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614: Making Smarter Decisions When You Can’t Know Everything with Annie Duke

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Annie Duke says: "All decision-making is forecasting of the future."

Poker champion Annie Duke shares tools to improve your decision-making process and your ability to predict the future.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why your decisions still matter, even when you don’t call the shots
  2. The shift in language that leads to more open conversations
  3. How a pros and cons list tricks us into making worse decisions

About Annie

Annie Duke is an author, corporate speaker, and consultant in the decision-making space. Annie’s latest book, How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices, is available on October 15, 2020 from Portfolio, a Penguin Random House imprint. Her previous book, Thinking in Bets, is a national bestseller. As a former professional poker player, Annie won more than $4 million in tournament poker before retiring from the game in 2012. Prior to becoming a professional player, Annie was awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship to study Cognitive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Annie is the co-founder of The Alliance for Decision Education, a non-profit whose mission is to improve lives by empowering students through decision skills education. She is also a member of the National Board of After-School All-Stars and the Board of Directors of the Franklin Institute. In 2020, she joined the board of the Renew Democracy Initiative. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Annie Duke Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Annie, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Annie Duke
I’m excited to be back. It’s been a while.

Pete Mockaitis
It has. Well, yeah, just looking at that, it’s been over two years. Wow, time is flying, because I still remember many of the things you said kind of closely, like, “Want to make a bet?”

Annie Duke
Nice.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, it seemed closer. So, yeah, I’m excited to dig into some wisdom you’ve formulated in your latest book How to Decide. But, first, I think we need to hear, we know about you being a poker champion, but I just recently learned that you’re also a Rock Paper Scissors Champion and I want to hear the whole story.

Annie Duke
Oh, my gosh. There’s, like, literally so little story to this. It sounds much more amazing and glamorous than it actually is. At the World Series of Poker one year, some friends of mine, like, they organized a Rock Paper Scissors World Championship which was designed like March Madness. And I quickly went over and asked my friend for some rock paper scissors advice, which he gave me, and I ended up winning.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s good advice. So, what’s the trick?

Annie Duke
Well, first of all, a lot of luck. Well, the trick that he told me and, listen, I’m not certifying this advice, it happened to have worked for me, is that you should be thinking about how you can tie with the person. So, it’s a little bit like anything else that you’re playing that’s like that. You want to try to get into the other person’s head and think about what they might be throwing. So, if they’re throwing scissors, you should be trying to throw scissors back.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so…

Annie Duke
And I think the reason for that is that if they were thinking about you being able to predict them, which is where people’s heads go, so if I’m thinking about throwing scissors, I’m worried about you throwing rock. So, if I changed my mind, I’m going to go to paper, but scissors beat paper. So, I think that’s what it is. It’s sort of you’re going those levels deep, that “The person is thinking I’m throwing scissors but what if they know?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Annie Duke
“And if they know, then I want to figure out something that’s going to beat that.” And so, when you’re shifting off of your original intention, you’ll lose to the tie.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, man, there are so many layers here.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve looked a little bit in the world of championship rock paper scissors play, and I understand some people will just pre-memorize a script, like, “I’m going to go rock and then scissors,” and then just roll with it regardless of what you’re doing.

Annie Duke
Yeah. So, I’ve used that strategy before. So, basically, what you’re saying there is, “I don’t want to be predictable,” so you would do this if you thought that your opponent was actually quite good. In other words, so you felt like you couldn’t predict your opponent then you would want to go to, essentially, a random number generator. So, that’s basically what they’re doing. They just write down a script in advance, and they’re just saying, “If I’m not reacting to what they’re doing or reacting, whatever, then you can’t predict me.” So, the way that I did that, there was one…I don’t know if it was in that tournament, it might have been another one. I took out a dollar bill.

Pete Mockaitis
So, there’s multiple Rock Paper Scissors tournaments under your belt.

Annie Duke
Two. So, what I did, I think I came against somebody who I thought was actually quite good at rock paper scissors, and so I took out a bill. I just had like a stack of bills, like dollar bills, and basically that would give me a serial number, it’s like 10 numbers or something. That would give me 10 throws. So, I had like, if it was zero, one or two, I would throw rock. If it was three, four, five, I would throw scissors. And if it was six, seven, eight, I would throw paper. And then I ignored nine and moved one. So, it was that kind of thing, so that ends up accomplishing the exact same thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, you’re champion in the one. And how did the other one go?

Annie Duke
I think I got to like the semifinals maybe.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s what I find so intriguing. It suggests that if it’s repeatable that you’re doing well, then it seems like there’s more than pure chance at work here.

Annie Duke
Well, I think it’s probably just, you know, I played a lot of poker so I sort of crawl into people’s heads a lot. And so, I think that I’m probably maybe better than the average Joe of figuring out what your patterns are, what you’re likely to be doing. And if you can do that, obviously, you can defend against it. But then you also have to have this kind of second-order knowledge of, “What if I’m against somebody who might be better than me at that?” then you can go to a random strategy.

And I think what happened was, I think I lost in the semifinals or the finals, but it was starting in the semifinals, or the round before that, that I used the random strategy. And I know I won one or two rounds with the random strategy where I felt like I’d come across somebody who was really good. And then, by the way, it really frustrates your opponent because they want to be able to apply their skill. And so, if they’re really good, then you take out a dollar bill, they realized that you’ve completely unarmed them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s intriguing. And I read that they made a robot that can win rock paper scissors every time but it’s cheating. It’s like it catches what you’re going to do like a split second.

Annie Duke
Well, that’s not really winning now, is it?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it could cheat at rock paper scissors perfectly.

Annie Duke
Great. Yeah, a cheating robot. You know what we really need to add to this dystopia right now? Cheating robots.

Pete Mockaitis
Cheating robots.

Annie Duke
We could just add cheating robots into the mix.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, more headlines. More headlines to trigger anxiety. Okay. Cool. Well, that was fun. Let’s talk about decision-making when there’s more than…

Annie Duke
Well, we just did.

Pete Mockaitis
We did, how to win rock paper scissors under different circumstances. Well, so I love dorking out about decision-making tools. And I’d love it if, hey, there are some listeners who are not yet as enthused as you and I, can you make the case for the benefits professionals can enjoy with enhanced decision-making skills? And maybe, specifically, or particularly, for those who think that, “You know, I don’t have a lot of decision-making authority at my role. I kind of got to do what I’m told,” what are the benefits to be had by being excellent at decision-making?

Annie Duke
Let me give you just sort of the broader point, which is there’s only two things that determine how your life turns out, and it’s left in the quality of your decision-making. That’s it. So, there’s a whole bunch of luck that happens in your life, like, “What year are you born in?” It matters that I was not born in 1600 for the outcome of my life. And, obviously, from my perspective or from your perspective, coronavirus is a matter of luck. I assume you did not create the virus and distribute it.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Annie Duke
But maybe that’s a bad assumption.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And I guess there’s decisions you make associated with how much you’re going to go out, what measure you’re taking.

Annie Duke
Right. Exactly. So, that’s a good example, the two things that matter. There’s a whole bunch of luck that has to do with coronavirus, like the wrong human, to steal that line from Contagion. Then there are decisions that you can make given that that luck has occurred, and that’s the only thing that you have control over. And the better that your decisions are, the better your life is going to turn out.

So, I mean, that’s literally the simplest argument, which is it’s the one thing that you have control over that will actually have an actual real impact on the way that your life is going to turn out. Now, I understand that someone may, in a business setting, not be the ultimate decider, but the better your decisions, the more likely that you’re going to accomplish your goals within that environment. And there’s a few ways that you can think about it.

One is, of course, that you’re responsible for your own decisions. And one would hope that the better your decisions are, the more it maps onto your ability to actually move up the ladder or accomplish the goals that you’re trying to get to professionally. And you want to become more educated, and you want to implement a better process just literally for yourself. That’s number one.

Number two, there are certain things, there are certain behaviors that you can engage in that actually will start to get implemented in the people around you. In other words, you do have some influence even if you’re not the ultimate decider. You have some influence over the people around you that you can start to sort of get some of these really good decision-making skills and tools into a group setting.

And the last thing is, honestly, like, let’s say that I’m in a crappy situation with a bad boss, and they don’t really listen to anybody, and I don’t like the situation I’m in, that’s actually, in some ways, a more important time to be a good decision-maker because you need to be able to navigate those situations well. You need to decide when you want to stay or when you want to go, “Do I want to quit? Do I not want to quit? What can I do about this to make my situation better and actually to be able to thrive in an environment that’s an unhappy environment?”

