Turning a Minus Into a Plus … Constraints are Catalysts for Innovation

Creativity Thrives Best When Constrained

“Art consists in limitation,” as the English writer G. K. Chesterton remarked. Constraints are the sine qua non of creativity.

One of the great ironies of creative thinking is that it seems to benefit from constraints. At first blush, inventive thinking may seem to require a great degree of freedom and a lack of restrictions, but the reality of the creative process is that it is frequently entwined with many challenging constraints and intractable requirements. In the right light, demanding constraints can truly be blessings in disguise as the French poet Paul Valery observed, “A person is a poet if his imagination is stimulated by the difficulties inherent in his art and not if his imagination is dulled by them.”

Constraints can shape and focus problems and provide clear challenges to overcome. Constraints stimulate creativity because they not only invigorate inventive thinking but also reduce the complexity of the problem at hand. That is to say, constraints can make a problem more controllable, and possibly even more appealing.

Constraints and Challenge Can Actually Be Assets to the Creative Process

When you explore inventions that are creative, you’ll discover that the creators often exploited some core constraints that had characterized their domain in the past. Here are six examples of creativity that exploited a constraint to great advantage.

  • British Airways 'Go for it America' marketing campaign and Virgin Atlantic's Response In 1986, British Airways ran a “Go for it, America!” marketing campaign to give away 5,200 free seats—all seats on its scheduled flights between USA and UK on June 10, 1986. In response, the upstart Virgin Atlantic ran its own newspaper advertisements that declared, “It has always been Virgin’s policy to encourage you to fly to London for as little as possible. So on June 10 we encourage you to fly British Airways.” And in smaller type, the ad read, “As for the rest of the year, we look forward to seeing you aboard Virgin Atlantic. For the best service possible. At the lowest possible fare.” The British Airways giveaway generated a lot of publicity, but most of the news coverage also mentioned Virgin’s unexpected, witty response.
  • In October 1984, during the second presidential debate with challenger Walter Mondale, Henry Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun questioned President Ronald Reagan about his age: “You already are the oldest President in history, and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall, yes, that President Kennedy, who had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuba missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?” Reagan famously replied, “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Tyrwhitt responded, “Mr. President, I’d like to head for the fence and try to catch that one before it goes over.” Mondale lost and Reagan got elected for his second term as President. [See YouTube clip of this debate.]
  • An determined young woman I knew was embarking on a career as a new architect. She had set her sights on a job with a prominent architectural firm, but her professors and career councilors urged her to gain experience at a smaller employer first, as no prestigious firm would take on an inexperienced, new graduate. Undeterred, the young woman applied to the firm she had set her sights for. When asked about her experience, she declared slickly, “I have no experience at all. You see, I want to learn this business at a top quality firm. Employ me and mentor me to suit your design practices. This way, I’ll not have to unlearn any of the second-rate skills I’d have learned in another place.” She got the job.
  • When YouTube launched in 2005, many of its upstart competitors examined each uploaded video for copyright infringement. However, unlike its competitors, YouTube calculatedly let users upload any content and waited for copyright owners to complain before taking down noncompliant videos. By choosing to put their business model at risk, YouTube rapidly grew in content and viewers. Its early rivals faded out, and YouTube got acquired by Google and went on to became the world’s leading video-sharing platform.
  • The Soup, 1902 by Pablo Picasso (from his Blue Period) Legend has it that one day, the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) had only blue paint to work with. When he started toying with the effects of painting with one color, he discovered the potential to produce interesting paintings that conveyed a sense of melancholy. Picasso had just relocated to Paris and was deeply affected by a close friend and fellow artist’s suicide. Art historians believe this event marked the onset of Picasso’s Blue Period (1901–1904,) during which he produced many stoic and sentimental paintings in mostly monochromatic shades of blue and blue-green. In what would become the hallmark of this greatest artist of the 20th century, Picasso leveraged an apparent constraint into an unintended creative outcome.
  • When American sculptor Janet Echelman‘s art supplies never arrived to South India on a Fulbright scholarship trip, Echelman altered her plans and started working with bronze casts inspired by the local materials and culture of Mahabalipuram, fishing village famous for sculpture. However, she soon found the material too heavy and expensive for her Fulbright budget. While examining fishermen bundling their nets one evening, Echelman began speculating if nets could be a new approach to sculpture. However, the delicate surfaces of the fishnets revealed every ripple of wind. Echelman hoisted the fishnets onto poles and created sturdy volumetric forms without heavy, solid materials. Echelman’s building-sized constructed net art structures are now featured in many cities around the world. [See Janet Echelman’s TED talk.]

