Legacy questions

Some leaders work toward building a legacy where people in their organizations (or families), at some point in the future, would ask – “What would he/she have done?”

A few others, instead,  work toward building a legacy where people ask – “How would he/she have gone about making the decision?”

The first question naturally follows legendary leaders. However, there is an inherent problem with this question – leaders have their own signature style of execution. Asking “what would Steve Jobs do?” isn’t all that instructive because it is near impossible to give a Jobs-ian keynote. Steve’s style of delivery was Steve’s own. You should probably focus on building your own style.

Asking how Steve might have approached a keynote, on the other hand, would likely be very instructive. We would find that he spent hours rehearsing every detail. And, if he, as a master presenter needed do that, we probably would need to invest even more time and energy to deliver a flawless keynote. Asking “what” isn’t that helpful. Asking “how,” on the other hand, is.

And, that’s the challenge for us as leaders – it is always tempting to work toward leaving behind a team asking what we would have done. It is great for our egos and, while it will still leave behind a strong culture, it risks leaving behind people and organizations who will never grow to their fullest potential simply because they are too busy trying to be you.

Leaving behind a team that has a clear understanding of “how things are done here,” on the other hand, is leaving behind a culture that is built on ideas bigger than you. It isn’t easy to do. But, it is work worth doing.

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Small problems and big problems

Life throws small problems at us every day. They’re more than enough to keep us busy. However, it isn’t optimal to spend all our time solving small problems. When Toyota’s legendary thinker Taiichi Ono came to the same conclusion, he decided he would train the organization to look for the big problems using the five why approach.

Taiichi Ono isn’t alone in his approach to problem solving. Great thinkers over time have approached the world with a determination to understand the principles that govern it. That’s how Taiichi Ono and Henry Ford changed manufacturing. They dug deep into the hundreds of small problems in a manufacturing plant, understood the key principles, and developed frameworks that they then applied rigorously and tweaked with more feedback.

This is hard to do – no surprise there. So, how do you go about doing it? Albert Einstein’s approach was to just stay with problems longer. And he probably knows a thing or two about difficult problems.

The good news is that this approach can then be applied to every aspect of life. You can understand people better by understanding the principles that govern them. You can understand financial markets by understanding the principles that govern them. Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Associates have made billions of dollars by doing this with unerring consistency.

Like any approach, this one has its downsides. When you begin applying this approach to understand people or when you help people through their problems, you can come across as very intimidating. That’s because digging deep requires you to ask tough questions and tough questions never fail to intimidate people. Additionally, a commitment to attempting to get to the big problems requires you to be open to consistently revisit your assumptions and approach to life. Most find that too overwhelming.

The final and most important pitfall is to do with ourselves. A commitment to constantly finding the underlying principles requires an assumption that most small problems are symptoms of a bigger problem. While that is largely true, it completely negates coincidences and outliers. In our desire to find patterns, we can end up falling prey to all sorts of false assumptions to explain a pattern that doesn’t exist. And, if we don’t guard against insularity and over-confidence, we might lose the ability to distinguish between reality and our perception of it. We will fail miserably without self awareness.

That said, the beauty of a principle-based approach is that when we put in the effort, we begin to understand and appreciate the inter-connectedness of this world and thus, begin to appreciate the beauty of this life. It is only when you learn the principles behind tennis do you really appreciate Roger Federer’s genius.

I’ve said this before and will say again – habitually ignoring the small problems and finding the big problems is very hard. Try the five why approach if you will and you will realize very quickly that the questions only get tougher as you make your way along the process.

And therein lies the tough part about digging deep and attempting to understand the principles – it doesn’t feel like a very rewarding process.

Until it does.

Solving potential problems isolated

Indian cities have many minor accidents. There’s a few hundred million trying to get to places on time and at maximum possible speed (read: 30 kilometres/hour). In a bid to reduce the number of accidents caused by excessive speeding, the city of Bangalore has a speed bump in many areas of the city every few metres. Literally. driving in Bangalore is a frustrating experience because you are stuck in a perpetual loop of increasing speed and then slowing down. This isn’t helped by the fact that, in typical Indian fashion, there is no consistency between the size of the bumps.

This strikes me as a problem born out of solving potential problems isolated. I find it hard to believe that the cost of speeding related accidents outweigh frequent traffic jams, driver frustration, damaged clutch pates, other wear and tear, and the higher petrol costs that come with the constant speeding up and slowing down required. Could we just have had stricter clamp downs on speeding and mobile phone use instead?

Solving potential problems isolated arises due to an inability to ask deeper questions. It feels like a quick win. For example, a big reason exercise related new year’s resolutions break down is because people try to desperately fit in their exercise commitment into their schedule. So, if they’re out of time during the day, they decide to sleep an hour less to keep that commitment. It feels right. It feels like a win. But it isn’t. If that happens for two days in a row, the same person will lose productivity, become increasingly unhappy, and perhaps even unhealthy. The only way to solve that problem is to thoughtfully look at our whole day’s schedule and see where we might fit in the new pretender in. What started as an exercise problem soon becomes a scheduling problem and what begins as a scheduling problem soon becomes a priority and attitude problem.

Beware quick isolated solutions to problems. If the solution hasn’t been crafted thoughtfully, it probably hasn’t been done well. As you might have figured, this process isn’t about finding that quick answer. Google can do that. It’s about asking a few good questions. No one but you can  do that..