Because, in a variety of ways, we can all end up in environments that are really unhappy where there are external forces that are making it very hard for us to thrive. And, while that is true and we want to be able to work to be able to change the situation that we’re in as much as we can, sometimes we have very little control over that, so you want to sort of grab onto like, “What are the things that I do actually have control over and improve those?” because those little changes will compound over time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s exciting. And so then, it sounds about as important as it could get in terms of what we can control that will impact everything in life, in career and happiness, decision-making enhances. So, could you maybe inspire us? Could you share a story of someone who, they thought their decision-making was fine, but then they adopted some of your tools and approaches and, boy, they saw some awesome results with their enhanced decision-making?

Annie Duke
If I were to think about this from prior to getting into a business setting, from a poker setting, the fact is that in order for me to improve my poker playing, what I have to do is to be able to think about, “What kind of were my predictions of the world?” and then try to figure out, “How did the actual outcomes that I got mapped onto my predictions of the world, what were the other ways that I might’ve thought about the hand?” And then I need to be able to talk to people in a way that’s going to expose to me the ways in which they may have differences of opinion with me, because the differences of opinion are where things get really interesting, right? Like, if you and I believe the earth is round, that’s pretty interesting, like, “Okay, the earth is round.” You’ll find that out.

Pete Mockaitis
“I also agree.” Conversation over.

Annie Duke
Yeah. But if I found that you think it’s flat, and I think it’s round, that’s like a humongous opportunity. And your listeners may be saying, like, “Well, how is that an opportunity for the person who believes that the earth is round?” which is a very common response for that. Isn’t that only an opportunity for the person who thinks the earth is flat? And I have a couple of answers to that.

Number one is things aren’t usually as clear as “We know that the earth is round, not flat.” We’re usually talking about things that are much more subjective, like which candidate to hire. And you believe we should hire candidate B, and I think I should hire candidate A, and we don’t know what the truth is, right? Not in the same way of round and flat, and so we need to have that discussion in order to get to the discovery that the earth is round. That’s the first piece.

But the second piece is that even when we hold opinions that are generally maybe are even true, it’s actually helpful for me to actually have to defend those against somebody that believes that the earth is flat. I don’t know about you but my arguments for why the earth is round would be super weak, like, things like, “Scientists say so, and I saw the pictures,” which are not particularly good arguments.

So, by having to actually be able to explain it to you, I’m actually going to know my own position better. So, what I was trying to do as a poker player was actually find out where there are areas of disagreement. So, when I actually work with teams, most of what I’m trying to do is that, and that’s how we’re improving decisions because what we’re doing is we have processes that are in place by which we can talk about, which allow for you to surface the dispersion of opinion as opposed to linger over the agreement.

Now, I’m sure you’ve been in lots of meetings where basically what happens is somebody says something and then everybody goes around the room and says, “I just want to double-click on what Pete said because I have my own reasons for believing the thing that he said, and I also would like to reiterate the same reasons that he said those things.” And you sort of go around the room, and then I guess everybody feels pretty good about themselves. But what you’ve really done is said, “I think the earth is round,” “I think the earth is round,” “I think the earth is round,” “I think the earth is round,” which is not particularly good for informing a group. It’s not good for informing a decision. It’s not going to actually improve decision-making at all.

So, what I’m trying to do with groups is get them to surface the areas where they disagree, where there’s actual dispersion of opinion, and then spend most of their time on that, really exploring that. By the way, not with the goal that they end up agreeing because when you’re talking about subjective things, like candidate A or candidate B, you actually shouldn’t expect agreement. And if you do get to agreement, probably somebody is actually not agreeing, they’re giving in, which is a really different thing. But we want those different viewpoints to collide, and then that really improves the decision-making.

Now, it turns out that when you really do a good job of surfacing the dispersion in the first place, you also create this amazing record of why you think what you do, why you want the decision that you want, what you think is going to be true of the world in the future. And this, then, has a huge impact on your decision-making because, after the world starts to unfold, as it does, like after the future starts to happen and become the present, you’ll have like an evidentiary record that you can go back and look at. And this now allows us to actually create really nice closed feedback loops where we actually know what we’re supposed to be looking for in order to become better calibrated in our decisions.

So, what I can tell you is that the groups that I work with, when we actually get these kinds of processes implemented, the quality of the conversation shoots through the roof, meetings are shorter, but more informative, which I think everybody would really like. And then the way that they’re actually thinking about dispersion, like, “What does it mean for somebody to disagree with you?” moves out of sort of the defensive world into the open-minded world because it really reinforces these ideas that the goal of a meeting is to inform not to agree. And then it actually helps them to much more quickly to recalibrate if their calibration is off because you can close these feedback loops really quickly, and actually more accurately.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that point you brought up about defensiveness there, and even the phrase dispersion of opinion, you know, feels emotionally a lot more comfortable than disagreement or conflicts.

Annie Duke
Well, that’s why I’m using that term actually.

Pete Mockaitis
Masterful. Good work.

Annie Duke
Yeah. So, it’s in my book, and I really recommend that people start to use this term, dispersion or divergence. Both of those words, I think, are really good. Where do we diverge? And where do we converge? Because I think disagreement has such a negative connotation. It sounds so combative. And when I feel like you disagree with me, it gets translated for us sort of just cognitively into like you’re attacking my identity as opposed to just like, “Oh, we have a disagreement about these things.” It feels like an attack on my identity.

And, generally, what happens is that when I view it through the lens of disagreement, I’m going to tend to shift into convince mode as opposed to convey mode. In other words, I’m going to want to bring you over to my side of the argument in order to certify my beliefs and certify my identity, and so the way that I’m speaking to you is going to be meant to convince. It’s going to create a lot of interrupting, me saying, “Well, have you thought about this? So, you weren’t thinking about this data, or I think you’re wrong about this,” and so on and so forth. As opposed to like a real honest exploration of me trying to understand why you believe what you do.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, it’s funny, this reminds me of a time when it was way back, I think maybe in high school, in which I was arguing with somebody, and we had some friends and we just decided that they were going to be the jury, and we would make our case and advocate for our perspective. And it was kind of funny, it was kind of a joke, but it got a bit heated actually. And then when the jury left, it was just the two of us, and we just sort of chatted out with a completely different intention of, “Well, let’s sort of really see what kind of went on there and what we should do about it.” And it was just sort of like night and day in terms of “Are we trying to convince to win the argument as opposed to kind of collaboratively jointly discover what’s as accurate as possible?”

Annie Duke
Right. Yeah, exactly. And I think that the other thing that we need to realize when we’re dealing with things that are in the subjective world, so we’re not talking about “2+2=4” or, “The earth is round.” For most of the decisions we’re making in our lives and in a business setting, by the way, we’re talking about things where we’re trying to discover what is subjectively true, but what is subjectively true is not known so we’re having to go through the discovery process in order to get there.

And so, the idea that you somehow know the truth and you need to convince other people of your side is really, really unproductive, and it’s going to create that kind of thing. It actually makes more sense that the two of you convey why you believe what you do, and then you can walk away not agreeing. And that’s okay because you don’t need to.

If you think about, for example, if you and I are in a hiring committee, and I really care about whether I think the person is going to be a generous team member, like cooperative, generous, someone who doesn’t take credit for themselves but likes to share credit and things like that, and you care, all you care about is what their sales production is, right? Literally, you’re just a numbers person, right? That’s okay.

I don’t need to convince you of what my values are and you don’t need to convince me of what your values are because, by allowing those two perspectives to just sort of live and breathe, and for me to express why I believe what I do and why I think that’s important, and you can express what you believe and why you think that’s important, we’re probably going to hire a better candidate, because what’s going to happen is that’s now going to get expressed in our hiring rubric and who we actually end up bringing in.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that a lot. Well, so we’ve already covered some great tools and perspectives associated with in-group settings, how we can view it as a dispersion of opinion or divergence as oppose to a disagreement, and how we’re not trying to convince but to convey, and we’re all enriched as a result of having engaged in that.

I’d love to zoom into if it’s sort of an individual and it’s sort of I’ve got one person making decisions for himself or herself, and doing the research, and there’s not so much a collaborative exercise going on, what are some of the best tools in this context to make better individual decisions?

