I have found is that I really like flexible tools, and the flexibility of Trello as an organizational tool. I’m not being paid by Trello, I’m not an affiliate of Trello in any way. But Trello is a system of essentially Kanban board where it uses a combination of index cards, cards that you move around from different columns. So, I use it all the time for my organization and for various projects that I do because it’s very flexible and that’s kind of pretty intuitive for me to use, kind of index cards. So, that’s my favorite tool.

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

Gleb Tsipursky
My favorite habit that’s really important is, as part of my routine, I always do journaling in the morning about what I learned from the last day and what I’m grateful for and a couple of other things. But that’s the essence of the journaling, kind of what I’ve learned and what I’m grateful for. So, the first one, what I’ve learned, helps me keep a constant habit of self-improvement throughout my life.

The gratitude, what I’m grateful for, helps improve my mood. And we tend to greatly underestimate the importance of mood. So, the research on this topic shows that we are about 80% to 90% driven by our emotions. Again, 80% to 90% driven by our emotions to do what we do, to make the decisions that we make. So, I make sure to take care of my emotions, and that’s one of the ways I take care of my emotions, by having a gratitude diary.

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

Gleb Tsipursky
Well, I’ll tell you, something I mentioned in the presentation, in the podcast earlier, is that you want to avoid, avoid, avoid equating the feeling of comfort with trueness. So, avoid. Comfort is not true. So, whatever you feel is comfortable and intuitive is often going to be the worst thing for you to do, so you want to very much question that feeling of comfort and intuitiveness even if it feels right, even though it feels right. That’s exactly that time when you need to most question it in order to make the best decisions going forward.

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

Gleb Tsipursky
Well, they can check out my book Never Go With Your Gut. They can check out my website DisasterAvoidanceExperts.com for blog, videos, podcasts, and so on. And they can check me out on LinkedIn, connect with me there please. That’s Dr. Gleb Tsipursky on LinkedIn. And if you have any questions about anything you heard today, I welcome you to contact me by email at gleb@disasteravoidanceexperts.com.

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

Gleb Tsipursky
I want you to remember to be aware of going with your gut. Going with your gut is a very common piece of advice. It’s probably one of the most common pieces of advice, and I want to challenge you to question this piece of advice. It’s very dangerous to just go with your gut. It causes you to run to serious career disasters, serious business disasters, and you don’t want that to happen to you like it happens to so many people.

Don’t trust your gut. That’s one thing. And the other part of this that I’ve also talked about is “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Don’t trust that. Our plans tend to not survive contact with the enemy and you want to make sure to think that failing to plan for problems is planning to fail. So, those are the challenges that I want to give folks.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Gleb, it’s been lots of fun. I wish you much luck and fun in all your upcoming decisions.

Gleb Tsipursky
Thank you so much, Pete. And I wish you the same and thank you so much for helping people be awesome at their jobs.

514: How to Make More Winning Decisions with Alec Torelli

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Alec Torelli says: "I care only about what I can control."Professional poker player Alec Torelli shares his tips for making wise decisions during high-stakes situations.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to keep emotions from overtaking logic
  2. When to go with your gut
  3. How to better read people and situations

About Alec

Alec Torelli is a professional high stakes poker player turned digital entrepreneur and keynote speaker, who shares how the lessons he learned from poker can be applied to life and business.

Alec is the founder of Conscious Poker, a popular poker training platform, and after spending the last 14 years making decisions for hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single hand, he now gives talks in which he dissects the anatomy of decision making to help others hone the way they make choices.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

Alec Torelli Interview Transcript

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

Alec Torelli
Pete, I love what you’re doing and flattered to be here. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Well, I’m excited to really dig into some of your wisdom associated with decision-making and keeping your cool and all that good stuff. But, for starters, maybe you could regale us with an exciting tale from the land of professional poker.

Alec Torelli
A specific story or…?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, just like the most riveting, like, “Whoa! That’s awesome.” No pressure, Alec.

Alec Torelli
That’s fine. So, I’ve been playing for 15 years. It’s interesting to pick out one thing that comes to mind. I guess, for me, personally, I think the coolest story, the first one that comes to mind, so I was 22 years old at the time. This is about a decade ago. And it was a Wednesday night, I was at my apartment in Las Vegas, and it was 7:00, 8:00 p.m., kind of like nothing going on. And I was like, “You know what, I’m going to just head over to Bellagio and see what’s going on and play whatever poker game is running.” Clearly, like a Wednesday night, not expecting anything to happen.

Go down with some money. Show up and there’s a game running with a $2,000 buy-in, so it’s 10, 20 or the blinds, or the forced antes. It’s a pretty normal-sized poker game, nothing out of the ordinary. So, I show up and I have, I don’t know, I bring $10,000 or $20,000 to the table, which is allowing myself a few buy-ins to the game, not knowing what to expect.

Playing for a couple of hours and the foreman comes over to me and says, “Hey, Alec, I know you sometimes play higher-stakes games, and there are three businessmen that showed up with Doyle Brunson…” who’s like the godfather of poker, “…and they’re looking for more people to play to start a poker game. They don’t want to just start with four people. Do you, or does anybody in this game, want to play?”

So, I’m like, “Sure, Matt, I would love to play,” but, of course, I completely know it’s a Wednesday night, I was completely unprepared. I’m sitting here with a small amount. They’re playing some very high-stakes poker game, and I don’t have money on me and I’m not even sure I can afford to play this game. I have no idea. They might be playing for $100,000 to buy into the game.

So, I walked over to Bobby’s room, and he says, “Well, just go talk to Doyle, and he’s looking to play.” So, I walk in and, of course, Doyle is my idol. I read his books growing up, I watched him on TV.

So, I walked into Bobby’s room and I’m like, “You know, Matt said that there was a game. I’d love to play. I’m not sure that I have the money or what size game you are playing.” And Doyle is like, “Well, the buy-in is 50,000.” I’m like, “Look, I only brought 20 with me and I was up a couple thousand. I have maybe half of that.” And Doyle looked at me, he has no idea who I am, he’s like, “You look like you know what you’re doing. How about I give you 25,000 and take half your action, and we start a poker game?” And I’m like, “Is this real? Like, am I in a movie?” So, I’m like, “Okay, sure.”

So, I sit down, by this time it’s like 8:00 or 9:00 or 10:00 at night. I don’t remember exactly, and now the VIPs, the businessmen, they’re like ordering these crazy bottles of wine, they’re ordering all these food and oysters. So, we’re drinking wine, I’m sitting here talking to my childhood hero, we’re telling stories. I ended up winning, it’s crazy, you think I would remember, but I ended up winning a large amount in the game, I don’t remember how much, and Doyle kind of hit it off at that time. Clearly shared a unique experience.

And when he went to go start his poker site, Doyles Room, because of that interaction, I became the first sponsored pro of the site. And so, that was something that I’ll always remember, where preparation meets opportunity. I had a good session in the game, I won, I made a good impression, but I was just involved in a crazy serendipitous moment, and that was one of the highlights of my poker career.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so intrigued. So, Doyle said, “You seem like you know what you’re doing.” And I wonder, did he recognize you? Did he have prior information? I’m just sort of wondering what kind of triggers that reaction or response?

Alec Torelli
Well, if you’re in your early 20s and you’re in the Bellagio at 9:00 p.m. on a Wednesday with 20 grand, you probably know what you’re doing. Like, you’re probably a professional poker player. Like, there’s not many things that you could be doing. And so, it was he didn’t know who I was, for sure, but you could kind of identify if someone is good or not based on how they look and come across. Like, you could pick out, if you just look at a table and you’ve never seen anyone, you could typically tell if someone is very confident, or if they’re a professional, or if they’re likely to be an amateur, or if they’re a very experienced player.

And I think he just kind of gathered that I was probably a professional poker player. There was a lot of young guns playing professional poker at the time, and so he figured I’m probably going to be a big favorite in the game given that the other three people were not professionals, let’s just say, the least, and so it was going to be a profitable investment. And, also, frankly, I think the game wasn’t going to start unless there was more than the four of them sitting there, and so part of it is just being aware of what’s going to kickstart the action. And you can’t make money if there’s no game, so he’s like, “Look, I got to do what I got to do.”

Doyle has been around the block a few times, so it was just being at the right place at the right time. And then I think having the image of, “Look, I clearly know what I’m doing.” Actually, it’s one of the few times that it helps you. I think poker players, most people don’t want to play with professionals because they don’t want to be in a game where they’re going to lose. But, in this case, Doyle actually valued that I was a professional and he figured, “Hey, look, if this professional is going to sit in my game and be a favorite to win and make money, I might as well get a piece of the action.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, well, that adds up. Makes sense. So, I love that the story is so meta there because we’re talking about opportunities and decision-making, and then even another poker player’s decision-making that made a lot of sense once you unpack it a bit. So, we’ve interviewed Annie Duke previously, another professional poker player.