In each situation, the inventor reframed elements of his/her world that he/she couldn’t control.

When faced with an element of the situation that they cannot ignore or overcome, instead of tackling those problems head-on, creative folks tend to leverage their constraints in a creative way and reframe them into an exceptionally powerful problem-solving technique.

Idea for Impact: Constraints often stimulate creativity rather than suppress it.

The heart of many a problem lies in what seems to be a single, intractable element. When that’s the case, instead of asking, “how can I minimize this liability?” explore “how can I make the most of it?”

Learning from the World’s Best Learning Organization: Book Summary of ‘The Toyota Way’

Toyota is a Paragon of Operational Excellence

Toyota is the World’s Most Benchmarked Company, and for Good Reason

Toyota’s cars are reputed for their reliability, initial quality, and long-term durability. It is the pioneer of modern, mass-production techniques and a paragon of operational excellence. Even if its reputation has taken a beating in the last few years because of the uncontrolled acceleration crisis and major product recalls, Toyota’s long-term standing as the epitome of quality production is undeniable.

Toyota measures and improves everything—even the noise that doors make when they open and close. As cars roll off assembly lines, they go through a final inspection station staffed by astute visual and tactile inspectors. If they spot even a simple paint defect, they don’t just quietly fix the problem merely by touching up the paint to satisfy the customer or their plant manager. They seek out systemic deficiencies that may have contributed to the problem, and may hint at deeper troubles with their processes.

World-Class Processes, World-Class Quality

'The Toyota Way' by Jeffrey Liker (ISBN 0071392319) As Jeffrey K. Liker explains in his excellent The Toyota Way, the genius of Toyota lies in the Japanese expression ‘jojo‘: it has gradually and steadily institutionalized common-sense principles for waste reduction (‘muda, mura, muri‘) and continuous improvement (‘kaizen.’) Liker, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Michigan (my alma mater) has studied the Toyota culture for decades and has written six other books about learning from Toyota.

Liker establishes the context of The Toyota Way with a concise history of Toyota Motor (and the original Toyoda Textile Machinery business) and the tone set by Toyota founders Sakichi and Kiichiro Toyoda. Quality pioneers such as Taiichi Ohno, W. Edwards Deming, and Joseph Juran instituted groundbreaking philosophies that shifted Toyota’s organizational attention from managing resource efficiencies in isolation to managing the flow of value generated by the Toyota Production System (TPS.)

“No Problem is the Problem:” How Toyota Continuously Improves the Way it Works

Liker devotes a bulk of his book to the distinct elements of Toyota’s foundational principles: continuous flow, minimal inventory, avoidance of overproduction, balanced workload, standardized tasks, visual control, etc. He drills down to the underlying principles and behaviors of the Toyota culture: respect people, observe problems at the source, decide slowly but implement swiftly, and practice relentless appraisals of the status quo. Liker states, “Toyota’s success derives from balancing the role of people in an organizational culture that expects and values their continuous improvements, with a technical system focused on high-value-added flow.”

Toyota mindset and the organizational discipline

Companies that have tried to emulate Toyota have struggled not with understanding its management tools but with putting into practice the mindset and the organizational discipline that permeates everything Toyota does. “Understanding Toyota’s success and quality improvement systems does not automatically mean you can transform a company with a different culture and circumstances.”

Book Recommendation: Read The Toyota Way. As Liker observes, “Toyota is process oriented and consciously and deliberately invests long term in systems of people, technology and processes that work together to achieve high customer value.” The Toyota Way is comprehensive and well organized, if tedious in certain parts. It can impart many practical pointers to help improve the operational efficiency of one’s organization. Peruse it.

Postscript: I’ve taken many tours of Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky, factories and a few associated suppliers—once as part of a lean manufacturing study tour organized by Liker’s research group and other times privately. I strongly recommend them for observing Toyota’s matchless culture in action on the production floor. I also recommend the Toyota Commemorative Museum in Nagoya for a history of Toyoda Textile Machinery and Toyota Motor and their management principles.