Annie Duke
Well, first of all, not a pros and cons list.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Annie Duke
Which I think most people might find kind of surprising, I know that. So, the thing about a really good decision tool, like if we were to think about what’s a great tool, decision tool or otherwise, like, if we think about a screwdriver, right, it should be accomplishing the purpose that it’s meant to accomplish. So, like if I want to get a screw to actually go in the wall in a way that’s going to be safe and actually accomplish the job…

Pete Mockaitis
Ergonomic. Convenient.

Annie Duke
Yes. Which is why I want to be able to use a screwdriver as opposed to a hammer or a jack hammer. So I want the right tool for the right purpose. But here’s also the really important thing about a tool is that I need to be able to repeat the use in a way that’s going to create really high fidelity. And then I also need to be able to hand it to somebody else and then explain it to them so that they could actually use that tool in the exact same way.

So, when we sort of understand that we see where decision tools really go awry. So, like, “Your gut is not a decision tool.” “Well, why?” “Because I can’t actually look at it and explain it to you, right?” That’s where we’ll go. “Well, my gut told me so,” and you’re like, “Okay, but that doesn’t really…I can’t use your gut.” Right? But you know what I mean. It’s like, “Okay, but I can’t actually examine to see whether you screwed that in well, and then you can’t explain to me exactly how you got that screw in the wall, or what you were doing. And I can’t actually repeat that process because it’s a black box.”

So, a pros and cons list, in some sense, certainly is a tool in the sense that we know its purpose is to get you to decide about whether you want to proceed with an option. And I could actually sort of teach you it in a structural sense. So, that’s all okay. So, we’re getting part of the way there. It’s certainly better than gut. But here’s what that tool lacks that will actually reveal what the kinds of tools are that we actually want to be using.

So, the first thing that it lacks is that it’s a list, literally a list, which means that it’s flat. So, what do I mean by flat? It’s flat in two ways. One is that when we think about something that’s on the pro side or something on the con side, we don’t have a sense of the magnitude. So, it could be like I could get a hangnail and I could die. So, those are both there, because all I sort of have is this list.

And so, that’s one of the first problems is that sort of the magnitude of how positive the things on the pro side are, in terms of achieving your goals, is not actually anywhere explicit in the list, and the magnitude of how negative the cons are, it’s also not existing in the list. So, that gives us hint number one, is that we want to have an idea of this magnitude if we’re going to have a really good decision tool.

The second piece is that we also don’t have a sense of the probability of those things occurring.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Annie Duke
So, if we have a con, that’s like, “Well, I could lose $10,000,” you would want to know, “But how likely is that to occur?” Right? So, you could have a pro, which is like, “I could win a million dollars.” You could do this with the lottery, right? But the con could be, “I’m going to lose a dollar or two dollars,” and the pro is, “I could win the jackpot, so maybe that looks pretty good.” But what we need to understand is, “What’s the probability of winning the jackpot?” which is de minimis, versus “What’s the probability of me losing the two dollars?” which is basically every time.

And if we don’t have that information, it’s also incredibly hard to compare. So, when we see that, what happens is it becomes very hard to understand whether an option is good or not, and then we get into the problem of how on earth would you compare options. Like, if I had one option that had 10 cons and 2 pros, would that be worse than an option that had 5 cons and 4 pros? Well, I don’t know because I don’t know what the magnitude of those pros are and cons, and I don’t know the probability of those things occurring is, so it’s hard for me to compare.

And then we have this added issue, which is that it’s basically, literally, a tool for expressing your bias, like your cognitive bias, because you can imagine that you can take something that could sort of be one pro or one con, and you could divide it up into its little bits in order to create ten ways to express that. So, the con could be like, “Well, I might end up like really unhappy,” so that would be one, but it could also be like…

Pete Mockaitis
“I could be anxious. I could be stressed. I could be disappointed.”

Annie Duke
Exactly. Right. And now, all of a sudden, it’s ten things, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Annie Duke
So, what ends up happening is that as we’re sort of exploring those pros and cons, generally, as we’re entering into a decision, we’re already sort of somewhere in our head kind of know what our opinion is and know what we would like to be true, and then we do the pro and con list, and all it’s doing is kind of like expressing whatever that opinion already is, but it’s certifying it as objective when it’s not actually objectively. And that’s actually a super bad combination.

And you can see how this is a problem, like particularly if we’re trying to compare options because we’re going to do it just by list. And so, the option we don’t want to do, we can just create a lot of cons for. The option that we do want to do, we want to create a lot of pros for. So, that’s sort of through the negative frame of like, “Here’s a tool that everybody really understands,” that turns out to be sort of the equivalent of taking a jack hammer to get a screw in the wall. Okay, so we don’t want to do that. We’re going to ruin the wall.

So, that tells us, “Okay, so what does a good decision process going to do?” Well, it’s going to solve this problem of sort of dimensionality. So, for any option we’re considering, we want to think about what the likely outcomes of that option are. But then we want to think about how much is that option going to advance us toward our goal or way. So, that gets that idea of the payoff, what’s the magnitude of how good or bad we consider that option is for us. But then we want to take a stab at what the likelihood of those things occurring is.

And what that allows us to do is understand, for example, like in the startup world, you may have a really high likelihood of failure but the payoff is so large that if that payoff is likely enough, you would still do it despite the fact that mostly it’s going to be bad outcomes. But that’s okay because we’ve added this likelihood piece in, and we’ve added sort of like what does the payoff look, and we can start to bring that into our decision-making. And you can see that that now gives us a real way to compare our two options, because now we have a pretty clear sense of what’s the upside potential and the downside potential, and, “Does the upside outweigh the downside given whatever I’m willing to risk?” And then I can now compare those two things.

So, like a simple example would be, like let’s say that I have two candidates that I’m thinking about hiring, A and B, and I really, really care about retention, like my recruitment costs are out of control and I’ve got all these employee turnover, so this is something that I happen to be focusing on. And so, what I can do is I can say, “I want to think about kind of these three buckets that the person that I’m hiring is going to be with the company between zero to six months, six months to 18 months, beyond 18 months. Let’s say that we set those three things up.

And then, basically, what I can do is just have anybody on the hiring committee, for any candidate that we see, to say, “What do you think the probability of those three buckets is?” because that’s what I really care about, right? And now I actually have an apples-to-apples comparison. So, I’ve thought about, “What are my values? What are the payoffs that I’m trying to get? I want this person to stay here a long time. And I’m looking for the person who is going to stay here the longest. That’s what I care about.” And now I have a way to actually compare options.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so we covered some of the shortcomings of the pro-con list, we got it captured very clearly the magnitude of things, and the probability of those things occurring. And so then, I’m imagining kind of just a spreadsheet by this point in terms of I’ve got a few things, I’ve got some magnitude, I’ve got some probabilities. And I guess it gets a little tricky if it’s not just money in terms of like, “How do I put a number on my stress?” How do you do that?

Annie Duke
Well, so I think that it’s really interesting. When we get into things that we feel are more subjective, we think that we actually don’t know anything and so, therefore, we shouldn’t try, “What’s the probability I’m going to be stressed?” Or it doesn’t even have to be something that’s like so clearly subjective like stress, but like what’s the probability a candidate is going to be with a company, is going to leave within six months? Well, we don’t know. We’ve never hired that candidate before.

So, in the sense of, “Can I be exact?” or if I’m releasing a software feature and I want to know, like, “Oh, of the people who use my product, how many of them are going to start adopting this, like, the daily users of this new feature within the first month?” Obviously, these aren’t things that are like 2+2=4, and they’re not things like if I flipped a coin, it’s going to land heads 50% of the time where like I know for sure what the answer is because we have enough information.

What people end up doing in that case is very often just saying, “Well, I’m not going to try because I can’t come up with ‘the right answer.’”

And the problem with that is that then we just sort of get we get mired in the limitations of our own sort of lack of knowledge instead of thinking about, “Well, I want to be an educated guesser, and my goal as a decision-maker is actually to get more educated because I have all these uncertainty in trying to forecast the future?” which is really what we’re doing when we’re saying, “What are the possibilities or the probabilities and things like that?”

There’s all this uncertainty in my ability to forecast the future, but the more educated I am, while I may never get perfect, I’m going to get closer to the range of what is objectively true if I were omniscient, and that’s actually going to improve my decision-making. So, I can do an example of this with you. My computer is sitting on a stack of books. Now, obviously, you can’t see the books because it’s what my computer is sitting on. I’m on the computer looking at each other, so you don’t know how high the books are and you don’t know what type and you don’t know what number, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Annie Duke
Okay. So, how much does the stack of books weigh?

Pete Mockaitis
About five pounds.

