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820: How to Embrace Tensions for Better Decision-Making with Marianne Lewis

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Marianne Lewis shows how to turn tensions into opportunities for growth.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why to never ask yourself “Should I…?” 
  2. How to find and benefit from the yin and yang of everything
  3. The three steps for better decision-making 

About Marianne

Marianne W. Lewis is dean and professor of management at the Lindner College of Business, University of Cincinnati. She previously served as dean of Cass (recently renamed Bayes) Business School at City, University of London, and as a Fulbright scholar. A thought leader in organizational paradoxes, she explores tensions and competing demands surrounding leadership and innovation.

Lewis has been recognized among the world’s most-cited researchers in her field (Web of Science) and received the Paper of the Year award (2000) and Decade Award (2021) from the Academy of Management Review. She enjoys her three children and two grandchildren from her home base in Cincinnati. 

Resources Mentioned

Marianne Lewis Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Marianne, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Marianne Lewis
Oh, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. We’re talking about Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems. I like so much those words. So, can you kick us off with maybe a particularly surprising or counterintuitive discovery you’ve made about problem-solving from all of your research and teaching here?

Marianne Lewis
Pete, I’ve been studying tensions, competing demands, that tug-of-war we feel in our hearts, whether it’s dealing with strategy, dealing with our lives, dealing with teams, for about 25 years. And I think the big aha and the reason I spent two-plus decades doing this was early in my career when I realized that our default is to this either/or thinking, that we get into this challenge, and we say, “Geez, do I spend my energy on work or life? Do I think about my performing and hitting my current targets or do I need to step back and learn and look around?”

And in this either/or approach, we weigh the pros and cons of these two sides and we make a choice and we think we can move on. Sometimes that can work if these are really simplistic issues but most times, either/or thinking is really limiting. It’s, “Are we really limited to only two?” Or, worse, when you start to kind of play that out, you go down this rabbit hole of saying, “Well, wait a minute, if I put all my energy into hitting my current targets, that would be great. I would excel, I would have lots to show on my resume, I would’ve proven my worth. But then life could change around me and I wouldn’t be ready. I’d be flatfooted.”

“But if all I did was…” So, let’s go to the other one, “If I really focus on learning, and I’m in higher-ed and I love learning, but if that was all I did, would I really make an impact? Would I make sure I’m applying what I’m learning in process?” And so, you get into this, you get stuck because what you really need is you need both. And so, what my work originally kind of focused on and the aha was we’re limited in our thinking, in our default. The good news is there’s a better way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that is good news. And so, if that is our default, I imagine it’d be quite possible that we’re doing it and we don’t even notice that we’re doing it. That’s what often happens with defaults.

Marianne Lewis
That it’s really automatic.

Pete Mockaitis
So, could you maybe give us a few rapid-fire examples to shake us out of it a little bit? It’s like, “Here’s what I mean by both/and versus either/or, and just notice that there might be more to things than first meets the eye.”

Marianne Lewis
Yeah, I’ll give you a classic example. We talked to people who’ll say, “Boy, I’m not crazy about the work I’m doing right now. So, do I stay or do I go?” And you’re kind of seeing a little clash as you’re thinking about that. But, again, you don’t really have to decide black and white, “Do I stay or do I leave this job?” You could also say, the both/and approach is, “Well, what do I like about what I do? What do I not like about what I do? Are there ways that I could either, personally and/or with my supervisor, talk about I need more of this and less of this? And how do I have those kinds of conversations?”

Or, vice versa, if I say, “Boy, what I don’t have this in job is what I’m starting to realize is what I truly want in life.” Well, it’s not just then going. It’s getting much sharper about what you want. If not, you’ll be in this grass-is-always-greener. You’ll get there and go, “How did I get…? Wait, this isn’t it either.”
And it’s kind of a constant flipping.

So, to us, both/and is about really diving into both sides of the equation, and saying, “At its best, what does each side bring? And at its worst, if that was all I did, what’s the problem there?” Because it’s through that kind of thinking you realize, “Okay, I could get more creative here.” And now it’s not a stay or go. It’s, “Let’s really dig into what do I want in my work.”

So, I use that example, Pete, because I think we’ve had, in some ways, kind of a global existential crisis during the pandemic. We’ve got a lot of people thinking, “Is this really what I want to be doing?” and questioning, and sometimes questioning in two simplified a way of, “Do I just leave?” you know, the Great Resignation. And then you find, I mean, we’re seeing this already in research that the Great Resignation has a lot of people not any happier in their second one because they haven’t thought through that fully what they want and what they don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you, that’s powerful, Marianne. And I was just about to challenge a little bit in terms of, “Well, ultimately, aren’t you either staying or going?” I mean, you could, of course, optimize, and finetune, and change, and have some good conversations about how to improve where you are, although that’s sort of a subset, I would say, if we’re going to nitpick about definitions of staying. But I guess what you’re putting forward here is, just by framing it that way, you’re missing out.

Marianne Lewis
Yeah, I think framing, that’s what…Wendy Smith is my co-author in the book and long-time research colleague. We think framing is hugely important, and it starts with really both/and thinking, starts with changing the kinds of questions we ask. That classic either/or question starts with, typically, a word like “do,” “Do I…?” “Do I stay or go?” versus a more typical both/and question that starts with “how,” “How would I make the most of what I like and where I am? And what am I missing? And how would I find a new combination?” because there are lots of combinations possible.

And you’re right, it still could sound like stay or go, but let me give you a couple of examples because Wendy and I worked with a variety of people who have gone through this one. It could also decide, “Well, maybe what I’m going to do is I’m going to stay for now, and I’m going to build a three- to six-month plan so that leaving means a much better view of what do I really need. And how do I leave in a way that doesn’t leave my team in a lurch or feel like I’ve been disloyal?”

If you unpack that stay-or-go challenge, you find that there are lots of other challenges within it that are going to make us lean towards one side or the other, and we’re going to have to deal with those if we’re going to really make a decision that has some lasting power and some creativity to it, for that matter.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really powerful because I think we could really feel the urgency and the, well, tension associated with, “Oh, well, I need to reach a decision, and, ultimately, these are the only categories that we could fall into.” And, yet, by taking that pathway of either/or, we miss out on surfacing what’s really most important, what are some cool options beyond that, and then how do we get there.

So, I really like that notion of just check yourself if you’re asking a question “Do I…?” as opposed to “How…” that puts you down some different pathway. So, can you expand upon those in terms of what are some either/or-style questions or things to be on the lookout for and their both/and counterparts?

Marianne Lewis
Well, I’ll give you an interesting version of this. Sometimes people can ask, “Do I focus on the financial benefits of my job or the work that I’m doing, like grow the money, grow the profit, grow the margins, or do I focus on the social responsibility, my impact, how do I better the world?” Do you have a business school? I can’t stand that question because they should be synergistic and we’ve seen amazing leaders learn how to do both. But they changed that question to, “How can I grow my profits through social responsibility?”

That was a question posed by Paul Polman when he was turning around Unilever, and his goals were to double the profits while having their environmental footprint, and people said, “You’re crazy. That’s not how it works. The bigger you are the more damage you do.” And he said, “No, we touch two billion consumers a day at Unilever. We can’t afford that.”

And I actually just had an executive in my office who ran Gerber clothing, for children’s clothes, and he said, “Clothing is notorious for being unsustainable. We throw away billions of pounds, let alone tons of wasted clothing.” Unilever and Paul, who’s such a both/and thinker we study and write about him in the book, but this leader was talking about at Gerber, too, is you start to realize, actually, by being sustainable, you reduce wastes, you’re more efficient. By the way, that means you reduce costs which increases profit.

And, by being socially responsible, you have a whole host of customers who say, “I have choices,” and you will have customers say, “I’m going to choose, I would rather choose a firm that’s sustainable.” And, by the way, as we’ve seen from lots of these same firms, we actually have investors who will eventually, and this is happening increasingly, say, “I actually want to invest in more sustainable firms.”

And so, here are these questions of, “Do I focus on the financial and my social responsibilities?” and maybe not as quickly as we like, but it is becoming a moot point. The leaders of Toyota were saying this with quality and costs. In the ‘80s, they practically put the American auto manufacturers out of business because we were sitting there, going, “Oh, no, it doesn’t work that way. The higher the quality, the higher the costs.” And they said, “No, the higher the quality, the lower the rework, the more efficient,” right? And then you see Toyota and Honda take off.

I just gave you two strategic examples but we ask those similar types of questions in our lives, both in our work and our decisions about the work that we do in our own values. And I’d like us to open our minds a bit and reframe, as you said.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, when it comes to our minds, you’ve got an interesting term – the paradox mindset. What is that and how can it help us?

Marianne Lewis
Yeah, a paradox mindset. So, when we think about either/or, we think about tradeoffs. Picture, like, a scale, and you’re doing this weighing between the sides. When we think about a both/and thinking, we put those opposing decisions into a Yin-Yang, which is such a beautiful symbol of paradox. So, if you can picture the Yin-Yang, you have kind of a black-and-white sliver, and so you’ve got two sides to this. But there’s also this dynamic flow between them where you see that they actually define each other. It’s only together that you see this whole of the circle.

And if you can kind of picture the Yin-Yang in your mind, as you move higher into, say, the dark, there’s actually a pin prick of white. And the view is, as you get higher and higher into one side, you actually feel more pull in this ebb and flow into the other. This is night and day. It’s love and hate. It’s trust and distrust, self and other. I’m being more philosophical here, but those play into the way we think about challenges.

Why is a financial responsibility and social responsibility opposites on a scale versus Yin and Yang? And how could they work together more synergistically? So, that was a way of sharing. The reason we use the term paradox is to start to change our views from a tradeoff to this Yin-Yang mindset. And a paradox mindset means two things, we have two dimensions, and we’ve measured this now over thousands of people. It’s in multiple languages.

We started in three. We started in Chinese, Israeli, and then in the US, an American. I guess I did geography. This is where we did the study. But what we found is there are two dimensions. One is some people are more sensitized to see and feel tensions. Now, that could be because you’re in a particularly stressful conflict-laden time so there are a lot of tensions around you, and it can be you’re somebody like me who sees them in their sleep. I pick them out very quickly. And the more you practice paradox thinking, actually, the more sensitized you become regardless of your work.

So, there’s the, “How much do you experience and see tensions.” And then the other side is, “How much, when you see them, do you see tensions as just a problem to either ignore, work through, and move quickly? Or, do you see them as an opportunity that in that tension there is this creative friction and an opportunity to learn, innovate, grow?”

What we found is people who have this paradox mindset, they see tensions as opportunities, they think about them as this Yin-Yang, are much more likely, according to their supervisors, to be more productive and more creative, and, according to themselves, to be more happy, to be more satisfied. So, what we’re finding with the paradox mindset is, especially if you’re dealing with tensions, that ability to move into them, seeing opportunity, benefits for learning, and working toward a both/and, will pay off in really powerful ways for you as an individual and probably for your organization given those benefits.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you give us several examples of individuals who, they saw some tensions and then they considered them with a both/and perspective, or paradox mindset, and cool things emerged as a result?

Marianne Lewis
Yeah, I’ll give you a few of some leaders that I’ve enjoyed studying over the years. Muhtar Kent is fascinating. He was the CEO and chairman of Coca-Cola, which is an interesting example because one of the tensions we see quite a bit is global versus local. And you could think about this also as kind of centralized/decentralized is another way to think about it. But Coca-Cola is actually the best-known image in the world, even better than Mickey Mouse. People just know the red can anywhere.

So, you have this huge global reach and scale. Scale provides you incredible opportunities, really well-coordinated impact, reach, etc., and you’re talking about Coca-Cola. You’re talking about something you drink, taste, as differentiated locally as imaginable. And so, Coca-Cola, and particularly Muhtar, would always say, “Look, we have to be the best-known global brand, and leverage that scale, and have this tremendous value appreciation tapping into those local differences as possible. We have to be both if we are truly going to be a global brand.”

And if you go to the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta, you will see they have lots of variations based on local differentiation of taste. So, even as a global brand, it also has local differences. Even that it has a global reach and scale of like the Walmarts and Amazons of the world, they also are really good at tapping into very local supply chains, retailers, because, depending on where you’re going, sometimes big boxes, let alone Amazon, they’re not there. So, that’s just a different kind of view of the global/local.

Another one I would share is a fun discussion I’ve had recently with Rocketbook. We wrote about it in Fast Company. But Rocketbook is dealing, like everybody else, with hybrid work, what do you do home versus away. And one of the reasons we started working on this with Fast Company, and we ended up going at Rocketbook, is that people might think that hybrid work is a win-win, but most often, it’s actually experienced as a lose-lose because you’ve lost the boundaries between work and home.

So, you go into work and you’re sitting on Zoom calls. That doesn’t exactly feel like a value to me. You’ve just on the commute and everything else. Or, you’re at home and you still got all of life and home, family, other things distracting and challenge around you, and you’re feeling like you’re really not at your best in either location.

So, talking with Jake and Joe, the co-founders of Rocketbook, Rocketbook does sustainable notebooks. They do reusable notebooks. It’s a really cool technology. I highly recommend it. They said, “Pre-pandemic, we were already hybrid.” And I said, “Well, why?” And they said, “Because we believe in the power of work-at-home, or work-non-office, as deep work, that work that you really need solitude, focus.” And they have a lot of designers, engineers, and they said, “We want them to have that opportunity to be at their best selves.”

And, on the other hand, we knew, and we still believe this wholly, that the best creativity will always happen around a table with a whiteboard, with all these, and that takes in the office. And so, because they had already believed in the power of hybrid work, they came out of COVID really strong because they kind of perfected why you come in, when you come in, how you come in, and when you would work at home.

And they learned this creative way to be both/and, to think about those synergies in ways that made people keep the differences, value separation, they used lots of cool ways to use technologies that we all use, like Outlook and other platforms, to respect people’s deep-work time and, while they’re at home, also have times that you say, “Now, I’m going grocery shopping.” They really got creative in how they use both.

But I think that’s a very different way than a lot of firms saying, “Is it three days or two days?” There’s a very basic approach to hybrid that isn’t how are you deeply making the most of the time together and the time apart. So, I would note those two because I love both options, and I think we’ve lived them in our lives, not just at an organization level.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So, the Rocketbook parameters then, for whether you work from home or from the office on a given day, is not just blanket two days, three days, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, but rather, “What is the nature of what you’re working on, and then, please, freely come into the office so we can do that better, or stay at home so you can do that better?”

Marianne Lewis
Yeah. And the other way I would say that, Pete, is we talk about in the book one of the key assumptions to moving to the both/and mindset is moving from thinking about your resources as scarce to abundant, and that an abundant mindset matters. And so, it was interesting talking to the folks at Rocketbook because time is a classic resource.

And so, you could say, “Well, yeah, but there are only 24 hours in the day, or eight hours in a workday,” whatever. And what Jake and Joe would say is, “Yeah, but every hour isn’t created equally.” Like, I’m a morning person, I like it super early, okay, then I’m going to work from 5:00 till 10:00. It’s going to be my deep-work time. I don’t want to be bothered from 5:00 till 10:00. But I want you to know I’m on it. And, by the way, I’m then going to take a break because I’m going to be really low, and then I’m going to come in for a few hours.

And so, they figured out ways to make that, and then, at the same time, they have people who are super late-night owls and they’ll even have office times, like at 11:00 o’clock. But my point with the abundance mindset is it’s not that they’re using more time or less time. They’re using time better, and they’re using it in a way, to your point about, yes, it’s the home versus work, but it’s also time that they’re playing with, to say, “What is the kind of work you’re trying to do? When are you at your best?” versus, “When do we get people together, whether it’s on Zoom or in the office?”

It’s a more nuanced approach than the, “Is it three days or two days? And, by the way, is it 8:00 to 5:00?” And I like that. I think that really is empowering to people.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, tell me, Marianne, anything else you want to make sure to mention, any top do’s or don’ts about both/and thinking or embracing creative tensions we should cover before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Marianne Lewis
I think I would just, as a key takeaway, and, obviously you can do dive deeper in the book, we talk about kind of three key steps. You need to change the question you ask from this either/or to an “and,” “How do I accommodate my opposing, my competing demands?” The second piece is, instead of just weighing the pros and cons, and we say, “You need to separate and connect. You need to pull apart that Yin-Yang, think about really what you value on both sides, and then think about how you’re going to hold it together with a higher vision and some key guides.”

And then the third piece is you start to change the way you think about your solutions. Because, again, with either/or, the end result is a single choice. But with a paradox, when you’re dealing with these kinds of tensions, they don’t really go away. I might decide today between work and home, but I’ll have to decide again tomorrow, or I may have to decide between, “Am I really going to focus on current targets or learning for the future? But I’ll have to make that decision again.”

So, we think about one of the most kind of key decision-making modes that we see of people who are really good at both/and thinking, is think about it as tight-rope walking. You’re continuing to move forward but you’re making these kinds of micro decisions on an ongoing basis between challenges, between work or home, between social and financial, between learning and performing, between self and others, where your focus is.

But you don’t let yourself lean so far to one side that you fall because that’s really hard to get back up, and it takes some intention to know that you are holding them together. You need both elements and you’re moving forward. So, I do think that’s key to think about kind of three steps, in some ways.

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

Marianne Lewis
A quote that Wendy and I often return to was by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues at Stanford, they’re psychologists. And the quote is, “The problem is not the problem. The problem is the way we think about the problem.” And, to me, that’s key to this decision-making. It’s actually the way we thought about the problem has limited our solutions.

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

Marianne Lewis
I think my favorite study was by Rothenberg. It was in 1979, I think, and Rothenberg was studying creative geniuses. He was studying Picasso, Mozart, Einstein, Virginia Woolf, and he was reading all their journals and different things. And what he’s finding was that the genius of these creative individuals came from valuing tensions, seeing them as opportunities; Picasso seeing light and dark; Einstein seeing things in movement and in rest; Virginia Woolf, it was life and death; Mozart was harmony and discord. He called it Janusian Thinking.

That was Rothenberg’s kind of finding. Janus was this two-faced god, looking in two directions simultaneously. But his point was that these creative geniuses found real value in the tensions. They sought conflicts for their greatest works, and I think that is a huge takeaway of instead of viewing these as problems, as in things that we want to avoid, work through as fast as possible, we should seek them out because they have potential, fodder, fuel, for really great creative opportunities.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Marianne Lewis
I think my favorite book is probably The Tao of Physics by Frank Capra. This is just a fascinating book. It goes back to Einstein. I really think Einstein and all the individuals that developed quantum physics were in this paradox mindset in a way that was really cool. But The Tao of Physics basically talked about how they turn to Taoism and insights from the Yin-Yang and ancient philosophy because they were literally thinking, “I’m going to go crazy because I don’t understand how something can be a particle and a wave. Which one is it? How can something be in motion or at rest?”