Don’t Lead a Dysfunctional Team

The difference between functional and dysfunctional teams often boils down to effective team leadership. If you’ve been asked to lead a team, you’ll get more from your team members if you know what’s expected of the team, and manage your roles and responsibilities.

  1. Define the charter. Find out what your customers want. Find out how much latitude your team has—decision-making, reporting procedure, access to resources and information. Make sure there’s organizational support for these matters.
  2. Build on strengths. If team members are selected for you, determine what each person can contribute to the team’s effort. Ask members to identify their strengths.
  3. Set ground rules. Discuss how the team will operate. Be clear about performance expectations. If necessary, write down the rules agreed upon by team members.
  4. Develop a mission and goals. Get your team talking about what needs to get done, by whom, and when.
  5. Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness Is Dangerous “Herd the sheep.” Part of your job is to be a sheepdog. Keep people together and herd them toward goals.
  6. Break up conflicts. Disagreements are fine, even healthy, but outright hostility or anger is counterproductive. Stop the discussion, clarify positions, and try to find areas of agreement.
  7. Avoid groupthink. Don’t compromise too much for the sake of consensus, harmony, and “esprit de corps.” Don’t settle on the lowest-common-denominator decision upon which everybody agrees.
  8. Build bridges. Keep your sponsor, your manager, and each team member’s boss informed of the progress of the team’s assignment.
  9. Be visible. Any crisis calls for constant, candid communication. Knowing how to step up your communications efforts to the right levels during confusion is a powerful tool in managing a crisis.
  10. Captain the ship. You’re responsible for your team’s every outcome—good or bad. You are wholly accountable for everything that happens under your authority. Never pass the blame should things go wrong.
  11. Make the work fun. Give your team lots of recognition. Celebrate the team’s accomplishments.
  12. Establish freedom and autonomy. Empower team members to innovate and make decisions. Encourage all ideas and make sure that they are respected, no matter how strange they may sound. Micromanage only when you must.
  13. Assess performance. Periodically, ask the team to rate its performance. Resolve any problems as quickly as possible.
  14. Get stuff done. Don’t lose sight of your goals and your mission. The only thing that matters is the relevant results.

Realize the Truth Yourself

So much of what you’ll hear and what you’re taught may turn out to be incorrect on closer scrutiny.

Whether it’s advice from the experts, what you hear in the media, or what your mother told you, if it is of any consequence, take the time to work out for yourself whether it is factual.

Swami Vivekananda on Realizing the Truth Yourself The great Hindu spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) once instructed, “Do not believe in a thing because you have read about it in a book. Do not believe in a thing because another man has said it was true. Do not believe in words because they are hallowed by tradition. Find out the truth for yourself. Reason it out. That is realization.”

Idea for Impact: It’s not sensible to believe any assertion unless you have good reason for doing so. If you care whether your beliefs about the world are reliable, you must establish them on the sound, relevant evidence. Until you can organize that evidence and determine whether a belief is true or isn’t, you must suspend your judgment. The celebrated British mathematician, logician, and political activist Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) wrote in Why Men Fight: A Method of Abolishing the International Duel (1917,)

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth—more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid.

Gambler’s Fallacy is the Failure to Realize How Randomness Rules Our World

Gambler's Fallacy is the Failure to Realize How Randomness Rules Our World

The Gambler’s Fallacy is the misleading belief that the probability of a specific occurrence in a random sequence is dependent on preceding events—that its probability will increase with each successive occasion on which it fails to occur.

Suppose that you roll a fair die 14 times and don’t get a six even once. According to the Gambler’s Fallacy, a six is “long overdue.” Thus, it must be a good wager for the 15th roll of the dice. This conjecture is irrational; the probability of a six is the same as for every other roll of the dice: that is, 1/6.

Chance Events Don’t Have Memories

In practical terms, the Gambler’s Fallacy is the hunch that if you play long enough, you will eventually win. For example, if you toss a fair coin and flip heads five times in a row, the Gambler’s Fallacy suggests that the next toss may well flip a tail because it is “due.” In actuality, the results of previous coin flips have no bearing on future coin flips. Therefore, it is poor reasoning to assume that the probability of flipping tails on the next coin-toss is better than one-half.

