Discover more from Stay Curious
☕ You've been missing these solutions to 3 painful problems at work.
Guest post by Satyajit Rout
Today’s “Stay Curious” is a special post by Satyajit Rout. I have known Rout for over two decades now. He is one curious mind and is truly committed to satiate it with his exploration. His journey is an inspiring one. He reads and he writes. In between those two ends, his mind runs an amazing synthesis unit that helps structure any complex idea into a simple one. I love his storytelling and have found every discussion with him very useful for my personal growth. Hope you enjoy this post. He has shared his coordinates at the end, do follow/subscribe to his weekly newsletter “Curiosity > Certainty” for more such insightful writing. - Pritesh
When I was younger I made much of being independent. Independence in not just action but also in thought. In my decisions, I would not be curious about how others looked at the same problem. A tell-tale sign of such a belief was my rejection of all self-help and business writing.
This wasn’t idealism, misguided or not. This was stubbornness. ‘No, thank you,’ I was announcing to the world. ‘I’ll do it my way.’
The problem, as I realized over time, with learning from just my own mistakes is that I began to find life too short to teach me enough and to do so in time.
In 2007, the Coen brothers came out with No Country for Old Men. They wrote a character for the movie who I was convinced epitomized me. Llewelyn Moss is a Vietnam War veteran living in a trailer in rural Texas. One sunny hunting day he stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong. Next moment he’s walking back with $2 million drug money. Unknown to Moss, the bag of money has an electronic tracker that means no matter what he does (short of discovering the tracker), Moss cannot shake off the Mexican gangsters and the psychopathic assassin hot on his heels.
So, what does Moss do? He thinks hard but he thinks alone. He doesn’t say a word to anyone. Doesn’t seek a word of advice.
Like Moss protected his money, I protected my thinking. But that’s where the analogy breaks. Money reduces when shared, not knowledge or ideas. When we share the way we think, we hear back from the world. We hear from others who have a different way of looking at the same thing. We hear from those who have tried and failed, or succeeded. We learn from the wisdom of others.
The process of unbinding myself from Llewelyn Moss has taken me years. It has meant open-sourcing my thinking. It doesn’t make me any less independent, it just helps me see more. This is where I value the counsel of friends like Pritesh, who has kindly loaned the permission he has from you, the patrons of this newsletter, to let me share with you something of value.
And so I want to draw your attention to three situations I see often in my work. These are situations that I believe have far-reaching consequences and mastering them can get you a jump on your career and life. The resolutions I suggest to the situations are something I wish I had known earlier. That would have saved me plenty of pain.
The first couple of situations are what I see often in my day job where I take new ideas from concept to commercialization (here and here). The third and final one is something I hear founders and operators talk a lot to me about in my work as a decision coach.
This is my troika of advice:
Always reject the problem definition presented to you and do the work to redefine the problem afresh.
Don’t push people when trying to persuade. Pushing people, whether with data or with logic, has a far lower success rate than making them believe that you’ve their interests in mind.
Earn yourself the right to become a better decision-maker by empowering your team to make more decisions.
With that throat-clearing out of the way, let me jump into that first note.
1️⃣ How to define the problem right: Reject the problem definition presented to you
Albert Einstein once said, ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.’
Do we knowledge workers agree with Einstein? Seems like not.
If there’s an hour to solve a problem, we spend a minute tops defining the problem and then have the meeting run a half-hour overtime solving it. No sooner than the boss has laid out the problem than we have offered a deadline and begun working through the problem.
Management guru Peter Drucker offers a word of caution against such habits. He says: ‘There’s nothing more dangerous than finding the right answer to the wrong question.’ What Drucker seems to say is that firefighting is problematic if it doesn’t consider fire prevention.
If any of you think Einstein and Drucker may be onto something, here’s a rule for unearthing the root problem.
Ask: What has to be true for this problem to not exist in the first place?
This question packs a punch because often what we jump on to solve is a symptom of the problem, not the underlying problem. When we fix a symptom and not its deeper cause, we’re likely to see the same thing again.
Too many customers calling you for help? Add more operators.
Teenage drinking problems? Make rigid curfew hours.
Running out of server space because of rapid business growth? Buy more server space.
Asking what had to be true for each of these problems to not exist in the first place shows that:
Buying cloud storage allows you to scale up rapidly without constantly having to upgrade your on-premise setup.
For personal decisions too, such an approach can save you a ton of sweat implementing costly fixes later. Instead of spending a fortune on courses and coaches when laid off, you could future-proof yourself by continually upskilling. Instead of paying a specialist to fix your hypertension, you could make lifestyle changes that help you cut down stress and eat and sleep better.