Alec Torelli
Yes, that’s how I found you there. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And that was one of my faves, so we’re going to – I’m sure there’s a poker term – double up. Thank you.

Alec Torelli
Double down, yeah. Double down, that’s more of a blackjack term. But she’s awesome. I like Annie a lot and she has a great book for those that are out there thinking in bets. Highly recommend it on my shortlist. So, yeah, she’s great.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then let’s dig into it now. In your view, what do you think are some of the key principles of smart poker playing that are absolutely applicable to professionals looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Alec Torelli
Oh, man, there’s so many. One of them is decision-making, in general, and just being able to objectively make decisions without emotion, and using a combination of logic and intuition to make good decisions and not make emotional ones. I think another one is separating the facts from the noise and focus on the merit of making good decisions and not being preoccupied by the outcome.

And not basing the quality of your decision based on the outcome but based on the expectation that the decision will produce that outcome in the long term, and understanding that in the short term, or in an N1 sample, meaning a sample size of one, there is variance, meaning there is volatility there. There’s non-zero probability that you’re going to have a different outcome because there’s luck. So, it’s being able to step back from the results of the decision you make and evaluate the process of the decision. And that’s really what you’re after in poker.

And then I think another one is what poker players call bankroll management, which is shorthand for being able to manage your money in a way that allows you to properly evaluate your risks so that you can reach the long term and that luck is not the deciding factor in your success. And casinos do this as well where they have betting limits per hand so that they manage their risks so that no one hand of Blackjack, Roulette, Craps, whatever, can sort of break the house. And they know that in the long run, the odds are in their favor but they’re mitigating their risks along the way so that no one hand is significant and they can reach that long term.

Poker players practice the same thing using bankroll management to ensure that no one hand, or one session, or one tournament is significant in the grand scheme of things. So, these are, I think, three of the core principles that poker has taught me. And maybe self-awareness is another one, to look at things objectively, and try and screen for your cognitive biases as well. So, those are some of the big ones.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, yeah, there’s a lot that we can dig into.

Alec Torelli
Yeah, a lot to unpack there, I know.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s talk about emotions. Now, you know, we have them, they’re there. So, I would love it if you could sort of, first, lay out, in terms of, “Hey, when you’re experiencing these kinds of emotions, you tend to make these sorts of mistakes in logic.” For example, I believe I’ve heard and experienced in my life that if you’re feeling stressed, rushed, too busy, we tend to prioritize the short-term immediate relief, whether that’s undisciplined eating pizza or just like hurry, “Just get it done. I don’t care what it costs. You know, fine,” and we overspend on getting some help because we’re really desperate and we need it. So, I think that’s one connection between emotions and suboptimal decisions that tends to pop up. What are some others and what do we do about that?

Alec Torelli
Yeah, I think if you look at the types of decisions you can make fundamentally, I typically break them down into three categories. So, logic or analytical, and this is well-thought out, pros and cons, analytical-type of decision-making. Then there’s intuitive decisions, which is trusting your read, or feeling, or gut instinct. And this sometimes gets confused with the third type of decisions, which are emotional, and those are the worst decisions we make, right? Impulsive, frivolous, frantic types of decisions.

So, I think, in poker, the challenge is to eliminate the emotional decisions and work with the other two. At the poker table, this is called tilt, meaning you make decisions when you’re in a state of mind that is suboptimal and you’re frustrated by the previous results, or lack thereof, and you’re trying to compensate for that or make overly-aggressive plays to win money in a short period of time. And this causes people to play poor hands, make bad decisions, bluff at the wrong times, chase when the odds are not in their favor, and, ultimately, in the long run, lose lots and lots of money. This is the ruin of many players.

So, otherwise, good players sometimes can’t win in the long term because they can’t manage their emotions. So, your talent is only one part of it. It’s being able to execute consistently that is another part. And so, poker really is extremely punishing if you’re not, I would say, great or excellent at this because it’s unforgiving in the sense that, unlike the real world, you don’t have a lot of time to come back to calm yourself down or to step back from an emotional state of mind and make a rational decision later on.

So, for example, if you get a completely unwelcoming email or something like that, you can emotionally be charged but you could decide not to respond to that in real time, right? You can make a rational decision later. But at the poker table, every hand is dealt consecutively, like it’s a continuum, so if you’re not able to shift from an emotional charge from the last hand, to completely present, logical state of mind in the current hand, you’re just going to get killed. So, it really is unforgiving in that way.

But I think one thing that’s helped me do that is to try and have a process that I go through every hand of poker I play, kind of like a tennis player does in a sporting match. So, if you watch them play from one point to another, they might be like really charged up after winning a point, or they might be really frustrated after hitting an easy volley into the net, and they might be pissed or slam their racket. But the next points, inevitably, they come back to the line and they have this little meditation process they go through to get them ready for the next point, mentally, to serve the ball and play optimal tennis.

And so, I’ve tried to apply that same philosophy to my life in poker, and it’s through exercising that muscle that I’ve been able to translate that over into the real world as well. And I’m happy to share some concrete ways I do that, too, if that sounds interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, please. Now, this tennis, in particular, sounds familiar. Was there a book, The Inner Game of Tennis that discussed this matter?

Alec Torelli
Great book.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s ringing a bell. I don’t think I read it. Maybe I read the Blinkist summary.

Alec Torelli
Yeah. Either way it’s a great book.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. Understood. Timothy Gallwey, 1997, okay. And I recall from that book or something that that was a key differentiator between championship players and not-so championship players, was the ability to do exactly that. So, let’s hear, hey, in practice, if we want to do a quick reset when necessary, say, “Okay, I’m flustered. I got some feedback which I thought outrageous and unfair,” or, “I feel offended, slighted, dissed, or just anxious, tired, unmotivated, don’t feel like it,” you know, there’s some emotion that’s there, and we can sort of deal with it, process it, think about it, work on it at some point, but, for right now, we got to reset and take care of business. How does one do that?

Alec Torelli
Yeah, and I think you find this in personal life as well. You mentioned just like unmotivated being one of them, like just letting emotion come into your decision-making process in the morning. For example, just like deciding you don’t want to exercise because you’re unmotivated. So, I think this plays out in a lot of facets of life.

I’ll kind of walk you through my process a little bit and then also go through how I have used that to navigate the real world, so bear with me here for a sec. In poker, it’s a little bit different because you’re trying to…you’re just like in a performance state so it’s a little bit more contrived in the sense that, right away, I’m just trying to be like, “Okay, I only have 30 seconds between one hand and another. I have to reset right away.”

So, the first thing I do is just sort of, as cliché as it sounds, just take a deep breath, right? So, when you focus on your breath, or you breathe, you automatically release stress, so that’s just like the first thing to do, and I think it’s just training that muscle that helps you just automatically respond in that way. And then I really am trying to release the charge of the previous hand and focus my process on what I can control.

So, a lot of times when we’re in an emotional state of mind, especially in poker, there’s a lot that’s outside your control. Like, you can’t control what cards you’re dealt, only how you play the hand. So, trying to bring the focus back to what I can control to feel empowered to make a good decision, so I say to myself, I’ll tell myself something positive, I’ll repeat something to myself, a command to myself as I close my eyes for a second, take a deep breath, and I’ll say to myself, “I’m present and focused at the poker table. I care only about what I can control. My goal is to play this next hand the best way possible.”

And so, now I just bring the focus back to something that’s very simple. And, instead of looking outward 100 miles into the future trying to imagine like all these futures that I can’t play for, I’m just looking at, “What is the very next step that I can take? Like, where is my foot going right now?” And where it’s going right now, the only thing that I can really focus on, the only thing I can control, actually, the only thing that exists or matters is the next hand, the current hand, that’s going to be dealt. And if I want to win back the $50,000, $100,000 I just lost in the hand before maybe because I made a mistake, maybe because I got unlucky, the only way I could do it is through this very current next hand.

And I think that mindset really helps and take that mindset with you to the real world as well. Like, maybe there’s this seemingly insurmountable mountain, like you lose your job, or you’re fired, like, “How am I ever going to come back from this relationship I just ended?” or whatever it is. But the only way forward is what you could do this current moment, this next day. And so, instead of focusing on…I mean, it’s good to be prepared like for long-term planning, but just being able to focus on something that you could do tangible right now to kind of bring back your sense of control to the situation and feel empowered, like the action you’re taking matters, really helps setup that domino effect of getting motivated again to make good decisions.

