‘How’ is the only question that matters

You don’t need risk takers, you need solution seekers

There are two ways people apply their significant intelligence and energy:

1. In figuring out excuses about why it can’t 1 be done


2. In figuring out solutions for how to do it

I call them the excuse generation and the solution exploration behaviours.

I explicitly say – two kinds of ways people think. Not, two kinds of people. Because, more often than not, we see both these behaviours in the same people.

Some of the most intelligent, determined, driven people I know are also the ones I often see working smart to come up with unquestionable excuses for why-not-to, instead of solutions for how-to.

A big task for a successful leader 2, then, is to give people a reason to switch from excuse generation to solution exploration. To motivate the best thinkers and doers with incentives 3 – emotional, financial, egotistical, or other – that helps them realign their thought process towards the target the leader wants achieved.

Most specifically (the usual):

Nurture a culture of solution exploration, with

  • big, and highly visible, rewards for success
  • little or no punishment for failure 4



The best collection of solution hunters

Ever wondered about the reasons behind investment banks’ success, compared to retail bankers’ stagnant lot?

Here’s a thought: One place is full of motivated solution explorers, while other has empowered the excuse generators. Guess which is which?

Look at the investment banks:

  • The rewards for success – astronomical bonuses, out-of-line promotions – are big and visible. And,
  • The punishment for failure – exit with a golden parachute, and handsome references – is relatively small. Even in case they cause the world economy to collapse while chasing success, the vast network of bank’s lawyers, lobbyists and alumni work hard to protect their own.


  • The roles responsible for excuse generation, usually labelled with ‘risk’ or ‘control’, are peripheral, under-represented, pay-capped and widely considered a parking space.
  • While the roles responsible for solution exploration, the creative analysts & traders, are central, widely-covered, and well-remunerated *kings of the universe* with practically no-cap performance-bonuses.

It’s a perfect, solution-oriented organisation.5

I’ll skip the similar structuring of a retail bank’s organisation to a reader’s memory of experiences.


The new kings of the universe

The shift of talent-magnet from Manhattan to the Mission may have been slow, but it’s been definitive.

Today’s startups, tech giants, and the industry around them, are the new home to the solution explorers of the world.

The startups may be getting started by members of risk lovers anonymous, but the best graduates, scientists, designers, and marketers are either working with them, or will soon be. Not to be missed – the best political, finance, and law specialists.

Like the investment banks before them, they’ve created a perfect environment for the solution explorers – to come, do their best exploration, and get handsomely rewarded for it. Add in a decent downside protection in form of ever-increasing salaries (thanks to VC dollars) and a potential upside from the equity stake.

A lack (or lightness) of regulatory focus so far means there’s been little reason for the startups to really flesh out too many excuse generation roles – further focussing the culture towards solution exploration.

Just two examples:

  • Developers being asked to write and run their own unit tests, and then push their code into production – all the while incentivised to push more code, faster. Versus…
  • Hiring testers (aka excuse generators) to stop developers from pushing their code into production till they’ve not found any excuses not to6.


  • Growth explorers being empowered and incentivised to iterate, discover and exploit the best growth drivers, versus
  • Traditional marketers requiring multi-level, multi-functional approval for copy of the latest ad.

Whether these startups are on a sure road to runaway success, or building up an unregulated, unmanageable, global bubble, or somewhere in between, depends on the person you ask.

Irrespective of what awaits them, I’ll give them credit for structuring their cultures perfectly to hunt down solutions for whatever hurdles appear next. Almost like, remember, the Investment Banks.

Just look at how Uber vs rest-of-the-world is turning out.



P.S.: The basic thought behind this post – solution versus excuse focus – has been bubbling inside my head for a few days now. Prime instigators:

  • Jeb Bartlet, in The West Wing (which I and the wife are watching these evenings)
  • Steve Jobs, specially in that early scene where he bullies Andy Hertzfeld into focusing on finding a solution, instead of listing excuses
  • My mother, probably the most intelligent, determined and solution oriented person I’ve ever known, busy focussing on excuses for why she can’t resolve some issues in her life, rather than on solutions for how to resolve them
  • My wife, another of the most determined and intelligent people I’ve ever known.


  1. Other forms:
    – Why it couldn’t be done
    – Why it shouldn’t be done
    – Why it’s not the right thing to be done
    – Why it’s not the way we do it
    – Why it’s not right
    … and more 
  2. And of a politician, a salesperson, a community organiser, a mother, a teacher, and more. 
  3. Or, sometimes, threats. 
  4. The punishments should be reserved for a lack of solution orientation, rather than for failure of the solution devised. 
  5. Reasonability, and social appropriateness, of the problem that this biggest, brightest group of solution explorers are targeting may be up for discussion. 
  6. Apologies for using the double negative! 

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