Annie Duke
Okay. And what do you think the lowest amount of the stack of books weighs is? Do you think it’s possible this stack of books that it’s sitting on could weigh a pound?

Pete Mockaitis
I think it’d be improbable that a stack, implying multiple books, weighs less than one pound.

Annie Duke
Okay. Could it weigh 200 pounds?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Annie Duke
Okay. So, I think this is really good, right? So, what we discovered is that you could’ve said, “I don’t know.” But what I just did was I said, “Well, but you know things about books.” And so, while you may not get the exact answer, you’re going to get an answer that eliminates a huge number of possibilities. In other words, it’s going to get you somewhere closer to what’s actually true of the stack of books that my computer is sitting on. And that’s a really important exercise and it’s a really important exercise for three reasons that I hinted at.

Reason number one is that the more accurately you’re thinking about the future, in other words, “Can you get in a target range?” Like, if you think about it like an archer. And, in fact, in the book I talk about like the archer’s mindset, right? Yes, you’d like to hit the bullseye but you get points for hitting the target. And the closer that you can get to hitting that bullseye the better off you are, but you’re still getting points. It’s like you still get points for showing your work, right?

So, even if you hit the outer edge of the target, you still get points because all the stuff that isn’t on the target, like you know that these books don’t weigh 200 pounds, is going to help you to actually have better decision quality because you’re eliminating all these different possibilities that the answer could be that’s going to clarify your decision and get you better at sort of calculating, really, in the end what’s the expected value of the decision. Like, how much upside potential compared to downside potential do I really think there is? So, that’s number one is that you’re going to be creating a more accurate view of the future even if it’s not perfect, and that’s good.

The second thing is that, which I had hinted at before, is that we have this problem as decision-makers, which is, generally, the stuff that we know is like so tiny it could fit on the head of a pin compared to the stuff we don’t know, which is like the size of the universe. Obviously, if you have the ideal decision tool, which I think would be a crystal ball, you would be set because that universe stuff that you didn’t know would be revealed to you in this psychic instrument that you have that caused an omniscience and an ability to foresee the future, but we don’t have a crystal ball. So, what we’re really trying to do is, “How can we create a set of tools that will allow us to cobble together something that is crystal ball-like?” And part of that is dealing with this problem that there’s this whole universe of stuff that I don’t know.

And by forcing yourself to guess, I made you think about that. I made you think, “What do I know about books?” so you’re exploring that world of things that you do know in order to try to make yourself get the educated into the guess, and then you may, in other cases, start thinking, “Well, what is the universe of stuff that I don’t know? And maybe that would actually help me with my guess.” So, like if we went back to something as simple as a hiring example. One of the things that we might do is say, “Well, maybe I could go find out how many candidates, like when companies hire into this particular position, what the average retention in the industry is.” That’s called a base rate. And that would be incredibly helpful for me to go find out as I’m trying to estimate what I think any candidate that I might see is.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the candidates I see are going to be right there on the base rate, but it’s going to give me a place to anchor to about kind of what’s true of the world in general that’s really going to help me. The other thing that I might do is to go ask for somebody else’s perspective where we know that two people can be looking at the exact same data and come to very different conclusions about it, right? So, I could ask one person, “What do you think these books weigh?” and then I could ask somebody else, “What do you think these books weigh?” And maybe you said five pounds, maybe they say 20 pounds. Great. Now, we go back to that earth is round and flat thing, and now I get Pete who’s the five-pound person and Susan who’s the 20-pound person to have a discussion about why they have that dispersion of opinion that’s probably going to get me closer to what the most educated answer would be, closer to what’s objectively true of the world. And that actually like incredibly important.

So, whether you’re forecasting, like, “What’s my stress level going to be?” or, “How long is someone going to be with the company?” or, “How many users are going to adopt this on a daily basis within the first month?” all of these things, which we’re lacking information about, not allowing yourself, “Well, how could I ever know that?” and not accepting that as an answer, is actually really crucial to a good decision process.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And I think that’s a great perspective in terms of you don’t know it exactly but knowing it’s more than one pound and less than 20 pounds is way, way more narrow than it could be anything.

Annie Duke
Oh, my gosh. Right. And I think I make the point in the book that this is part of the reason why we want to communicate with precision.

So, I think I make the point that if I say 2+2 is a small number, I’m technically correct but it’s going to be harder for you to tell me things that might help correct my inaccuracy is because the target area is kind of broad that I’ve given you, and it’s going to be hard for me to get better at math. Now, I’m going to get somewhat better because if I say 2+2 is a very large number, you’re going to be able to correct that. So, it’s not that I can’t improve, but it’s going to slow down my improvement that I’m not willing to give an exact answer, like 4, right? And there’s ways, obviously, if I’m not being precise that I can game it because I can say 2+2 is somewhere between minus infinity and positive infinity and, okay, I’m technically right. But what is that value of the information there in terms of actually improving my decision-making because, if you think about it, this is the reason why a crystal ball would be such an amazing decision tool is because all decision-making is forecasting of the future.

When I make a choice, when I pick an option, what I’m saying is that, “I think that given whatever goals I have and what my values are and my resources are that this option is going to be the most likely to create the type of future that I would like to unfold, and so I am being like a soothsayer in that sense. I’m making a prediction about the future.” And what we’re trying to do is make those predictions higher quality.

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

Annie Duke
Yeah, I think I’d like to just say, like, just one really important decision tool, when we’re thinking about, “How are we actually getting a better view of the future? How do we actually become better fortune tellers?” Those are what we’re trying to do. And I just want to give a real pitch for a decision tool that I think is somewhat counterintuitive, at least in popular culture, which is the power of negative thinking as opposed to the power of positive thinking.

So, the power of positive thinking is like so incredibly powerful in the literature from Napoleon Hill.

We know about The Power of Positive Thinking, and it’s very popular which is you imagine a destination that you’d like to get to, and then you imagine success along the way. And I think that that’s a really bad decision tool, and I’m not saying that people should not imagine positive goals. Of course, you should. But the whole key to unlocking decision-making is to imagine the obstacles, the ways in which you might fail along the way. Why? Because that is the only way you can avoid them.

So, the way that I kind of think about it is the difference between a paper map and Waze. A paper map, you look at the destination you want to get to and then its clear roads. And I think about that as the power of positive thinking, right? Like, “Here are the clear roads, and now I’m just going to go along my merry way along those roads.” But what does Waze do? Waze says, “Here’s the destination you want to get to. And, by the way, there’s a road closure over here, and there’s like an accident on this one, and there’s heavy traffic over here, and so I’m going to reroute you so that you can actually successfully get to your destination.”

And I think the problem with the positive thinking literature is that sometimes it’s explicitly stated when you get into some sort of cookier versions of it, like The Secret, but it’s certainly implied in all of it that if you imagine failure, that it’ll actually create failure. But what an app like Waze tells us is that if you imagine failure, it actually creates success because that is the only way that you can get out ahead of it. And the more that you can identify the obstacles that might lie in your path, the better off you’re going to be because you’re going to have a clear view of the future, and you’re going to have a clear view of the kinds of things that you might want to avoid, the kind of things that might get in your way.

So, one of the best decision tools that you can use is called a premortem. And it was originally developed by Gary Kline. I have an adapted version of it in the book. And, essentially, what it asks you to do is to imagine a goal or a decision that you’re making which has an implied goal that it will work out, and imagine that it’s however long it would take for you to know whether you’ve reached a goal. So, let’s say that you have a goal to increase sales by 10% in the next year. And so, you imagine it, a year and a date from now, and you failed to reach that goal, and you ask yourself, “Okay, why did that happen? Why did I fail?” And you divide it into two categories: matters of your own decision-making, “What are the decisions that I made that may have led to this failure?” and then matters of luck.

And, as I recommend with everything, you try to figure out how likely those things are, and then you can actually figure out what to do about it. You may say, “Maybe I should change my goal,” or you may keep your goal, and you say, “Well, here are a bunch of decisions that I might make that really would cause me to fail, so let me try to figure out how not to make those so that I don’t actually engage in these kinds of behaviors.” If I want to lose weight, I have to figure out a way, because I know a point of failure is people bringing in cupcakes for their birthday. I need to figure out a way to not eat the cupcakes when that happens. I need to see that that’s on the horizon, and actually try to figure out how to avoid it.