And then, I think when it comes to everyday action, it’s about separating myself from my emotions. So, I talked before about emotional, logical, and intuitive decisions. So, when you’re navigating, I think, your daily life, it’s really important to focus on making logical decisions and not emotional ones. And emotion is something that speaks very loudly in your mind at any current time, like you’re lazy, you’re tired, you don’t feel like exercising, you’re craving something you want to eat, a piece of cake, you’re kind of like, “Oh, I don’t feel like working. I want to watch Netflix.” If you listen to the emotions, it’s easy to get swept away in this current and not ultimately do what’s best for you.

So, what I’d like to do is I like to treat myself like I’m a parent managing a child, and that I’m talking to myself in the third person. So, I’m creating space between my emotions, or my ego, and what I know is my higher self, or what is best for me, and I talk to myself in the third person, and I say, “What should Alec do? Or, Alec, what is the best decision that you can make right now?” And so, I get up in the morning and I don’t feel like exercising, or maybe I need a day off, so it’s not about asking yourself these questions to push yourself to always do the hardest thing. Sometimes the correct answer is taking a day off or eating a piece of pizza because that’s the right thing to do because you need that balance, and that’s fine.

But I’m always trying to focus on the quality of making the right decisions. So, I’ll say, “Alec, what should you do right now? Or, what should you do tomorrow?” As I’m mapping out my day the night before, I’ll say, “What should you do?” And then I’ll write out the things that I know that I need to do that I should do, not the things that I might emotionally want to do in the moment.

And so, this is something that I can come back in real time as I’m making decisions. I was doing this today, for example. I had the choice between spending a couple more hours working on this book I’m writing, or coming home and doing something else. And so, I was kind of confused and I felt emotionally connected to one thing, but I asked myself, “Alec, what should you do right now?” And I realized staying in the library and focusing on writing was more important even though I didn’t really want to do that emotionally. So, I think that really helps to create space and helps me to navigate decisions in a better way.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. So, third person, like a parent to a child.

Alec Torelli
Yeah, you have to do it because sometimes you’re just, at least for me, like so susceptible to, like, “Today I feel unmotivated, or today I feel like doing this, or I don’t feel like doing that, or whatever.” But at the end of the day, you know you’re going to feel better if you do the things that you know, logically, you should do that matter, right? So, I know that if I go through the motions of meditating in the morning, and doing my HIIT Cardio, and taking a cold shower, like having a healthy breakfast. I know in two hours I’m going to feel great, but emotionally, right then before I do all that, I’m looking at these tasks that are on my lists, and I’m like, “I don’t want to do any of that.” But if I listen to emotion, at the end of the day I’m going to feel worse. But if I listen to logic, I’m going to feel worse in the short term. But it’s about optimizing for what I think is the best long-term process so that’s part of the reason why I think that’s important.


Pete Mockaitis
And the question is, “What should you do?” I imagine there’s a number of ways you could articulate that but that’s how you do it, it’s like, “What should you do?”

Alec Torelli
Yeah, or, “What is the best decision?”

Pete Mockaitis
“What is the best decision? What should you do?”

Alec Torelli
Yeah, “What should you do right now?” Like, “What is the best decision?” And sometimes I just close my eyes and I’d pose that question to my subconscious. Like, I’ll just sit on the couch and pose it, and then I’ll think about it for a minute, and I’ll let the answer sort of come to me. I’ll listen for the answer in a way that’s like a little bit more intuitive or maybe it’s something that requires a little bit more thought. I’ll write down some ideas. I’ll just write like a stream of consciousness and write for 30 seconds or a minute.

And usually it’s pretty easy to come to the right answer and you can usually separate out, “I don’t feel like doing this but I know this is what I should do,” type of logic that you can get down on paper, or sometimes you can do it meditatively, or whatever. And I feel like that helps come to that conclusion. But I think it’s about priming yourself for those questions is a good place to start.

And if you’re really honest with yourself, and you listen, I think most of the time you’ll know what the right answer is.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think the “What should you do?” I guess that’s almost like a shorthand, or, “What’s the best decision?” It’s sort of like it’s based on something in terms of like there are embedded criteria, whether it’s your life’s purpose or mission or vision or values or kind of long-term goals that matter to you a whole lot. It’s sort of because that’s the first thing that my mind fires back. It’s like, “Based on what? Under what criteria? Toward what end?” And so, I guess, there’s some pre-work there associated with having some clarity on that such that your current moment decisions are in congruence with that.

Alec Torelli
Yeah. So, in poker, before you make any bets, I always tell my clients to think about what you’re trying to accomplish before you make a bet. So, sometimes, people are like, “Oh, I bet because the other guy checked,” or, “I bet because the action was on me.” But it’s like, “Why are you trying to bet? What are you trying to accomplish?” And I think in the same vein, that sort of applies to life as well, and I call this having my North Star. And that’s really trying to identify, like, “What are the core values in your life that you’re trying to optimize for?” So, like, “What are the important things that the rest of the decisions that you’re making are helping you maximize?”

So, for example, for me, I try and maximize my decisions around the values of freedom, excitement, and choices. And so, I think freedom is like the main one that I’m trying to optimize for, and so I think money is a great tool and it helps, but it helps in terms of achieving more freedom units. So, a lot of times, I’ll perhaps find an opportunity or a situation where I’ll be passing up something that is potentially monetarily rewarding because it lowers my freedom. Like, it’s a big, huge commitment either to an activity or a time or a location or I’d have to be somewhere at a certain time, and like even though that could present a monetary reward, it could lower my freedom. But by understanding your priorities, it helps to maximize your aim.

So, for example, that’s like on the macro, right? Those are like the big decisions that you make structurally in the scope of your life, like what job you’re going to take, or where you’re going to live, or how much you want to have, how much you want your mortgage to be, might affect your ability to travel, which might affect your freedom, like those are some things. But I think, on a micro level, it also is important as well to have your other short-term goals, or maybe your lesser goals.

So, for example, when you go to a restaurant and you say, “What should I order?” If you’re in a period of your life where your macro goal is to lose 10 pounds, well, that might be the way that you decide to optimize those decisions. And so, you might decide to make an ordering decision based on that objective. So, I think it’s about understanding the big picture and then reverse-engineering to make sure the decisions you make are mapped towards your ambitions.

And then, also, being aware that success is not a linear path. It’s not a straight line to your goal. It’s like a curved line where there’s setbacks and ups and downs. So, the idea of trying to lose 10 pounds might mean eating healthy five or six days a week and a couple of times having a pizza even though it’s not, in a vacuum, the best decision to reach your goal of losing 10 pounds, but it’s also about being aware that, “Hey, I’m out with friends on a Friday night, and everybody is having a glass of wine, and we’re enjoying a nice restaurant. Like, I’m going to be okay with not necessarily going the most expedited route to my goals because it’s part of life as well.”

So, it’s about being able to be intuitive in those moments and being, what I call, situationally aware, which is a concept we use often in poker. There’s typically rules that you follow, where like these hands are the correct hands to play in certain situations, but there’s always circumstances where the rules are broken, and I think it’s important to be aware of where those apply in your life as well.

Pete Mockaitis
I also want to get your take on intuition. To what extent should we trust it? How should we use it? And how do you think about it?

Alec Torelli
I think about intuition as the first part of the decision-making process. And so, for example, when I play a hand of poker, I’m typically looking for intuitive read about the situation. And this is something that’s hard to quantify. It doesn’t come from my logical mind. It just comes as a feeling right away. And this happens in real life, too, like when you meet someone for the first time, it’s hard to logically express whether you like them or why. So, you’re not going to say something like, “Oh, well, I like him, or I’m attracted to him, because of his black shirt.” It’s just about their aura, their essence, their personality, the vibe you get. These are all sort of intuitive things. And this is like the first part of the decision-making process. It’s primal. Instinctual.

And then after that, you use logic or reason to confirm your hypothesis, so you might get to know the person better. You might understand their values and see if their priorities or North Star align with yours, and then you might be able to confirm with now your intuitive read. And this is also what I’m doing at the poker table, right? Like, if I have an intuition that my opponent is bluffing, then I’ll analyze their betting patterns and I’ll work my way through the hand to see if their betting patterns confirm this idea that it’s likely that they are bluffing. And, in fact, when my intuition and logic are pointing to the same conclusion, that’s when I feel like I make my best decisions, when both of those things are in harmony. It’s like a marriage of both of those things to make a good decision.