Gambler's Fallacy: Chance Events Don't Have Memories A classic example of the Gambler’s Fallacy is when parents who’ve had children of the same sex anticipate that their next child ought to be of the opposite sex. The French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827) was the first to document the Gambler’s Fallacy. In Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1796,) Laplace identified an instance of expectant fathers trying to predict the probability of having sons. These men assumed that the ratio of boys to girls born must be fifty-fifty. If adjacent villages had high male birth rates in the recent past, they could predict more birth of girls in their own village.

There Isn’t a Lady Luck or an “Invisible Hand” in Charge of Your Game

The Gambler’s Fallacy is what makes gambling so addictive. Gamblers normally think that gambling is an intrinsically fair-minded system in which any losses they’ll incur will eventually be corrected by a winning streak.

In buying lottery tickets, as in gambling, perseverance will not pay. However, human nature is such that gamblers have an irrational hunch that if they keep playing, they will eventually win, even if the odds of winning a lottery are remote. However, the odds of winning the jackpot remain unchanged … every time people buy lottery tickets. Playing week after week doesn’t change their chances. What’s more, the odds remain the same even for people who have previously won the lottery.

Gambler’s Fallacy Coaxed People to Lose Millions in Monte Carlo in 1913

Gambler's Fallacy Coaxed People to Lose Millions in Monte Carlo in 1913 The Gambler’s Fallacy is also called the Monte Carlo Fallacy because of an extraordinary event that happened in the renowned Monte Carlo Casino in the Principality of Monaco.

On 18-August-1913, black fell 26 times in a row at a roulette table. Seeing that that the roulette ball had fallen on black for quite some time, gamblers kept pushing more money onto the table assuming that, after the sequence of blacks, a red was “due” at each subsequent spin of the roulette wheel. The sequence of blacks that occurred that night is an unusual statistical occurrence, but it is still among the possibilities, as is any other sequence of red or black. As you may guess, gamblers at that roulette table lost millions of francs that night.

Gambler’s Fallacy is The False Assumption That Probability is Affected by Past Events

The Gambler’s Fallacy is frequently in force in casual judgments, casinos, sporting events, and, alas, in everyday business and personal decision-making. This common fallacy is manifest by the belief that a random event is more likely to occur because it has not happened for a time (or a random event is less likely to occur because it recently happened.)

  • While growing up in India, I often heard farmers discuss rainwater observing that, if the season’s rainfall was below average, they worry about protecting their crops during imminent protracted rains because the rainfall needs to “catch-up to a seasonal average.”
  • Gambler's Fallacy in soccer / football penalty shootouts In soccer / football, kickers and goalkeepers are frequently prone to the Gambler’s Fallacy during penalty shootouts. For instance, after a series of three kicks in the same direction, goalkeepers are more likely to dive in the opposite direction at the fourth kick.
  • In the episode “Stress Relief” of the fifth season of the American TV series The Office, when the character Jim Halpert learns that his fiancee Pam Beesley‘s parents are divorcing, he quotes the common statistic that 50% of marriages wind up in divorce. Halpert then comments that, because his parents are not divorced, it is only reasonable that Pam’s parents are getting divorced.

The Gambler’s Fallacy is a Powerful and Seductive Illusion of Control Over Events That are Not Controllable

Don’t be misled by the Gambler’s Fallacy. Be aware of the certainty of statistical independence. The occurrence of one random event has no statistical bearing upon the occurrence of the other random event. In other words, the probability of the occurrence of a random event is never influenced by a previous, or series of previous, arbitrary events.

Idea for Impact: Be skeptical of most judgments about probabilities. Never rely exclusively on your intuitive sense in evaluating probable events. In general, relying exclusively on your gut feeling or your hunches in assessing probabilities is usually not a reason to trust the assessment, but to distrust it.

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness is Dangerous

Group Polarization Strengthens of the Opinions of Each Person in the Group

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness Is Dangerous When people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs—they become extreme in their views. In other words, a group of likeminded people will reinforce one another’s viewpoints. This phenomenon is called group polarization.

Social psychologists reason that people use the choices and persuasions of others as heuristics to steer their lives in this complex world. As the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

Social Media and Group Polarization

As people converge to likeminded people in virtual neighborhoods, they tend to operate in intellectual bubbles. Given that social media allows participants to curate their sources of information, it is easier than ever before for people to cruise through their day-to-day lives without meeting anyone who disagrees with them. Studies have shown that hanging around a group of likeminded folks makes people more scornful of differing viewpoints, than they are as individuals.