And then with matters of luck, you can think about, “Are there ways, are there decisions that I can make that can reduce the probability of these bad things happening?” I can’t control the luck but I might be able to reduce the probability of those things occurring. And even if I can’t, maybe I can have a plan for it so that I’m not just running around like a chicken with my head cut off and so I can figure out what those are. And maybe I can find a hedge which is just like buying stocks and bonds at the same time. And if you don’t actually think about, “How can I instantiate this idea of sort plan positive, think negative?” into your decision process, you’re going to be constantly surprised by the world. You’re going to be using a paper map when everybody else is using really solid GPS. And we know that people who use paper maps have a disadvantage in terms of getting to destinations on time than people who use Waze, so don’t be the person still using a paper map as it applies to your own decision-making.

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

Annie Duke
My favorite quote from Feynman just has to do with him saying, “If you can’t explain it to a child, you don’t actually know it yourself.” And this is a paraphrase of the quote obviously. But the reason why I like that so much is that it kind of really has to do with this idea of what makes for a really good tool, is I have to be able to explain it to you, and I have to explain it in simple terms.

And what I really love about that sort of second piece of not just, “Do I need to be able to hand you the screwdriver so that you can use it, but if I can’t explain it to you, I don’t really understand how to use a screwdriver.” And if I can’t do that, I butt up against the limits of what I know in a way that when we talk about that universal stuff we don’t know that we really want to be exploring, it makes me go look in that universe, and then I think it expands my knowledge, and everybody is better off for it because I explained to you how to use a screwdriver, and then I understand screwdrivers much better for having had to go through that process. And that’s why I love that Feynman quote so much.

Pete Mockaitis
And you might think I already know to screw nails on, or screw a screw, but sure enough you say, “You may have better experiences in terms of stripping them less often, giving them straight the first time, not having to redo stuff.”

Annie Duke
Right. When people are having success doing something, and they don’t start thinking about “What are the limits of my knowledge? And what are the limitations of the way that I’m thinking about this and my perspectives on the world?” what happens is that they get disrupted from without, and you’d rather be disrupted from within. So, you can look at IBM in the 1980s versus a Microsoft or Apple, and this is a big danger when you’re doing things pretty well, and your models of the world are pretty good.

But just as we talked about with things that are subjective, your model can be pretty good and it can be working, but that doesn’t mean that you have the objective truth. Like, you want to be exploring different ways that people could be looking at the problem, and always seeking new knowledge, and always sort of testing your ideas to see if there isn’t a better way, and also, sort of back to the idea of negative thinking and that causes you to have to sort of explore the limits of your own knowledge and your own ideas in a way that’s actually going to help you to improve them and disrupt your own ideas instead of allowing someone else to come in and disrupt you, which is something that we’re all trying to avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Annie Duke
I’m just going to answer it by recent, right? So, I’m going to give you two favorite books right now, and then two that you should be looking out on the horizon. My two favorite books right now are Maria Konnikova, which is The Biggest Bluff which is amazing. It’s like a marriage of memoir and exploration of the influence of luck in your life. So, Maria decided she wanted to explore luck because she had just sort of stuff happened to her. Like, her husband lost his job, she got sick, I think one of her grandparents died, sort of like all at once, and she’s like, “Whoa,” and she wanted to explore it. So, she said she’s going to learn how to play poker from being a total novice.

She ended up really doing well. She won a huge poker tournament, and, it’s this really wonderful book. It’s really beautifully written and it’s a great exploration of just sort of the influence of luck in your life.

The other book that I’m really recommending right now is The Psychology of Money, which is by Morgan Housel, he’s so good with just kind of like taking really complex concepts and making them very understandable through really, really fun narrative. And he’s really just talking about, like, “What are the different ways that we think about money?” Like, what is money? It’s sort of an object that we can sort of explore and understand, like, “What is its purpose in our life? And how do we think about it? And what should we do about it and do with it?” It’s just a really fun book. I really think that everybody should be reading that book.

In terms of books on the horizon to have, to be on the lookout for. Katie Milkman, who’s a professor at Wharton, and has a book coming out in the spring called How to Change, which is incredible on just if you want to create better habits in your life, just understanding, “When does habit change occur? Why? What are the ways that you can sort of make that happen for yourself?” It’s a really wonderful book. It’s really fun.

And then Noise is going to be coming out soon from Kahneman, Cass Sunstein, Oliver Sibony, and I’m really excited about that. It’s like a contrast to Thinking, Fast and Slow which is more about cognitive bias, and this is just more about sort of noisiness in the system, and it’s a really good book. So, those are two for the horizon. And even winnowing it down, I gave you four, so I’m…

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Thank you. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Annie Duke
I would like people to practice, when soliciting opinions or feedback from somebody else, to try to not offer their own opinion first and see what happens. So, there’s this really big problem, like when we’re talking in the meeting sense about we all think that the goal of a meeting is to agree. That’s true one-on-one as well. It feels really to agree with people that you’re talking to, that’s why we end up in echo chambers.

So, your opinions are contagious. So, if I want to know what you think about like Perry Mason, which is on HBO, if I really want to know what you think, I should just say, “What do you think about Perry Mason?” But what we do is we say, “Oh, I watch Perry Mason. I thought it was really cool and interesting, and I think it was really fun to see his journey from detective to lawyer, and I like it that he was a flawed character as opposed to the Raymond Burr version. What do you think?” And that’s obviously something simple about a TV show that probably isn’t very impactful. But think about that in terms of when you’re really trying to get somebody’s help, is I’m not actually going to get your true perspective.

When we talked about surfacing the dispersion of opinion, how am I going to surface the dispersion of opinion if I offer you mine first? So, I really challenge people to start trying to implement that into their own life, and I think they’ll find that it really changes the communication, and how much you sort of get to what people really believe that can really spur these interesting conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. Well, Annie, I wish you lots of luck with your book How to Decide and all your decision adventures.

Annie Duke
Well, thank you very much. I’m so happy that we got to talk again.

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

 

About Stephen

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Stephen Shapiro Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Convenient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[09:07]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Shapiro
Yes.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Media.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Content.

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

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

Stephen Shapiro
Sure.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Shapiro
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Shapiro
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[30:02]

Stephen Shapiro
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

Pete Mockaitis
That is a great title.

Stephen Shapiro
It’s a great book.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I use it too.

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

 

About Francesca

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

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Francesca Gino Interview Transcript

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

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

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

Francesca Gino
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell us, what’s your story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francesca Gino
You know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francesca Gino
That’s exactly right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francesca Gino
A favorite tool these days is Zoom.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francesca Gino
That’s exactly right.

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

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

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

Francesca Gino
Thank you so much.

574: How to Navigate Overwhelming Data and Choices to Make Optimal Decisions with Vikram Mansharamani

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Harvard lecturer Vikram Mansharamani discusses how to break free from blind thinking and make more impactful decisions.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The danger of deferring to experts and technology 
  2. Two critical steps for smarter decision-making
  3. How to better predict the future with “prospective hindsight” 

About Vikram

Financial Bubbles Before They Burst and his latest, THINK FOR YOURSELF: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence. He is a frequent commentator on issues driving disruption in the global business environment, and his ideas and writings have appeared in Fortune, Forbes, the New York Times, Worth, and many other publications. LinkedIn listed him as the #1 Top Voice for Money, Finance, and Economics for both 2015 and 2016, and Worth magazine profiled him as one of the 100 most powerful people in global finance in 2017. In addition to teaching and writing, Mansharamani also advises several Fortune 500 CEOs on how to navigate uncertainty in today’s dynamic global business and regulatory environment. He holds a PhD and two master’s degrees from MIT as well as a bachelor’s degree from Yale University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Vikram Mansharamani Interview Transcript

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

Vikram Mansharamani
Thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your good stuff. We’re talking decision making. And I understand you’ve got a lot of decision making in a place many people say there’s no hope for good decisions, and that’s Las Vegas, and there are more than 50 times. What’s the story?

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah, that’s a fascinating place to start here, Pete. I mean, Vegas is one of my real soft spots in life. I love everything about that city. I love the gaming. I love the restaurants. I love the pools. I love the hotels. I love the shows. I love the spas. The whole experience is just fabulous. The story as to why I went there so frequently is it was actually the topic of my dissertation.

So, I studied the gaming industry for my doctoral work at MIT. And I did that for various reasons, but the biggest reason was I was about to quit the PhD program at MIT that I was enrolled, and one of my professors and advisor, who I really trusted, who had become a mentor, said, “Vikram, that’s a really bad idea. You should get this done. What are you excited about? What do you enjoy? What wouldn’t feel like work to you?”

