Everything will always have a mistake so if you accept human fallibility you don’t try to optimize for never making mistakes, you try to optimize for correcting the mistakes as quickly as possible.
Reward people, find faults with processes
Yesterday’s World Cup quarterfinal between Scotland and Australia was one of the most exciting matches of Rugby I’ve ever seen.
With less than 10 mins to go, Australia were ahead by 5 points and happily wasting time on the ball to kill off the game. The tartan squad, however, never gave up. Miraculously, with just over 5 mins to go, Bennett scored a try for Scotland, and suddenly the tables turned. Australia, one of the favourites for the tournament, were less than 5 mins from being knocked out by a team who’d lost all 5 of their matches in the 6 nations earlier in the year.
With stakes high, and end close, the game got rough and errors flowed from both sides. After a bit of toing and froing, the game ended up with a Scotland lineout with less than 2 mins to go. It was in the Scotland half, but they had advantage of throwing in the ball. All they needed to do was to pass the ball around safely, and then kick it out for a lineout in the Aussie half. But they bungled the lineout. Big time!
Somewhere in the confusing action after that sorry lineout, the referee awarded Australia a penalty for a foul that wasn’t. Australia converted the penalty in the last-minute of the match, knocking Scotland out by 1 point.
That crucial, deciding penalty was wrongly awarded. For such a critical decision, in such a confusing space, the referee should’ve1 gone to the TV referee (TMO) for confirmation. Yet, he made a decision in the moment, and ended up kicking Scotland out of the World Cup.
That’s all you’ll hear if you read the British Media, or any Rugby websites and forums:
Scotland cheated out of the World Cup because of a mis-awarded penalty
The referee, Craig Joubert, may be the most hated person in Scotland this week2.
Sadly, this popular outrage just hides the real cause:
Scotland lost because they bungled an easy, advantage play, while leading, with just 2 mins to go 3
Sport and business follow each other closely in many ways, and this event isn’t very different.
Just like in this game, when diagnosing problems in business, the first reasons pointed out are usually excuses, not causes. And just like in this game, these excuses are the most strongly backed reasons by the insiders, the people most closely involved – emotionally, financially, or in another way.
It takes experience, or sometimes an outsider, to look beyond the immediate excuses and issues, to disengage from emotion, and figure out the root causes. Even if we have neither the experience nor a trained outsider, there are frameworks that can help – my favourite being the immensely powerful, yet super simple 5 Whys 4.
These approaches work just as well whether you’re trying to figure out
- how Scotland managed to grab defeat from jaws of victory, or
- why flight delays go up in winter (no, it’s not the fog in Delhi or snow at Heathrow), or
- why product deliveries are always late despite design specs being submitted on time (it’s not always the manufacturer/engineers).
Apart from just the obvious problem with identifying and targeting wrong causes, there’s a bigger issue at stake here – company culture.
When actions are taken on just the first or second level excuses/issues, this leads to a culture of covering the obvious bugs. It sends out a message to the employees influencing their behaviour in ways that, over time, escalate into bigger issues – Silo-ing, CYA-first decision making, technical/bureaucratic debt, and faster employee turnover, amongst others.
On the other hand, a deeper root-cause search, though more time & energy consuming, helps develop a sounder culture – both in engineering & bureaucracy, as well in terms of trust and coordination across the organisation.
Unless we’re in the content production business where ignoring root causes in favour of the most popular causes makes more financial sense, it’s critically important to put into practice the habit of looking beyond the first excuses.
Just because a thing can be noticed, or compared, or fretted over doesn’t mean it’s important, or even relevant.
Accompaniment to another of Seth’s quotes:
If you measure it, it will improve
I strongly recommend everyone read the full post.
A big reason behind why I removed most of in-app analytics from my Chrome projects.
You’re better off trying something and having it not work and learning from that than not doing anything at all.
– Mark Zuckerberg
¾th value comes from business 10 years down the line – DCF
Guess who gets you to that pot 10 years down?
Records are set to be broken, medals are forever.
– Linford Christie
Solve hard technical problem for ONE obvious business opportunity (e.g. image recognition solution for construction industry). Better than solving an easy technical problem in a crowded marketplace (a messenger app).
Quite an insightful statement from Matt at a recent Google event at Campus London. Reminded me of a quote by someone else:
The wise warrior avoids the battle.
It also reminded me of couple of other sayings.
Fight to your strength, defend your weaknesses – anonymous
So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak. – Someone
What Matt and that someone are saying are perfectly in sync.
Matt, via Entrepreneur First, recruits young technical wizards, and equips them with business skills and support to help them launch exciting startups. By the definition of their recruitment filter, they attract people whose strength lies in solving hard technical problems, and who may have weaknesses in other areas – marketing skills to fight for growth and traction in crowded markets, for instance. For such teams, it makes obvious business sense to go after problems that are hard to solve technically, but (relatively) easy to sell to market. And thus, the insightful, powerful statement by Matt.
However. The statement isn’t the final truth for everyone. Following the second set of quotes above, you need to fight on ground that enhances your strengths, and hides your weaknesses, best. If you’re an excellent
marketing & sales driver growth hacker, with possibly a good designer and an adequate developer for company, you might want to pick problems that are easy to solve technically, but in a big, vibrant (likely crowded) market – diametrically opposite to what Matt suggested.
And if you start succeeding, you’ll be well advised to acquire/acquihire/poach some of the graduates of Matt’s EF program :)