It was just one of those books. I kind of like a book that makes my head hurt sometimes because it’s really straining, and, at the same time, it’s kind of beautiful. And you realize, “Well, yeah, it was rocket science, it was quantum physics.” They went through some very simple powerful philosophy to get through it, keep themselves sane, but also get to a solution that was really remarkable with quantum physics.

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

Marianne Lewis
Probably my favorite tool is the Polarity Map by Barry Johnson. It’s this really cool, simple approach to when you have a tension, a conflict, competing demands. You put it on this two-by-two grid. And on the one side, you put the highs and lows of that side, like, say, “I love a leadership. I’m a leader and I love to be innovative but I also like to be really disciplined.” Well, at your best, what does your innovative self look like? At its worst, if that’s all you did, like you’re really risky. And then, at the same time, you do, “At my disciplined best, and my disciplined worst, am I a real pain?”

And the point of Barry’s Polarity Map is, “How do you stay in the top two quadrants? How do you let the tight-rope walking? You’re probably not disciplined and innovative at the same time but you’re iterating between the two. And how do you avoid going down into the depths of the negative?” But I love the Polarity Map. It’s just a great tool.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Marianne Lewis
I’m not always good at this but I think meditation is a really powerful habit because I think our minds can get in our way, and meditation is just a powerful practice to just kind of clear out the mess and have some calm so that we might not jump so automatically to a place that isn’t always in our best interest, and listen to the voices that might be taking us the wrong direction in our heads.

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

Marianne Lewis
I think a key nugget is probably just the power of a paradox mindset, to say, at our best, let’s not get stuck in these vicious cycles of either/or thinking, which we think of as rabbit holes, wrecking balls, interfere, and really look for more creative lasting solutions. And that’s what I’m hoping our work is doing, taking it out of a more academic realm and thinking more about people’s lives and how do you deal with the tensions because they are human. That is what the world we live in, and it’s natural. But I also think tensions are beneficial.

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

Marianne Lewis
I’d point them to BothAndThinking.net. They can find out more about the work we’ve done in media, more about the book, other places to hear and see us, but, also, there are lots of places you can buy it, and so we just try to put it at one-stop-shop over there.

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

Marianne Lewis
Boy, I think this is a challenging time. I think a lot of people are stepping back and kind of saying, “What do I want?” I hope people use both/and thinking to make those decisions because I know we can feel we want impact. We want meaning. We also want flexibility and finances. We want a lot of things from our jobs that can feel like they’re pulling in us in opposite directions. I think this is the time to be more creative and think differently about what we really want and need out of our jobs.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you, Marianne. I wish you much luck and cool results from both/and thinking.

Marianne Lewis
Thank you. I wish you all the best, Pete. Thank you for this podcast.

810: How to Get Stuff Done inside Bureaucracies with Marina Nitze

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Marina Nitze reveals what makes bureaucracies tick and how you can work your way through them.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why bureaucracies can actually be great
  2. Six favorite bureaucracy hacks
  3. What not to do when trying to challenge a bureaucracy

About Marina

Marina Nitze, co-author of the new book Hack Your Bureaucracy, is a partner at Layer Aleph, a crisis response firm specializing in restoring complex software systems to service. Marina is also a fellow at New America’s New Practice Lab, where she improves America’s foster care system through the Resource Family Working Group and Child Welfare Playbook. Marina was the CTO of the VA after serving as a Senior Advisor on technology in the Obama White House. She lives in Seattle.

Resources Mentioned

Marina Nitze Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Marina, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Marina Nitze
Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to hear about your wisdom but, first, I think we need to hear a little bit about your job as a 12-year-old making fan sites for General Hospital.

Marina Nitze
Well, it was the best way to learn HTML back then. It was the days of AOL keywords, and I loved my General Hospital soap opera couples, and it was a great way to learn technology, and that was absolutely the start of my tech career.

Pete Mockaitis
So, at 12 years old, you’re loving General Hospital?

Marina Nitze
Yes, it was our neighbor’s grandma watched it, and I got to sit and watched it with her. And then you get hooked, right? Friday cliffhanger, you got to see what happened Monday, and then you’re running home from the school bus every night.

Pete Mockaitis
That is fun. That’s fun. I have a feeling that in your childhood you probably had a lot of fun conversations with “grownups.” Is that fair to say?

Marina Nitze
I was really bad at being with kids, so, yeah, I mostly just talk to grownups and tried to have my own businesses. Yeah, being an adult is more fun.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’m intrigued to hear you’ve got a cool specialty. We’re talking about your book Hack Your Bureaucracy. You’ve worked in some in your career in your days. Could you share with us, any particularly surprising or counterintuitive discovery you’ve made about bureaucracies in general? Is there something most of us have wrong about bureaucracies?

Marina Nitze
I think so. I think bureaucracy is often a four-letter word. We think of them as things that you need to blow up, you need to move around, you need to get rid of. And, for me, the most surprising thing as a Libertarian joining the Federal Government, believing that the whole thing should be blown up, and it totally did not work, was that bureaucracies actually work quite effectively and you can do a lot of effective things to get them to change for the better. And so, learning those techniques was really the impetus behind writing the new book and sharing those with others.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so tell us more about that. Bureaucracies, in fact, do work effectively. Can you give us some data or evidence or examples there?

Marina Nitze
Well, we kept seeing, when I was in the Federal Government, we had a program called the US Digital Service, which recruited top-tier technologists to come into government for tours of duty. And, repeatedly, kind of the pattern was always the same. They wanted to come in and the first thing they thought was the path to success was getting a waiver or an exception to the rules, or going around the rules, and that worked zero percent of the time.

But what did really work was learning what the rules were, and then not only using them to your advantage, but sometimes changing the rules of the game themselves so that the next thing the bureaucracy was doing was the right thing and the thing that you wanted them to be doing consistently even after you left.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, they were able to accomplish what they were hoping to accomplish by doing things the way that they say are to be done, and that was fine.

Marina Nitze
Yeah. I had a great story there around trying the normal way first, which was one of our bureaucracy hacks. When we wanted to use cloud computing because, at the time, all the websites for veterans were literally operating on computers that were like under people’s desks or, in one case, in a mop closet. And even if you don’t know a lot about technology, computers and mop closets and water should never the twain shall meet.

But one of the big objections that we got to doing this was from the inspector general, who said, “Well, wait a minute. You can’t use cloud computing because you can’t put the cloud in an evidence bag.” And so, by actually going through this process and working with them and understanding how they conducted their investigations, which was they would walk into your office, they would pick up the computer, and they would put it in an evidence bag. They didn’t know how they could do that in a world where cloud computing, and you can’t actually touch the computers anymore.

So, we had to work with them to help them see how they could actually conduct their investigations more effectively.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, you don’t have to truck it over to the mop closet.

Marina Nitze
Exactly. You don’t have to lift anything, you don’t have to put it into bags, your back won’t be strained anymore. And then, in the course of following up with that, we ended up hitting the IT approval paperwork had questions, like, “Marina, do you pinky-swear that you jiggled the doorknob to make sure that it was locked on the cloud?”

And you can’t jiggle the doorknob of the cloud either, so you had to actually change the paperwork itself. But in the course of changing the paperwork, now you can say, like, “Hey, is this server in a mop closet?” And if it is, then it doesn’t get approved, “Does this server have backups?” And if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t get approved. “Does this website have business hours?” And if it does, then it doesn’t get approved. And that’s how you can make a really systemic change in a bureaucracy.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I just need to follow up. So, there was actually an official form somewhere that had the phraseology pinky-swear and jiggle the handle on it? Is that accurate?

Marina Nitze
The pinky-swear is my color, admittedly, but the jiggling the handle was actually literally a security control. We had to promise. I had to swear and sign on a piece of paper that I had jiggled the doorknob to make sure it was locked.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, this is fun. This is the way I love it, it’s the detailed insight scoop. All right. So, maybe let’s zoom out a bit. What’s the big idea behind the book Hack Your Bureaucracy?

Marina Nitze
Yeah, it’s really the Frank Sinatra test. So, in Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way,” he says, “Hey, if I made it here in New York, I can make it anywhere.” And so, the bureaucracy hacking tactics we learned in the White House, when I was at the VA as the chief technology officer in Department of Defense, when they worked there, we then found, my co-author Nick and I, that when we left, now he’s in venture capital and at Harvard University, I now do IT crises consulting for Fortune 500 companies and I work in state and local governments on foster care, and the bureaucracy hacking tactics still keep working.

And then we tried them in PTAs and Homeowners Associations, and they still keep working. So, the idea is, “Here are some hacks that work in some of the toughest bureaucracies, and they’ll also work in your everyday bureaucracies.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, could you share with us an inspiring story of someone who, indeed, successfully hacked their bureaucracy and got something cool done which others may have said is impossible?

Marina Nitze
Absolutely. So, at the VA in 2013, there was a horrible backlog of healthcare applications from veterans that were trying to access VA healthcare, 800,000 of them waiting, pieces of paper waiting in a warehouse. And it was in the news that the inspector general had determined that 100,000 of those veterans had died waiting for the VA to process that paperwork.

And so, the VA was going to do what the VA always did, which was, “We’re going to do more mandatory overtime and more data entry.” But my team believed that there was a different way to go about that, “What if we could bypass the paper and get digital instant enrolment for veterans?” And what unlocked that was actually sitting down with a real veteran whose name was Dominic and, with his permission, we recorded him trying and failing to apply for VA healthcare 12 times.

He called; we hung up on him. He tried to open the website; it wouldn’t load. He tried to open another website; it wouldn’t open. And up until that point, the VA’s belief had been that veterans don’t use the internet because the numbers of veterans that apply online were so small. When, in fact, it was that the websites didn’t work.

And so, when we had this video of Dominic trying and failing so many times, and then it turned out he was actually absolutely eligible, and we were able to enroll him the next morning. We gave him our new mobile form, which is not rocket science, it’s not machine learning. It’s literally a form that was under on your mobile phone. He was able to enroll instantly, and we’ve since enrolled 2 million veterans instantly in VA healthcare through that mobile form.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Okay. So, taking a step back and parsing some insights from that story, it seems that the leadership has a mistaken view of what things are really like on the ground, it seems to be my takeaway there.

Marina Nitze
Yeah, and so our tactic here is you got to talk to real people. No matter where you are, if you’re a brand-new hire, if you’ve been in your role for 30 years, if you’re the leader or if you’re like an entry-level employee, going out and talking to the real people that are really experiencing your service, whatever your company may offer, is the way that you’re going to find those disconnects that you’re not going to find if you never leave the office.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a grand story. Well, so you’ve got 56 such approaches for hacking. I don’t imagine we’d cover all 56 in the time we have here today. But could you maybe give us some of your greatest hits in terms of, and here’s my criteria, how I define greatest hits, that’s widely applicable in terms of it covers many kinds of bureaucracies; it is widely effective in terms of, “By golly, there’s a high percentage of the time this thing gets it done; and it has a good return on effort, if you will, like a little bit of time here can give big returns?” So, I’m putting you on the spot, Marina, if you could give us a few of your favorite bureaucracy hacks that meet these three criteria, what leaps to mind?

Marina Nitze
Absolutely. It would definitely be the space between the silos. So, the bigger your bureaucracy is, the more specialized it gets, the more that there’s different departments, it may even be that your company interacts with other companies through the course of a process. And while there’s tons of defensive antibodies that don’t want to change inside a silo, there’s often absolutely nobody paying attention at the handoffs between the silos. So, it’s a really awesome opportunity to make a really big change.

And I’ll tell you a quick story around this. I was helping a state trying to shorten its foster parent application processing time. And this is really important because, while grandparents, or aunts, or uncles have kiddos in foster care in their home, they’re not getting paid, they’re not getting any financial support until they complete this really byzantine paperwork process. So, it’s really important to get it down.

So, I’m following the claim in this case from start to finish, and this is the advice that anybody can use. If it’s a claim, if it’s a case, if it’s a customer, whatever it may be, follow up from start to finish. When it goes through the fax machine, you go to the other end of the fax machine. When it goes to the mailroom, you go to the mailroom.

And so, I was following this one foster parent application through the office, and I get to this woman, and she says, “Well, now I have to request the applicant’s driving record from the DMV,” and she pulls out the carbon copy triplicate paper, you know the kind you have to like press really hard and it’s different colors, and she says, “Oh, I hate this step so much. The DMV lives in the 19th century. I don’t even have stamps. Like, it takes forever. This sucks.”

And I walked over to the DMV because I’m following the real application, and I say, “Hey, can you show me how you’re processing the driving record request?” And the woman there says, “Oh, yes. We use this electronic system, and the request come in, and we process them same day.” And I said, “Well, wait a minute. I saw a carbon copy paper. Where does that come in?” And she said, “Oh, you were at child welfare. Those people are in the 19th century. They keep sending this carbon copy paper. Why the heck won’t they use my electronic system like everybody else?”

And so, I was able to connect those two individuals and, overnight, shaved 32 days off a process, removed a cumbersome step that nobody wanted to do, and make everybody’s lives easier simply because, in most bureaucracies, nobody ever sees or owns the end-to-end process. And so, if you can just crawl through it, follow your person, you will be shocked at the amount of insights and improvements that you can make.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, Marina, this is the first time someone has made government work sound exciting to me. It’s like, “Oh, my gosh, what a huge value-add,” sorry, consulting language stuck with me. That’s like a huge amount of value for what sounded somewhat easy. Marina, maybe you did a lot of work over many days to pull this off, but that didn’t sound too hard. And, yet, that’s a huge improvement in people’s lives that’s quite touching. And those opportunities exist when you’re inside big bureaucracies.

Call me optimistic, but that almost sounds like a positive, “Oh, I’m in a huge bureaucracy.” “Oh, lucky you. There are so many improvement opportunities you can probably just grab that make a huge impact for not a lot of effort. That’s kind of a cool place to be.”

Marina Nitze
I would agree with you. I’d agree with that. The bigger the fire, the more interested I am. But even if you’re at a smaller bureaucracy, there might be handoffs you do with other outside partners, or maybe you’re interacting with the government as a nonprofit or something. Go follow that application process through and see if there are inefficiencies to be had.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Okay. So, we talked about the space between the silos, and following from start to finish. What are some of the other approaches?

Marina Nitze
Picking up the pen. So, I first learned this one, at the VA, for a while, we were missing one of our senior leader roles. We hadn’t hired for it yet and so we were kind of distributing that role’s tasks among the staff. And one of them involved having to go to the White House for a meeting, which sounds really exciting, like everybody would want to do it, but that means waiting in the security line for two hours in the hot sun.

So, I, as the new person on the team, got tagged in to take on this meeting, and I was supposed to write the President’s management agenda, which is a pretty big deal in Federal Government, and one of the tasks of that meeting was, “Hey, can someone write a technology goal on a slide?” And so, I’m looking around figuring other people showed up with their ideas, but, no, here was the blank slide, and so I said, “Oh, I’ll do it. I’m going to write down that the VA should have the first agency digital service to this team, and it should have 75 employees reporting to the CTO,” which was me.

And I assumed someone would come along and edit my slide or delete it or modify it, but, nope, it kept moseying along through the process, and then, lo and behold, the President is announcing the President’s management agenda that includes the goal of having 75 technologists assigned to this CTO of the VA, which is me.

So, then I got to take that slide that I had written because I had picked up a pen and take it and justified hiring these 75 teammates that I really, really needed. And that was a great way in the Federal Government but I since used it all the time to include…we have a story in the book of someone using that to change their condo’s pool policy because there was a lot of bickering around, like, “Is the Homeowners Association going to let us have the pool opened during COVID?”

And I said, “Well, why don’t you write the policy that says it’s open, because then the person that wants to keep the pool closed, they’re going to have to also write a policy and shows up and like get counter votes, so you’re actually raising the bar and effort for them, and making it easier for everybody to do what you want.” And this worked pretty consistently among everybody that I knew that was having this pool problem.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so cool. And what’s funny, because there was a bit of resistance there, so it’s like, “Ugh, writing a pool policy, that sounds kind of boring and lame. And what do I know about pool policies? I’ve never written anything like this.” But, at the end of the day, everybody just makes it up. Someone just makes it up. You just made it up and you got 75 employees. That’s pretty cool.

And someone else is just making up a pool policy. It’s unlikely that they’re consulting with someone with a tremendous deep expertise in pool matters from an insurance company or law firm, but that’s conceivably possible. But the most parts are like, “Oh, I guess this makes some sense when it comes to having a pool, so it’s the policy. Any input, feedback? Okay, here we go. This is the policy.”

Marina Nitze
Yeah, if you look around, no offense to your particular Homeowners Association, but if you’re looking around it, it’s just made of other regular humans that are just like you and me so there’s no reason why you can’t write a pool policy. And, yeah, maybe somebody will have an edit to it, but if you want the pool open, pick up the pen, draft the policy, see what happens.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I dig it. Marina, this is awesome. Keep going.

Marina Nitze
All right. I’d love to share a Harry Potter analogy here because I think this is a really, really effective one if you’re ever working with technology. So, there’s a concept called strangling the mainframe, and it’s the idea, like, say you’ve got an old, old system. Everybody’s got one in their company if it’s around long enough, and everybody thinks that the goal is to shut off the old system.

But the old system ends up powering a little bit of everything. It’s going to power HR, IT, something maybe, and everybody’s trying to have this magic huge perfect plan to turn off the old thing and one day magically turn on the new thing. And I’ve never, in the history of time, seen that worked. Like, in all of Western civilization is actually powered by these mainframes.

And so, my best analogy here of how to actually fix this problem, if it’s something you’re facing in your workplace, is a Harry Potter one. And this is a spoiler alert, so if you don’t know how Harry Potter ends, you should skip ahead 60 seconds. That is Voldemort is the mainframe and Harry and his family and the whole wizarding world are trying to destroy the mainframe head on, and it doesn’t work. The mainframe gets more powerful than ever. And after six and a half books, Harry’s lost most of his family, there’s billions of pounds of Muggle property damaged, and Voldemort is stronger than ever.

But what does work are finding the Horcruxes and slowly peeling off bits of the mainframe’s power one bit at a time. So, if you think about it in your organization, maybe you could pull off a little bit of case management, maybe a little bit of claims status tracking, maybe a little bit of HR, such that, at the end, you have a small enough of a puzzle that you can actually replace it in, say, six months or one year.

And so, this is a technique that we use all the time. Even if your company is working, frankly, off of like a really advanced spreadsheet, you still often can’t turn it off overnight. You got to peel off piece by piece. And this can be a really amazing bureaucracy hack and tactic if you’re trying to make change because there may be some new innovation that you want to have seen.

One example here would be around the unemployment claim backlog. In a lot of states, they had a strangle a mainframe tactic of helping stand up a claim status tracker because that’s what everybody wanted to know, “Did you get my claim? When is it going to get paid?” And the mainframes couldn’t support that, but many states stood up and, literally a week, a claim status tracker where everybody checked their status just from their mobile phone by building this little piece off to the side that just syncs to the mainframe once a night.