But, lastly, on that subject, I typically find that I don’t always have intuitive reads. I don’t want to overemphasize making intuitive decisions or that you should be like just sort of meditating your way to make a decision in every facet of your life, because most of the time I don’t have intuitive reads. Like, I‘m watching my opponents, I’m looking for betting patterns, or what we call tells, meaning physical actions that allow someone to deduce the strength of your opponent’s hand. But I don’t get that read every hand, right? So, most of the time, I’m making logical decisions, I’m analyzing pros and cons, I’m weighing probabilities, I’m using logic and math and those sorts of things to make my decisions probably 90% of the time.

But the 10% of the time where I do have a strong instinctual read about a situation, a person, a business deal, a relationship, it’s typically right. And it’s the situations in which I override my intuition with logic that I end up paying the price. So, for example, at the poker table, when I really get the gut feeling that my opponent has a very strong hand, I know the right decision is to fold, but I can’t quite explain why logically. And then I start letting my conscious mind override my intuition and talk myself into calling because I try and use logic to kind of like override my intuition. I say, “Well, I can’t fold here because of this,” or, blah, blah, blah. And then I call, and he usually has it.

And I feel like this is true in life as well. Like, when you have a strong feeling, like, “This guy is bad news,” or, “I can’t trust this person,” or, “I shouldn’t go into business with him,” or, “I can’t take on this project,” or, “This job isn’t right for me,” or, “Something about this isn’t right.” That is usually something to listen to, and I feel like it’s the situations where you kind of try to override that by talking yourself into something that you intuitively know is wrong that we end up paying the price. So, that’s a little bit about my relationship with those things and decision-making on and off the felt.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when it comes to, you mentioned the tells, I’m intrigued. Let’s talk for a bit about reading people. To what extent can it be done? Are there any kind of telltale signs that you think are pretty reliable?

Alec Torelli
In poker, yeah. But, unfortunately, they don’t necessarily directly apply to decisions off the felt. So, for example, in poker, a common tell is your opponent’s hands are shaking when they’re betting.

Pete Mockaitis
Because they have happy feet.

Alec Torelli
Yeah, or that’s indicative of a strong hand. That’s a release of tension. They usually have a very good hand. Inversely, when they call a bet very quickly, they act extremely fast, they usually have a weak hand. They’re trying to intimidate you by acting quickly, by saying or conveying the message that, “Hey, look, I’m going to call you right away. I have something,” when, in fact, they don’t.

But, typically, like that specific, those specific actions don’t quite translate to the real world. It’s not like if someone shakes their hand, their hands shake, they’re lying to you or something. This doesn’t work like that. But what I will say is that being forced to interpret body language or basically infer people’s true intentions without words has helped me off the felt as well. And I think it’s a good skillset to practice because, in poker, you’re basically communicating with people that don’t speak your language. It’s sort of like doing that because people aren’t really talking to you.

And even if they are, the words, you can’t trust that the words they’re saying are indicative of their hand strength obviously, right? They’re not obliged to say, “Hey, I have a good hand,” when they have a good hand. Nobody is going to do that. So, you can’t really listen, I mean, you can listen but you can’t really trust that what they’re saying or the information they’re conveying. You have to read into it. And I think that’s a good skillset as well to help get to truths within relationships, avoid potentially problematic situations when you’re able to read people or situations a little bit better because people aren’t always conveying things accurately, sometimes for malicious reasons, other times just for protection. They don’t want to say something to offend you, or to get involved in a hard conversation, or it’s tough for people to express their true feelings. So, being able to read people is like a muscle, I think, that you could exercise, and poker helps you do that.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, with the exercising of it, what are the activities or practices that one does to exercise it?

Alec Torelli
So, there’s not like a specific body language thing that I think correlates, but I think it’s just about being more present and aware of the subtleties when talking to someone and really trying to infer if what they’re saying is representative of how they’re actually feeling and kind of like just being aware of this process, and then looking back on it and analyzing it. I don’t have a great practice for doing this in person, but I think, yeah, in so far that you can try, I think it’s a useful practice to do. I wish I had more, a little bit more of a tangible thing here to do for someone looking to do that off the felt.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it sounds like simply observing and making a note to asking yourself internally, “Is there a congruence and consistency here between what they’re saying verbally and what I’m picking up elsewhere?” and then just sort of make a note of that and look at it later can be handy as opposed to just sort of letting it flow right by in terms of you’re not even kind of paying attention to those non-verbals in the first place.

Alec Torelli
Yeah, and like just kind of starting to observe for and just being conscious of it and then watching for reactions. I mean, your intuitions are usually right. You can tell if someone is giving you a false compliment or if someone genuinely is interested in something you’re saying, right? Like, you were doing this all the time whether we’re aware of it or not, right? Like, if you are talking to someone and their eyes are wandering and they’re looking disinterested. It’s hard to quantify exactly what the tells are for that non being interested in what you’re saying, but you can typically tell if you’re boring someone during your conversation, and then you might change the subject. But you might just do this subconsciously without even thinking about it.

But I think going into the conversation conscious of it and saying, “Okay, what was it that made me realize that that person wasn’t interested in what I was saying? And why did I just change my subject of conversation there? Or, I could tell that person wanted to say something. Why was that? And why did I pause and let him talk?” or whatever it is. So, I think just going into it with a sense of curiosity, I would say, is probably the best word, allows you to kind of explore this a little bit more. And I think people will find that it’s a fun game to play and it’s also quite a useful skill.

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

Alec Torelli
No, this is awesome. This is great.

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

Alec Torelli
“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. And small minds discuss people.” I think that’s a great quote.

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

Alec Torelli
I think a book that had a big impact on my life, I guess you have to be at the right place for it, is Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar. He’s a professor at Harvard, and I think it’s in Economics, something unrelated completely to this subject. And he taught a course on happiness and it became the most popular course at Harvard, and then he wrote a book about his findings.

He has a subsequent book called Perfect as well about how perfectionism is an unattainable thing that it’s a quest that leads people to be unhappy. But Happier was really good. And I actually went through it and there’s these exercises in the book, and I was at a point where I was in the mood to kind of like do them and be tangible with it. And I found that was a great book.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. And, tell me, how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Alec Torelli
Like, what’s an example?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, some people would say the Trello app is amazing.

Alec Torelli
Trello, I was going to say that. That was the first thing that came to my mind.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, how about that? There’s my intuition, Alec.

Alec Torelli
Okay. Good job. Well, that’s crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Trello it is.

Alec Torelli
Yes. So, I would say Trello as a good tool, but since I feel like other people might’ve already said that, I will say SaneBox to filter email on Gmail is incredible. So, it allows you to put email in a lot of different folders depending on who sends it, and set reminders, messages go to your inbox at different times. It’s incredible. It completely organizes your email. And one more, I would say, would be some sort of meditation app. And I like Waking Up by Sam Harris, and I think that’s a great tool as well.

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

Alec Torelli
I guess I’ve been more interested in meditation recently, and I think looking at some of the effects that it has on long-term meditators and how it changes certain aspects of the brain, and improves memory, and reduces stress, and makes people potentially live longer, I think that was pretty profound and insightful.

Pete Mockaitis
And have you found that to be your experience as you embark upon meditation?

Alec Torelli
So, okay, I’m nowhere near at some super advanced level. I’ve been doing it for four years and I would say the first-year average, like 10 minutes a day, and then 20 minutes a day, and then 30 minutes a day, so that’s kind of been where I’m at. But it’s one of those things that you really, I feel like, at least for me, have to get through this initiation phase. And I feel like a lot of people probably would be inclined to quit before that point.

And so, I think if it’s something that you’re going to start, it would be to commit to doing like at least 30 days to two months, and do like 20 minutes a day every single day. And then don’t start unless you can commit to that because it’s only then when you start to kind of realize, like, “Oh, there’s something here. I’m not just sitting and thinking randomly about nothing, or bored.” But I have noticed there is this sort of tipping point where things start to click, and then it becomes incredibly interesting and insightful and quite productive, profound, I think so. Yeah, I have noticed that. It took a while though.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I’m curious with the word productive there. If you think about all the minutes you’ve spent engaged in meditation as compared to the benefits it’s yielded, would you say that those minutes have paid for themselves? Or what kind of ROI have they delivered?

Alec Torelli
Good question. Yeah, I know it seems counterintuitive, and I thought this in the beginning as well, that typically people are short on time, “Of course, I don’t have time to meditate. I could be doing something more productive.” But I think what meditation really helps you with is focus. And to do anything great, you have to be really, really focused. And so, I think it helps me get clarity in a lot of things, and get re-energized, and really focused on what’s important.

