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Three reasoning tricks to think smarter every single day

I fundamentally believe that the most impressive people in the room spend more time defining and carefully scoping the problem that they’re looking to solve than actually solving that problem.

Einstein said something similar:

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

It’s relevant in corporate America, too, says an author published in the Harvard Business Review (the article gives another version of Einstein’s quote, funnily enough):

Indeed, when developing new products, processes, or even businesses, most companies aren’t sufficiently rigorous in defining the problems they’re attempting to solve and articulating why those issues are important.

Intercom would agree as well. A recent article suggests that PMs should spend more time researching users and less time on solutions:

We obsess about problem prioritisation and problem definition. I mean obsess. I drive our people crazy sometimes interrogating whether we really truly deeply understand the problem we’re attempting to solve.

I’ll cover this particular concept with more detail another day.

Today, I thought it’d be interesting to explore three super simple lenses to keep in your back pocket as you define and refine your understanding of the problem.

These are table stakes — you should expect to apply them liberally, almost automatically, to every situation.

And they’re really easy to remember — they’re all pairs that are conceptually easy to tie together.

Lens #1: Absolute vs. Relative

A single number rarely means much on its own.

If I said that 300 of a particular living thing died every year, you wouldn’t be sure how to react. The first question you’d ask is likely, “Which living thing are you talking about?”

But what you’re interested in is not the actual type of living thing, like you asked for.

What you want to know is whether to be shocked/in distress or brush that figure off. You want to know, “How much is 300 relative to the entire population of the living thing?”

If I said it was 300 people, you’d probably say, “Well of course. I’m surprised there aren’t more every year, given that there are more than 7 billion people.”

If I said it was 300 giant pandas, you’d be way more surprised — there are fewer than 2,000 of them left.

Here, I gave you an absolute number, and you needed to know the relative significance to react properly.

It also works the other way around. If I give you a relative number, you’d need to know the absolute angle to react properly as well.

Startups and small businesses are the perfect example. On the 2016 INC 5000, the fastest growing business clocked in at 66,789% growth rate over the last 3 years.

Likewise, a startup can tout that it’s grown revenue by 10% each and every month.

But both the fastest growing business and the startup, can easily be trounced in actual growth $s with just 0.5% growth in Apple’s revenue (roughly $2.5 billion, which still blows my mind). They wouldn’t ever come close

Absolute numbers come in the form of dollars and unit counts. Relative numbers come in the form of ratios and percentages (of totals, compared to past, compared to similar). You always need both for any number to fully make sense.

Lens #2: Direction (or Significance) and Magnitude

In some very beginner-level physics class, you’d learn that vectors have two components: direction (where a rock is headed) and magnitude (how far the rock is headed).

However, while direction in physics would be expressed in radians or degrees, the real world can’t ever give you that precision (but wouldn’t it be great to know that you and your friend disagree on energy policy by 1.2 radians…).

Instead, we deal with qualitative expressions of direction way more: you’d say “growing quickly”, but there is no clearly defined minimum growth to be considered “growing quickly”.

This is basically significance, like from statistics, but in many cases we won’t have actual statistical backing (e.g., is product X better than product Y for this use case?)

Nevertheless, the point is this: the fact that something is true is different than how much something is true, and you have to clarify which one you’re looking to understand.

Here’s a great example. Check out Bill Nye’s appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show in late February 2017.

In the extended exchange, Nye’s singular point is that research has shown that humans have played an extensive role in causing change in climate and therefore, we should change our behaviors.

He’s talking about significance, which is right because that’s what the research tested for.

Carlson’s point is that because we don’t understand what percentage of climate change is caused by humans, we don’t fully understand if humans are causing climate change.

He’s talking about magnitude, but he’s also trying to equate magnitude with significance.

Carlson’s argument intuitively feels wrong, but many people won’t be able to say why. They’d be torn: “Yes, we are causing climate change, but Tucker has a good point — if we understand climate change so much, shouldn’t we know just how much we’re causing it?”

I don’t think Carlson is ignorant of the difference. He’s doing it on purpose because he knows that’s his only way of tearing the audience on the issue.

For the record, I think Nye handled the situation poorly. He really just should have said, “Tucker, listen. The research says that humans are a significant cause of climate change. Is that not enough for you? Would you act differently if the ‘number’ that you’re looking for was 50% or 48%? What else are you looking for?”

Either way, the conclusion for us is the same. Do you care about the fact that something is true or about how much something is true?

Lens #3: Process and Content

Producing work has two components: what actual work you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

Likewise, a presentation has two components: what the message is and how you communicated it.

The first is called the content of your work. The second is called the process of your work.

In some cases, you care about the first, and in others, you care about the second. Either way, it’s important to make it clear.

At McKinsey, we pretty much cared about content first, process second. We’d spend all of our time making sure that we had done the right research and analysis to form the best recommendation we could.

Then, and only then, would we worry about things like presentation, message framing and storytelling.

In sports, coaches often say something like, “It was ugly, but we won.”

In other situations, process is way more important than content.

In math class, the number one saying? Show your work.

In a court case, the answer is already known or implied (plaintiff says guilty, defendant says not) but the process of demonstrating that answer will determine the outcome.

In political speeches, Obama receives endlessly more cheering than a lesser storyteller for delivering the same message in a more compelling fashion.

Easy to learn, easy to use

Conceptually, these are probably the most basic ways of slicing and dicing a situation, but they yield pretty fantastic results.

Keep these three questions in your back pocket:

  1. Is this absolute information or relative information, and how can I get the other?
  2. Do I care more about the fact that something is true or how much something is true?
  3. Is process more important than content, or the other way around?

My name’s Pete, I’m new to San Francisco and I’d love to meet you! Find me via Twitter or email (peteh22 [at] gmail.com)

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