So, just want to encourage folks to think creatively about how they might strangle their mainframe and what their first Horcrux might be.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool. That’s really cool. What comes to mind is I was in a Facebook group all about professional speakers, and this was only like four years ago, and someone took a photo of a dot matrix printer at a rental car location, and said, “Dot matrix printer is still holding town at the rental car agency.” It’s like, “Yes, that is so weird that those still exists there.” And then that’s intriguing, if you think about it, in terms of…and I don’t know the rationale for why those are still there.

Marina Nitze
They’re all in airports, too. Airport manifests are printed on dot matrix printers.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and maybe that is or is not relevant but if we’re genuinely waiting, I don’t know, an extra 30 seconds per person in line for the dot matrix thing to go through that, then it sounds like it needs to be replaced. But if it’s plugged into a mainframe, or a bigger computer sort, then I guess it’s quite possible that you have an alternative means by which the information is sent to a different printing thing.

As I zoom into these conversations, how I imagine they would go, it’s like, “Oh, well, we can’t change that because it’s connected to the thing. And that thing runs everything, so just don’t even touch it, don’t even think about it. Just forget about it and move on.” And then most of us are not so persistent, shall we say, or stubborn, however you’d like to phrase it, as to dig in a little deeper and further. But if you were to do so, peeling off a little bit at a time is likely to get us a lot farther.

Marina Nitze
Absolutely. That’s the message.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. Let’s hear another.

Marina Nitze
So, if you’re kind of a staff-level person, a recommendation that we have here is really think about tailoring your pitch to who you need to persuade to your way of thinking. And one of my favorite bureaucracy hacks here was done by a colleague. We needed a bunch of IT executives to approve an API policy. An API is an application programming interface. It’s something that lets two computers talk to each other.

But if you don’t know what an API is, that just sounds like a huge security blackhole, like, “Wait a minute. I’m going to let another computer connect to my computer and take data out of it? Like, that sounds like everybody’s going to hack it and take all the private data out of it. That doesn’t sound safe.” And so, people were pretty opposed to it.

But because they were senior leaders, they had no safe place to ask basic questions about what an API was. They were too senior to ask the basic questions. So, we had to set up a space for them to learn, so we had a session called APIs for Executives, and we held it in a fancy room and had some fancy speakers and fancy invites, and invited them to come.

And at the beginning of the presentation, it said, “You know, hey, we know everybody here knows what APIs are, but just in case,” and then gave a basic 101 review of APIs so that it gave those executives a safe place to learn so they could actually engage in the conversation. And if we hadn’t done that, they would’ve just blocked our policy from day one from a place of fear.

Pete Mockaitis
It feels really brilliant in terms of so you knew exactly what your roadblock was. It’s like, “These folks don’t understand what an API is and they’re afraid to ask. And I can’t just say, ‘Listen, bud, I know you don’t know what you’re talking about, so let me lay it down for you.’” You knew that wasn’t going to fly in this environment.

And so, I’m curious about how you presented that, it’s like, “Oh, wouldn’t you know it? Like, crazy coincidence, this event is happening,” because you had agency in creating the event. So, how did you play that game?

Marina Nitze
Well, it was just about framing it in a totally respectful way. So, like, yeah, it does sound a little bit manipulative. I fully acknowledge that but we had to find a safe place to get them to learn. And having an event called API 101 wasn’t going to do it because they were going to be afraid of, like, being seen in front of their direct reports, potentially, as not knowing. So, we had to create a place that they would feel safe.

And we had a little bit of an advantage. We could also invite them to a fancy White House office room for the event, but you probably have an equivalent wherever your organization may be of creating some sort of safe space for people to learn without making them feel dumb. Because if people feel dumb or threatened, they’re not going to engage with you in a constructive way.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. All right. Marina, you can just keep going all day. More hacks. Lay it on us.

Marina Nitze
Something that I think is really overlooked that we really encourage is when you’re understanding how process works or when you find a change that you want to make, you have to understand the internal employee impacts of that process the same as you understand how you may want to change it for that end-user or for your customer.

So, often your internal employees have particular risks or incentive frameworks, like their position description said they have to do this or that. Their practice manual says they have to do this or that. They have more steps to do in a day than they can possibly do. So, if you show up with your, like, bright, fancy, new idea for outside customers, that you’re going to have a new customer support model or you’re going to have a new product that makes the internal people have to do seven more steps on their already-over full plate, they are going to resist you, and they are going to fight you.

But if you can understand kind of like my story earlier about the DMV, like neither of those women, they were both busy. They didn’t want to fill out carbon copy paper and mail it to one another. Like, they were happy to take that step off their plate, but you had to acknowledge that it existed in the first place to understand how you could kind of trade, and say, “Okay, I’ll get you two more internal efficiency gains and, in exchange, I need you to do this one extra step that’s going to help my actual project goal.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, now, could you tell us a little bit about what not to do when it comes to hacking a bureaucracy? If we want to make something happen, we’re inside a bureaucracy, we’ve got some really cool things that we should do, what are some things that we absolutely should not do?

Marina Nitze
Yeah, this is a mistake I see people make all the time, and I made it myself a lot in the beginning, which is you can’t try to make the bureaucracy care. Bureaucracies do not have feelings. They have decision criteria. And something I see a lot, and I see this especially in IT, where you want a new IT application approved, or you want to be able to use a spreadsheet software because it’s going to make you more efficient.

But the argument that, like, “Hey, if we don’t get this, there’ll be foster children that are homeless, or there’ll be veterans that don’t get healthcare.” Those are not approval criteria on the approval form. They’re not part of the decision matrix. So, you can beg and plead and make the emotional arguments to the end of time, but if you don’t actually fill out the approval form and meet what it needs, you’re not ever going to get to the goal that you actually want.

So, a big mistake I see people make is trying to make the bureaucracy care. And what, instead, you should do is understand what the bureaucracy cares about and meet those needs even if it may be frustrating and not feel particularly emotionally fulfilling in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, what’s interesting here is we’re talking about the bureaucracy, it’s like an entity because I’m thinking of it like The Borg. It’s like an entity, a person, a corporate thing unto itself and that doesn’t have feelings. I get you. Like, if we defined bureaucracy as a series of steps or processes, then maybe, first, we should get your definition of bureaucracy. I guess individual humans within the bureaucracy might care, and that could maybe motivate them.

It’s like, “Wow, you’re right. This is a big problem and we need to do something.” So, you maybe even enrolled them and you’ve gotten them on board with some emotions, but you’re not really going to get any traction in terms of making it happen until the actual steps of the form or process or whatever are getting adjusted. Is that a fair synopsis?

Marina Nitze
Absolutely. You might win them over to pay attention to you first, to take your form first, but you’re not going to win them over to allow your half-filled out form to get approved.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. And then since we’re saying the word bureaucracy a lot, could you define it for us?

Marina Nitze
Yeah. In the course of writing the book, we actually tried to find something that wasn’t a bureaucracy. And this quest took us even to, like, a co-op grocery store in Brooklyn, California. It turned out it was still a bureaucracy. It’s any organization of any size that’s run by a series of processes and rules, both written and unwritten. And unwritten I think is really important, too, because, at the end of the day, like if there is a process, if you have to go through Bertha, and Bertha considers your form in a particular way, and she is the gatekeeper there, it’s important to understand that as an unwritten rule.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you for that. So, anyway, more don’ts. What else should we not do?

Marina Nitze
Yeah, my other one is beware of the obvious answer. I, literally, have a TextExpander keyboard shortcut on my computer, where if I typed the word just, it will delete it, so it will not let me type the word just because that word is what gets tons of people in trouble, especially if you’re new to a problem or to an organization. Do not show up and say, “Well, why don’t you just do X, Y, Z?” because the odds are that hundreds of people have had your idea before, and there are some reason why it is not been done already.

So, before you say, “Why don’t you just do this?” it’s really important to kind of, first, keep that idea to yourself, but dig in, try to find people who had that same idea, see who has tried what, where didn’t it work, because maybe that the solution is not impossible. That’s not all what I’m saying, but it’s a lot more complicated than the obvious answer that it may seem like you have.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And articulating the word just out loud can, I imagine, enrage some people, like, “Who do you think you are? Oh, I guess we’re all just idiots, Marina. Excuse us for not having just made an online form. Pardon our foolishness.”

Marina Nitze
Correct. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve often coached people, like, “Don’t say the word obviously ever. It doesn’t help you out.”

Marina Nitze
That should be a TextExpander shortcut, too. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, just is in that same category in this context. So, okay, any other don’ts?

Marina Nitze
I think those are my two main ones.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And I want to talk a little bit about the emotional component here. I think some folks have a feeling that if they try to hack it through the bureaucracy, their bosses might think that you’re trying to undermine their authority, or you’re trying to circumvent them or their system, or you’re going over their head, like you’re committing some kind of a no-no. Can you tell us, to what extent are these fears real? And if we have them, what should we do about them?

Marina Nitze
Yes. So, my approach there would be to build a stakeholder map, and that’s something we recommend in the book. And a stakeholder map is usually such a valuable tool that we explicitly recommend that you never share it with anybody and that you don’t put it anywhere that somebody else can find it, because everybody’s got those different perspectives, like you were just saying.

You may have a boss that is threatened by you shining. In which case, if you really want to see your initiative take hold, the way to do it might be to give your boss credit for having done it. Or, you may have a boss that is really like a rule-follower, and so the way to get around that is to follow the rules. You may have people that are very motivated by getting a promotion and, therefore, you have to understand what is the criteria for them getting that promotion, and how do you help them achieve that in the course of helping you achieve your initiative.

So, by mapping out kind of who each person is, what their resources or power structure is relative to the decisions that you need made, and what are their risks and incentives, you can start strategically figuring out how to move forward so that you can get your initiative done, whether that means, again, giving some people credit, distracting some other people with a different shiny toy, and then maybe even changing some position descriptions themselves so that people’s motivation to do their regular work is shifted to help support what you’re trying to get done.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s so much wisdom here, Marina. Thank you.Okay, so when you’re making this map of things with the stakeholders and what they want, I’m curious, are there a few key categories of drivers, of things that people tend to really want or not want that we might tick through as we’re trying to fill out that map? Because we might say, “Huh, what does Paul want? Hmm, nothing’s leaping to mind.” Could you give us a few starter categories to help get those ideas flowing?

Marina Nitze
Yeah, absolutely. I think we have, like, two pages of bullets in the book as additional brainstorming exercise. But people think about what their recognition is. Some people, for example, actively avoid the limelight, and some people really want to be seen in it. Money, which could be tied to promotions or raises or getting more budget line item for their own program.

Some people want to be perceived as innovative, and some people want to be perceived as rule followers. And then it’s also important not to overlook the literal lines of like, “What is this person supposed to be doing? And what are the lines, whether they’re grey or bright lines, of what they’re not supposed to be doing?” And how might you need to adjust those to accommodate the kind of different kind of work that you might need them to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Marina, it seems like as you described this, you sound like such a master, and, hey, you’ve got a lot of experience in some organizations, you’ve learned some things the hard way, and you’ve codified some of it. So, beyond simply reading your book Hack Your Bureaucracy, do you have any tips on how we can, generally, become all the more savvy and hip to this skillset?

Marina Nitze
Yeah, I think this is one that anybody can learn. I don’t think you have to get a bachelor’s degree in it by any means. And so, I would start with just identifying a problem in your space of, again, whether it’s you’re annoyed by a Homeowners Association rule, or since this podcast is about being awesome at your job, something in your immediate department, or maybe at a slightly higher level on your organization that you want to change.

And then I would go about trying to change it. Talk to your peers. Enlist other people in the journey of making the change. Try the normal way. Understand and ask why, “Is it the way that it is? Is there some law or policy, or is it just that a CEO, three CEOs ago, said that it was the case, and no one has ever questioned it since?”

And then you can build up your skills there. I would definitely recommend picking problems, if at all possible, that don’t involve life or death as your first bureaucracy hack. Pick something a little bit lower stakes. And then as you build up your bureaucracy-busting muscles, you can take on harder and harder problems.

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

Marina Nitze
One last thing I’ll just say is it’s also a lot of this sounds like you’re really in the weeds, and it definitely is, but it really helps to hold a north star. And that was something that I built early on when I was at the VA. But literally, it just started with a bunch of Post-It notes, but saying like, “What could the VA be? If we get through all these bureaucracy hacks, like what is the VA at the end of the rainbow, as it were?”

And, actually, so the Federal Government has an equivalent to the Grammy’s or the Emmy’s called the Sammy’s. And the VA won the Sammy for the whole Federal Government for customer service two weeks ago.

Pete Mockaitis
Congratulations.

Marina Nitze
And that was such an incredible vision, that from ten years ago, that it wasn’t even on my vision board. So, I just encourage you, it’s nice to have a north star, and it can also motivate you through the dark times to know, like, what the big picture you’re working towards is even if you have to make a lot of concessions along the way.

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

Marina Nitze
Absolutely. It’s Lily Tomlin, and it’s, “I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that. And then I realized, I’m somebody.”

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

Marina Nitze
I love re-reading Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, and the research that you’re just kind of as happy as you were before no matter what bad things happen to you, or no matter what decisions that you make. That helps make some decisions feel a little lower stakes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Marina Nitze
Well, a book that I really modeled our book off of is The Success Principles by Jack Canfield because I love that you can just open to any page and get like a little mini dose of inspiration without having to commit to reading a 300-page book.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool?

Marina Nitze
Definitely the stakeholder maps or the journey maps, that it would be like when you’re mapping out a process from end to end, all the different steps, all the people working at the steps, what the error rates are, what the volume rates are, what the wait times are. I love those immensely. And maybe, as a meta toy, it would be my enormous dry erase board sticker because it takes up like my whole wall, and it’s where I draw all my maps.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, so it’s a dry erase board but it’s like a Post-It, or you say sticker?

Marina Nitze
Yes, it’s from 3M. Yeah, it’s like six-by-twelve feet. You can buy them in different sizes. And mine, I’ve had it for five years now, and it’s held up perfectly, but I accept I’d have to replace them.

Pete Mockaitis
But you could reposition it with the adhesive.

Marina Nitze
I had never tried that. So, yes, you could reposition it, but most of my vision was if I got it…you know how you dry erase something for a while and you’d kind of have that red hue that you can’t get rid of? I envisioned, I could just, “Oh, great. I can just unstick the board and put up a new one.” But I haven’t even had to do that yet, so.

Pete Mockaitis
Then you get it done.

Marina Nitze
Yeah, I use it all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Marina Nitze
Inbox zero. It took me many years to get to that point but now I get super anxious if I even have, like, five unprocessed emails.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Marina, maybe we need to have you for a whole another episode to discuss that.

Marina Nitze
It took a lot of work to get there.

Pete Mockaitis
So, a quick follow-up, what have been some of the most game-changing insights, or approaches, or tools, or hacks to pulling this off?

Marina Nitze
One, definitely, the snooze feature in Gmail helped a lot because some email it’s a hotel reservation one, or something about a meeting agenda for next week. I snooze it till one minute before I need it so it gets out of my inbox but I know it’s going to appear when I need it. Another piece is really from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which is I just have to make a decision about what to do in the email.

I don’t have to do the thing, so that reduces the friction of like, “Oh, my God, I don’t have time to write a 20-page report.” But I don’t have to. All I have to do is capture it in my to-do list that I have to write a 20-page report, and then I tag the email as having a task, and then I can get it out of my inbox. I’m also a pretty merciless un-subscriber, and I love apps like Matter, for example.

Anytime I get an email newsletter, something I’m supposed to read, that automatically gets forwarded to Matter and delete it from my inbox, so that when I’m in the mood to read, or David Allen, in the context to read, I can just pull up my Matter app and I get all my reading material in one place so it’s not in my inbox.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; you hear people quote it back to you often?

Marina Nitze
Yes, it’s the idea of cultivating the karass. Karass is a concept from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which is that, in the book, that God has hidden other people on the planet to help you accomplish a goal. We use it in a little bit more of a secular way, which is imagine if, instead of thinking that all people in your agency or your department are out to get you or out to slow-roll you, imagine that there are people that are out to help you, and they are just hidden around as security guards or secretaries or accountants. And how can you find them and then band together to get your goal accomplished?

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

Marina Nitze
HackYourBureaucracy.com. We have a blog where we’re continuing to share more bureaucracy-hacking tactics and stories. And then you can follow me on Twitter at @MarinaNitze, N-I-T-Z-E.

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

Marina Nitze
Yes, find your karass. I mean, the best allies I had when I was in government trying to get through some of the hardest projects were literally the security guards and the executive assistants. And so, you just never know who your best allies are. So, go out there, meet as many people as you can, and hack your bureaucracy.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Marina, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you many successful hacks.

Marina Nitze
Thank you so much. You, too.

809: How to Make Wise Decisions using Quantitative Intuition with Paul Magnone

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Paul Magnone reveals how to make smarter decisions by tapping into both data and intuition.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why you shouldn’t disregard intuition
  2. Why we make terrible decisions—and how to stop
  3. Powerful questions that surface brilliant insights

About Paul

Paul Magnone is Head of Global Strategic Alliances at Google where he is developing a growing ecosystem of partners that will unlock the next generation of business value via the cloud and related technologies. Previously at Deloitte and IBM, he is a systems thinker and business builder focused on understanding where technology is headed and answering what it means for a business. He is an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University.

Resources Mentioned

Paul Magnone Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Paul, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Paul Magnone
Thank you for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom but, first, I think we need to hear about your time working as a DJ when you were in college.

Paul Magnone
Oh, geez. Well, this was back before CDs were popular. We actually had a record library. So, this was carrier current radio, I didn’t do parties. It was college radio. And it was just being at an engineering school, it was a very liberating evening, whether it was Mondays or Tuesdays, depending on the semester, very liberating evening to go in there and just go into the record library, and do your thing. And it was me and a friend, Jim, who maybe he’ll be listening to this. I’ll tell him to listen in. And he would go and get every Led Zeppelin album, and then he would say, “The rest is up to you.”

So, depending on what was happening on a given week, I would manage the programming, and it was a little David Letterman-ish on the commentary side, but certainly heavy rock and roll, and it certainly scratched an itch in the midst of all the engineering school.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s funny. Well, when you talked about Led Zeppelin, that reminds me, isn’t that like the quintessential DJ thing to say, “Get the Led out”?

Paul Magnone
There you go. Well, you would go and get all the Led Zeppelin and not care about anything else. So, I said, “Do you like anything other than Led Zeppelin?” He said, “Yeah, absolutely, but you handle all that.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Well, that’s a great system there for decision-making right there, is that he had a system which was Led Zeppelin, and you had to work a little harder with your music decision-making. That’s my forced segue, Paul. How am I doing?

Paul Magnone
They’re pretty good. Pretty good, yeah. So, it was option one was always locked in, and then it was what was the next option, so.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so you have codified some of your wisdom in the book Decisions Over Decimals: Striking the Balance between Intuition and Information. And, can you tell me, when it comes to this decision-making stuff, do you have a particularly surprising or fascinating discovery that you want to share right off the bat?