Group polarization explains partly the proliferation of fake news on social media—people accept dubious claims that support their own viewpoint while disregarding facts that conflict with their views. In the confusing times we live in, people get lost in the unstructured, unattributed noise of headlines and repeat the loudest declarations as facts without checking their soundness.

The Persuasive Ability of Social Proof in Consumer Behavior

'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion' by Robert Cialdini (ISBN 006124189X) In the bestselling Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, psychologist Robert Cialdini observes that advertisers tend to describe their products as “fastest-growing,” “#1 in the market,” or “best-selling.” Advertisers believe that consumers need to hear not only that a product is good, but also that others think so.

As per group polarization, when people are considering what to do or buy, they often look to what others are doing or have done, and take their cue from others. When a product, service, or an idea strikes out as particularly admired or prevailing, consumers intuitively take social proof that this is the right—and acceptable—choice.

Idea for Impact: Hanging Around with Like-Minded People is a Dangerous Intellectual Trap

The French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre once wrote, “Seek those who find your road agreeable, your personality and mind stimulating, your philosophy acceptable, and your experiences helpful. Let those who do not, seek their own kind.”

Look for people who respect your worldview—even if drastically different from theirs—but can present alternative perspectives.

Regular exposure to differing views serves to sharpen your thinking and reasoning abilities—and may perhaps even reexamine your positions. As I’ve said before, wisdom comes from facing counter-arguments. The only test of a well-constructed opinion is that it can defend itself.

This is Yoga for the Brain: Multidisciplinary Learning

In Praise of Multidisciplinary Frameworks for Better Thinking You need a broad-based understanding to succeed in today’s increasingly complex world.

Modern scientific and technological advances are increasingly born at the frontiers of more than one science disciplines.

It’s impossible to know everything. However, if you work to understand the basics of the biggest, most important paradigms in the fields of science, humanities, and social sciences, you can progressively expand your decision-making process.

A multidisciplinary methodology entails drawing suitably from multiple disciplines to examine problems outside of their normal boundaries and reach solutions based on an understanding of complex situations.

Multidisciplinarity Leads to Better Internalization of Knowledge

Multidisciplinarity allows you can transform a perspective in one discipline to expand your thought-frameworks in other disciplines. The renowned venture capitalist Paul Graham, author of the bestselling Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, said this best when he once wrote,

Studying things from unrelated subjects (multidisciplinary learning) is a lot like yoga for brain. You don’t actually get anywhere when you do yoga. You stand in one place and bend yourself in various shapes. But it makes you more flexible, so when you go out and do walk around, you can walk better.

“Cross-Training for the Mind” à la Charlie Munger

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) The great investor Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is a big proponent of multidisciplinary thinking. This distinguished beacon of rationality and wisdom coined the term “latticework of mental models” to enable the “cross-training for the mind.” Rather than silo your mind just in the narrow areas you tend to concentrate on at college and work, Munger advocates developing a broad, functional set of interdisciplinary knowledge about the world, which can serve you in all parts of life. According to the anthology Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Munger said at a 1998 talk at the Harvard Law School,

If A is a narrow professional, B consists of the big, extra-useful concepts from other disciplines, then, clearly, the professional possessing A plus B will usually be better off than the poor possessor of A alone. How could it be otherwise? And thus, the only rational excuse for not acquiring B is that it is not practical to do so, given the man’s need to A and the other urgent demands in his life. I will later try to demonstrate that this excuse for unidisciplinarity, at least for our most gifted people, is usually unsound.

Many of the world’s leading companies in science and technology are employing multidisciplinary people for managerial positions. These people understand a range of science principles and methods and can synthesize the works of domain-specific experts to invent creative solutions to problems.

Idea for Impact: Pursue Multidisciplinary Thinking

People who think very broadly and comprehend many different models from many different disciplines make better decisions.

Pursue multidisciplinary thinking. Open your mind to new ideas and new experiences. Make new friends, travel afar, read more, and discover new stories.

Interact with people who work in different disciplines and dabble with the arts and the media. Let the new sights, sounds, smells, languages, tastes, sensations, stories, and perspectives spark your creativity.

One of the Tests of Leadership is the Ability to Sniff out a Fire Quickly

One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster

I’ve previously stressed the importance of problem-finding as an intellectual skill. I’ve also highlighted why risk analysis and risk reduction should be one of the primary goals of any intellectual process. In this article, I’ll write about being proactive in identifying problems before they evolve into crises.