And so, for example, let’s say I’m working all day, and it’s like 2:00 p.m. and I’m kind of tired, I can sit for 5 to 10 minutes, close my eyes and just meditate, and let my mind unwind, and all the thoughts of my day will kind of come out from my subconscious, to like I can kind of watch my thoughts go by. And sometimes in that moment, like letting my thoughts unwind, I will get great ideas. And ideas will come to me that I couldn’t think about during the course of my day because I was actively engaged in all these activities. So, then I’ll sometimes stop meditation and write them down, of course, on Trello, or otherwise, after, my mind will just kind of unwind, and the noise of my mind will unwind, and then I could sit down after that and focus for another two hours.

So, it’s actually like taking a half a step back to take four steps forward. Whereas, if I just try to plug along, at 2:00 o’clock I try to take a break and did something else during that break, even if that break was longer, like a 30-minute break or an hour break, but during that break the state of my mind was engaged still, even if it was not engaged necessarily like learning something, but even just like you’re talking to people or you’re doing activities, and your mind is wandering and thinking while you’re involved in the physical world and doing all these activities, I don’t feel like I rest as much. But if I take 10 minutes, like I’m just charged for another couple of hours. So, I feel like it’s this superpower almost if you get to a little bit of proficiency with it, where it’s just unlocks this potential that I have to be more focused in the activities that I’m doing. You also learn a lot about yourself.

Like, I think there’s a great video by Jay Shetty, who was a meditation monk at one point, and then he’s come back to the business world and is a speaker, that, “Meditation Made Me A Bad Person.” It’s kind of an interesting title because it really forces you to look at some aspects of yourself that you might not have been aware of before. At least for me, I’m realizing, like, “Wow, I typically have these thoughts, and I typically behave this way. Like, these are things that I’d like to change or improve. Or these are some my strengths, and I wasn’t aware of that.”

So, all these things help you be, help you win more in the long term, however you want to look at that, whether it’s productivity or focus or whatever it is. I think it’s a net positive when you add up the minutes and then you look at the increase in productivity. Or if you measure with another metric, like stress or happiness or gratitude or connectivity with other people, all those things are greatly advanced. So, yeah, it’s been awesome.

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

Alec Torelli
Well, I do have a YouTube with there’s like 500 or 600 videos on poker and ideas and lessons from poker that apply to life and business as well. You can look up Conscious Poker, or just Alec Torelli, and you’ll find it. Otherwise, ConsciousPoker.com if you want to learn poker strategy and get better at the game. But if you are more interested in the lifestyle side of things, I keep a blog at AlecTorelli.com with more of my personal thoughts and content as well.

I’m also very active on social media @AlecTorelli, Instagram, Twitter. Come say hi and shoot me a DM or send me a message or leave me a comment. I do read them all. Let me know you found me on here, I’d love to see it.

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

Alec Torelli
Just to always try and work on yourself, even if that means looking at things that are sort of hard or uncomfortable or potentially receiving painful feedback from people that are close to you or loved ones, to reframe that as an opportunity for growth, to look at the feedback that’s coming, or potentially even the things that you label as negative as opportunities for growth and challenges to get better, whether that’s a setback, or a demotion, or getting fired, or breakup, or whatever it is.

Instead of looking at it like, “This happened to me,” but perhaps, “This happened for me. And how can I learn from this experience, or grow from this experience, or get better from this experience? And what could I have done differently?” And that’s one of the questions that I always ask myself in poker that’s really helped me off the felt. It’s like, even if I win a hand, or even if things go well, I’m always asking, like, “What could I have done differently? How could I have played this hand better? What decisions could I have made to led to a better result?”

And I think focusing on that process and really looking to improve in every hand you play is a good framework that I think will help on and off the felt. So, I hope that’s a good challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Alec, thanks so much for sharing the good word, and good luck to you.

Alec Torelli
Thank you, Pete. Appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About David 

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

Resources Mentioned in this Show:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • The Simple Habit meditation app offers enriching variety for everyone. The first 50 listeners to sign up at SimpleHabit.com/Awesome get 30% off premium subscriptions.
  • ZipRecruiter is the smartest way to hire. You can try them for free at Ziprecruiter.com/HTBA

David Komlos Interview Transcript

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

David Komlos

Such a pleasure, Pete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Komlos
That is fine. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Komlos
That in itself is a great question.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Komlos
Intermittent fasting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Komlos
Thank you, Pete. You, too.

447: What Innovators Do Differently with Hal Gregersen

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Hal Gregersen says: "One of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves and others is choosing to innovate, choosing to create something new and different."

Hal Gregersen reveals the key skills of disruptive innovators–and how you can get them too.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The core five skills required for innovation
  2. The questions disruptive innovators ask
  3. How to network for new idea

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
Delighted to be with you, Pete, once again.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I’m thrilled to have you again. And so, last episode was 385 for folk who didn’t hear back in January, and we talked about questions, and it was so fun. But I’d love to hear, in the interim period, what are some fascinating questions that you’ve encountered in these months that have passed?

Hal Gregersen
Well, one that I bumped into came right after a speech at South by Southwest. I had the chance to get in the car and drive north of Austin, Texas to Waco, Texas and did some work with the folks at Magnolia, Chip and Joanna Gaines and their senior people there. And at the end of some conversations about where they’ve been and where they’re going, we actually explored, quite deeply, what kinds of questions really matter in this new launching point at Magnolia.

And one of the questions that crossed my mind, that we talked about briefly, was, “What is truth in a healthy relationship?” And I realized that when a relationship, be it at work or even at home, is unhealthy, truth takes on a completely different element or definition in unhealthy versus healthy relationships. And I honestly don’t have the perfect or great answer to that question. I’m exploring it. But it was one that’s caused me to think twice about the kinds of things I do at work and at home.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that reminds of the gospels with, I think, it’s Pilate who asked, “What is truth?” It’s like, “What a question, man. That’s tricky.”

Hal Gregersen
Well, I mean, whatever it is, truth, lie, but the notion is in a very unhealthy relationship, truth gets defined by a single person. So, think of an abusive boss or even an abusive partner or spouse. In those instances, the world revolves around that individual, and truth gets singularly defined by them. And their version of truth is very untruthful. It’s just full of shades of grey and ugliness. But in a healthy, equal sort of context relationship, be it, again, at work or at home, truth is a different thing, and it’s consensual, and we’re creating it, and it’s something beautiful versus the opposite.

So, again, it was an amazing conversation with Chip and Joanna Gaines and some of their senior people around some of the key issues, and they just raised some really important questions. And they care deeply about creating spaces there, in our homes especially, where truth can thrive.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, we were just breaking the ice and then you’ve got some…

Hal Gregersen
We love to break deep ice. We love to break deep ice, right, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, I appreciate it. I’ll be chewing on it for sure. And I want to chat with you, in particular, right around now because you’ve got another book coming out here, The Innovator’s DNA. What’s the big idea here?

Hal Gregersen
Well, the big idea is this book is a revised version of one that came out in 2011, and basically, we’ve updated it. But here’s the genesis of the book The Innovator’s DNA. Jeff Dyer, a good colleague, and I were talking about the innovation skills of disruptive innovators, and we then crossed paths with Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School who coined the term “disruptive innovation.”

And we asked Clay, in a very direct way, “You made up, you created this concept of disruptive innovation arguably,” and the question we asked him was, “How do people like Jeff Bezos at Amazon, or Peter Thiel at PayPal, Niklas Zennstrom at Skype, this again was 15 years ago, how do those people get the ideas that actually disrupt entire industries?”

And Clay had his big, six-foot, seven-foot hands, scratched his head and thought, “I don’t know. I mean, we collectively concluded, ‘Let’s figure it out.’” And so, we interviewed a hundred plus of these people from all over the world, Diane Greene who founded VMware, Fadi Ghandour who founded a company in the Middle East called Aramex, and basically had the chance to ask them, “What were you doing when you caught the initial idea that led to a very disruptive organization that changed the world in the face of it?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s an exciting question, and I’ve enjoyed perusing your Appendix A, Sample of Innovators Interviewed, and it’s an impressive lineup there. So, what were they doing? Were they all showering? What were they up to?

Hal Gregersen
Well, what you do is you watch them go about their everyday work, and they spend 30% of their time doing something that other leaders don’t, even CEOs and founders. And here’s what they do. Number one, they wake up in the morning with a problem or a challenge to be solved or found. They are problem finders and solvers. That’s how they approach the world.