Paul Magnone
Yeah, I think why this is intriguing to people, and we’ve spoken to thousands of executives and probably thousands more students as we teach at Columbia University when I say we, first of, it’s myself and Oded Netzer, who’s the Vice Dean of Research at Columbia Business School, and Christopher Frank, who is currently Vice President at AmEx Market Insights, leading the market insights team there. And we’ve come together over the past seven years, and we teach what we have learned.

So, obviously, there’s a heavy dose of theory here, but we’re practitioners, we’re in the trenches. And so, what we reflect back is “What are the practical tools and techniques that lead to better decision-making?” And you start to discover that it’s a hot topic but it makes people anxious. So, we live in a time today when data is exploding and yet it feels invasive and intimidating. So, for a lot of people, data is just not fun. And other people say, “I love data,” and then they kind of fumble the football.

So, in reality, we’re fortunate to have this staggering amount of information at our fingertips and yet we often hear people say, “But I don’t have enough data.” Okay. Well, maybe you’re not putting things in perspective. And, ultimately, with all this information and all these things that are flowing by, we consistently see poor decision-making and wasted investment, wasted resources at companies, wasted just time and effort and so forth, and we took a step back and said, “Well, why is this? Is it caused by fear, or overconfidence, or bias?”

And we realized that, with some focus and some of the techniques that we talk about, we can build a tribe of better decision-makers and maybe make a dent on all these wastes. That’s kind of our motivation behind it all.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, that sounds exciting and I’d love to dig into just that. I’m intrigued then, in your subtitle, you got “Striking the Balance between Intuition and Information.” We’ve got boatloads of information. When it comes to intuition, first, could you define it for us and what’s its role here?

Paul Magnone
Yeah, so that’s a great question. And the fact is where you’re constantly challenged by people saying, “So, you’re going to teach me intuition? Don’t you either have it or don’t have it?” And the answer is, “Well, people often have intuition and they’re not listening to it.” And so, when you look at what’s referred to as the theory of learning, there’s competence and complexity. So, you begin, think as a toddler, you don’t know what you don’t know. And, suddenly, you start to put some things together, you start to hear some things, and you start to see patterns, and you start to learn.

And then, as you start to learn, you realize there are things that you don’t know. So, now you’re at the next level. You’re now conscious about your incompetence. And as you progress up this ladder, and there’s multiple steps along the way, you eventually get to the age of…or to the point of a teenage driver, a driver for the first time. You’re now, hopefully, consciously competent, you know what your limitations are, you know what’s happening around you. And by the time you get to be a seasoned driver, you don’t have to think so much when you’re making a choice.

When you’re driving and you’re a seasoned driver, and there’s a snowstorm, you might turn down the radio a little bit because you want less input signal, but you have a sense, and you’re sensing with your fingers what’s happening, you’re sensing all around you, and you might not even sense what’s about to happen but you see up ahead, “Hey, I remember that when I get to a curve like that, in a situation like this, with the weather this way, I should probably do the following.” So, there’s a sense of acumen that builds up over time.

And the fact is, in a business world, we say, “No, no, I just want the data. Just tell me how much it’s snowing. Just tell me the tire pressure.” Really, is that all you need to know? Or, do you really need to sense and respond in real time, and really get a sense for what’s happening? And really terrific leaders talk about the fact that they have a feel for the business. So, let’s take your question and go ask some business leaders, “What do you mean by feel for the business?” They may have different answers, but, ultimately, it’s some level of intuition about their business, how it’s impacted by the world, how their business impacts the world.

And so, this notion of intuition is the companion to all the data that we dive into or that we think we want to dive into. And so, the notion is we have to balance that. So, rather than make a decision based on just data, or based on just gut or intuition, trust your gut – there’s another wonderful top gut by a colleague of ours – what we’re saying is that balanced view is what’s important, and threading that needle, and building the toolkit for yourself so you can balance the data and the human judgment, that’s the path forward.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. And I see additional interplay there associated with intuition. We have hordes of data at our disposal. It can be hard to even know what sorts of analyses to run on that, and intuition can serve up fantastic questions for investigation or hypotheses, like, “You know, I have a sense that maybe this is going on. Now, let’s take a look at data to see, in fact, if it is or is not.”

Paul Magnone
Yeah. And we hear a lot about data scientists, and, “Well, I need a data scientist.” To do what? At the end of the day, there’s a set of people that need to come together to drive a decision. There’s the business leader who should be data-driven, who should be paying attention to the data, but not only paying attention to the data. There is the data scientist, there is the data engineer who brings all the data together, but there’s also a data translator. And that person really ensures that what we’re solving for aligns with the business need.

And we also like to talk about a data artist, because, at the end of the day, we need to tell a story, and you need to compel people to action, and doing that requires you to put all of this in some sort of frame that is understandable and digestible. And so, that’s kind of a team that comes together to say, “Listen, yeah, there’s all these components, but how do I compel people to make a choice and how did we make the right choice?”

Pete Mockaitis
A lot of great stuff there. Maybe to tie some of it together and launch us, Paul, could you perhaps give us a cool story or a case study of a professional who did some great work with both intuition and information to come up with some rocking breakthrough decisions?

Paul Magnone
Well, I don’t know if this was a rocking breakthrough decision, but I will tell a personal story about when I was working for, probably at the time, a Fortune 20, maybe Fortune 50 company. You guys can sort out who that is. And we were investigating whether to work with a heavily backed startup in Silicon Valley, and I was charged with doing the due diligence, the business side of the due diligence, and I had a colleague of mine who was leading the technical due diligence.

And after weeks of investigation, we looked and said, “You know, this is, I think, a fascinating company but we’re not sure even after weeks of investigation,” because when we got to some detailed questions, they hid behind non-disclosure agreements and other issues and so forth. And the technical side we felt, “Well, we could probably recreate what they did but maybe there was something compelling here that we didn’t understand, so maybe we’ll take a flyer on that and give it a shot.”

On the business side, they kept on telling us, “You know what, you’re going to have a wildly profitable business if you base your business on our new technology.” Now, in hindsight, there were some signals that got my attention, specifically, they weren’t answering questions in much detail. And then, finally, after pressing them, their business development lead sent me a spreadsheet, and he said, “Look through this, and you can model out how profitable your business will be based on our technology stat.” And I called them back five minutes later, and I said, “Well, either your spreadsheet is broken or your business is broken.”

And I know I took a provocative approach to my comment there, but that was built on the intuition that we were all starting to build up the perspective that there was something that wasn’t quite right. The spreadsheet, let me describe that for a minute. There was a very large Excel, with one cell that I was allowed to put a number in, and this was a business around computing infrastructure, so servers. So, there 10,000 servers in the cell.

And it showed, when you did all the math, it showed a wildly profitable business running 10,000 servers. And he said, “Put in a 100,000, put in a million. You’re a huge company. You’ll just do more.” So, I put in one server because I want to understand at the atomic level…

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, fixed costs, labor costs, scale.

Paul Magnone
Yeah, what’s granular. One server. Wildly profitable. And I said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” So, I put in zero servers. Wildly profitable. So, either they had some magic or there was something that was wrong. Now, why do I tell this story? At the end of the day, we had data, we had insights, we had spent time with them, but, really, it was that blend as I described before of a lot of information, or seemingly a lot of information, but our intuition telling us, “We’re really not seeing the right information. There’s something they’re not showing us.”

And by pushing on that button right there, it opened up a further discussion. We, ultimately, wound up not doing business with them.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. So, tell us, how can we become similar Jedi masters, Paul, to get that sense of, “What’s missing? And how do I push on it?” Any key questions or frameworks or tactics that get us to making more good decisions more often?

Paul Magnone
Sure. Sure. So, there are really three fundamental ideas to lean on, I think, behind the book. So, leaders have just an enormous amount of data but we all see it. They’re not making better decisions. So, why is that? So, they’re denouncing the data, or they’re choosing to trust their gut, or they’re spending so much time trying to get a perfect decision. And they think the same data is the new oil so there’s spending as much as they can to build a bigger and better data refinery for that oil.

When, instead, what leads to a great decision is the balance that we’ve been talking about. So, that’s the first thing. Don’t lean in to one side or the other. Focus on that balance. The second thing is you don’t need to be a math whiz to drive great decisions. The smartest person in the room is the person who asks the better question. And that person, that leader, blends information and the intuition and the experience, as we described before, that leads to the better outcomes.

Think about it, you’re in a meeting, and the person who had the factoid, you don’t go up to that person and say, “That was amazing that you had that fact at your fingertips.” But the person that asks the question that nobody expected, that insightful thing that cuts right through, that’s the person you want to go have coffee with, right?

And the third thing is, as humans, we are terrible decision-makers, and, largely because we don’t have our bearings. And so, one way is to really explore what’s happening in the decision and the moment that you make it, and one way to look at it is you’re balancing time, risk, and trust. And if you think about that, “Do I have no time? It’s a crisis, or, do I have a lot of time?” Are you a fireman or are you in Congress? Do you have a lot of time?

Is it a high-risk or a low-risk situation? Are lives at stake? Are billions at stake? Or is it a throwaway decision, and it’s a reversible decision? Some decisions people agonize over and yet they’re reversible. And then the last part, trust, do you trust the data? Do you trust the person that gave you the data? Do you trust the organization that stands behind that data?

So, as you triangulate all those three, that in itself is a framework that should help you make some better decisions. Ultimately, we pull all this together and we refer to all of this as quantitative intuition, which is intentionally an oxymoron because you’re bringing the quant side with the intuitive side. And we define that as the ability to make decisions with incomplete information, and you’re using three techniques: precision questioning, contextual analyses, and the synthesis to see the situation clearly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, could you perhaps walk us through an example in which we’re applying these principles to an actual decision?

Paul Magnone
Sure. So, let’s talk about a day in the life of one of your listeners.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Paul Magnone
Because you love your listeners, of course.

Pete Mockaitis
We sure do.

Paul Magnone
There you go. So, your leader comes in on a Monday or a Tuesday, and says, “How do we react to this headline from the competitor?” Or maybe you’re beginning a planning…yeah, right? I mean, it’d never happen.

Pete Mockaitis
My first question is which headline and which competitor?

Paul Magnone
Yeah, yeah, right. But everybody at this moment is thinking this just happened yesterday. Or, maybe you’re beginning a planning cycle for a new product launch. Or, maybe your business is in decline and you’re trying to decide where to place the resources that are scarce. So, in each case, regardless of your role, if you’re in product or sales or marketing or manufacturing, everybody’s taught like a bias to action, so they start to jump in, “What? Let me go dive in.”

And what you should be doing is defining what problem you’re solving first. So, put that problem in context, “Here, our competitor announced this. Here’s the headline from our competitor. Let’s zero in on that one.” Well, put it in absolute terms, put it in context, absolute terms. Look at it over time and relative to what’s going on elsewhere.

So, the competitor said, “I just sold 100 shovels yesterday.” “That’s awesome. I sold 200 shovels yesterday.” Or, “I sold 200 and the competitor sold 500.” While you’re busy high-fiving that you sold 200 shovels, your competitor is walking all over you. By the way, why did that happen? Well, there was a freak snowstorm in July. Okay, so were you going to base your business and change your strategy based on an anomaly? No.

So, what are the assumptions that are going into that decision? Do you believe those assumptions? Is that true? And is it maturely important to your business or is it a blip? These are kinds of the things that you need to think about, those parameters, so we can go through any number of examples. But I think your listeners are probably living this every day.

And through this all, they need to synthesize all these different datapoints. So, we preach a lot about synthesizing. What happens most often is people are in meetings and you’re summarizing what you already know, or you’re summarizing to get to a point that you think the boss has already said because they’ve already anchored you somehow with one of their early comments. So, synthesize the datapoints and then go to the data after that. Then go to the data, right?

So, start with those first principles, “What is it that we really know? What problem are we solving? Do we really want to grow a product line, or are we stable, or are we under attack?” And then make a recommendation after you’ve set the frame for the problem, and then interrogated the data. So, this is what we refer to as being a fierce data interrogator, not a random data interrogator.

So, ultimately, we think of this as jazz. It’s not waterfall because a lot of the behaviors in these different disciplines – products, sales, marketing, manufacturing – tends to be rigid, it tends to be a waterfall, and they don’t read and react – to borrow a term from sports – they don’t read and react in the moment. And, ultimately, it needs to be jazzed.

You know the theme of your business, and you may go often at different directions but you’ll come back, and the drummer is going to go and do something, and, hopefully, it fits in the context, and you’re going to come back. So, it’s jazz. Go to the question, go to the technique that’s valuable in that moment, and don’t just rely on kind of the rigid thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when you talk about jazz, I’m imagining it like, for marketing, “We launched a campaign, and then we see how it did, and then we interrogated, in terms of we get some contexts. Like, how well is that campaign performing based on general benchmarks, or historical other campaigns, or competitors, if we can know that?”

And then you say, “Oh, wow, that’s awesome. Let’s double down the budget in this channel with this messaging to this segment,” or, “Uh-oh, that’s very disappointing. Let’s perhaps reallocate budget in a different vibe.” So, it’s like jazz in that something happens and we respond in flow to it as oppose to, “Nope, it says in this quarter we’re spending $50,000 on Facebook ads, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Paul Magnone
Right, “Let’s go to the spreadsheet and say what I’m permitted to do.” That’s not thinking. That’s reacting. And that same marketing lead, marketing team, what you described is Monday morning. Wednesday morning, they have a different headline, and their competitor just announced something that’s shocking. So, in one scenario, they’re being proactive on a product launch and seeing the results, and then doubling down, as you said. In another scenario, they’re suddenly under attack, and that was all in the same week. So, how do you make decisions in those different situations, right?

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so, I want to talk a little bit about your phrase quantitative intuition. It sounds like you described a bit of that. But how do we get better at that in terms of this number feels high, wrong, low, crazy? Like, how do we know that or get there?

Paul Magnone
Right. Well, we try to not say crazy but, yeah, it’s really those three dimensions that I talked about at the end there. It’s precision questioning, contextual analyses, and syntheses. So, let’s break all those down. Precision questioning, as I said before, we tend to kind of react to the factoids and not take a step back, and say, “Well, listen, let’s put all this in context. What are the first principles? What are the fundamentals of our company? Am I reacting to an anomaly? Or, am I really making a decision based on a thought-out element?”

And precision questioning is really a technique where you will ask, “You know what, I want to understand what to do with a millennial audience.” “Great. Could you say more?” “Well, I want to understand how to sell this product to a millennial audience.” “Any millennial audience?” “I want to understand how to sell this product to a millennial audience that has this kind of budget.” You’re asking more granular questions until you get to an atomic level that people say, “Oh, what you’re really looking for is this well-defined decision, this well-defined task.”

And most often, we don’t spend the time to get granular. And one of the techniques that we talk about to do that is, we call it an IWIK framework, “I wish I knew,” and just the nature of that question implies permission, “What is it you want to know? What is it you know about a millennial?” So, spending the time, it requires a little patience. But spending the time upfront to do that precision questioning to narrow and get clear about it, to get concise about the thought, is critically important. That’s the first piece for precision questioning.

The second piece is the contextual analyses. So, as I said before, look at everything in context. What is the situation in absolute terms? What is it over time? What is it relative to what else is going on with my competitors, with other divisions in my company? And as you look at that context, you’ll come to the realization, “This is important to my business or not. Is this a blip? Or, this requires us to really consider a change to our strategy.”

And then the last piece is the syntheses, which almost no one does. Everyone summarizes and gives you every piece of information. Some of this is pride, “Look, I spent three weeks putting together 47 incredible spreadsheets and reports.” “That’s awesome. Put that in the appendix and tell me what you’ve learned from that. Tell me what’s surprising you in that. Tell me what is crystallized that you, as a smart person that we hired into this company, believe based on what you’ve just interrogated.”

Most of the time, people bring that to their leader, and say, “Look at all this work that I’ve done.” And the way we like to think of syntheses is everybody is the director of a movie. If you look at a movie, maybe an hour and a half, two hours, there’s what? Hundreds of hours on the cutting room floor because you don’t have to tell every detail. You can put all that in an appendix, but focus on what’s critical and what matters.

In journalism, they talk about not burying the lead, being very critical about what is the most important aspect. And we get away from that in business. So, you pull all that together and that’s what we refer to as quantitative intuition. And so, we talk about a set of techniques to go through that.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Well, I’d love to hear, do you have some super favorite questions that you’ve relied upon and you find super valuable in many different decision-making contexts?

Paul Magnone
So, yeah, it’s a great question. And we’ve talked before about putting things in context, which I think is one incredible pillar. But one of my favorite questions is a very short question, which is, “What surprised you?” Real simple. And the fact is if anyone has ever gone to a party, what happens when you leave the party? The people that you’re at the party with don’t talk about, well, yes, they had enough drinks, they had enough food, but that’s not the conversation. It’s what surprised them about the interaction between people, what surprised them about a particular situation.

So, in our personal life, we make the space and we give ourselves permission to have a conversation about surprise. But in the business world, no, no, no, the boss wants to talk about this, “I have a sneaking suspicion that we should be interrogating this other dimension but I’m not even going to bring it up.”

So, if you make the space for surprise, if you have the courage, or, as a business leader, you ensure that your team feels empowered to say, “Yup, we’re going to do the analyses that was asked for, but I’m going to make the space for surprise, and say this is an outlier that doesn’t make sense. This is an outlier that I think we should interrogate more. Or, really, we’re investigating the wrong thing, and the surprising thing is here’s a critical issue.” So, be open to that surprise and make the space for that conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
I love that question. Please, Paul, more like that.

Paul Magnone
Yeah, we talk about IWIKs, “I wish I knew,” that’s probably one of the most critical techniques that we talk about. And, really, as I said before, you’re going back and forth between these various techniques, and you may find something in the surprise. This gets back to the jazz. When you have that surprise conversation, people can then say, “Oh, you know what, I want to go back and redefine the problem. I want to go back and maybe do a different set of IWIKs to explore an area, explore an adjacent area, explore a different area because, now, I’m tuned a little differently.”

So, really, it’s a lot of back and forth with these techniques. We also talk very much about guesstimating because, at the end of the day, what we’re taught from grammar school and up is “What’s the answer? What’s the number?” And mathematical precision matters, I’m an engineer by training. Everybody of the three authors were all technical, but guesstimating is really helpful.

So, the classic problem is, “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” Well, you don’t need a census to go do that. You can figure that out on the back of a napkin. And the majority of people are asked on a daily basis to provide an estimate on the back of a napkin, “Well, what do you think? What’s in the zone here?” because we can course-correct once we know that we’re in the zone. And they’re at a loss for, “Well, how do I guesstimate?” So, we talk about a series of techniques around guesstimating.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re bringing me back to my case-interview days, Paul.

Paul Magnone
There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Good times. All right. Well, so lots of good stuff. Could you bring it together in a cool example in terms of a person or a team used a number of these techniques from beginning to end to reach a fantastic decision?