And I think I’d just gotten back from a trip to Las Vegas, perhaps with some college buddies, and I said, “You know what’s really fun? Las Vegas. I love Las Vegas.” And he said, “Why don’t you study the gaming industry?” And then there you go. So, it was research that took me to Vegas many of those times, but not all.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. So, I’m curious, in your gaming, are you up, are you down?

Vikram Mansharamani
I’m pretty sure I’m down but I think most people that do any amount of gaming end up down, but for me it’s the cost of entertainment. Look, there’s different ways to spend money to be entertained, and if I can do it socially sitting at a craps table with a bunch of friends and folks that I know, and have a nice time, and people give you some adult beverages while you’re there, that’s really the cost of entertainment.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. Well, now I want to dig into your wisdom, and your latest is called Think for Yourself I want to hear, what’s one of the most fascinating and surprising discoveries you’ve made about us humans and how we go about decision-making?

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, there’s a lot of surprises there but the fundamental truth is I think we tend not be rational in this strict model optimizing sense that some traditional economists think we are. And what does that mean? That means that we sometimes make decisions, as I’m sure you’re aware of through behavioral finance and behavioral economics thinking, based on emotions, or fairness, or some of these things that might not make sense from a strict economic perspective.

So, I think just the sort of seeming irrationality of the human being in decision-making context is in of itself kind of surprising where people do things that might not be in their obvious self-interest. And so, yeah, I think that’s probably one of them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’m so intrigued by your title there Think for Yourself because I think a lot of people would say, “Hey, I think for myself, Vikram. Come on, buddy.” So, when we’re not thinking for ourselves, what are we doing?

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, let me use a couple of examples, Pete. I think this will actually make it tangible, real, and I think the audience will appreciate this. Let’s say you get up in the morning, you’re getting into your car, you’re heading to a destination east of your current location. It happened to have snowed last night, the schools are closed, but since you’re not 100% sure where you’re heading, you put it into your GPS device or your Nav system in your car.

Now, the algorithm turns around and tells you, “Uh-oh, you’re going east to this location, but there’s an elementary school and it’s currently 8:30 in the morning. Yeah, we’re going to send you north to go around and then come down to the east.” Now, you pause and you think to yourself, “Huh, it’s probably because of the school there.” But the reason it’s suggesting to go around the school is because of the traffic at this time of the morning. You’ve done this before. You know that your system does that. You also know that the school is closed because of the bad weather on a snow day. Do you follow the device or not? There’s a simple question. I’ll give you one other example which may feel like it’s higher stakes.

You go to your cardiologist. Your cardiologist tells you, “You know what, Pete, I’m sensing a little bit of cholesterol levels creeping up on you here.” She happens to be younger than you, and she says, “You know what, I had the same problem. I’m starting to take this statin. I think you should take this statin. By the way, every other cardiologist here in the hospital complex, they’re taking a statin. My medical school peers, they’re all taking statins and I think you should take a statin.” Do you push back or do you take the statin?

And so, these are examples where we may not realize it but we’re not thinking for ourselves. We’re outsourcing our thinking to experts and technologies. And that may not always be bad but it’s something I think we should do mindfully rather than passively and sort of as a default setting.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, well, it’s funny, we’re talking about health issues, and as we speak, I am engaging the daunting process of shopping for health insurance since my wife is shifting to full-time mothering, and I am shifting onto adopting a tremendous financial burden in the United States. Wow!

Vikram Mansharamani
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you’re right. It’s like experts say stuff and it’s just like, “Well, geez, I don’t know. This seems like there’s a lot of complexity and it’s intricate and hard to get to the bottom and become super-knowledgeable about all my options. Well, hey, this is golden. It’s Blue Cross and it’s PPO and you all say it’s good. I guess that’s what I’m going to get.”

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, think about that, and what you’re getting at, which is actually how I start off most of my book here, is we are facing an environment of overwhelming data. And with overwhelming data, comes overwhelming choice. All of us have become conditioned to believe that more choice is better, that more choice lets us find the exact, optimal, perfect combination of features that was what we need. And the reality is we get overwhelmed by that choice.

We are sort of given this illusive ideal of perfection, and it’s never really achievable, leaving us with this low-grade fever of something we call FOMO. We’re missing out on that perfect choice, “There should be a perfect choice.” And so, what do we do? We run headlong into the arms of experts and technologies that promise us salvation from this anxiety of being overwhelmed by choice.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Yeah, that sounds like a fair synopsis of where we are right now. I buy it.

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, even just think about your medical insurance dilemma, right? I’m sure there’s an online choice aid that exists that says, “Well, how many dependents do you have? Do you think you want high deductible or low deductible? Do you like your doctor? Do you want to be in a network? Do you need referrals? Do you not want referrals? Do you just want to be able to go anywhere in a network?” All of these things create these permutations and combinations which overwhelm us. In fact, you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t overwhelmed, which is why we then go to people who promise us the hope. And, in the process, we actually stop thinking for ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so in a way, that’s a bit of a pejorative context or phrase in terms of, “Hey, you’re not thinking for yourself.” It seems like something, at least the way I interpret it, the emotional valence I’m sticking on it, is that to think for one’s self is a good and noble worthy thing. And to not think for one’s self is something that foolish sheep do, and they need to step up.

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, I’m going to get a little meta on you here. So, thinking for yourself, you may, in fact, think for yourself while outsourcing your thinking. But if you do it proactively, mindfully, then it’s okay, then you are, in fact, thinking for yourself when you’re letting someone else think for you if you proactively make that choice. It’s the default condition without thinking about how you’re making your choices that I have issues with. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t rely on experts or technologies. In fact, I’m suggesting the opposite. We should rely on experts and technologies but we should do so mindfully. We should keep them in their role where we are the lead actor. They can be supporting actors. And so, that’s really the objective.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you gave us a couple of examples which make it real with regard to the GPS and the doctors. And so, where are some danger zones, specifically for professionals and career people, that it’s like, “Hey, timeout. You may not be thinking for yourself about these sorts of things, and you could be falling for these kinds of traps. Warning! Think about this.”

Vikram Mansharamani
Sure. Well, one area, I think, for career-oriented folks who are thinking about doing well in their jobs, climbing the corporate ladder, etc., advancing, is that we’ve developed this core belief system, I think, that expertise, core competence, unique skills, if you will, put capitals on all of those words, are the ultimate destination and the keys to rising in one’s career advancing as well as increasing your income.

And I want to suggest for a moment that actually breadth of perspective may be equal, if not more important than depth of expertise. And part of this has to do with the siloization that’s occurred of knowledge and how people make decisions. We tend to think of the world as broken down in domains. There’s a heart doctor, cardiologists, “Okay, I got to go see someone different for a different part of my body.” But the system is a whole.

And so, what I’m suggesting is rather than hang our hat on developing unique skills and depth of knowledge, I want to suggest that you can actually benefit from being broad, being an integrator of disparate ideas, being a generalist, if you will.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. Well, we had David Epstein on the show, and that was one of his key messages there.

Vikram Mansharamani
David is a good friend.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I think I buy it. So, how do you suppose we fall for the default assumption that specialization is where it’s at?

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, it has to do with the overwhelming amount of data, information, and complexity in our world, or how complicated it’s become. And so, the way most organizations deal with this is they silo people into working on parts of a problem. That’s how we try to do this. And so, as a result, we outsource our career trajectories often to the organizations within which we work. And a little pushback on that would be healthy.

And what it also means is reconceiving the concept of a career trajectory away from rising through a corporate ladder, perhaps thinking about it differently. Maybe it’s a corporate jungle gym and the best way to get to the top is not by going up on every step but by going laterally down to the left, to the right, down three steps, over, up. There may be a different way to get to the top.

Now, what does that practically mean? I mean, it’s a fun analogy to talk about a corporate jungle gym. But it may mean, all right, if you’re rising through the finance function of an organization, maybe it makes sense to stop and do a tour of duty in the marketing department. Possibly, take a demotion rather than a promotion and go into operations. Go run a factory. Possibly, come back and go involve with technologies or call centers or what have you. Develop a portfolio of skills through multi-functional, multi-geographic experiences that could possibly have you leapfrog the trajectories of those who stay within a silo. I guess that’s really what I’m getting at.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’ll tell you, in terms of a universal skill, which we’re all about here, that is handy across each of these functional and industry domains is just this, some of that decision-making smart thinking for yourself skills. So, I’d love to get your take then on some of the top do’s and don’ts in terms of, “Okay, if I have decided that I’m going to go about making some decisions, and I’m going to have the experts on tap, not on top…” one of your turns of phrase which I like, “…I’m going to receive input from them but I’m not going to let them just blindly call the shots,” how do you recommend we go out doing research, generating options, selecting the best option for us?