And so, they have that mindset. And once they get into that sort of focus, it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to now try to figure something out,” and they do it with five very specific skills. They ask very challenging, status quo challenging questions, frequently and often. They observe the world like anthropologists. They’re carefully watching and paying attention. They network and talk to people who are the polar opposites of them, very different, in order to get new insights and spark new insights. They experiment and try things that other people aren’t willing to try, small, fast, cheap experiments.

And when they behaviorally do those things – questioning, observing, networking for new ideas, and experimenting – it actually gives them the ability to connect the unconnected, to think associatively, to put together ideas that other people couldn’t. Einstein called it “combinatorial play.” And imagine someone actively solving a problem, getting up, getting out, getting into the world, asking provocative questions, making deep observations, talking to creative people, experiment and trying things, and taking the time to associatively think and put stuff together that other people don’t.

Imagine that kind of active problem-solving process, getting primary information, primary data, versus other leaders, or people even in organizations, sitting in their office space being tasked with giving a creative new idea, and that’s basically all they do. They think.

Pete Mockaitis
“Go get an idea.”

Hal Gregersen
They think. They sit there and think with each other, and they talk in their office spaces, and they look at Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint files. And at the end of the day, if you’re betting your retirement income on the ideas that come out of those pretty stilled land, office space conversations versus this very active problem-solving and finding approach, of getting up, getting out, observing, networking, experimenting, questioning, and associatively thinking, you know, where would you put your retirement funds? And, basically, they go towards the people who are using these discovery skills to find and solve problems. Because when we use these skills that way, we actually reduce the probability of failure with our brand-new idea. It makes it more likely to happen.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it also sounds like a whole lot more fun.

Hal Gregersen
Oh, totally. Absolutely. Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. Well, there’s so much good stuff in there, so I want to maybe start with the problem finding and solving. So, you say they spend 30% of their time doing stuff that others don’t, and that is they wake up, these innovators, and they just want to find a problem or solve a problem. It’s just like it sounds like in the first minutes of arising.

And so, those problems, are they kind of like all over the place in terms of, “Oh, this is an interesting thing I want to tinker with”? Or are they kind of pretty focused in terms of in their kind of functional or industry zones?

Hal Gregersen
They’re deeply focused within their own. They’re deeply focused within a space but they’re open to other surprises. And this is where, if you go to Jeff Bezos at Amazon, it’s like, here’s this guy working in financing, notices out of the corner of his eye, 25 years ago, that the internet was explosive growth rates of 1200% to 1500% per year, and he’s like, “What’s going on over there?” And that’s the point at which he then becomes very curious and very actively using these discovery skills to collect new data, and all of that work relentlessly trying to figure out, “What’s going on with this internet thing?” leads him to sell books on the internet which other people weren’t doing.

And so, the notion is we actually do care about something, as Richard Branson said, enough to do something about it. I remember this story of an animator at PIXAR talking about Steve Jobs getting in the elevator, 20 plus years ago, and surprising this young animator with a whole series of questions, again, two or three decades ago, around, “What kind of music do you listen to? And what are you paying attention to with your music? And where do you listen to your music? And how do you store your music?”

And he’s asking him all these questions about his music in the elevator, and Steve Jobs was trying to figure out the iPod. And it didn’t matter where he was, even if he was in an elevator with a stranger, he was trying to figure out better data to find and solve this issue around the iPod. And so, they care deeply about an issue.

And, frankly, I bet more than half of the leaders I interact with around the world really don’t care about the work they’re doing. They don’t care deeply about the problems and challenges they can find and solve in their own space. That’s the starting point to use these discovery skills to build something different.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it feels kind of like an obsession. It’s like, “I’m going to talk to anybody I bump into about this thing because it’s on my mind a lot.”

Hal Gregersen
And that’s how it works. And so, whether it’s David Neeleman who founded JetBlue in the U.S. a while back, and Azul Airlines in Brazil, and now he’s founding a new airline in the U.S. called Moxy, but Neeleman’s constantly exploring and trying to source new information with these discovery skills to be able to solve problems and build things other people don’t build.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And this reminds of the times I’ve certainly been in the throes of a question, and I just want to investigate. And I’ve often thought, “Boy, if I were to become a detective in law enforcement, I might become a terrible husband,” because it would just play in these, like, “Oh, I’m so close. How does this all fit together?”

Hal Gregersen
Yeah, exactly. But that’s how it works, Pete. That’s how it works.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so I imagine that, well, some have it, some have not found out ways to, I don’t know if the word is “control” or “harness” or “tame the wild stallions of obsessive innovative thought.”

Hal Gregersen
These hundred plus innovators, disruptive innovators, we interviewed for The Innovator’s DNA book, I don’t think they did shut it off, you know. They are relentless, obsessive problem finders and solvers. And so, I mentioned David Neeleman. Here’s this guy who grew up, he’s roughly my age, late 50s or early 60s, and this is 40 years ago. He bumps into a woman named June Morris, and they found Morris Air, and then that gets sold off to Southwest Airlines. And then David Neeleman gets fired from Southwest by Herb Kelleher because he’s too innovative, and he has a five-year non-compete agreement. He comes back and he founds JetBlue Airlines, and is incredibly successful by all metrics and standards.

Then he goes back to where he was born, in Brazil, to found Azul Airlines on a JetBlue model slightly modified for the Brazilian markets. And so, David, whenever he’s operating in the world, he’s asking these catalytic questions. And the first starting point becomes, “What’s going on here?” And so, David’s constantly asking of the world around him, “What’s working here? What’s not working and why?” And those are simple to ask but it requires huge trust to be able to get answers to them.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say trust, what do you mean?

Hal Gregersen
You know, if I walked outside of my office right now and asked the staff around me, “What’s working? What’s not and why?” They would be maybe looking at me, like, “Can I trust you with the real answers? This is working and that’s not.”

Pete Mockaitis
So, it’s on their point of view.

Hal Gregersen
Exactly. So, it takes a deep commitment that I’m not just asking these questions to be clever or get a career advancement, I’m asking to make this place better off for us and for the people we’re serving. And that’s how David operates in the world. And so, you’ve got these relentless set of questions about the way things are, the status quo, and what’s working and what’s not and why, to lead him then to like, “Well, why don’t we try this? And how might we do that? And what if we try this?” These are very prescriptive world-changing questions.

So, his what-if question around, “What if we stopped having paper tickets? And what if we gave people codes over the phone to get on our planes at Morris Airlines?” ultimately led him, he actually was the inventor of electronic ticketing. And then when he goes down in Brazil, their issues of, “Where are we going to fly out of? What airport are we going to get some landing rights to?”

There were two major airlines in Brazil who’ve locked up all the major airports near Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In Sao Paulo, there was an airport an hour and a half away, and they actually got some landing rights there, ended up getting it all set up. And a few months before the launch of Azul Airlines in Sao Paulo, they realized the taxi ride from downtown Sao Paulo to the airport, on average, costs more than the ticket of the airplane. It was just too far away and too expensive.

And so, David’s like, “Well, why don’t we just build a huge bus system to transport thousands of people every day?” The senior leaders were like, “We’re not in the bus business, David.” And David’s response was, “Well, why not?” And he was persistent about it. And now they have these amazingly clean, Wi-Fi-equipped, very wonderful rides in downtown Sao Paulo to the airport.

Conversely, in Rio de Janeiro, they again couldn’t get landing rights at the main airport, but there was this airport off the Copacabana Beach in right down downtown Rio de Janeiro. There was a military airport that was not being used. And David and his team went to the government and asked them about it, and their answer was, “No, you can’t.” David’s response was, “Well, why not?” And he was completely persistent about this “Why not?” to the point that that’s where they finally started the Azul Airlines, was at that, “We’re not going to have it here” airport off the coast.

So, yeah, it’s just the way he operates and others like him. They’re constantly asking these questions of descriptively what’s working, what’s not and why, that leads them very practically to, “Well, how might we do this differently? And what if we try that and why not this?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. So, boy, there’s so much there. I think maybe we talk about these people. I want to maybe touch upon some of the research in the book about nature versus nurture, if anyone is saying, “Oh, yeah, but that’s them and not me.” What do you have to say to that?

Hal Gregersen
Well, my first response would be, if I could see the hands of everybody listening to this podcast right now, and ask them, “How many of you define yourself as innovators?” If the group out there was like any group of leaders I asked that question of in the world, about at most 50% of the hands go up. And then I’ll ask them, “Well, do you solve problems?” And everybody’s hand goes up. And now I’ve got them cornered to that plan, it’s like, “Well, if you’ve got a problem you know the solution, and you have to create a solution, what do you have to do? Well, you’re an innovator, right?” And they’re like, “Oh, got me. You’re right.”