Paul Magnone
Sure. One other company, this is one of the other authors had this direct experience, so we will again mask the company to protect the innocent or goofy, either way. But there was a question around what was the performance in a region of, again, a Fortune 100 company. What was the performance in a region?

And there were about 47 markets in the region, and looking through the region, they did the analyses. They practically looked at IWIKs, and said, “Here’s what’s important in the region. Here’s what we’ve discovered,” and made their quarterly business recommendation on where to put more investment, how to align the team, and how to allocate the resources.

At the end of the meeting, the senior leader said, “This is terrific. We really have our bearings here. Is there anything that surprised you in what you’ve seen so far?” And this was Chris, Chris Frank, said, “Yeah, what really surprised me is there are 12 of the 47 segments had a sharp rise in customer satisfaction, and I can’t explain it.”

So, what he did is he buried it in the appendix because it wasn’t terribly clear. And after a lot of time doing the correlation and the analyses, there was no answer to why, and so they were just outliers. So, the leader said, “So, read off what those 12 markets were.” And as he read through them, they mapped one for one with a pilot program that the company had in those 12 markets, and they intentionally didn’t tell anybody because they didn’t want to bias anyone doing the analyses.

And because of leading into that simple question, “What surprised you?” the whole room had a revelation that, “Oh, this is really a better way to engage our customers,” and that led to a multimillion-dollar investment in a customer engagement program that didn’t exist. So, the data was all there but they weren’t looking for it the right way, and they didn’t have the insight from their leader to ask the right question.

Now, if you used these techniques proactively, you would say, “You know what, I’m going to spend 45 minutes on here’s our quarterly business review, business report. I’m going to spend 10 minutes on here are some anomalies and surprises that I think we should investigate more.” So, as a practitioner, as a business person, and you want to be awesome at your job, make the space for that. Insist that, “You know what, you hired me for a reason. Here’s something that I think we should really look at.”

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

Paul Magnone
Yeah, I think that the last piece is about as simple as it gets. When you’re bringing people together, you need to tell them before they even get in the room, “Am I informing you of situations, so everybody’s up to speed and has a common knowledge base? Or, am I compelling you to action today? Am I asking you to make a choice? And then, have I armed you on your team beforehand with everything to make that choice?”

I don’t know how many meetings I’m in where partway through the meeting, because everybody texts during meetings, people are texting each other, “What is the purpose of this? What are we doing? Didn’t we already have this conversation?” So, being very deliberate is very much appreciated, and having a conversation for awareness is fantastic. But setting people up for a decision, and bringing everybody along, that’s really important because decisions are team sports. Bringing everybody along the right way really matters.

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

Paul Magnone
Yeah, this is a favorite quote, I use it all the time, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” And so, that’s from H.L. Mencken, who’s a journalist in the early 1900s, and to me it speaks volumes of what we see today, where people have their fingertips on data and yet are just grasping at what seems to be the very first thing that they can answer with, and they’re not spending the time to dive in to the detail.

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

Paul Magnone
Yeah, I think I’ll share a book, which feels like a study. It’s Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. And so, in some ways, our book Decisions Over Decimals echoes and builds on the system-one and system-two thinking, and we’re providing practical tools and techniques that balance the data and the human judgment.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Paul Magnone
I’d have to go with The Road Less Traveled, the first version. I think he redacted or refuted some of what he said in his second version. But it’s very much about understanding yourself and how to solve problems.

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

Paul Magnone
Well, I’m partial to the Google tools, and then, of course, the techniques and frameworks that are in this book.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit, something you do that makes you awesome at your job?

Paul Magnone
I’m not a practitioner of meditation but I think it’s really important to get centered and take a step back, and say, “What’s really happening?” And I try and make the time to do that, ideally, on a weekend, and really gather and reset. So, however people do that, whether it’s meditation or a night out dancing, whatever works for you.

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

Paul Magnone
I’m not sure it’s retweeted but I often say you can have your own opinions but you can’t have your own facts.

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

Paul Magnone
Well, our website is DOD, which stands for Decisions Over Decimals, it’s DODTheBook.com. You can reach out to myself or Chris or Oded on LinkedIn. And, obviously, in addition to everything else that we do, we teach at Columbia, so multiple ways to get a hold of us.

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

Paul Magnone
Make the space to share what you really think. As I’ve said multiple times, synthesize, don’t just summarize, and create that space to have real dialogue on the issues. So many times, that’s what we want and that’s not what we’re doing. And be brave and bold and make that space.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Paul, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you many wise decisions.

Paul Magnone
Thank you very much, and to you as well.

801: How to Find the Upside amid Uncertainty with Nathan Furr

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Nathan Furr discusses how to reframe your relationship with uncertainty to open up to new possibilities.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to turn the fear of the unknown into an excitement for possibilities
  2. The six types of risk and how to manage them
  3. How to deal with the frustrations of failure 

About Nathan

Nathan Furr is a professor of strategy and innovation at INSEAD in Paris and an expert in the fields of innovation and technology strategy. His bestselling books include The Innovator’s Method and Innovation Capital. Published regularly in Harvard Business ReviewMIT Sloan Management ReviewForbes and Inc., he is an Innosight Fellow, has been nominated for the Thinkers50 Innovation Award, and works with leading companies including Google, Microsoft, Citi, ING, and Philips.

 Resources Mentioned

Nathan Furr Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Nathan, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Nathan Furr
Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat about your book The Upside of Uncertainty: A Guide to Finding Possibility in the Unknown. But, first, I was a bit intrigued about you’ve got a Master’s in Later British Literature, you’ve written some novels and some screenplays, and you’re a professor of innovation and technology strategy. That’s a fun combo and I’m just curious how your love of literature fuels insights into uncertainty and innovation.

Nathan Furr
Interesting. Well, first off, I think it’s a great example that, of uncertainty itself, that life is full of curveballs because there’s other things in there. I worked in strategy consulting, I went and did a PhD at Stanford in strategy in entrepreneurship, so very different than literature. But I think, really, what is literature about? It’s really about big ideas that teach us how to live.

And so, maybe, in a way, nobody’s asked me that question before. Not many people know that part of my history. But, really, I think what you put your finger on is my interest in big questions.

And, for me, uncertainty is like the biggest question of all because, in the field that I’m currently in, I’ve been in for more than two decades, yeah, we talk about management. Where did management come from? What problem was it built to solve? It was really something we created during the industrial revolution when the landscape shifted from this ecosystem of tiny firms, craftspeople doing their work, to this landscape of giant firms, textiles, and automobiles, and oil, and steel, and suddenly you needed somebody to coordinate and organize all that.

And so, management, really, has been so focused on this question of, “How do we coordinate, organize, and control, and optimize?” It really hasn’t spent very much time on this other equally important question, which is, “Well, what about when the world changes? What about when we need to create? What about when something disrupts? And what are the tools for a world of uncertainty?” And so, that’s kind of like really the question I’ve been obsessed with in my management and academic careers, has been, “What are the theories, tools, and frameworks for a world of uncertainty?”

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Well, I’d love to dig into a few of those in particular. I’m thinking about the book, The Upside of Uncertainty. What’s sort of behind the title there? There’s some upside we should be enjoying?

Nathan Furr
Yeah. Listen, we’re all wired to be afraid of uncertainty. So, for example, my co-authors, who are neuroscientists, will point you to these studies that show how our brains light up in the face of uncertainty. So, that’s an evolutionary wiring we can’t help. But, as I mentioned, I’ve been studying these kinds of questions for a while and, in particular, I’ve gotten to interview innovators. So, over the last 20 plus years, some of the biggest names that you’ve heard of and some of the most interesting people who you haven’t heard of.

But what I noticed in interviewing those innovators is that to do anything new, they all had to go through uncertainty first. And I was so curious about that because I wouldn’t say that I’m like naturally good at that, that that’s where I’m oriented, so I wanted to learn from them, “So, wait, how did you get the courage to do that? How did you get the courage to leave your job? How did you go through the obstacles when it looked like everything was going to fall apart?” So, really, the genesis of this book was that question.

I’ve been interviewing people for about 10 years on this topic, about, “Well, so, how did you fit and learn to face uncertainty? And what are you doing? How do you navigate it? How do you manage it? And what happens when something goes wrong?”

And so, really, what we did is compiled those interviews and the existing research to come up with some practical things that can help.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m excited to dig into some of this how. But, first, I’d love to touch upon a why. What’s really at stake for professionals looking to be awesome at their job if they maintain their current level of skill and discomfort with uncertainty versus gain as much mastery as we humans with our brain hardware and biochemistry can do?

Nathan Furr
Yeah, that’s a great question because here’s the dilemma. Whether you try to avoid uncertainty or not, it’s going to happen to you. So, by many, many measures, it appears that the world is becoming more dynamic and more uncertain. So, a very rough proxy, the World Uncertainty Index put together by some economists at Stanford and IMF shows steady increase of uncertainty over the last several decades. And, yeah, there are many other measures of this that point to greater dynamism and greater change, and I think it’s best summarized by the former CEO of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Jostein Solheim.

He, basically, said, “The world is ambiguity and paradox, it’s everywhere. The world is getting harder and harder for people who like the linear route forward in any field.” And what I think he’s putting his finger on is what I was feeling, which is, yeah, maybe they had better parents and schools than I did, but I certainly wasn’t taught, “How do I deal with uncertainty?”

And here’s the thing, when we have low skills, we tend to fall into these maladaptive behaviors, which are also, by the way, well-documented in the literature, like threat rigidity and rumination and so forth. So, if we have tools, then we can approach it with greater calm, greater courage and resolve, but I’d say the stake is even bigger than that. Because the thing I learned in kind of going through this, I was so obsessed with uncertainty, but what really became clear to me is that, again, like those innovators I told you about, they only got to new and different things, to the possibilities, by going through the uncertainty.

And so, uncertainty and possibility are really two sides of the same coin. And so, if we’re to spend our lives avoiding uncertainty or dealing with it poorly, what we’re really doing is shortchanging ourselves on possibility. Now, some of you might be saying, “Oh, that’s real nice, Nathan, but I just lived through the pandemic, and that stunk. And I didn’t choose that.” Well, you’re right, so I want to separate.

There’s planned uncertainty. When you, say, go start a new job or make a geographic move. There’s also unplanned uncertainty that happens to you. But my thesis, my proposal would be that is if we had better tools, even that unplanned uncertainty, we can make more out of it, we can suffer less in the situation, and we can discover, or at least unpack, the possibilities that might still be there, acknowledging, of course, there’s downsides. I want to acknowledge that but we tend to get focused on that and not on the upside.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, before we delve into those skill-builders, we’re saying the word uncertainty a lot, and I have a view of what that might mean and it’s broad and inclusive of much. What is your definition and some places where you think the everyday professional sees a lot of uncertainty?

Nathan Furr
So, yeah, there’s a lot of definitions out there. So, most folks probably have heard of VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. So, yeah, if you allow me a nerdy moment, complexity is where you have many nodes and many connections between those nodes. And so, the complexity is because if you changed one variable, you don’t know how it’s going to affect other variables.

And risk is more…there was an economist in the 20th century, very important economist, Frank Knight, who described risk as when you know the variables and you know the probability distribution, you just don’t know the outcome. So, think about like rolling dice. But uncertainty is where you maybe don’t know the variables, you don’t know the probability distribution, for sure, and if you want to get even a little bit higher-stakes uncertainty, what we might call ambiguity, it’s where you don’t even maybe have the mental model to make sense of it.

And so, here’s the thing about uncertainty and ambiguity, it requires different tools. Frank Knight, the economist, was very clear about that, but it happens to us a lot more than we realize. So, think about people talking about disruption all the time, disruptive technologies. Well, that is not risk, friends. That is total uncertainty. There are so many things we don’t understand about that, so many variables we don’t know, so much lack of information, new mental models, how to think about it.

Or, we don’t know what’s coming down the pipe in terms of recession, or rebound, or what’s next. All of those things are uncertain. And so, the challenge, I think, is that we’re wired almost because it’s frightening to us and we haven’t been given the tools to kind of avoid the uncertainty, but I kind of feel like if you tried to make your life as certain as possible, what you would certainly discover is how boring it is.

And, in fact, one of my favorite interviews was with the head of a big gambling organization, and he said, “What we do is we call it among ourselves reverse insurance because it’s for people whose lives have gotten so predictable and they want to actually introduce some uncertainty back into their lives.” So, for me, uncertainty is really a lack of information or think of it like fog in the landscape. You can’t see what’s ahead, so what do you do? Do you stay safe and wait?

And what I would encourage people to think about, I think about it for myself, think about the things you’re proud of, that you’ve done in your life. It could be a career move you made, it could be a relationship, it could be that you went away to school when nobody else was doing that, whatever it is. Think of what you’re proud of and look back, and I am sure there was a great deal of uncertainty in that journey to that possibility.

So, for me, it’s just if those are the things we’re proud of, and they took on uncertainty, we had to go through uncertainty, then I want to get better at it so I can get more of those things.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I’m sold. So, Nathan, tell us, how do we get better at it?

Nathan Furr
Oh, man, so that’s a big question because we interviewed so many fun people, we interviewed entrepreneurs, scientists, people who won the Nobel Prize, but also many professions have a lot of uncertainty in them, like, say, for example, paramedics and so forth. But to be fair, we came up with 30 plus tools. Now, that’s a lot to remember.

So, what we decided to do was to organize these tools, kind of grouped them roughly around a metaphor of a First Aid cross, but a First Aid cross for uncertainty, so you can get help. And the First Aid cross has four arms or four categories of things to remember. Number one, to reframe the uncertainty from something that is going to cause you a loss to looking at the possibility instead.

Number two, there’s ways you can prime, like, think prime the wall so that the paint sticks to it or prime the pumps so the water comes out. There are things you can do to prime or prepare so that when uncertainty happens, you’re calmer and you’re ready for it. Number three, there’s ways to do or to take action. The number one thing to resolve uncertainty is to take action. But we learn from a robust body of literature and innovation entrepreneurship, there’s ways to take action that are better than others in circumstances of the unknown.

And then, lastly, the fourth category is to sustain, this idea that we will face setbacks, there will be anxiety that’s part of uncertainty, so how do we sustain ourselves through that so we can get to the possibility?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then, let’s hear some tools. Like, maybe let’s perhaps drop into a scenario that professionals might find themselves faced with, like, “Hey, do I take on a new job?” “Do I take on a new project, or role, or responsibility?” So, in the midst of that, there’s some uncertainty, there’s some discomfort. How do we, say, use some reframing tools to get better?

Nathan Furr
So, reframing really sounds simple. It really is this idea that the way we describe something changes how we think, decide, and act. Now, it sounds kind of fluffy but there’s actually a very robust body of research in psychology and behavioral economics that shows that we have different reactions. So, there’s a very famous study by Kahneman and Tversky, won the Nobel Prize, which showed that.. in the experiment there was a disease and they offered people two treatments. I’m simplifying it but it basically was one treatment has a 5% chance of failure and the other treatment has a 95% chance of success.

And what they find, people vastly prefer the 95% chance of success, even though they’re statistically identical. Why? Well, because we are wired to be loss averse and gain seeking, so we’re afraid of losses, and that’s a real problem with uncertainty because, for most of us, uncertainty feels like, “Ooh, I might lose something.” And so, if we can reframe it in terms of the possibility, then it’s much easier to take action to face the unknown.

So, you asked, facing a new job. I faced this myself. I was at a university in the US and I was on track for what we call tenure, which is the job for life. So, you heard professors “Publish or perish.” This is the moment where you perish, or you publish enough and you survive. So, I was kind of making it, we’re living in the US, we’re comfortable, and everything was good, and then we got invited to do this visiting professor thing in France, and we just fell in love with it.

Anyway, over a course of years, eventually, the university I’m at made me an offer, but it was a hard offer to take because I had kids in high school, I was making a good living, everything was stable and safe, we had in-laws up the street, five houses, I was going to get tenure for sure versus going to France, where, oh, my gosh, the standard was like about double my current university, so I might perish. I was going to actually make less money, my kids were going to have to go to a different culture, a different language. One of them at a high school, actually, so there was a lot of uncertainties there.

And I found that when I compared the knowns of my current situation, all the good things of my current situation, to the unknowns of this other situation, this big move, it was very scary, but that was totally unfair because I was comparing my gains to my potential losses. When, instead, I compared my gains to my gains. So, yes, I have these good things here at home now, but what about what could happen, what could be the gains of taking the risk of this new situation?

And when I did that, it became much clearer, in fact, the greatest moment of clarity was when I shared it with my grandmother, who said to me very simply, she said, “Nathan, parents teach their children to live their dreams by living their own dreams.” And, for me, that really clicked. Now, if none of that resonates for you, I guess I’ll just share with you one of the interviews we did with Jeff Bezos way back in the era when he was not one of the wealthiest people on the planet, and he was kind of reflecting on Amazon.com, which was a modest success at that time. It wasn’t what it was now.

But he was reflecting on how he made the decision back in the 1990s, a time when the internet was the wild west, we would never put our credit cards in on an online site back in 1995. And he had this idea for selling books online but it was just such a crazy and different thing, and people were like, “Oh, that seems really scary.”

And at the time, Bezos was working on Wall Street at DE Shaw, like one of the best, most prestigious jobs you could ever have, if he left his job, he was going to leave his bonus on the table. He went to his boss and told his boss about the idea. And after like a two-hour discussion and walking around Central Park, the boss said, “Jeff, this could be a good idea but it’s probably a better idea for somebody who doesn’t already have a really good job, so why don’t you think about it.”

And what Jeff Bezos told us at the end of that, he said he thought for a while and then the framework he came up with was he called it a regret-minimization framework, which was, “I want to project myself out to age 80 and look back on my life and ask ‘What would I regret?’” And he said, “I wouldn’t regret trying this thing, participating in this thing called the internet, and failing. But the one thing I would regret is never having tried.” And so, I think that’s another lens.

So, in summary, what I’ve said is two tools here, is one is to compare the gains to the gains, or the opportunities to the opportunities. We tend to compare the uncertainties of the new thing to the known of the existing thing. And then, number two, to ask ourselves about regret, “What will we regret when we’re age 80?” And, to be totally fair, there are times in our life when we would regret trying and failing, and then that’s a good answer, that’s just as legitimate of an answer.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. And that provides a fresh perspective when you zoom out at that level and it’s really handy. And I like what you said right there at the end, is there could be times where it’s like, “Oh, yes, I do regret removing my children from, I don’t know, their best friends, an excellent environment, family, whatever.”

Like, that could, when considering a move to a totally new continent, that could be something that pops up when you take that lens, or it could be just the opposite, “I regret not exposing my children to this really cool new different culture and way of life and perspective and language that can broaden their horizons and views in so many healthy ways.” You could fairly come out on either side of that question and they’re both valid.