Vikram Mansharamani
Sure. Well, one of the things that I think is absolutely critical, Pete, is people should spend more time paying attention to the context. Far too often, we focus on what’s in front of us and where we’ve shone the spotlight and not on the related contextually developments that may impact even our decision choices, even the possible selections we can make. So, I think paying attention to the context matters.

Now, again, that sounds very abstract. Let’s make it real. Let’s say you’re in the world of retailing. Do you pay attention to US-China relations? “Maybe. It seems kind of like general knowledge. Is it going to impact me? Is it not going to impact me? I don’t know. I’m in a retail sector. I’m local.” If you’re paying attention to political developments. Obviously, we know there’s an election in the United States, but do we know what’s happening in the political dynamics of our largest trading partners or what have you? Maybe that’s going to potentially come home to impact us. So, advice piece number one is pay attention to context.

Number two, I always encourage people making tough decisions to make sure you get some disagreement in the advice you get. Don’t go out and seek the same advice that you know is confirming your already pre-existing inclinations. Seek disagreement. That’s something that far too few people do this.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s a great perspective but, boy, it’s a frustrating one. I’m thinking back to I had to get a new roof for my home, and I don’t know about roofing, but I had a heck of a hard time just getting anyone to show up and do something it seems in the realm of home renovation. So, I thought, “Well, I better just call 20 roofers so that I can get three quotes.” But I got like nine to show up and weigh in on the matter.

And then it was, huh, boy, it was complex and overwhelming because it’s sort of like, okay, well, this guy costs twice as much as that guy. But why? Is he doing more? Is he better? Is it higher quality? This person says I absolutely have to have it torn off and redone, and that one says, “No, no, no, you don’t need to do that. You can just put another layer.” And this one says, “You don’t even need a layer.” I can just get a sealing and a coating.

And so, it’s like, “Why am I, the person who does not know about roofing, charged with the task of determining who is correct and who is incorrect?” I found myself some disagreement and, I mean, it was tough to sort to the bottom of it.

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, let me ask you this. Do you feel you were more informed about roofing now that you did that?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m vastly informed about roofing, and I wish I weren’t.

Vikram Mansharamani
Far more than you want to be. Exactly. Well, so then the question becomes, “Do you think you could make a better decision having had those conversations or not?”

Pete Mockaitis
You mean going forward or looking backward?

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah. So, ultimately, before you replaced your roof, you presumably had to make a choice, and you, I think, made an informed choice. It might’ve had some costs with developing the options, and seeking the disagreement, and getting a lay of the land, but that mere process, I think, informed you on an area that you would’ve otherwise made a decision blindly in.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it did inform me, and I suppose what I’m really getting at is once I’ve gotten some disagreements, how do I make a call?

Vikram Mansharamani
Sure. Sure. Well, that’s ultimately where you need to think for yourself, right? What are the variables that matter to you? Do you want a 40-year life roof or do you care if it’s a 20-year life roof? Do you want to have the guarantee in case there’s a leak and a hurricane comes through, or do you not worry about the guarantee because you think you may sell the house the next year? So, I think there’s some tradeoffs that one needs to think about themselves.

But part of the reason I encourage the disagreement is there’s a quote, a very famous quote, that Alfred Sloan used it says, “If we’re all in agreement on this decision, then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.” Disagreement helps to understand. So, that’s part of the reason I focus on generating a little bit of disagreement.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s certainly true. That helps generate understanding and, partially, just because it’s psychologically, internally, there’s this tension. It’s like, “Well, what’s right? Aargh.” Because I’m sort of frustrated, I really want to hunker down and get deep into the wisdom because there’s this tension I want resolved and what’s correct.

So, what are some of your pro tips in terms of, I guess, one, you’re getting clear on what you want in your own criteria in rubrics there? But, I guess, part of what I figured out was I had to sort of make some rules of thumb for, “Who am I going to believe and who am I not, and why?” And part of it was I am more inclined to believe people who tell me something that works against their self-interest, where like, “Hey, I can’t do anything for you right now because you got to take care of that masonry first.” It’s like, “So, you’re just going to walk away from the money I want to give you.” I’m inclined to think that that’s a true thing he said about the masonry because it goes against his self-interest.

Or if someone gives me a why, a reason, because underneath what they’re saying, then I’d buy it more than the guy who did not. Like, “You’re going to have to tear off this roof because you can tell from this thickness right here that there’s already three layers, which is already more than the building code allows for. And if you observe this, you’ll see some sagging in the rafters,” versus the guy who’s like, “Nah, we can just put another layer on it.” It’s like, “You didn’t tell me why we could put another layer on it. Like, you didn’t say, ‘Hey, I can tell from this thickness that we have.’” He just said, “Nah.”

So, if you give me a reason versus not a reason, I want to go with the person who gave me a reason. So, those are just a couple of the rubrics I ended up inventing on the spot to make sense of my roof. But what else would you point us to in terms of sorting things out?

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah, I mean, look, ultimately, we need to think about just satisficing, if you will. Pete, we’ve so often, because of these overwhelming sets of options and the overwhelming data deluge that we’re suffering, we think there’s an ideal so we never settle on “good enough.” I mean, I can imagine, and I don’t know you that well, but you might’ve been a person who got so analytical you could imagine a spreadsheet on which roofing contractor to hire.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s absolutely multiples.

Vikram Mansharamani
Right? At some point, we just need to decide. You can overanalyze these things. And so, when I tell people to focus on decision-making, I say, “Look, you can satisfice, that’s from Herb Simon, a Nobel prize winner, who suggested that actually maximization logic or optimization logic sometimes can mislead us, just the pursuit of it even, into expending more costs on trying to optimize than we get value from the incremental optimization.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, agreed. Time, I mean.

Vikram Mansharamani
So, I’ll give you an example from the book, which is a fun personal example, and it has to do with selecting a movie to watch. Every now and then, when the kids, my kids are asleep, my wife and I will jump on the couch and try to get a movie and just watch a movie in the comfort of our home, more so these days since we don’t go out during this lockdown. But, inevitably, what happens is one of us gets to the couch first and sees a preview or two, and then the second one arrives, and I got to be on the same informational footing, “I got to see the same previews you watched. There’s no way I’m making a choice without you…you have an informational edge here. I need to get involved here.”

And so, we’ll watch a couple. Both of us are in different moods, possibly realizing that, “My goodness, Xfinity has 10,000 movies available, we got the Apple TV, which has another 50,000, we got Netflix which can give it to us all of those 100,000 movies in seven different languages, and we got to be able to find the perfect movie.”

And so, an example I use in the book is my wife, eventually, is like, “Fine. It sounds like you really want to watch it. Let’s just watch that movie.” Except it’s taken us an hour to choose the movie. I fall asleep halfway through the movie, go to sleep, and she turns around and says, “I chose this movie because you wanted to watch this movie.” She’s upset. I fell asleep. I go to sleep. She then wakes up next morning. She watched half of the movie she didn’t want to watch, and half of the movie she did want to watch, and is frustrated by the whole evening.

That’s what happens with too much choice and not satisficing, and we’re all subject to it. Sometimes it’s fine to just make a choice. There’ll be more choices in the future. No reason to stress out about things. Some things shouldn’t be stressed about.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so funny that you and I are having this conversation. My company is called Optimality, LLC. That is my business name. I love things being optimal. And I think I’m the weird one compared to my friends and family in terms of others are more fine with satisficing. But I think that’s really a great point in terms of, again, thinking for yourself, in terms of, “What are we looking to do here? Do we need to optimize the crap out of this?” And some things you really do. It’s like, “This will make a tremendous impact if it’s 2% better, so we’re going to get there.”

And other things it doesn’t in terms of if you found the best possible movie ever that was, from thence forth, all of your favorite movies, one, that’s highly improbable, wildly occur, because how can you top Life is Beautiful. Wow! What a film. But the payoff isn’t that extraordinarily huge and the quest could take forever. So, I think that’s really great point right there. It’s just we got to decide, “What do we got to do here? Do I get a perfect optimization, a rough optimization, or just a quick good enough?”