And so, the issue is some of challenge of this nature versus nurture and “Am I innovative or not? Am I creative or not?” it all gets bundled up into these weird words of innovation versus “Do I just solve problems creatively?” The second part is, you know, truthfully, part of our discovery innovation skills are actually nature.

In fact, five systematic studies of genetically identical twins who, they’re born, but for tragic reasons they get separated at birth, and they grow up in different families and neighborhoods and context and schools, then they test them as adults. And about one-third of our ability to use these innovation skills regularly, of questioning, observing everything, experimenting and associational thinking, one-third of that is actually a bit genetic.

So, I’m very tactile. I touch and explore things with my hands. In the world, I got kicked out of school five times by the time I was in junior high school because I was always creating problems. But the issue is every one of those touchpoints, because I got more dopamine formed in my brain, caused me to get data that somebody is not touching doesn’t get. And all those datapoints of all those touches allows me to connect and see things other people don’t see. So, one-third of it is arguably genetic.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, that’s the majority.

Hal Gregersen
No, no, no, it’s one-third. The other two-thirds is pure nurture. It’s the families. It’s the schools. It’s the places we work. And all we have to do, Pete, is think of four-year olds around the world, and if they’ve grown up in reasonable homes and places, I mean, if it’s really extreme abuse, it’s a different story. But most four-year olds, what do they do? They ask a gazillion questions. They’re watching you like hawks and eagles. They are talking to just about anybody. They’ll try just about anything and they are exceptional at connecting the unconnected, and surprising you with ideas you never thought of.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Certainly.

Hal Gregersen
So, a 100% of us were once four-year olds, Pete. We had these skills. We had these creative problem-solving skills. But, unfortunately, sometimes homes and schools and even work can crush them. And so, given that two-thirds of the discovery creative innovation skills is just the world around us, is nurture, if we want to get better at it, it’s a choice. We just have to choose to use these skills to solve our problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s encouraging as compared to, say, IQ. It seems like we got a whole lot more room to grow and expand our creative skills than maybe our IQ.

Hal Gregersen
Oh, absolutely. And so, the data around this are, following what you just said, we are far more capable of making improvements around our creativity and discovery skills than we are around this thing we call IQ. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, then, let’s talk about how to do it. So, we talked about questioning and some detail last time and it was a blast. I recommend Episode 385, everybody. But anything else you want to add about questioning or should we kind of move into observing?

Hal Gregersen
No, I think questioning is a starting point. It’s like, number one, care about a problem enough to do something about it. Number two, start asking more questions. And if you have no other time than this, one way to ask better questions is what I call a question burst. Whatever your issue is, set a timer for four minutes, don’t answer any of the questions, don’t explain why you’re asking them to yourself or to other people, and in four fast minutes, generate as many possible questions as you can about the issue.

And simply doing that, if nothing else, will help any of us ask better questions to start down the path of getting better answers. And once we define two or three of those questions that really count, what we know from the data from “The Innovator’s DNA” assessment where we’ve collected data from self and 360 assessments of leaders from all over the world, all kinds of industries, 20,000 of them, we basically know that if we only asked questions, there’s no relationship with that in getting valuable new ideas, new businesses, new products and services and new process.

So, all we do is ask questions. We’re not going to go anywhere. It’s like spinning wheels. But if we ask questions and actively get up, get out into the world, and either observe like anthropologists, network for new ideas, or experiment and just try things, then there’s an interaction effect they call in regression analysis where, in fact, questioning and observing does deliver valuable new ideas. Questioning and networking does deliver valuable new ideas. Questioning and experimenting it does that.

So, it’s the combination of asking with doing that makes the big difference. And I’m happy to share an example too if you’re interested.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please do. Yes.

Hal Gregersen
So, you may have never heard of Rod Drury? Does that ring a bell?

Pete Mockaitis
I think it was the Drury Lane?

Hal Gregersen
No, that’s good. That’s really good. On Drury Lane in London. That would even work for the Gingerbread Man. No, not that Rod Drury. So, I had never heard of Rod Drury, and one of the things we did related to “The Innovator’s DNA” book is we worked with Credit Suisse, we built this innovation premium metric where we’re able to, with the share price of a company, a publicly-held company, determine if investors believed that this company is going to do valuable, new, and different things in the future.

And so, part of the share price of a stock is related to things we’re currently doing, and for some companies, investors pay a premium because they say, “Look, you’re going to be doing something different, I think, in the future. I’ll pay you more than you deserve today.” So, this list we do every year for the last several years with Forbes, in collaboration with Forbes. And a few years ago, this company called Xero jumped onto the list. It’s one of the most innovative in the world. We’re like, “What’s that company?” In fact, it was near the top.

And when we looked at it, we discovered that Rod Drury founded this company that basically solved the exact same kind of software to small businesses and individuals that Intuit sells with QuickBooks and Quicken. And we called Rod Drury and we asked him, “How did you get the idea to build this company that outside of the U.S. is taking Intuit on head to head?” And his answer? He said, “I, for five years or more, watched and read everything that Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, did.” Now, that’s interesting.

And he said he literally would go to conferences to hear Scott and to watch how he operated as a leader. And here’s what he discovered. Scott Cook founded Intuit on his deep questioning and observational skills. He can really see things other people that don’t see. And so, Rod Drury noticed that. And what does Rod do? Well, he founded one software company, and then he’s like, “I think we could do something in this personal and financial and small business software.”

And so, Rod and his team went to 200 small businesses with questions swirling in their head about how to make small business software, financial software better for them. They went into 200 plus small businesses, and spent three to four hours in each of them, simply watching how they went about their day, and then talking to them about what they noticed and observed. That’s a 600-hour commitment by a founder. It’s not like delegating this innovation work to somebody else, it’s doing it yourself, which is what these innovators do.

So, what Rod discovered was many things. One, for example, was he watched these people come up, open their small business at the beginning of the day, get their cup of coffee or hot chocolate, go back to their computer two or three minutes later, and all of them were looking on the computer at basically the same information. So, pretend, Pete, you’re a small business owner, and you’re starting your new day, and you’re looking on your computer for some key information. What do you think that most important data that was that they were looking for?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, how much cash do I have in the bank right now? And how much cash do I need?

Hal Gregersen
Bingo! Bingo! Bingo! That’s exactly it. They were looking at their bank balances to figure out cashflow, “Do we have enough money to operate today?” And what they basically did was they took that observation, which at that point bank statements weren’t linked to this personal financial or small business financial software. They took that datapoint and a hundred or a thousand others to build a user interface, an introductory report when you log on, that’s incredibly intuitive and incredibly simple, and delivering the data you need to work today with your small business.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it must feel cool. What’s interesting about this synergy is questioning plus observing is because it might not occur to you to ask the question, “What is the first thing that you open up and look at in your financial software?” But once you do some observing, you’re like, “Huh, this is an interesting little pattern. I’m going to go ahead and kind of validate or vet by sending a survey to a bunch of people. And, say, hey, sure enough, everybody does this.”

Hal Gregersen
Oh, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I can see how they go back and forth there.

Hal Gregersen
Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
So, we talked about the questioning and the observing. So, then how do we think about networking and experimenting?

Hal Gregersen
Well, the networking piece to think through is, okay, they’re not networking to get a career advancement. It’s not networking to get resources. That’s a different kind of networking. This is a networking to expressly spark new ideas. And so, whatever your challenge is, whatever you’re trying to figure out, it’s like, “Okay, who are the top 10 go-to people that, if I talked with them, they would help me get a new idea, a new angle on this issue, possibly asking the questions I’m not caring about?”

And, in this instance, when we’re trying to get new friends, we usually try to find people who are like us. When we’re trying to get new ideas, the whole point is “People who are not like me.” That’s the point. They have a different technical background, they work for different organization, a different industry, they’re a different gender, a different generation, by age, different nationality, a different political group, a different socio-economic group. They’re different somehow, someway. They’ve lived in a different space and world enough that they can give me an angle I’ve never considered before.

And so, Marc Benioff, whom we first interviewed for The Innovator’s DNA book, and I re-interviewed for the Questions Are the Answer book that you and I talked about recently, but Marc, at the very core, is incredibly inquisitive and he excels at networking for new ideas. He calls them listening tours. He gets up, he gets out. When he’s got an issue, sometimes his listening tours last three months, sometimes one month.