How Wells Fargo Failed to Recognize a Problem and Address it before it Became a Bigger Problem

As the Wells Fargo accounts scandal unfolded, it was clear that Wells Fargo’s leadership was well aware of the burgeoning problems early on, but failed to act decisively and nip the problem in the bud.

Given impossible sales quotas to reach, Wells Fargo’s “high pressure sales culture” opened as many as two million bank and credit card accounts on behalf of its customers without their consent. Employees were rebuked or even fired for not meeting aggressive cross-selling targets.

Human nature is such that high-pressure demands can deplete the willpower people need to act morally and resist temptations. And such demanding circumstances encourage people to go into defensive mode, engage in self-interested behaviors, and consider only short term benefits and dangers.

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal: “A Stitch in Time Indeed Saves Nine”

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal Wells Fargo’s leadership reportedly had data about ethical breaches, but they ignored or misjudged the impact of the problem. Wells Fargo even held a two-day ethics workshop in 2014 unequivocally telling their employees not to do that. As per an internal review, managers knew that 1% of employees had been fired for “sales integrity” violations.

Wells Fargo’s leadership didn’t act quickly and decisively to mitigate the effects of the crisis. Warren Buffett, one of the Wells Fargo’s biggest investors, summarized this leadership inaction at the 2017 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting:

There were three very significant mistakes, but there was one that was worse than all the others … The main problem was that they didn’t act when they learned about it … at some point if there’s a major problem, the CEO will get wind of it. And at that moment, that’s the key to everything, because the CEO has to act. It was a huge, huge, huge error if they were getting, and I’m sure they were getting, some communications and they ignored them or they just sent them back down to somebody down below.

Leadership: “Only the Paranoid Survive”

Andy Grove (1936–2016,) the illustrious cofounder and CEO of Intel, was a famous worrier. At Intel, the focal point of Grove’s leadership style was worry and skepticism. He believed that business success contains the seeds of its own destruction, and that in order for an organization to have longevity, it needs to continue to worry about the future.

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) Grove’s principle was immortalized in his famous proclamation, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” He eloquently explained his worrisome mantra in his bestselling corporate memoir, Only the Paranoid Survive (1996.) He wrote in the preface:

The things I tend to be paranoid about vary. I worry about products getting screwed up, and I worry about products getting introduced prematurely. I worry about factories not performing well, and I worry about having too many factories. I worry about hiring the right people, and I worry about morale slacking off. And, of course, I worry about competitors. I worry about other people figuring out how to do what we do better or cheaper, and displacing us with our customers.

At Intel, worrying about the future created a culture of triumph that propelled change and innovation. Grove never let Intel rest on its laurels and led the company to break boundaries in microprocessor innovation. During his tenure as CEO from 1987—98, Intel’s stock price rose 32% a year. Grove also said, “A corporation is a living organism; it has to continue to shed its skin. Methods have to change. Focus has to change. Values have to change. The sum total of those changes is transformation.”

Idea for Impact: Learn to Sniff out a Fire Better than Anyone Does

The principal tasks of leadership are (1) identifying the biggest risks and opportunities, and (2) allocating organizational resources. Therefore, one of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster. If identified and addressed early, nearly any problem can be resolved in a way that is beneficial for everyone involved.

Many leaders tend to be reactionary—they claim, “why fix something that isn’t broken.” Even when they see an impending problem, they may assume that the problem “isn’t that big of a deal” and wish the problem will just go away. Alas, many problems never go away; they only get worse.

To become a good leader, be paranoid—always assume that “there’s no smoke without fire.” If, according to Murphy’s Law, everything that can go wrong will go wrong, the paranoid leader has an advantage.

Whenever you are doing anything, have your eyes on the possibility of potential problems and actively mitigate those risks. Never allow a problem to reach gigantic proportions because you can and must recognize and fix it in its early stages.

As the medieval French philosopher and logician Peter Abelard (1079–1142) wrote, “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.”