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah, and I think it has to do obviously with the stakes. When the stakes are low, our default is we tend not in our decision processes to factor in the stakes of the outcome. This is a trivial thing. We’re watching a movie. Why stress about optimizing? Just go with one. It’s good. We’ll have another choice next week. We’ll have lots. This is a repeated choice and the stakes are so low. So, yeah, I think incorporating how big a decision and how high the stakes are should come into that decision of optimize versus satisfice.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, it’s so funny, as we talk about it, it’s like, “Well, boy, if you really want to optimize the bejesus out of movies selection, you just got to go to IMDB or Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, go top to bottom.”

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, Pete, you’re hinting at a great point where we outsource our thinking. How many of us go to the recommended, “People who watched this movie will also enjoy this movie”? And don’t we just naturally go there and explore those? When you’ve purchased a book online from your favorite large retailer, do you go down and say, “Well, people who bought this also bought this. You may also enjoy this”? Or do you get an email from someone? Are they channeling our focus in a way that prevents us from scanning? And so, we end up becoming exploiters, i.e. narrow and deep, rather than explorers, wide and broad. So, I think we’re outsourcing some of our thinking even unknowingly in times like those.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I think it’s interesting, if you think about just that notion of exploiting versus exploring, you would probably have a very different approach and mindset toward exploring if it wasn’t in the heat of battle, if you will, like, “We’re going to pick a movie to watch now” versus, “Why don’t I just get a list of candidates ready for the future moment in which we’re going to watch a movie.” You’ll probably be a little bit more open-ended in terms of, “Huh, what’s that about?”

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, it’s interesting. I mean, I think actually some of these large tech companies giving us media have thought about this decision problem, and that’s why I think, I don’t know for a fact, but I think that’s why we have the Wishlist, or the My List, or I think every streaming service has their own one where you put down what your future potential movies to watch are. So, even there I think they’re trying to overcome that problem. So, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Vikram, tell me, before we shift gears, any other top do’s and don’ts for wise thinking, decision-making, we should lock in?

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah. So, one of the things that I think is critical that very few people spend enough time thinking about is the future. Of course, all of us think about the future, singular, but I think we need to think about futures, plural. And thinking about multiple futures is a different way to think. It’s thinking probabilistically of how things can transpire.

And so, that’s a big-picture topic but I think it has to do with the context. As I said earlier, the context is critical to how you make decisions, the environment in which you’re making the decisions, the stakes of the decision you’re making, but also related to that is some version or vision of the future. And I rather you not have one vision of the future or one version of the future, but rather multiple futures that you’re envisioning or foreseeing.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I might sort of imagine what’s the future that I’m delighted with, what’s the future that I’m furious about, how do these come about.

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah. I mean, look, one of the decision tactics I use in some of my advisory work is I use, from the academic literature, something called prospective hindsight. Now, what does that mean in plain English? In plain English that means it’s called a pre-mortem analysis. What does that mean in real plain English? Imagine failure in the future for a decision you made today, and then paint a story of why that decision failed.

So, you decided to go with one roofer. A hurricane came through and, you know what, you shouldn’t have done the multiple layers because it ripped off. That’s horrible. One possibility of failure in that decision is you went with a choice that optimized for the short term, not thinking about some of these bigger risks.

Alternatively, you failed because you went with the high-price guy who was going to do it perfectly, strip the roof, rebuild the masonry, do it all, and charge you an arm and leg. Well, now, how does that fail? Yeah, the failure there may be that, “Well, I spent too much money. I never really got the value of it,” or what have you, or there’s other versions that you can think about.

And so, you can think in terms of possible regrets for decisions made, trying to project yourself into the future and looking back to say, “Why did that decision go wrong?” And that oftentimes helps for some interesting thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote? You gave us one. Do you have another?

Vikram Mansharamani
I do. Peter Drucker, fabulous management theorist, and it’s related, again, in the domain of decisions, I think it’s the fabulous one, he says, “A decision without an alternative is a desperate gambler’s throw.” I figure I’d bring that in given the Vegas connection too. But, yes, the key is it’s not a choice. It’s not a decision if you only have one alternative you come up with. And this has to do with also that disagreement logic. So, that’s a fun quote.

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

Vikram Mansharamani
There’s a lot of them out there that I find fascinating. Obviously, Kahneman and Thaler. Kahneman and Tversky have done a lot, but Thaler has done a lot in behavioral decision-making, and I find almost all of their work fascinating. Some of their earlier work where they decided to actually go and try these sorts of studies on people.

One of my favorite ones, it’s referenced very slightly, but I think it says so much about us humans, was when they stepped in front of an audience and spun one of those wheels of fortune that resulted in a number, I think, between a zero and a hundred, and then they asked the audience, “What percentage of African nations were members of the United Nations?” And they got a number. They did these many times. Other groups spun the wheel of fortune, got a a random number. Everyone saw it was a random number. And then they asked the question, “What percentage of African nations are members of the United Nations?”

And the numbers that the groups came up with for percentage of African nations that were members of the United Nations were influenced by the random number. And the anchoring effect is so visceral at that point. Like, we know this number is random and yet that’s in our head. We can’t get it out of our head. And we approach the answer to the question closer to that than we otherwise should. I find that fascinating.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I saw one where judges, there’s a study with judges, who had an address on the stationery of the document that influenced how much of a monetary award they thought a plaintiff deserved, which was wild. These are judges.

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah, you’d think it wouldn’t be that way but, unfortunately, it is. The other study that I’ll just highlight, is Philip Tetlock wrote a book called Expert Political Judgment. And in that book, he talks about experts’ forecasting and the long-range forecasts of many experts. And what he found was experts were less accurate in their area of expertise than non-experts were, vis-à-vis the predictions made over a long term and with lots of predictions. Then I think he had 80,000 predictions over lots of years and lots of forecasters, and sort of came back to the logic that sometimes it’s better to be broad rather than narrow.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Vikram Mansharamani
You know, one of the books that I really do love is The Four Agreements which is a bit of philosophy. It’s a book that’s not quite spiritual in the sense but it’s a sort of Toltec wisdom guide to self-freedom or something like that. I forget the subtitle of it. But, really, it’s a book that forces you to step back and put things in context personally, professionally, etc. I find it a really empowering book. It’s a book that I sometimes leave in my suitcase back when I was traveling more, and would happily pick up and read through and re-read. It’s a book that I think is quite powerful.

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

Vikram Mansharamani
I actually think sometimes just disconnecting from the stuff I’m working on. And if that’s go out for a run or, and I talk about this also as a tool to inspire creativity, literally, just get lost in a movie in the middle of the day. So, sometimes if I’m writing and in a rut, I will go turn on a movie in the middle of the day, watch it, watch half of it. Of course, obviously, I don’t think this is unusual advice, but working out and sort of breaking the rhythm. But those are some of the tools I use to really break up the rhythm.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re really known for, it’s quoted back to you often?

Vikram Mansharamani
I think the phrase that you’ve already quoted that I do like to use and a lot of people associate with me is sometimes keep experts on tap not on top. That’s one of the things there.

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

Vikram Mansharamani
I think my website is probably the best place, which is just my last name dot com, www.Mansharamani.com or my Twitter account which is @mansharamani.

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

Vikram Mansharamani
You know, I think it’s really, really important to try to take a step back and think about these multiple futures. And I know lots of people that are professional and focus on their careers are devout readers of non-fiction. But I want you to take some time to read fiction, to watch movies. I think the creativity that it inspires helps you to think about multiple futures. I teach this class at Harvard called Humanity and Its Challenges. It’s a systems-thinking class taught at the engineering school. And I use novels in this class.

Now, this throws engineering students off because their first inclination is, “Wait. What? That’s not real though, Vikram. That’s not real. That’s fake. That’s a fiction story.” And I was like, “Yes, read it. You’ll understand.” Or watching movies, they’re like, “But that’s not real. We’ll watch a documentary, not a movie.” But the point is some of these narratives of future scenarios can really help you navigate through uncertainty as it comes. It helps you get a lay of the land of what may be in front of you.

Five years ago, when I started teaching this class during the year 2016-2017 academic year, one of the cases, and we’ve used it since then, is the risk of a global pandemic. We had students watch the movie Contagion. We had the students watch other movies for other cases. And they dismissed it back then as Hollywood-esque drama, “This isn’t real. This is fake.”

Today, a handful of those students that gave me that feedback back then, are turning around and saying, “Wow, I’m glad you made us watch some of those things. It gave us a version of how the future could unfold that even though we didn’t fully appreciate at the time, we now do.” So, that’s a little tidbit, sort of think in terms of futures.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Vikram, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you all the best of luck in the ways you’re thinking for yourself.

Vikram Mansharamani
Great. Thanks very much, Pete.