Nathan Furr
Yeah, Pete. And I want to be clear, it was hard. Like, we got to France, the kids at school were total bullies. I mean, it was awful. We had to move the kids, like there were all kinds of hard things, but we are so grateful we did it. Why? Because part of it was we saw the education here isn’t just what they learn in math class. The education is what you learn from doing something different and persisting. And the biggest education, which, now it’s been long enough.

The biggest education point was, “Go live your dreams.” And now when I say it’s been long enough, the kids are starting to come back and show that they can be bold, and that they do want to live their dreams. And so, for me, if they walk away with that experience, then maybe I’ve given them the best lesson I can.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, let’s talk about the prime set of tools now.

Nathan Furr
Yeah, and especially with keeping in mind, people who want to be awesome at their job, maybe I could tell another…I didn’t mean to tell a lot of personal stories here, but maybe I could tell another personal story, which was when I was doing my PhD at Stanford, remember I’d worked before and so I felt a little bit uncomfortable sometimes not working for several years to go do a PhD.

Anyway, I was in Silicon Valley, and in Silicon Valley, the heroes are not us nerdy professors, they are the entrepreneurs who create things. So, I started to feel bad about myself, like, “Wow, if I had any courage, I would go become an entrepreneur. I would quit the program and just jump out and do something.” And, finally, it was just boiling over and I remember reaching out to one of my mentors there, Professor Tina Seelig.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, she’s been on the show.

Nathan Furr
Oh, yeah. Okay, great. Yeah, Tina is amazing. I love Tina. Okay. So, Tina, yeah, you can look her up. She’s a really lovely person. So, we went to lunch together, and I confessed to Tina, like, “Tina, if I had any courage, I’d quit this program and go be an entrepreneur, but I’m just not a risk-taker.” And she said to me, “What do you mean you’re not a risk-taker?” I said, “Yeah, just I don’t have the courage to just jump off the cliff.”

And she said, “Do you really think there’s only one kind of risk?” And I was like, “Well, what do you mean, Tina?” She said, “In my mind, there’s financial risk, there’s intellectual risk, there’s social risk, there’s emotional risk, we can go on and on. You seem like somebody who is comfortable taking on intellectual risk, let’s say, talk about something like uncertainty, but you have four kids.” At the time, my wife and co-author was starting a clothing line so it wasn’t generating any money. We’re just living off the student loans, basically.

She said, “You have four kids, you’re living off on student loans so you don’t want to take a financial risk. Well, that makes a lot of sense.” And what she was trying to teach me is that we can actually do a little bit of self-reflection to ask, “What are the risks we’re comfortable with and we have an aversion with? And where you have an affinity, you want to play to your strengths. And where you have an aversion, you just want to be aware.”

So, for me, being a professor, actually made an immense amount of sense because I could kind of pad down that financial risk but I could take intellectual and social risks. And so, again, number one lesson, “Where do you have an affinity? Where do you have an aversion?” But the second lesson I learned from another mentor at Stanford, Professor Bob Sutton, and what he taught me was, “Be careful that you don’t let your risk aversions hold you back from the things you most want.”

And the story was, at the time again, things are super tight, we’re packing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from home just to save a couple bucks on lunch. And I’m in class with him and a bunch of other PhD students, and he just tells us, “Oh, yeah, when I was a PhD, I borrowed the equivalent of $30,000 to get my research done.” And I’m like the top of my head blew off, I was like, “While I’m packing this peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you like dropped 30 grand. Like, what? Why would you do that?”

And he just said, “It was simple. I knew that the most important thing for me getting a good job and keeping it, in that context, was the quality of my research, so why not put some money into it?” And it was one of those moments where I had this aha of like, “Oh, so if you just let your aversions be aversions, it can hold you back from the things you most care about. And the good news is you can actually build up your risk tolerances by taking smaller risks, little small risks, and that will get you more comfortable so you can take bigger and bigger risks.” And so, I’ve done that around financial risk aversion.

Another way to think about it, one of my favorite interviews was with a guy, David Heinemeier Hansson. He’s like the guy behind Ruby on Rails and Basecamp. He’s a startup legend. He is very clear – he hates financial risk. So, how do you hate financial risk and be an eight-time serial entrepreneur? Well, he always has something on the side that’s paying the bills. First, it was a consulting gig, and then later when he had some software that was selling, it was that. But he always had something to pay the bills on the side and then he can do a project and not feel so stressed about the financial risk he’s taking.

So, I would say it can do a lot of good for an individual. And, by the way, I sometimes coach organizations through this as well because their risk affinities and aversions hold them back as well. But know your risks, map them out, ask, “Where am I strong? Where am I weak? Where is maybe an aversion holding me back? And how could I kind of build up some comfort with that so I can act well when that moment comes, where I have to face some uncertainty? And where are my strengths and how do I play to those?”

It’s a very practical thing. Maybe you’re somebody who thinks up a lot of ideas and you just don’t speak up about it in, say, a meeting or somewhere. This might be a moment of reflection to say, “Hey, maybe I should step out there a little bit and speak up about these things,” or whatever it may be. Anyway, that would be one of the ideas we drew from the book is to know your risks.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. And I’m thinking now, so Tina highlighted a number of categories of risk there: financial, intellectual, relational. Can you maybe name a few more to prime the pump of ideas for listeners?

Nathan Furr
Yeah, for sure. And let me give a little brief explanation. So, obviously, there are many kinds, so I would encourage you to do what makes sense to you. But the ones we used are intellectual, so your willingness to kind of come up with new ideas. Obviously, financial is your willingness to take a financial risk. Social risk is, say, with acquaintances, so you go to a party or a networking event, your willingness to go out and speak to people, or, say, stand up in front of a crowd and talk.

Emotional risk would be for your more intimate relationships, so that may be like being willing to say the thing that needs to be said.

Physical risks, so maybe like it’s getting out, doing action sports. One of my executive students said, “I hated physical risks but then when I was kind of entering the executive ranks, my job was shifting from kind of tamping down risks and uncertainty, to actually having to take some uncertainty and risk, and so I knew I needed to get better at it but I didn’t know how. But I knew I really was scared of physical risks, so I said, ‘I’m going to take a kickboxing class, which is a super physical confrontational sport.’” So, he takes a kickboxing course, and he said, “It was fun, it was energizing, and it made me more comfortable taking other kinds of risks.” So, that would be physical.

And then I would maybe just add political, which is your willingness to stand up for change, speak up for change, whether that be in an organizational setting, or, say, in a citizenship setting. So, it’s financial, intellectual, social, emotional, physical, and political.

Nathan Furr
You could, of course, substitute something else, but, yeah, it’s up to you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, consultants love their categorization systems and arguing over them, so I’ll just roll with yours.

Nathan Furr
So do academics. It turns out so do academics, so, yeah, just having those arguments.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s talk about some of the tools within the do category.

Nathan Furr
Yes. So, the do category is very interesting because it’s really one of the sections that draws most heavily on the research in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship. And if I were to summarize it very briefly, it would be taking action is one of the best ways to resolve uncertainty. And one of the best ways to take action is to break the thing down into small steps and run a series of experiments.

And we see that over and over in the entrepreneurship literature, “How do you learn quickly under uncertainty?” So, for example, if you look at the research on startup accelerators, so startup accelerator, essentially, accepts in a class of entrepreneurs for three months and they coach them into, hopefully, a successful startup. So, what are the best practices of the best startup accelerators?

Well, let me pose it to you as a puzzle. Let me turn it over to you. How would you make a great startup accelerator? So, for example, you know that in the startup accelerator that you want your entrepreneurs to talk to people. So, should you force them to talk to as many people as fast as possible up front, like just drink out of the fire hydrant? Or, should you spread out those interactions with customers, mentors, investors, executives, over the space of the three months that they have time to absorb all that information?

And, oh, by the way, these startups, some of them might be doing slightly competitive things. So, should you allow the startups to keep what they’re doing secret or should you force them to talk to each other and present to each other? Oh, and then, finally, these startups are doing different things. And so, should you customize the schedule of who they talk to, like what they’re doing, “They should only talk to people who seem to be relevant to them”? Or, should you make them talk to people who maybe seem irrelevant to them? Those are some interesting puzzles, right? Well, what does the research suggest?

What it suggests, and I’m going to draw the parallel to everyone who’s listening about uncertainty, is it’s better actually to talk to as many people as fast as possible. In fact, the great startup accelerators sometimes make people talk to 100, 200 people in the first month. Why? Because the major trap that they fall into is what we call premature certainty, which is they settle on what they think is the right way to do it too early, and talking to all those folks as fast as possible shakes them out of that and makes them realize, “Oh, I could make progress but I kind of need to change it a little bit.”

Oh, and, by the way, it’s also good to make those folks who seem competitive talk to each other because, it turns out, they can share how they solve similar problems. So, if you and I were both publishing a book tomorrow, even though we might feel competitive, it’s better for us to share information with each other and learn from each other. Oh, and then, lastly, even though I might think I should only talk to people who are like me, it’s actually incredibly useful to not customize. In other words, talk to everybody because sometimes your most valuable insights come from a place you wouldn’t think it would come from.

And one of the funniest stories was an entrepreneur who was creating this kind of funding platform, really for social initiatives and even like churches, and on his schedule was like the worst thing he could imagine, it was the VP of marketing from Playboy, and he was like, “Oh, this is like everything I hate. I’m not going to talk to this person.” But they forced him to talk to this person, and it turns out, like one of his best conversations. The VP was like, “Yeah, I want to get out of here, too. I’m actually a churchgoer, too. Like, here’s what you could do,” and gave him all these ideas, and this entrepreneur walked out, saying, “This was the best meeting I’d had.”

And so, how do I translate that for you? When you’re under uncertainty, it’s like you’re in a landscape with fog, and your task is to blow away that fog. And what we learned from startup accelerators is, A, talk to as many people as you can; B, talk to people who you even think are your competitors because they will reveal new ways of doing things and how to solve familiar problems; and number three, talk to people who are actually kind of a little bit different. You may not think they have much to offer because they might have something to offer.

And one of my favorites of this is the woman who was the founder behind GoldieBlox. This is engineering toys for girls, and she was being nice to this guy at the restaurant who was her waiter and was kind of telling this waiter about engineering toys for girls, “Why would this waiter care?” And the waiter was like, “Oh, that’s really cool. You know what, my aunt is actually one of the editors at,” I think it was like The Atlantic or The New York Times or something, “and she would really love this. Let me introduce you to her.” So, that, to me, is, again, as we think about taking action, one of the many tools about kind of learning quickly through the unknown.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Now, many of these actions that we talked about are talking to people and/or running small experiments. Can you share with us, beyond talking to folks, what are some great actions that help us gather wisdom in a jiffy?

Nathan Furr
So, maybe I’ll go a little bit different direction and share something a little more counterintuitive. So, before I do that, I’ll say some of the other tools are things like a term we use called bricolage, which is make do with what you have. And one of my favorite interviews with the gentleman who was responsible for turning around the city of Melbourne in Australia from being one of the most decrepit downtown courses, really, like zombie apocalypse-looking to being one of the most livable cities in the world. In fact, voted that way seven years in a row, even though he was given no budget and, essentially, no resources. So, how do you turn around such a dire situation?

And one of the things he did is say, “Well, what do I have a lot of that nobody’s valuing because we have so much of it?” And Melbourne, just because how it was laid out in the gold rush, had all these little they call them laneways, they’re like little alleys that end in a dead end, and they’re usually used for parking during the day, trash and social problems at night.

And he said, “Well, we’ve got so many of these laneways. What if I just put a pile on there so cars can’t go in there and tell the restaurants that are nearby, ‘You can use this space, put up some lights, keep it clean, but you can double the square footage of your restaurant if you keep this space clean’?” And he tried it on one laneway first, and it worked. People kind of ended up staying around at night and the laneway became a place where people wanted to be. And, by the way, today, Melbourne’s laneways are one of its major tourist attractions. But he kept doing, like making do with very little.

For example, there was a big property collapse, and he saw that as an opportunity. He said, “Great. Now, all these buildings downtown, the space I’m trying to revitalize, have no value, so I’m going to go to one of the owners of one of these old kinds of Victorian buildings and I’m going to make him a proposition. Your building, essentially, has no value to you. Let me renovate it into a mixed-use space, so businesses on the bottom, residents up above.”

Well, the owner of the building had no other alternative, and so he said, “Okay.” And it worked. Like, people moved into the apartments, he paid it off in half the time he expected, and then he rolled and did that to the next apartment, and the next building, and the next building. At the start of Rob Adam’s tenure, he’s the gentleman who renovated Melbourne, there were 650 occupied apartments in downtown Melbourne, 650, that’s it. By the end of his tenure, I think there was over 40,000 occupied apartments in downtown Melbourne.

And so, the whole principle there was often we say, “I don’t have the resources I need to get started,” but it’s really about asking sometimes, “What can I do with what I have? Or, what do I have so much of that nobody is really, maybe not even I am, realizing that it’s valuable?” If that feels too common sense to you, do we have time for me to tell you about one of the other tools from do?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Nathan Furr
Yeah, okay. So, how do you set yourself up so you can’t fail? That’s an interesting one. You’re going into uncertainty. You don’t know what you’re going to face. Is it possible to set yourself up so you can’t fail? Well, one of the ideas that was really counterintuitive to me, at least, because I was raised on the dogma of goals, like, you set a goal and you go do it.

But, remember, I told you about David Heinemeier Hansson, he’s a real contrarian. I loved that he was like, “Listen, if you’re doing something new, something doesn’t happen because you set a goal. The goal is total bull crap. Under uncertainty, you really don’t have control over whether that’s going to happen or not. Sure, set a goal. Sure, work hard and all that, but whether the market accepts what you’re doing or not is really not in your control directly. So, instead, act upon your values rather than your goals because that’s what you have control over.”

So, for example, for him, his value is, “I want to write great software, I want to treat my employees well, and I want to act ethically with the marketplace,” and he’s very clear. He just launched his big email platform Hey.com. he’s like, “At the end of that two years, if it failed, if that was a success in the market or not, sure, I’d do the growth hacking, I’d do all that stuff, but, really, whether the market accepts it or not, it’s not truly in my control. So, if that fails, but I have lived true to my values then I’ll be happy. I wrote great software. I learned tons of stuff. I treated people well, and I was ethical. I feel good about it.”

It sounds really soft and fluffy but, again, personal experience. So, think of me, I’m an academic, I’ve been working on this for like a decade, nobody’s talking about uncertainty, a pandemic happens. Suddenly, every thought leader in the universe is grounded, has nowhere to go, and all they’re talking about was uncertainty. I was freaking out, I’m like, “I’m going to get totally scooped here.” And my co-author said to me, “Well, what’s your values? Operate on your values because the world needs lots of perspectives but go out there, act according to your values, write the very best thing you can possibly write, and that you have control over. You don’t have control over if guru X or guru Y comes out and says what you already said.”

My co-author said, “If you really do that, according to your values, then what you say will be different and unique and a contribution.” And she was absolutely right, and I felt much, much calmer in that uncertainty of somebody’s going to beat me to it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Thank you. And how about some sustain tools?

Nathan Furr
Yeah, sustain is a good one it’s really important because whether you choose uncertainty or uncertainty happens to you, it is going to make you anxious, nervous. There’s nothing wrong with you. That’s called being a human being. You’re wired to be that way, so you need to sustain yourself when there’s a setback.

So, we talked about a couple important ideas in there. One of them is known as emotional hygiene. So, it sounds sort of soft and fluffy but we forget that physical hygiene is a 20th century revolution. If you grew up before the 20th century, you would not know naturally that it made sense when you got a cut, you need to wash it up and keep it clean. And when we figured that stuff out that you’ve got to do physical hygiene for your body, it increased the life expectancy 50%.

And I think we’re in the midst of a similar revolution where we realize that our emotions are real, too, and we have an emotional body. The problem is that when many of us try something new, and then there’s a setback, which, by the way, was inevitable – it was going to be different than you expected – then we beat ourselves up, and that’s like the worst kind of sustaining. So, you’ve got to sustain yourself, you’ve got to treat yourself with kindness, and also there’s ways you can be rational about it.

So, I did an interview with Ben Faringa. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016. He won it for this idea called molecular machines. So, if you’ve read those sci-fi articles about little robots running around your blood, curing diseases and things, it would be based on his invention. So, I asked him, “On the way to this breakthrough of this fundamentally new discovery, did you face uncertainty?” And he like laughed at my face as if that was like the silliest question I could ask. He’s like, “Of course.” And I said, “So, how did you deal with it?” And he said, “Listen, if you deal with uncertainty, you will have setbacks, you will fail. You just have to get good at it.”

And he said, “Allow yourself to feel the frustration for a few days, and then ask yourself, ‘What can I learn from it?’” And it turns out that “What can I learn from it?” question is just one in a set of different ways to approach a setback, “What can I learn from it?” is one, another is to focus on what you still have rather than what you’ve lost. Maybe one of my other personal favorites came from a gentleman named Ben Gilmore, who is a paramedic in Australia but he also writes books and makes films. So, that’s a full-time job, paramedic, and, by the way, has a lot of uncertainty. You never know when you break down the door, what you’re going to find on the other side.

But I think the story he told me that really inspired me is he wanted his life to be interesting and adventurous, and he’d always dreamed of riding his motorcycle through the Khyber Pass. And so, he saves up his money, and he goes out there, and he’s got his motorcycle, and while he’s like staying in the hotel, his motorcycle gets impounded, and he’s like, “What do I do now?” And he says, “Well, I’m going to go on foot. I’m going to go anyway.”

So, he was walking on foot through the Khyber Pass, and he meets this family, they’re residents of the region and they’ve had this generational business of making weapons, so guns. But the son, he doesn’t want to grow up to be a weapons maker. He wants to go to school. He wants to be a poet but he doesn’t have the money to go to school. So, Ben Gilmore goes back, and he said, “I want to make a film about this family,” and he goes back and he makes a film about this family, called Son of a Lion, which is, by the way, featured in the Cannes Film Festival, and does generate the funds to allow their son to go to school and follow his dream of being a poet.

But Ben faced so many obstacles on this journey, including the motorcycle getting impounded, but he went on to make other films, and he had experiences like he’d be in country with the film crew, and the budget would get pulled, and everybody flies home except the lead actor, and they’d rewrote the script and filmed that, and that became Australia’s entry into the Oscars.

And I asked Ben, “How do you keep going through these obstacles when you face these setbacks?” And he said, “Listen, my father read to me as a boy every night growing up. I love stories. I love to hear them.” He said, “Everybody loves the hero but the only way to become the hero is to go through the obstacles.” So, that’s what I always remember.

So, anyway, again, just to summarize. Feeling anxiety, feeling frustration, having setbacks is totally normal. So, there’s a way you can actually frame them so that you respond differently. Ben Faringa, the guy who was the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, he gets frustrated but he says, “What can I learn from it?” Ben Gilmore, this kind of wild and interesting character says, “Hey, the only way to become the hero is to go through the obstacles,” so many ways to address that and sustain yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s beautiful. Thank you, Nathan. I remember when I was in the early stages of my business and times were lean. I remember thinking, ‘Hopefully, years from now, when I’m rolling in it, I’ll look back and say, ‘Ah, yes, that was the heroic struggle period.’”

