Weekly Research and Commentary on the Future of Business and Technology.
Become a Smart Contrarian.
Jun 27, 2022
Today, while climbing the First Flatiron here in beautiful Boulder, CO, I reflected on a lesson I learned many moons ago in a driver’s safety class: Focus on the gap, not the tree. Many car accidents, where a driver gets off the road and crashes into a tree, are due to the driver fixating on the tree, instead of looking for the gap. In the safety class we practiced this (without trees, of course — instead we smashed our cars into foam boxes) — it’s remarkable how every time you fix on the tree (well, foam box), you hit it. Even when your intention is to not hit it. I believe the same is true for climbing: You focus on the next safe move, not on the many moves which could lead to a fall.
All of which makes me wonder if the very same is true for our businesses: By focussing on the next successful move, not the many options for failure, we ought to be much better at being, well, successful.
And now, this…
Practical Futurism // Decode. Disrupt. Transform.
When applying first principles thinking, we often fall into a common set of mental traps and biases which inhibit our ability to truly find “the first basis from which a thing is known” — especially when we veer off the world of physics and into the world of our customer’s jobs-to-be-done. As Chengwei Liu pointed out in a Harvard Business Review article, it pays to be a smart contrarian to ensure your first principles thinking isn’t skewed. Specifically, Liu points towards four common traps we come across regularly in our work as well: Dominant logic, elitism, stereotyping, and culture.
The dominant logic trap is what Musk described as “thinking in analogy” — people have a tendency to use mental shortcuts and use models which are based on pattern recognition: things are the way they are. The easiest way to avoid falling for this trap is to deliberately seek dissonant information. As my colleague Jeffrey Rogers likes to ask, at every step along the way and with every assumption, we hold: “How could we be wrong?”
Dominant logic is regularly further compounded by our reliance on our networks as sensors. Leaders typically have built up their personal and professional networks over long periods of time. Personal biases make those networks typically fairly homogenous — we surround ourselves with people who are like us. The elitism trap dictates that these networks come with two weaknesses — they act as echo chambers, reverberating and amplifying the same ideas and points of view, and lacking access to new and different insights. Smart leaders, seeking truth based on first principles, deliberately widen the funnel of insight by expanding their networks well past their typical boundaries.
Stepping out of the dominant logic trap and avoiding the elitism effect, is a good set of initial steps to combat stereotyping — yet, to be effective at developing a well-rounded, diverse perspective, more is needed. Specifically, leaders need to lean into a deliberate effort to gain diverse insights by incorporating insights from people and data sources which are far outside their usual realm of perspectives. This includes, and should not be limited, to gender, ethnicity, socio-economic, as well as cultural background, but also industry expertise and insight. The more diverse the perspectives, the more valid first principles will be identified.
Lastly, leaders are well served by keeping their (mental) distance. The cultural norms and behaviors surrounding us provide a powerful force field which pulls us back from first principles to established norms, behaviors, and mental models. By continuously pulling back, taking an outsider’s views, and looking for the answer to Aristotles pivotal question of “the first basis from which a thing is known”, we ensure the high quality of our thinking.
Liu summarizes these four common traps succinctly as advice in the form of “Lean into cognitive dissonance, cast a wide net, embrace diversity, and stay on the outside.” (via Pascal)
What We Are Reading
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