That’s right, if you want to be successful in business, you might as well be a psychopath. Between all this talk of focus, grit, and determination, there is an underlying messaging: If you aren’t successful, it’s because you feel too much.Read More
The phrase “scientific consensus” has become like a beating drum, said over and over. These two issues represent “crazy” on both sides of the aisle. Why do so many people refuse to believe what 99% of scientists agree on, or what 99% of medical professionals agree on? Here is why that pesky 1% is putting up so much a fight…Read More
Ignorance is a temporary condition, but real stupidity takes a commitment. Stupid people have chosen to be stupid, they live with a set of attitudes and habits which keep them in their own personal and perpetual hells. Let’s talk about some of what stupid is, by what stupid does.Read More
While professional critics and amateur YouTube haters will shout to the heavens that Lady Gaga is “not very good,” “not really music,” or “sucks” the real reason we hate her is that she is so good… at making us like her.Read More
Our first instinct in a situation is to defer responsibility to someone else, and then blame them for everything. This fundamental psychology of our culture is to blame for the “jerk boss” phenomenon, but the good news is that it is changing.Read More
There is nothing more beautiful, or more powerful, than coming together to solve a problem. When we get frustrated, infuriated or slightly homicidal during a meeting it is because something is getting in the way of solving the problem at hand. Ironically, the worst resource for solving a problem is also our most abundant: opinions. Opinions represent our worst collaborative habits. Habits which, if we can learn to break, will greatly increase our collective productivity.
Anatomy of a Problem
A problem exists in the absence of understanding. Problems cause us pain, if we understood them we would have already solved them. If we have not solved a problem, we must not understand it.
“But wait!” you say, “I know what my problem is!” That may be, but knowing about something does not mean you understand it. I know my head hurts, but I probably don’t really understand the biology behind my headache. If I did understand the biology behind my headache, I would be able to take action to avoid it or stop it. If you have a lingering problem, it is because you may be aware of it, but you don’t understand it.
When we meet together to solve a problem, the only productive goal of the meeting is to first completely understand a problem and then devise steps to address it. Of course, many of us miss even this first step, making our meetings about passing around blame for a problem, denying the problem or complaining about a problem. Opinions live and thrive in all these alternative agendas, but we are going to focus on the less obvious problem with opinions.
So the first step of solving a problem is agreeing that we must first try to understand it. Most people who get to this phase feel pretty good about themselves and their maturity level. Indeed, coming together to understand a problem is a great first step. However, opinions still worm their way into our civil conversation and mess things up.
Anatomy of an Opinion
“There are no bad ideas.” seems like a good declaration to create an open environment for discussion, and it is mostly true. The problem is that opinions and ideas are not the same thing. An idea is an open ended piece of inspiration, and opinion is a closed declaration.
On the journey towards forming an understanding, there are very productive things to gather: facts, experience, insight and perspectives. We need each other to collect enough information to form an understanding of a problem. We each have different perspectives and offer different information.
A perspective says, “From my point of view, I see this.” An opinion says, “I declare my point of view is reality.” A perspective is a helpful contribution to add another piece to the puzzle of reality, an opinion assumes it already knows reality. Most opinions are nothing more than perspectives offered up as fact.
Opinions would seek to end the journey to understanding. Worse, they create emotional confusion and wear us down during collaboration. When someone offers their perspective, it is offered with an emotional expectation to be listened to. When someone offers their opinion, it is presented with an emotional obligation to be accepted. A person’s perspective can be added to without insult, but an opinion is contradicted and usually taken with offense.
The Three Architects
Three architects are called together by the mayor to design a house upon a hill in the middle of a village. Each architect lives on a different side of the hill. One side slopes down, one side is flat and one side overlooks a waterfall. Each architect, arrogant of their talents, insists the house be designed to accommodate the hill as they know it.
The mayor gets tired of their arguing and has each draw straws to determine the order each may try and build their house. One after another they each build their version of the house, and each one collapses and is completely unstable. Finally the mayor gives up, “I can’t believe our three best architects can’t build a house on a hill.”
The village idiot finds the discarded plans of the three architects. He laughs to himself as he cuts up the three plans and tapes them together according to each side of the hill. He comes before the mayor and says he can build the greatest house the village has ever seen. The mayor is skeptical, but agrees simply to humiliate the architects.
The house is built, and to the wonder of all, is beautiful, stable and completely innovative to take full advantage of each part of the hill. The mayor decides to make it his own home and holds a festival in honor of the idiot, forcing the architects to host the festival in his honor.