Nathan Furr
So, what happened? Did you make it through?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I did make it through. Yes, I have sufficient revenue to provide for the family, so mission accomplished.

Nathan Furr
And you know what, yeah, and even when we don’t make it through. Listen, hey, I try to tell my kids because my kids see me, they’re like, “Oh, dad got a PhD at Stanford. Now, he’s a professor at one of the top five strategy schools, and blah, blah, blah.” And I tell them, “What? Are you kidding me? Like, I got rejected from every graduate school I applied to at one time,” and I tell them about all of my failures along the way.

And I think when you dig into people’s stories, what you really discover is that there’s actually a lot of failure and setback and self-doubt. It’s just incredible. We discovered some really moving and interesting stories of self-doubt of people who are very, very successful and just to normalize that. That’s part of the journey.

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

Nathan Furr
I think the one big takeaway I hope people have is that when they face uncertainty, whether it’s happened to them or they’ve chosen it, but something is going a little different than expected, is to ask the question, “How could this make me stronger? How could I turn this or flip this so that it can make me stronger?”

I think that’s a question I try to ask myself because, again, I get stuck, too, friends. I get stuck, too. But when I can do that, I actually wrote about it. We use this old term from the technology strategy literature called transilience, which is this kind of leaping from one state to another. And that, to me, is like the image, when like boiling water gets set free as steam in this moment of like you’re feeling stressed, you’re feeling anxious, and you say, “How do I turn this?” and you are able to see the possibility and be transilient, kind of leap to that state. That would be my hope. I think it’s a real powerful question to ask yourself.

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

Nathan Furr
One of my favorite books in the world is by Henry Miller, it’s called The Colossus of Maroussi, and he said something really strange. He said, “Magic can never be destroyed.” Well, what do you mean magic? Come on, I’m an empiricist, I’m a rationalist, what do you mean magic?

But we actually wrote in the book about magic. And what we mean by that is those leaps of insight, those moments of connection, that serendipity that you just can’t quite explain, and we saw so many of those as well. And so, what I would encourage people to do is to make some room for that. Put yourself in positions where you could have that. You don’t know in advance. But if you don’t get out there, you don’t talk, you don’t try, you don’t talk to the waiter, you won’t have those magical moments.

But I like that magic can never be destroyed because it’s there. We don’t understand how everything in the universe works but things can happen at just the right time.

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

Nathan Furr
So, one of my favorite studies or papers is called “Drop Your Tools.” It’s by a very famous organization theorist called Karl Weick. And what he looked at is the Mann Gulch fire disaster, which happened in Montana in 1949.

So, they established this program where smoke jumpers would jump out of the plane to where a big fire was and put it out. And it was a very successful program, and everything was going great when this fire starts in Mann Gulch in August, it’s really hot. And when the smoke jumpers land, they’re like, “Oh, we’ll put this fire out by 10:00 a.m. the next morning.” They’re so calm and assured, they stop and have dinner, and the fire is on one side of the ridge and kind of start heading downhill towards where there’s a river in the valley, so they have an escape route when the wind kicks up.

And this fire suddenly becomes really intense. It leaps the ridge and blocks their escape exits, so the trees by the river are on fire, and they start to run back up the hill. It’s this incredibly 70-degree slope. It’s incredibly steep and they’re racing and the fire is chasing them, 30-foot-high flames moving at this incredible speed. And the head of the fire crew does something that, today we understand, but that time didn’t make any sense. He said, “Drop your tools.” Now, they’d all been told, “Don’t ever drop your tools. That’s your lifeline,” and he said, “Drop your tools.” And he lights this escape fire, so he lights the grass around them on fire, and says, “Lay down here.”

Well, that didn’t make sense to them, so they kept running, and the foreman lies down the fire, covers himself up in a blanket, fire just rushes over him, and it goes on and it kills the rest of the team. And it became this moment, this kind of symbolic moment because it was this idea that we go around acting as if the world was stable and certain and makes lots of sense, when, in reality, it’s actually changing all the time. It’s very uncertain. It’s only these kinds of distinctive moments, like this fire crisis, where we really recognize it.

And what Karl Weick recommended coming out of that was that we need in life, and this is true on uncertainty, to adapt to what he calls an attitude of wisdom. What that means is you have just enough trust in yourself, in the idea, in your instinct that, “I should do something about this,” to take a step forward, and you doubt yourself just enough to listen to the voices that signal when it’s time to change course. Not every voice is the right voice but some of them signal that, “Yeah, you should change course when you hear that chorus enough times.”

And I think that’s a good metaphor for leaders under uncertainty because where leaders get themselves in trouble is they just doggedly pursue a path, try to plan their way to success and execute it, rather than what’s the attitude of wisdom in getting there.

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

Nathan Furr
So, one of the tools we wrote about is called finite versus infinite games. So, James Carse was a modern philosopher at NYU, and in his book, he argued there’s really two ways of looking at life. There’s the finite view, which is we look at the game of life as the goal is to win, and the rules, the roles, the boundaries are all fixed, but we’re trying to win, we’re trying to be the best.

And infinite players, what do they do instead? They look at, instead, the joy of playing the game and they view the roles and rules and boundaries as being flexible or we can play with that. And maybe my favorite example of that comes from the Tour de France, which is happening right now where I live. And a very famous race between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor. Jacque Anquetil was the favorite, he’d already won four Tour de Frances. Raymond Poulidor is kind of this…they call him the wholehearted son of the soil, and he didn’t really win much at all. In fact, he hadn’t won any races so far.

But there was this moment in this very rough, rugged terrain called The Puy de Dome. People described it like the teeth of a saw, just 10 kilometers of up and down. And instead of doing that thing where they draft behind each other, they raced neck and neck, shoulders, literally, like smash into each other, neither of them wanting to give an inch to the other one for 10 kilometers. And, finally, at the end, Pullidor, the wholehearted son of the soil, pulls ahead, and he wins that leg but he loses the race.

In fact, he races 14 times and he never wins, but everybody loved Pullidor. In fact, no racer was more beloved than Pullidor, and people tried to figure it out, they wrote dissertations about it, but I think the best way to summarize it is he was an infinite player. And at the end of his career, he reflected, somebody had said to him, “Raymond, you always had your head in the clouds. You didn’t take it seriously enough.”

And he said, “Maybe I didn’t because I never got up in the morning thinking, ‘How do I win?’ I’ve always thought, ‘This is so fun that I get to race. I can’t wait to race. How do I have fun racing?’” And so, for me, the tool I use is when I approach a situation that’s hard, and I have hard things, things I don’t want to do, tough things. I say, “What’s the infinite game I can play here? How could I play a little bit with the goal, with the rules, with the roles, with the boundaries?” That makes me curious.

Yeah, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t, but I’d say I have a much more interesting career than I might have because I’ve tried to play that infinite game.

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

Nathan Furr
Well, we wanted to make the tools in the book The Upside of Uncertainty available to everybody, so we made a website called UncertaintyPossibility.com. So, remember my thesis, uncertainty and possibility are two sides of the same coin. So, you just type that out, dot com. And we actually described all the tools there so that they’re available and accessible.

Of course, I’d be super grateful if people went and bought the book or left a review, like on Amazon or something like that, because it is tough as an author getting the word out there. Writing a book is a little bit like a tree falling in the forest for nobody to hear unless people take action. So, thank you, though, for asking.

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

Nathan Furr
Well, I would say this, there is no doubt that we live in a world of increasing uncertainty, and I think if you can develop that ability early on, you’re going to have a huge leg up. And we talked about reframing at the beginning. Reframe any challenge in terms of the possibility. Even when we looked at empirical studies of a company facing disruption, the ones that succeed are the ones who, instead of focusing on the loss or the threat, they’re the ones who focused on the possibility.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Nathan, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you much fun and adventure and possibility.

Nathan Furr
Yeah, thank you so much. It was fun.

788: Roger Martin Shares How to Make Better Strategic Choices By Rethinking Your Models

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Roger Martin reveals how to identify the unconscious mental models holding you back from more superior management effectiveness.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why people will resist correcting outdated models 
  2. Powerful questions to dismantle outdated models
  3. The simple word shift that makes you more strategic

About Roger

Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in the world. He is also former Dean and Institute Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto in Canada.  

Resources Mentioned

Roger Martin Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Roger, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Roger Martin
It’s great to be here. I’m looking forward to this.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Well, so I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom. Tell us, what’s the big idea behind your book A New Way to Think: Your Guide to Superior Management Effectiveness?

Roger Martin
The big idea is you got to be careful to not get owned by thinking models. You get told, “Oh, this is the way you should think about this problem.” If it doesn’t work, don’t go back and say, “Well, because people say that’s the model that should be used. Keep on using it.” That’s being owned by your model. Instead, you need to own your models. They need to work for you. And if they don’t, you need to change it. That’s the big idea.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Makes sense. Now, the word model, I figured we’ll be saying it a lot. So, could you give us maybe four or five examples of models that professionals use just so we have a real clear sense for what we’re talking about there?

Roger Martin
Sure. A model would be, in order to align the interests of management with shareholders, you should give them stock-based compensation, and that will create alignment. Or, you should always make decisions based on data. That’s the only good decision, that’s a decision made on data. That’s a model. The job of a corporation is to make sure it controls and coordinates the various businesses underneath it. That’s its primary job. That would be a model.

Another model would be customer loyalty is the most important thing about customers.

Roger Martin
Those would all be models that we use that then guide our behavior. So, if you say, “Oh, I must align the interests of management and shareholders with stock-based compensation,” you will have a stock compensation plan that’s based on the performance of the share price as a key feature of executive compensation. So, these models drive behavior.

Pete Mockaitis
So, is there any distinction, not to play too much of the semantic wordplay game, between a model and a rule or a principle?

Roger Martin
Not really. I guess what I would say is a principle tends to be a portion of a model. So, our principle is alignment, and the way we’ll make that happen is through stock-based compensation. So, you’ve got a principle that informs other aspects of a model. That’s how I would distinguish them. You could call a model and a rule kind of relatively similar.

I just think of a model not in a better way but it’s a slightly more comprehensive than either rule or principle. It’s a set of things that we will do because we say if we do those things, it’ll get the result we want.

Pete Mockaitis
And is it possible that we operate from some models that we’re not even aware of?

Roger Martin
In fact, we do that all the time. Let’s say you’re a CEO and you kind of walk into a retailer that sells your product, you don’t like how it’s merchandised, let’s say you’re a fashion line.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m fashionable. Okay, I’m with you.

Roger Martin
Yeah, exactly. Like you, Pete. And you go to the people who are running the store and say, “You, people aren’t following the corporate guidelines on this. I’m outraged, dah, dah, dah.” That’s a model. It’s a model that says it’s their fault, not yours. Your instructions weren’t confusing. Or, your way of merchandising actually doesn’t sell stuff. It’s, “You’re morons,” or you’re not so much morons, “You’re insubordinate,” in some way, “in not following it.” Your model is you have to observe when people are being insubordinate and not following instructions, and chastise them for doing so, and that will improve things.

Pete Mockaitis
And that we know best in terms of the optimal approach for merchandising versus that you may be in a surprise, like, “We tried your way but this way is 30% better, so we’re going that way.”

Roger Martin
Absolutely. Absolutely. And that executive probably wouldn’t have articulated that in the corporate jet on the way to visit the retail outlet, “My model is to make sure they’re obeying and to chastise them if they’re not.” But, in fact, that’s what naturally flows because, in fact, that is his or her, probably his, managerial model.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so you say that folks have a tendency to double down under existing models even if they’re not working. What’s behind that?

Roger Martin
It just seems to be, Pete, a human tendency from what I can tell, which is we like to have models because, otherwise, you have to think about everything from first principles. So, you have a way of doing things, so there’s affinity with the idea of a model. And then there’s sort of social adoption. So, if everybody else is doing it, if everybody else is doing stock-based compensation, and there are stock-based compensation consultants who come and tell you how to do it, and the board gets evaluated on the basis of whether it’s got stock-based compensation, all that stuff.

If that becomes the standard, it’s easiest, that’s because we’re sort of social human beings to say, “Having a model is better than thinking from first principles and I might as well adopt the model that’s the one that’s being used most because that’s probably a good idea.” And so, you’re a plumber in ancient Rome, and all the other plumbers are saying, “This great material, lead, is really malleable and makes for good water pipes and so let’s do that, too.” And because, boy, it seems to work, ten years later all the people die from lead poisoning, but at the time it seemed like a good idea.

So, I think those two things cause people to feel a certain level of concern, anxiousness, outright fear when they have to do something other than the existing model.

Pete Mockaitis
What you’re saying there is in contrast to first principles really resonates. I’m thinking about when I was just getting my start, I’m thinking, “Okay, you don’t want to do the speaker-author, guru biz in terms of, ‘Oh, yeah, you got to have Twitter, you got to have a blog.’ Okay, so this is what I do.” And I didn’t really find those to be especially effective tools, versus reasoning it from first principles would suggest, “Okay. Well, fundamentally, what is my offer?”

“How is it distinctive from alternatives and competitives available? Who is my customer? What do they want? What are their preferences? How can I make my prospective customers aware?” And so, that is a whole lot more work than, “Oh, you got to have a Twitter, you got to have a blog.”

Roger Martin
No, no, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
But it would’ve served me better.

Roger Martin
And that, if I can go on that, that makes for a very interesting case. What I’d say is you took something that maybe would’ve been a model that a consumer package goods company would utilize and ported it over to another domain rather than accepting the domain’s kind of model. And that I find is kind of interesting.

A similar story, as you may know, I was dean of a business school for 15 years, and that was my first academic. I was never dean before. And all the development people, the fundraising people came to me, and said, “Well, this is how you do it. Get a list made of all the rich people in the country, and rich graduates, and then you go ask them for money.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, “This is your job now.”

Roger Martin
And I was thinking, “Okay, like I know a lot of rich people, and let’s just put me in their shoes and say, ‘How appealing would that be to me?’ So, you’re going to come and see me because I’m rich, no other reason other than that, and because, apparently, I should want to give you money. All you have to do is ask and I’ll give it to you.”

And so, I said, “I guess you could do that but it doesn’t seem like a good idea. How about this as an idea? I find people who have means and have something that they’re really interested in that the school is also interested in, and let’s get them involved in that because they care about it and they want to be involved in that. And, in due course, they will say to us, ‘Can we support this cause in a greater way?’”

And all the fundraising people said, “Well, what does this guy know about fundraising? This guy is crazy.” Well, on the basis of that, we got the University of Toronto, which is a big gigantic university, have been running forever. University of Toronto is only a six-figure unsolicited gift ever, where it was not asked for. Its first seven-figure unsolicited gift and its first eight-figure unsolicited gift. Literally, one guy, he was into real estate and got involved…who didn’t think there was nearly enough good real estate courses producing the people, and Toronto is a big real estate town, producing the real estate folks. I said, “I agree. We need to serve the community. Would you be willing to teach a course if we got you the appropriate help?”

He did. He loved it. Students loved him. He started hiring all sorts of students from it. We hired other real estate professors. We got to a point where we were one of the best two or three business schools for real estate in North America. We then built a new building. And he came to me and said, “You probably need somebody to give you the cornerstone gift for this, the building, right?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Here’s eight figures.”

So, that was a different model, a completely different model than the dominant model because, in that case, I wasn’t even prepared to sort of spend my time on the dominant model because it just seemed silly to me. But you’re right, that requires thinking from first principles, which is not as straightforward. And if my approach had failed miserably, rather than succeeded, they would’ve said, “Yeah, he is a nut.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think there’s one reason right there, is it’s riskier to do something novel and different. And I’m thinking the old saw, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” Like, “Yeah, that’s the thing. Yup, IBM, they make the business machines, that’s their name so buy them from there.” And so, I guess that’s one reason why folks might double down.

Roger Martin
It’s a perfect metaphor, “Nobody got fired, nobody ever got fired for using the dominant prevalent model of the day.” Full stop. So, absolutely. And that’s why I’m not saying to people in the book, “Whatever the dominant model is,” I don’t say reject it.

I say, “I could understand you trying it but just make sure you kind of write down, ‘What I expect to happen when I try this model,’ and then check what actually happened. And if there’s a big negative delta there, then here’s what I’d encourage you to do. Don’t just keep doing it because everybody else is doing it. That might be the time for you to think about, ‘Is there another way to think about it?’”

So, if the dominant model is working, keep doing it, is my view. It’s just when it doesn’t work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I was about to ask, how do we know if something isn’t working anymore? Are there any indicators or telltale signs it’s time to shift away? It sounds like one master key is simply write down in advance what you’re hoping the thing will do, and then check later, “Did it do the thing?”

Roger Martin
Yes. And that may sound kind of trivial but it doesn’t happy very often, Pete. And that leads to sort of…there are a bunch of human dynamics problems that you have to take into account. One human dynamic problem is human beings have an infinite capacity for expose rationalizing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Roger Martin
Right? You can expose rationalize anything. And we know this in a sad, sad, sad sort of way from war crimes trials, where often somebody is on the stand and who’s committed just a horrible, terrible crime that they know is horrible and terrible, but they rationalize it in saying, “Well, I had no choice.” So, you can rationalize anything.

And so, you have to help the mind not rationalize. And the only way I believe you can do that is by writing things out because, otherwise, if you say, “Oh, well, we’re going to build a new factory. And with that new factory, it’s going to cost $100 million but we’re going to increase sales by 50% within five years, and that will pay for the factory and a good return on our $100 million investment.”

If you don’t write that down, five years from now when sales are up 35%, you’re going to say, “Yeah, exactly. This is exactly what we said, sales increased 35%,” and you would never ask the question, “Hey, what didn’t go the way we thought that made it 35 rather than 50, which actually made it a return that’s below our cost of capital, not above our cost of capital?” You wouldn’t do that because it’s sort of lost in the mind’s mist of time what you actually thought your model was going to deliver for you.

So, I want you to write it down so that when it happens, you can compare what’s happened to that. And that will give you the information you need, “Did it perform the way I wanted it to perform, that I assumed it would perform when I used it?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. Is that sort of like the master key or any other key questions or things to do there?

Roger Martin
That’s the master key.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Got you. Well, so could you maybe tie this together for us with a story of someone who they had an outdated model, and then they made a shift to a new way of thinking and got some cool results?

Roger Martin
Sure. So, I could talk about customer loyalty. So, the dominant model is that the most important factor for you in kind of being profitable is having high customer loyalty. And what that is, customer loyalty, is a conscious act. So, that would be, I don’t know, what toothpaste do you use, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Colgate Total, paste not gel. Thanks for asking.

