Zach Ware

Lowest Common Denominators

What do you do if you have a nagging problem you simply can’t figure out how to solve? You try a new approach. You rinse, repeat and try again.

Imagine standing at the bottom of a hill with a wheelbarrow full of rocks. You need to get the rocks to the top. And no matter how many paths you follow the rocks always spill on the way up the hill. You regroup, map a different path and try again. You bring in a few extra hands to help push the wheelbarrow but no matter what, you can’t get it up the hill.

Problems are simple. Every problem has a single identifiable solution. There is an optimal path for the wheelbarrow to follow. Your job is to uncover it.

So what do you do when, despite repeated efforts, you haven’t been able to find it?

Most of us have bias towards believing that since we are closest to the problem and the data we need to solve it, then we must know the path to the answer. We believe we haven’t found the answer yet because we’re too busy. So we bring in help, define the problem and explain how we want to solve it. We are the closest to the problem after all, we’ve made the most trips up the path with the wheelbarrow.

Sometimes this approach works. But often it fails because we’ve failed to realize there is a second reason why we’re not finding the answer. Us.

Organizations have a tendency to prescribe solutions to problems assuming that the problem is bandwidth, not an erroneous perspective. Having tried multiple times we fail to see that of all the elements involved in each past attempt, the lowest common denominator us and the solutions we’ve explored.

We fail to see that the problem isn’t actually getting the wheelbarrow up the hill, it’s getting the rocks up the hill. We’re so close to the problem we’ve failed to see an alternative solution…carrying the rocks ourselves. We’ve hired people to push the wheelbarrow and, having failed, our resolve to get the wheelbarrow up the hill only grows. We drift away from the original problem unknowingly. We focus on being right.

We are the lowest common denominator in every past attempt. We’ve developed a defensive bias. We don’t realize that instead of focusing on solving the core problem, we’ve started focusing on solving our solution.

We hire smarter help. We bring in architects and engineers. We tell them to get this wheelbarrow up the hill. And when one of them challenges us to consider carrying the rocks in backpacks, we scoff. They clearly don’t understand the problem.

Smart leaders understand defensive biases. Great leaders are self-aware. They know that despite their strong belief that getting the wheelbarrow up the hill is a potential solution, they need to be open to alternative views.

But egos are strong. Great leaders side step them. They focus on deltas. When faced with an alternative solution, carrying the rocks in backpacks, the great leader asks “what’s the difference in organizational cost to try both?” And when the delta is within an acceptable margin, the great leader tries both.

If you haven’t been able to solve a problem and you bring in additional resources, you have two choices: execute your solution with the additional resources or try a new solution. The latter takes guts requiring you to admit, at least to yourself, your solution was the wrong solution to the problem.

One requires a deep desire for a solution to the problem, a bias towards prioritizing the organization’s mission over your own. The other suffers from defensive bias…you don’t want to be wrong.

One of my greatest life lessons was learning, in every situation I’m involved in, I am an identifiable lowest common denominator. So when something isn’t working it’s logical, in fact it’s necessary to look at myself and my view as one potential hindrance to finding a solution.

And when others are involved who may themselves be unknowingly focused on being right, the most effective tool to get past these biases is asking a simple question: if the delta between trying both and trying one is low, what’s the harm in doing both?

You can keep trying to push the wheelbarrow up the hill. You can simultaneously send one person up the same hill with a bag of rocks and see what happens.

First published on March 1, 2016