What it Takes to Be a Hit with Customers

  1. Be Trustworthy. One of the most important aspects of being effective at work is earning and upholding others’trust through your actions, not through your words. You earn trust slowly but can lose it in a moment—as Warren Buffett often reiterates, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Idea for Impact: Earn trust by making and honoring your commitments. Do what you commit to. Act with integrity. Do the right things for the right reasons.
  2. Responsiveness in Customer Service: Respond immediately to requests unless there is a judicious reason to wait Be Responsive. We live in a time and age of “instantaneous gratification.” People want immediate results—without delay or deferment. They don’t expect to wait. And if they have to wait on you, their resentment grows. Alas, responsiveness affects how people perceive you. If you’re slow, your customers will suppose you are indifferent or incompetent. If you respond promptly, they’ll assume you’re proficient and on top of your work. Idea for Impact: Respond immediately to requests unless there is a judicious reason to wait.
  3. Be Strong, But Flexible. Respect the rules and traditions but be adaptable to changing conditions. Be watchful and absorb from whatever you can learn—as General Electric’s celebrated ex-CEO Jack Welch once wrote, “The desire and the ability of an organization to continuously learn from any source—and to rapidly convert this learning into action—is its ultimate competitive advantage.” Idea for Impact: Flexibility with rules can be pragmatic in its own right. Learn to make rational decisions by balancing facts and emotions.
  4. Be Realistic, Not Overly Optimistic. Self-help gurus and the media have endlessly touted optimism as the “winning formula to success.” This obsession with cheerfulness has reinforced a false sense of realism and pragmatism. Optimists tend to overlook the reality—they develop a false sense of hope and become too attached to the possibility of positive outcomes. Unfortunately, realists are branded as skeptics and skeptics are quickly shunned as outcasts. Idea for Impact: Take an honest and levelheaded view, no matter what the problem. Embrace the possibility of failure. Plan for the downside. Don’t get caught up in trivial details.
  5. Be Likeable and Interested. Highly competent but unlikeable people do not succeed as well as their fairly competent but likeable counterparts. The American poet and memoirist Maya Angelou aptly said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Idea for Impact: Be pleasant, enthusiastic, and friendly—make eye contact, smile, and say ‘hello’ more. Listen. Be open and approachable. Appreciate the individuality of people. Try to be interested, not just interesting.
  6. Be a Good Salesperson - Much of success in life is really about selling yourself Be a Good Salesperson. Much of success in life—from getting a Starbucks barista to make a special no-whip, extra-foam latte with half a packet of Splenda to finding a spouse—is really about selling yourself. Every selling situation involves making a connection with an individual who likes and trusts you. An anonymous sales guru once said, “All things being equal, most people would rather buy from somebody they like… and that’s true even when all things aren’t equal.” Idea for Impact: It is useless to work hard and be creative unless you can also sell what you create. Learn to be persuasive. You can’t just talk people into things.
  7. Be Visible and Communicate Candidly. How you identify and respond to a problem or a crisis is the ultimate test of your character. If you do not communicate frequently, people will develop their own perceptions of the problem and its implications. Knowing when to step up your communications efforts to the right levels during difficulties can be a powerful tool in problem solving. Idea for Impact: Keep your eyes open for customers’ inconveniences, difficulties, and troubles as creative problems to be solved. Focus on problem solving. Be visible. Communicate and lead from the front. Learn how to handle upset customers.

Postscript: This Harvard Business Review article argues that, more than anything else, customers want just a reasonable solution to their expectations. Delighting them by “exceeding their expectations” hardly enhances customer loyalty.

There Isn’t a Practical Reason for Believing What Isn’t True [Two-Minute Mentor #8]

When making decisions, relying entirely on intuitions, gut feelings, and anecdotal validations to justify your beliefs is not a sound rationale to trust your assessments, but to be suspicious of them. The British-American critic Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011) translated the Latin dictum “Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur” and famously said, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

It’s not sensible to hold a belief unless you have good reason for doing so. Neither is it sensible to cling to a belief because you believe it is useful and not because you think it is true.

Rational Investigation of One's Beliefs and Judgments Until you can organize the relevant evidence and determine whether a belief is true or isn’t, you should suspend your judgment.

Promoting the importance of rational investigation of one’s beliefs and judgments, the venerated Hindu mystic Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) once said, “Do not believe in a thing because you have read about it in a book. Do not believe in a thing because another man has said it was true. … Do not believe in words because they are hallowed by tradition. … Find out the truth for yourself. Reason it out. … That is realization.”

Only a charlatan trusts in his beliefs without evidence—if his beliefs tell him that something is true, that’s good reason enough for him to think that it’s true.

Idea for Impact: One’s intellectual integrity lies not in what one thinks but in how one validates what one thinks.