Roger Martin
Perfect. Colgate Total paste. And so, it’s worked for you in the past, and so you are consciously driven to show loyalty to that brand when you go to the toothpaste aisle. You sort of consciously say, “Hey, I’m loyal to that. It’s worked well. I will do that.” It turns out that all the behavioral science, all that research is telling us that, actually, the much stronger driver of that habit is unconscious.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. You’re right.

Roger Martin
It’s actually your unconscious. So, literally, the way the mind works for you, since you’re a Total Colgate paste, if your hand reaches for Total Colgate, or Colgate Total gel, your subconscious starts yelling at you, saying, “What the hell are you doing? The paste. Paste works. Paste is most comfortable. Paste is most familiar. You’re asking me to do something new. I’m worried. I’m nervous.” So, it’s actually an unconscious driver. And Lord forbid that you reach for Pepsodent or something else, then you’ve gone completely off the rocker, “Oh, my God, cats and dogs sleeping together.” It’s going to be horrible.

So, it turns out, the subconscious loves comfort and familiarity more than anything. So, what you want to make sure that you’re kind of not messing with is habit. And so, one thing that companies can’t help doing is refreshing and redesigning. And it turns out that colors and shapes are really important visual cues before you actually can read the lettering on most things. And that would be the case in Amazon when you see the little chicklet there. We first see colors and shapes. And so, when you change the color of something, or change the name of something to, it’s a huge negative for habit.

And so, Procter & Gamble, Tide, unbelievably profitable and venerable brand, have been around for 70 plus years. And what it turns out is that people have a Tide habit more than they are loyal to Tide. And so, when Tide, 40, 50 years ago, when the transition was starting to be made from powdered detergents to liquids, the first liquids came into being, Procter & Gamble said, “Okay, Tide is the dominant detergent, the largest market share, but people see that as a powdered detergent. And so, to make sure we do best in the now nascent liquid detergent business, what we need to do is have a brand-new brand new, it’s called Era, and that will be our liquid and Tide will be our powder.”

The Era launch was an unmitigated disaster. It never got any traction, anything. And then some bright person at Procter & Gamble said, “Hmm, what if we launched Tide liquid? And why don’t we put it in an orange bottle with the same logo, the bullseye logo kind of on it, and call it Tide, and put a little Tide Liquid beneath it?” Blammo, it quickly became the dominant liquid detergent brand and has been ever since. Why? Because people had a Tide habit, and they had a habit of buying the laundry detergent that was in orange with a bullseye on it, with four letters on it, Tide.

Then, as time went on, Tide did smart things like when they figured out how to put bleach in the Tide itself, in the detergent itself, so you didn’t have to have a separate bottle. They had learned their lesson. And guess what they called it?

Pete Mockaitis
Tide with bleach.

Roger Martin
Yes, that’s very good.

Pete Mockaitis
And then a Tide Pod.

Roger Martin
And a Tide Pod. But, every once in a while, they forget. And so, when they came out with the innovation of how to have a Tide, a detergent wash as well in cold water as in warm water, forgetting the lessons that they learned, they said, “You know, orange is a warm color, perfect for Tide. But cold, we need a cool color for that.” And so, they came up with a cold-water Tide, in what? Blue bottles. Guess how that went?

Pete Mockaitis
Not well.

Roger Martin
Not well. Disastrously bad. What was their incredibly insightful fix for that?

Pete Mockaitis
Go back to the old color.

Roger Martin
Put it in orange bottles, then it became the dominant cold-water detergent. So, that would be an example of a company that began to really understand at a deep level the power of habit over loyalty. Does loyalty matter? Yes, it for sure does. Having a warm feeling, a conscious feeling about it is good. But if you interrupt habit, and interrupt the subconscious, it overwhelms loyalty. Like, think about it, it’s amazing, at least to me. When you think about it, everybody who loved Tide, when you come up with Tide in cold water, which is an added feature that should make your Tide better, it flops because it’s in blue bottles? Holy smokes.

So, the dominant model tends to be, with marketers, “Oh, we have to refresh. Our logo is looking dated. We have to have a new logo. We have to have a new modern color scheme. Maybe we’ll even change the name of it.” All of that stuff is bad, bad, bad, bad, bad but it’s done all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess, in terms of if habit is driving your beautiful market share position, then, certainly. I guess if you’re an upstart and there’s not very many people who’ve got the habits, and your colors and shapes aren’t nailing it amongst the consumers, well, then sure, have at it. But, yeah, I could see how it’s costly to shift there.

Roger Martin
And can I give an example on that, Pete, because it’s good? Myspace versus Facebook. Myspace, of course, was the dominant first kind of social media site, and, actually, in its peak year had more traffic than any other site of any sort, Google, anything. But if you look at the history of Myspace, Myspace kept, from day one, completely changing its look and feel so that there was no consistency, no consistency in the way things were presented, new features that were put on it. It was referred to in the press as a dizzying array.

Think then about Facebook. Like, it has utterly consistent look and feel from the word go, even when they made their painful transition where there was the only real dip in Facebook’s history was when they made the transition to mobile. Mobile looked just like look, feel, everything. Facebook understands habit. Myspace didn’t. Myspace is gone. Facebook is worth a trillion. It is so important. If you’re a startup, you must establish a look and feel.

Netflix did a good job of that. They changed their underlying product entirely but they kept as many other things consistent as possible that helped people kind of feel comfortable. And, again, it’s an issue of you feeling comfortable and familiar, not being upset. And for what it’s worth, this relates directly to RTO, return to office, because, in essence, you could argue that COVID was the greatest force habit break since at least World War II and maybe the Great Depression, where lots of habits just had to be broken.

And one habit that was broken was, people like you and me, and tens of millions of others, waking up every morning, getting in the car, or getting on public transit, and commuting to an office, and working all day in an office, and then commuting back at night. That was the habit. And this was a habit that had a bunch of negatives to it, especially if you lived in the greater New York area, greater Chicago area, greater L.A. area, it would be a painful long commute, but it became the ingrained habit. It was just you did it unthinkingly.

And then what happened was a force majeure break of that habit. You couldn’t blame your company on the habit being broken. It was the government saying, “You must do this.” And so, you had to adopt a new habit, which was painful. For many people, they said, “Oh, my God. Kind of working from home, I had a setup, I had to seize the guest bedroom, or seize the sun porch, or the kid’s basement play area, and turn it into my kind of Zoom office, instead of I couldn’t talk face to face with my managers and my employees, and, dah, dah, dah.”

But what happened after probably six months? It was your habit. It was like, “Oh, roll out of bed, make your coffee, go to the guest room, sit in front of my computer and do Zoom calls.” So, that became the new habit. So, that was first called working remotely and then became the new habit. Then, two years on, companies say, “You must return to office.”

They thought of it, these companies thought and still think of it as getting back to where we were, going back to what is standard, you being at the office. That is not, at all, what the subconscious thinks. The subconscious says, “Oh, my God, they’re making me do a brand-new thing. They want me to work remotely.” The office is the new remotely, and can you see, what happens with the habit?

The way to think about habit is that whatever you’re doing, your habit, so for you it’s Colgate Total paste, that’s your habit, and the alternatives are Crest and Pepsodent and Colgate Total gel, which apparently is abhorrent to you. And so, every time you have a purchase occasion, there’s a race and it’s a hundred-yard dash, and Crest and Pepsodent and Colgate Total gel are at the starting line, and Colgate Total paste is on the 90-yard line. And the gun goes off, and guess who wins?

If, for some reason, Colgate were to say, “You know, we’re totally tired of that Total name. We’re going to call it Colgate Fantastimo, and we’re going to change the paste. That paste is dull and old. And we’re going to make it sort of something that’s a combination of paste and gel, like in a twirl.” What they’ve done for Pete is moved the thing he automatically bought from the 90-yard line to the zero-yard line along with all the other alternatives. And you’ll win some of them because it’s a fair race at that point, but it goes from being a profoundly unfair race in your favor, if you’re Colgate, to a fair race. That’s what’s happening with the return to work.

Your job, which you had comfort and familiarity going for, that was Zooming from home and not doing the commute, that was on the 90-yard line, just got back put back to the zero-yard line, to be compared with, “I’m going to quit for a year. I’m going to find a new job out here in the burbs, or I’m going to change to a company that continues to allow people to work from home.” And so, it’s just massively destructive for the companies asking you to return to work.

And they think it’s disloyalty, “Pete is not loyal enough to come back to the office.” No, it’s habit. It’s Pete just has this visceral thing that he can’t necessarily even understand fully that says, “You know, Pete, it’s time to think about doing something else.” So, this misunderstanding, loyalty versus habit, is going to cause big American employers who are asking you to come back to the office massive turnover. The stats are 67% of people who are being asked to go back to work are considering alternatives.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a great metaphor with the race and having a huge head start because it’s like, “Huh. Okay, so I have to do something different. Do I want to do that? Well, let’s look at all the options.”

Roger Martin
Yeah, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
As opposed to, “Just keep doing what you’re doing, and don’t ask any of those difficult questions, employee, and don’t just rock the boat.” Okay.

Roger Martin
And I can give a personal example. So, I’m a big of a sportsaholic, and I had a go-to sports app. It was CBSSports.com. I don’t even know why I started using it but it was the one I went to. And I put up with CBSSports.com IT people deciding that they would do refreshes and updates to make the site better and work better and everything. But then they came up with a total redo that they were exceedingly proud of. They sent me messages about, “Hey, get ready for the brand-new site. This is going to be awesome. The navigation, everything, was completely different. The look and feel, completely different.”

And after it being, I don’t know, seven-year a constant user of it, I just said, “Oh, okay. Now is the time to test out all the sports sites and see which I like best.” And now, on the first page of my iPhone is ESPN.com, and CBSSports.com has lost me, not forever. They’ve lost me until such time as ESPN screws up in the same way as CBS Sports did.

For the subconscious, possession is way more than nine-tenths of the law. I am an ESPN.com sports app guy now. And that game is over, it’s on the 99th yard line.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, rest in peace. You’ve got a chapter I find intriguing when it comes to strategy. You say, “In strategy, what counts is what would have to be true, not what is true.” And that is one of my favorite things to teach, so I want to hear you take the floor. What do you mean by this question, “What would have to be true?” How do we apply that when we are doing decision-making effectively?

Roger Martin
Yeah, most of strategy is about analyzing, doing analyses to come up with your strategy, a very analytical exercise, and most people who are going to strategy are kind of analytically inclined. Kind of the problem is, by analyzing what is, you’re never going to find out what might be. You’re never going to create the future, lead the future.

And so, rather than focusing on that, “What is true?” which will direct you towards what is and focus your mind on what is, if you ask the question instead, “What would have to be true?” you can imagine possibilities. You can say, “Here, I’m going to imagine we do this rather than what we’re doing now.” Now, if you just do imagination, you’ll come up with all sorts of crazy things that are just dumb ideas. But if you say, “What I’m going to do is ask, ‘What would have to be true about the industry? What would have to be true about the customers? What would have to be true if there’s a distribution channel, about our capabilities, about our costs, about competitors, for that to be a great idea?’”

Then you can create a logic structure that says, “If those things were true, that would be a great idea.” Then you can imagine another possibility, and say, “What would have to be true for that one? Well, if these other set of things were true, that would be a great idea.” You can do another one, A, B, C, you’ve got a third one, “What would have to be true for that?” Then you can ask the question, “Of those things that would have to be true, which are we least confident are true?”

And then we can focus our efforts on saying, “Well, if those things would be necessary for this to be a good idea, but aren’t true today,” sort of like we’re Steve Jobs, and it’s like, “Here’s an idea. Why don’t we sell people an MP3 player that is three times the cost of price of the best MP3 player out there? We’re going to make it white and have a wheel on it. How about that for an idea?” What would have to be true is people want to kind of throw money away, like they get three times X for an MP3 player with no greater capability than anybody else’s new technology anymore.

What would have to be true though would be, “This would be of greater use because they would be able to more seamlessly download songs in a more user-friendly way onto that machine. They can’t now. But how about we do this? How about we go to all the record companies and arm-twist them into selling single songs for 99 cents rather than an album, and we’ll put it on a site called iTunes and make it super easy for them to pay and super easy for them to download?”

So, he asked, “What would have to be true?” You’d have to have something special, then you go and figure out, “Can you make it true?” You figure out that you can, then you go do it. And, sure enough, you start selling the dominant market share of MP3 players, expanding the MP3 player market dramatically, and doing it at 3X the price.

That’s the power of saying not what is true but, “What would have to be true? And can we make it true?” And by asking, “What would have to be true for it?” you can focus your efforts on the few things that aren’t true now that you’d have to make true to create a great strategy. So, that’s why, “What would have to be true?” is way more powerful than “What is true?”

Pete Mockaitis
I dig that. That’s fun in a creative invention, being ahead of the game, sort of a way. I’ve often asked myself this question just in terms of, “What would have to be true for this option to be worth picking?” and then sort of list those out, and say, “Okay. And then how can I test that?” And it’s amazing how you can figure out things to do and not to do.

One time I was trying to promote a book and I saw this publication that was distributed to a bunch of producers for radio and TV shows, and it was kind of expensive to be included in this, but I thought, “Okay. Well, this would be really cool if I got on a few shows, get the word out. This is probably a worthwhile investment.”

It wasn’t, I regret spending that money. But then, months later, someone called me and said, “Hey, Pete, I noticed that you were advertised in this publication. How did that go for you? Was it worth it?” I was like, “Wow, if I had followed my own sort of teachings, I would’ve done exactly what you did. What would have to be true? It’d get you a lot of bookings and sell a lot of books. How can you test that? Call some people who bought it and see if it worked out that way for them.”

Roger Martin
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Of course.

Roger Martin
Yeah. And then this is what we did with the re-launch of Olay, creating this sort of masstige positioning of it, where you had a prestige, like a Nordstrom’s first floor or Macy’s, whatever, experience in your Walgreens or your Target. And it wasn’t true that there was such an experience, nor was it true that retailers would say, “Yes, that’s a great idea.” But we went to Target, did an arrangement with Target where we helped fund a transformation of some stores to test out the idea. The product flew, I mean, flew off the shelves in the test, and then the rest is history.

Target said, “How fast can we do all the rest of the stores?” and then everybody else said, “Why are you, bad people, just doing something with Target and not with us?” And we said, “Well, because they said they would do it. Are you saying you’ll do it?” “Yes.” And, blammo, it turns the seventh-, eighth-place skincare product into the number one skincare brand on the face of the planet massively profitable. But it was asking, “What would have to be true?” and then figuring out a way to test that.

You’re not going to test it by launching a product nationally everywhere where you don’t have the experience. You work and spend some money. You spend some money and time with Target to figure out if you could make it true. Would it succeed?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Well, Roger, tell me, anything else you want to put out there before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Roger Martin
No, I think you’ve done a really nice job of talking us through the core essence of the book, so, no thank you.

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

Roger Martin
I guess I would go all the way back to JFK, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” because it is consistent with the advice that I give all my students and proteges, “I follow the doctrine of relentless utility. If you’re just relentlessly useful, good things will happen.”

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

Roger Martin
The favorite piece of research that I ever did in my entire career was in ’89 when I convinced somebody at Procter & Gamble to do a study that they didn’t want but that I knew there was something we would find.

The question was, “How should Procter & Gamble think about its customers?” Now, they consider you, Pete, although you don’t buy Crest, they consider you a consumer, and they consider Walmart, Walgreens, etc. customers. And at that point, they said, “Well, we’ve got mass merchers like Walmart and Target, drugstores like CBS and Walgreens, and supermarkets like Ralph’s, Kroger’s, Whiteman’s, etc. and we’ve got C stores.” And it just struck me that that wasn’t the right way to think about it.

And so, I just started looking at their top hundred customers, and trying to figure out whether there’d be a better way to think about it. And one day, it struck me that maybe a better way to think about it is, “What is the merchandising philosophy of the customer base?” because what was emerging then, because Walmart was still very small then but growing quickly, was this notion of EDLP, every day low pricing. And Walmart, and a bunch of other chains were doing EDLP, and everybody else was what was called high-low. They have things that are high price most of the time, and then have it on deals for part of the year.

And the entire CPG industry was set up, including Procter, was set up to support high-low.

The idea at P&G at the time was, “These high-low people are more like us, like Whiteman’s and Ralph’s, they’re differentiated. And these EDLP guys, like Walmart and Foodline and a few others at the time, they’re sort of these big brick warehouses and cinder block kind of warehouse look and places, and they’re down and dirty. And so, they’re not really like us.”

So, anyway, did the study and looked at those two segments, and came to the relatively stunning conclusion for Procter & Gamble, that the same store sales growth in high-low, all of their high-low customers together, the same store sales growth of their customers was zero. The same store sales growth in EDLP was 7% a year, compound. The growth in stores in high-low was net zero, and it was 7% compound annual for EDLP.

And then what I discovered was our market share, cutting category, I just added them all up, our market share in EDLP was higher than our market share in high-low.

And on the basis of that, and probably other stuff, Procter & Gamble was the first CPG company to flip and orient all of their systems to serve EDLP, and that got them a jump in their north American sales growth in the ‘90s, which was, especially the first half. It was phenomenal because, while everybody else was sticking with their sort of high-low focus, they were EDLP, and that’s when they created the Walmart team that put a whole bunch of people that enabled to kind of work closely with them.

So, that’s my favorite piece of analysis I ever did because it helped transform the way Procter thought about its customers in a way that it almost benefitted them for a while. Now, everybody else figured it out in due course. They had to move on to what the next thing that’s going to move the needle but I always liked that and I liked it because it was so hard to convince anybody there to let me do the study.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And a favorite book?

Roger Martin
They’re sort of nerdly but probably John Dewey’s Art as Experience. That was life changing for me. If you’re less nerdly, Lord of the Flies, my favorite fiction book, William Golding. And the best I’ve read recently, though it’s an old book that just came to my attention recently was the Social Limits to Growth by a guy named Fred Hirsch. Fantastic book.

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

Roger Martin
I guess it’s my relatively new MacBook Pro 13 inch.

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

Roger Martin
To my website. All my writing is organized on that, and that’s www.RogerLMartin.com. And you got put the L in or it’ll take you to a real estate broker in Houston, who’s very nice. Roger Martin is a very nice guy. He sends me all sorts of emails that come his way. I send him my books. He likes my books and reads them, and so we have a good friendship but it is strained by the number of people who forget the L. So, RogerLMartin.com or @RogerLMartin is my Twitter handle.

And I write a, web is increasingly popular, weekly piece on Medium, if you’re a Medium person, called Playing to Win Practitioner Insights series, 89-long, 90th the coming Monday. So, those would be the places to find me.

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

Roger Martin
Yeah, relentless utility. Think first about, “Am I being useful? Can I say from other people’s perspective I am providing utility?” And if you do that, good things will happen to you. Don’t sweat anything else. Just be relentlessly useful.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Roger, thank you. it’s been a treat. I wish you much fun and interesting new ways to think.

Roger Martin
Terrific. Thanks for having me.