Powerful Problem Solving
If understanding is a thousand dollar bill, then insight is a hundred, perspective is a five’r, and opinion is a penny. We need different perspectives to gain insight, we gather insight until we have understanding. Opinions are both intellectually and emotionally distracting. The more we learn to eliminate opinions, the more effectively we work together.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can see that we use opinions to try and look smart, establish dominance or feel important, but never really to solve a problem. Our perspectives can be useful, our insights are valuable and understanding qualifies us as paid consultants, but our two cents is probably not even worth the penny we were paid for it. At least, that’s my opinion…
P.S. This is also why political pundits are pretty much just a blight on our society.
There is a lot of practical advice out there for conducting interviews effectively. Mostly, this is based around the fact that many of the questions that really help you get to know a person are illegal to ask in a job interviews. I recently heard a claim that the best question to ask is: What single project would you consider the most significant accomplishment in your career so far? Meh, it’s ok.I think I have one even better: How do you build a fort?
This has become my favorite question to ask in an interview. You would be amazed at how much you learn about a person when they respond. Often the first response is, “Can you be more specific?” or “What kind of fort?” Nope, you don’t get anything else, you just have to answer the question, “How do you build a fort?”
In a given interview series, I got the following answers:
“Well, I guess you would want to find an open area where you can build a moat. Then you would want to put a plan together, taking local materials into account, to get everyone on the same page. Then you assign tasks and start building it.”
“Out of wood?”
“I am a big fan of turrets. You gotta have turrets and towers on every corner.”
“I guess it depends on what era of history you are fighting in.”
“You start by taking inventory of all the cushions in the house. Sofa cushions are the best. From there, tall chairs and bed sheets pull it together.”
The last one there is the one I hired. Just think about everything those answers tell you about a person’s ability to problem solve, use their imagination, be open, what they see as important, and what kind of culture they come from. Just make sure you stick to the question, no clarification, no context, just “How do you build a fort?”
When finding people for your company, especially if you have a strong internal culture, finding people who “fit” or “get it” are important. Asking what their best project was tells you they are capable, asking “How do you build a fort?” tells you if you will enjoy working with them.
The Harvard Business Review did a massive study on tens of thousands of businesses to find out what “common rules” they could find among all those who succeeded. What did they find? Well, rule #3 was “There are no other rules.” I won’t spoil rules #1 and #2. This is, of course, disappointing to many readers who were hoping to find some rules for success. In order to offer some relief here is one more rule: Stop making rules! Instead, try wisdom.
Black and white thinking is ingrained into us from the moment we step into pre-school. We learn there is a right way to do something, and everything else is wrong. In real-life, there is a wrong way to do something (hint: it’s the one that gets you killed), and everything else is up for grabs. I hear you, “How can we make decisions without rules?” Easy, instead of thinking you need to find rules, why not look for wisdom instead?
You want to know the deep dark truth about why we are addicted to rules? We hate responsibility. Rules mean we get breath a sigh of relief and free ourselves from accountability and, hopefully, consequences. Humanity deals with the universe by saying “I will play by the rules, and you take care of me, in return.” We do this to such an extreme perspective that we choose our leaders according to those who are willing to help us make up rules to follow.
Wisdom and understanding are different from rules, they don’t tell us what to do, they just help us make our own judgements. Throwing away the knowledge and experience of the past is foolish, but clinging to it as some kind of sanctimonious liturgy is also just as asinine. We need to take the education and experience passed down to us as rules, and convert it to wisdom. This means we listen to the voices of the past, but do not constrain ourselves to them.
It is a hard habit to break. Even those who adventure out into the unknown and learn new things tend to come back down from the mountain with a new set of commandments. We don’t stop to think that we just broke the rules, why would we then make new rules? Instead we need to start sharing our knowledge with each other, and our children, with a little more humility. “Here is what I have learned, take it and grow it.” This should be our process, not “Here is what I have learned, follow it.”
Being countercultural by nature, I started my life pretty much rejecting every rule given to me. While this enabled to me to learn a lot, it also caused me a lot of pain. But when faced with the choice, “follow the rules, or keep going” I always kept going. I wish someone had told me, “listen the rules as advice, hear the wisdom, then decide for yourself.” That would have save me a lot of pain, and I still would have been free to adventure and explore.
The dangerous part of rules is that they imply, “this is it, there is no world beyond.” This assumption is nearly impossible for the young to swallow, meaning they rebel until they wear out. When we wear out, we become part of the choir telling others, “follow the rules.” The impossible conflict between rules and exploration is wisdom, and we need cultural shift to move forward.