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  • Writer's pictureMido Kabbara

A mental model for better outcomes

As I reflect on some of the factors which contribute to better long-term outcomes, a couple come to mind: speed and iteration. But, as generally understood as they may be, we don’t reflect enough on the challenges we face during execution and how to overcome them. With most endeavors, we hypothesize and act to test, learn and iterate searching for what works and eliminating what doesn’t. Along the way, we face bottlenecks. In my view, a useful mental model for thinking about Outcome Bottlenecks is: fear x complexity x decision fatigue. Our ability to overcome our fears, de-clutter complexity and prioritize key decisions ultimately determines our long-term outcomes.

Fear: We don't like uncertainty and risk. But, unknowns always exist. We don't enjoy mistakes and failures. But, that's how we've always learned. There's no greater joy than learning. Repeating the "fail-fast" (“learn-fast”) principle should resonate deeply enough to compel us to act with the curious joy of learning. Most of the time, we repeat it to convince ourselves we're not worried about failure even when sometimes we're paralyzed by inaction. We should, instead, listen to the poet Rumi, who said "as you start to walk on the path, the path appears". Discovery comes with action; and speed matters. Maybe what we really fear is whether we have the right inputs and did enough pre-work (we're not ready!)? Or, maybe we're worried about being harshly judged through the "resulting" trap? After all, we already know there's risks. How do we overcome these? First, simply, we must re-frame everything as an opportunity to learn. Second, we should remember to spend the time documenting perceived risks and areas of uncertainty. Writing helps give structure and clarity. Finally, time-box discussions with others and do this with intentionality; do this to accept or reject what you can or cannot mitigate. Communicate early and show your work when necessary. Ultimately, embrace the learning and the courage to iterate.

Complexity: Making things simple but not simplistic is a challenge. There's a delicate balancing act here. First, we must acknowledge and be aware of the complications and system dynamics at play within an idea or a product. But, once we've done so, we must "subtract" away the unnecessary to find the essence of an idea or a solution to a problem. Usually, the more we dive deep, the more prone we are to capture nuances, edge cases and various implications (the more we know!). Often, the complexity is driven by the nature of the endeavor. In fact, there is beauty in complexity. Roger Martin, in his book, The Opposable Mind, suggests that the greatest leaders learn to embrace complexity and use it as a source of their most creative ideas. At the end, however, to move forward, they emerge with an idea or solution at the right level of abstraction. Picasso gives us a great visual for this in a series of drawings of a bull (see above). He said, "you must always start with something...afterword you can remove all traces of reality". I like thinking about these drawings in relation to product iteration (Minimum Viable Product > Iterate); once we've captured the essential, we can always add back with intent and by letting the customer guide us. Sometimes we fear we're lowering the bar or appearing too basic. But, the idea isn't to ignore the complexity, it is to intentionally leave out what isn't important.

Decision fatigue: First, we're faced with many choices all the time. Decision fatigue is real. Second, not all decisions are equal. And, third, doing nothing (or the alternative) is also a choice; delays are valuable when intentional, but costly when they're the result of indecision. We have a model for dealing with these at Amazon: 2-way vs 1-way door decisions. Going further, within smaller teams, and as we're engaged in 2-way door decisions, we must trust one another. Perspectives are valuable and we must always consult diverse views - but, we don't always need everyone jointly making (or agreeing) to a particular decision. We all have many decisions to make on a daily basis so we must distribute these across the team. The point is to preserve our collective mind-share so we can focus on and be attentive to the most important decisions. The sum of all our decisions dictates our results. To make it easier, we should ask: are the right people involved? Are we giving the right inputs and model to facilitate? And, do I really need others or can I make the decision myself? How can I make it easier for others - am I presenting clear recommendations? When in doubt, consult. But, we must be intentional. We must remember to ‘have the backbone to disagree, but to commit’ when necessary. This also means not having an "I told you so" attitude. "Resulting" weakens decision making; don't fall for this trap. Commit to your own decisions with conviction - have the confidence to follow through without hesitation. This doesn't mean you ignore new information; keep an open-mind and look for the signals that falsify (and change) your priors while being weary of motivated reasoning. Remember, this is how we learn and this is how we can be right over the long-term.

Together, fear, complexity and decision fatigue have a multiplicative impact on outcomes. We can overcome these. First, through awareness by reflecting. Second, through the right mechanisms to help facilitate. And, third, most importantly, by understanding the specific outcomes were working towards. We must feel comfortable being wrong; to do so, we must first accept that possibility and acknowledge what we don’t know. Just a thought.

References: (1) Complexity, M. Mitchell Waldrop; (2) Subtract, Leidy Klots; (3) The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin; (4) The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird; (6) Thinking in Bets, Annie Duke; (7) Think Like a Rocket Scientist, Ozan Varol.

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