In doing so, you acknowledge that the real problem may have taken root much deeper and for much longer than what appears on the surface. You also decide that you will get to the bottom of it all and you won’t be okay with solving a symptom of the root problem for now only for it to resurface not long after.
2️⃣ How to influence without authority: Do a bit of inception (and do not push people)
Years ago, when I was helping my father-in-law sell his 11-year-old Hyundai Santro on OLX and buyer after buyer made a rather sobering appraisal of my FIL’s most cherished possession, I came to realize that it’s a tiny bit possible that he wanted more in exchange for something he owned than he would be willing to pay to acquire.
It was only much later that I came to know that economists call this ownership illusion the endowment effect.
People hate losing things they own much more than they are kicked about acquiring new things. If you know this much, you already know more than most.
Subsequent research since behavioral economist Richard Thaler came up with the endowment effect has suggested that our positive self-appraisal spills over to our assessment of things we own. We think we’re unique, and hence so must be the things that we own.
Here are two further insights.
💡 Such feelings of ownership aren’t restricted to physical things. They extend to thoughts and ideas when you see them as ‘your’ thoughts and ideas.
💡The best persuasion professionals use the pull of the endowment effect to work around potential resistance and win support for their ideas. Take consultants, for example. Instead of being prescriptive, they will make you believe that the idea is your own. This case of inception happens in two specific ways relevant to the endowment effect:
Loop stakeholders in early and at multiple touchpoints so much so that they come to feel a sense of ownership for the eventual proposal.
Listen to their concerns and have them share their stance by asking questions. When they state their stance, the stakeholders are sharing their beliefs. When the proposed plan is framed in alignment with their beliefs, they’re more likely to agree with it. How could they not—those are their beliefs!
I love your idea around making a big bet in X. Would you say that cutting costs in Y by 20% would free you up to pursue a couple of big bets and show the higher ups your vision?
I like the suggestion made by Y for this problem. In fact, it not only makes better use of our current resources but also builds a competitive advantage for us.
Get the drift?
3️⃣ How to make do-or-delegate decisions at work
If you are an operator, a founder, or a unit head, often it is you who determines the pace of forward motion in your team. That can happen when every decision has to pass through you. You’re no longer the force multiplier. You’re the bottleneck.
When you find yourself in such a situation, and ideally even before it comes to that, follow this rule of thumb:
Delegate what you’re good at
Do what you need to get better at (and important enough)
This paired protocol has two advantages.
👉You force yourself to do new things and expand your circle of competence.
When you’re at a high level of expertise in a certain discipline, the marginal gain from each subsequent application of the skillset diminishes. At the other end of the range, when a novice, your learning curve can be steep in a real-stakes scenario as you stand to gain from high-quality feedback for your output.
Decisions you’re comfortable taking and/or ones that are not hard to reverse offer good opportunities to delegate. Delegating frees you up to upskill in areas that matter more in a manner that continues to expand your overall decision-making competence and prepares you for the future. To that end, reframing such decisions as learn-or-delegate decisions instead of as do-or-delegate is a nifty mental switch to keep you on track.
Here I must clarify that this rule of thumb works best for decisions. This is a decision-productivity hack, not a task-productivity one. If your intention is to shorten that nagging to-do list, here’s something instantly usable.
👉You empower your team and help them learn faster and better.
Handing over certain decisions to (the most suitable person in) your team gives them a chance to exercise their judgment. This agency is the feedstock for motivation, especially for those in your team who are hungry to learn. And holding them accountable for the output gets them to have skin in the game. Without skin in the game, there’s no risk. Without risk, learning is slow.
When stretched by your expectations, you may also see some unease among team members who would prefer to stick to what they’re good at and hence may wonder why you’re taking away their right to it. But that’s where as someone with a growth mindset you get to lay down your vision for how you want to run things.
A word of caution though. Be careful not to saddle someone with something well outside their wheelhouse. Flow is that sweet spot between anxiety (because something is too hard) and boredom (something is too easy). Push the level of difficulty up too high, and you’ll find people abandoning responsibility.
As a final note, I don’t want to oversimplify this and there are factors like frequency (is it a repeating decision?) and consequence (what is its impact?) that may guide your thinking in do-or-delegate. But as a rule of thumb it helps to try to do what you get better at and delegate what you’re good at.
Thank you for your time. It has been fun (and a tad unnerving) writing a guest post for this wonderful newsletter. I would love to know how you approach the described situations at work or in life. Let me know in the comments below.
I write a weekly newsletter that offers actionable advice for founders, business leaders, and knowledge workers to make better decisions. I also do consultations and workshops for individuals and startups. Feel free to say hello on social.
See you soon! Until then…