He literally goes and embeds himself in a space in order to figure out what’s going on by talking to rich people, poor people, business leaders, government leaders, religious leaders, small businesses, large businesses, non-businesses, literally dozens, hundreds of conversations, collecting information, getting surprised in order to formulate an idea that otherwise he wouldn’t.

So, one of their ideas is this thing called Chatter, which is kind of this integration of Facebook and Twitter internally to facilitate conversations and get work flowing better on their systems. That idea came from a regular dinner that Marc holds with young leaders out in Silicon Valley to get new ideas, and that’s where that spark came from.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then so you’re networking for new ideas, and one of the guidelines is you want to talk to folks who are unlike yourself. But it sounds like they can be from any industry, or functional area, or geography, or socio-economic background. So, what am I kind of looking for when I’m choosing who to get in the room?

Hal Gregersen
Well, often it’s somebody who’s dealt with a problem similar to the one we’re dealing with. And so, if I’m a radiologist working in CAT MRI scanning machine, and I’m having trouble getting kids to settle down and be quiet and be comfortable in this space, I might go talk to dentists who deal with some of the same challenges, and ask them, “How do you deal with this issue? How do you approach it?” And they might get some incredibly new ideas otherwise they wouldn’t get.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Hal Gregersen
Now, I mean, there’s a historical example that’s absolutely fun around this. Have you ever heard of Kutol Wall Cleaner?

Pete Mockaitis
No, I haven’t.

Hal Gregersen
So, back in the 1940s, you and I, if we lived in a home, we probably had wallpaper on the wall. It was paper and we had a coal-burning stove, and the coal put out soot. By the end of the year, the spring, new spring, our walls will be black, not white, because the soot is all over the walls. So, Kutol Wall Cleaner was this putty-like substance that was rolled up and down the wallpaper, because you couldn’t wash it, in order to clean that black soot off, and you’d buy gallons of it to clean your walls off in the spring after a long cold winter.

And after World War II, these coal-burning stoves, they were no longer going to be used because electric and gas-burning stoves were replacing them, so there’s no more market for Kutol Wall Cleaner. So, imagine being the president of that company. It’s the market-leading wall-cleaning putty company on planet Earth, and your market now is disappearing because there’s no more need for it. And the founder actually passed away accidentally, tragically in an airplane accident, so his son took over in the middle of this downward transition, and then the son got cancer, so then they’re really in difficult straits.

And the family is sitting around the table trying to figure out, “What do we do next? The machines aren’t even running. We’re not going to have a spring this year. What are we going to do?” And at the dinner table is a daughter-in law of one of the founders who’s a school teacher, and she raised the problem at school, “You know, it’s cool when the kids do their art stuff. If they used sculpting clay, it stains their clothes with all the color, and if they used the stuff you make with flour, salt and water, it just doesn’t work as well.”

So, somebody at the dinner table says, “Why don’t you take a can of Kutol Wall Cleaner to school tomorrow and see if it works for your sculpting class.” They did. It was incredibly successful. That became Play-Doh.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so good. Same stuff.

Hal Gregersen
Same stuff. So, all they did, the only thing they did was they changed the label on the can, removed the borax cleanser, put in almond scent. They sold the same stuff in the same can within the same factory. It used to be 37-cent wall cleaner, and it was a $1.50 one for the Play-Doh. And they sort of hit a wall with trying to market it.

Pete Mockaitis
The wall.

Hal Gregersen
There was this kid show called “Captain Kangaroo” like “Sesame Street” but way, way back. And they went to “Captain Kangaroo” and said, “Would you put this Play-Doh stuff on your show so we can sell more of it?” And said, “Here’s how much it would cost.” And they’re like, “We’re just barely digging out of a real hole here. What else can we do?” Captain Kangaroo says, “You give me 5% of your profits in the future and I will put it on my show three or four times a week.” He did and now it’s billions of cans later, you know, incredibly successful.

Pete Mockaitis
Captain Kangaroo grew the…

Hal Gregersen
Yes, sure. So, the point here, Pete, is Play-Doh never would have happened if people wouldn’t have been sitting at a table and talking across industries, education and wall cleaning, in order to solve a problem. And then having an experiment, “Just try some at school tomorrow. Small, fast and cheap to make it work.” And it did.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Well, Hal, tell me, if you’re thinking from the perspective of a typical professional as opposed to a CEO or head of a product, what are some of the top things you’d recommend we do to get better at some of these skills right away?

Hal Gregersen
Pay deep careful attention to the world around you and find an opportunity or a problem or a challenge related to your employees or to your customers that if you did something about it, it would make their world better. That’s the first step. You have to care about something that you want to do something about it. Once you have it identified, then it’s actively, use these discovery skills to find a solution.

And so, just today I was talking with a leader in my office here today who has a legal training and is trying to figure out the new legal tech integration with basically it’s technology, AI, machine learning, deep learning, what’s the impact going to be in the legal field. And I said, “Well, on one hand you can just sit in your office and think it, or you could use these skills and do something about it.”

So, starting point A, build your questioning muscle, your questioning skill by doing that question exercise about your challenge. Take four minutes, generate as many questions as you can, you’ll find some you didn’t discover before, and pick one or two that really matter. Starting point, ask a different question.

Then, I want you to get up, get out, get into the world. So, in this case, it was for this lawyer, “Go and observe the people who are actively using artificial intelligence in their legal work, watch them do their work. Watch people who are not doing their work. Learn about how both of their worlds operate.” Then I said, “Go talk to other people who are integrating AI into their world, biotech, fintech. Have conversations with them and even beyond that world, maybe in the world of transition and change due to technology.”

Then I said, “Try a few small, fast, cheap experiments based upon what you’re learning to see if it might work. And intentionally, once a week, step back with all this data you’re getting, observing, networking, and experimenting, and take a moment to think to yourself, ‘Is there anything I’m learning new, different, surprising from observing, networking, experimenting, anything new and different, surprising, that would be relevant to this problem I’m trying to solve?’”

If we don’t take the moment to make those connections, they don’t get made. And in the business life, we often miss that simple but important element.

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

Hal Gregersen
Whether you are leading yourself or leading your team or leading an entire organization, everybody is looking at how you find and solve problems. And all I know is if you walk into the most innovative companies in the world, these are not passive problem finders and solvers. The senior leaders, the executives who innovate and disrupt, they actively use these five discovery skills over and over and over to do their work. And that’s what makes them so good.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Now, can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Hal Gregersen
Favorite quote. You ask me difficult things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m honored to hear that from you.

Hal Gregersen
No, there was one I ran across. I was playing with two of our grandchildren at the beach, treasure hunting actually, and as I was looking out over the water and the sun was coming in, I had this quote come into my mind by E. B. White, “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” It was just that moment of wonder, “What new treasure are we going to find in the beach? What new treasure are we going to see in the sky?” And to always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder is a creative way to start and end every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Hal Gregersen
I’m in the middle of reading The Magnolia Story by Chip and Joanna Gaines. I’m a fan of Magnolia. It’s basically their life stories behind the creation of this incredible business that they’ve created. And the powerful thing that I get out of it is they are very, very different people, Chip and Joanna Gaines. But they deeply admire and respect and honor each other’s instincts about how to do things and what they might do next. And that is partly, I think, not partly, I think it’s been crucial to their success and what they’ve done.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share in your speaking, your teaching, your book that really seems to connect and resonate with folks and get quoted back to you often?

Hal Gregersen
Innovation is a choice. We all wake up, we all go about our life be it work or at home, and we all have demands that force us just trying to get things done every day. But one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves and others is choosing to innovate, choosing to create something new and different, choosing to build a future that looks different than the one we’re living in today. And what’s really cool about making that choice to innovate and create is it not only gets us brand-new ideas but it also buys us more years here on planet Earth, more healthier, we have fewer heart attacks, less depression. It’s just going to lead to consequences that can build a better world not just for us but for those that we care most around us.

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

Hal Gregersen
Easiest is HalGregersen.com. But if you look up Hal Gregersen online, you can chase me down at MIT or beyond and we can connect with each other.

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

Hal Gregersen
Leadership is not about us. It’s about building other people, and it could be those that are working directly with us, it could be the next generation who’s going to take our place. But, at the end of the day, leadership is not about me. It’s about somebody else becoming better at exactly what you and I talked about, Pete, finding and solving the most important problems to make this place better.

Pete Mockaitis
Hal, it has been a fun and inspiring. Yet again, I wish you all the best with this book and your questions and all your adventures.

Hal Gregersen
Thank you. And, Pete, same to you. Wish you well in your journey and adventure. In my simple terms, quest well. There you go.