I spent Sunday evening talking with a wonderful new friend about... well, a lot of things. But a recurring theme of our conversation (both implicit and explicit) was considering things—whether concepts, events, or behaviors—in their next larger context.
This type of systems thinking is something I try to practice whenever possible, and is a trait I look for in my closest friends.
Think about a time when you were told to do something, and you didn't understand why. If you're like me, you might have gone through the following thought process:
- "I don't get it."
- "That's crazy."
- "They're crazy."
- "Is everyone else crazy?"
- "Fuck. Am I crazy?"
- "I'm definitely crazy."
- "Oh, wait, no... that makes sense."
Step 1 is not always explicit, but it's often the underlying reason for Step 2.
Many people don't make it past Step 2. Instead, they find other people who are also stuck at Step 2, and keep repeating it over and over again, until it evolves into a Step 3.
Step 3 happens when you've moved away from rational analysis of the thing itself, and moved on to attacking the person who said the thing. Classic argumentum ad hominem. Welcome to every political Facebook post ever.
The jump from Step 3 to Step 4 happens when you begin to see many other people nodding their heads in agreement, but haven't yet heard them make a compelling case for why they think it makes sense.
The jump from Step 4 to Step 5 is an important one, because it only happens when you're willing to admit that you might be the problem. You might be wrong. You might not have all the right information. Most people don't make it to Step 5. It requires self-awareness and humility. (In fact, many don't make it past Step 3, as Step 3, especially in groups, provides too much validation for humility to find footing.)
Step 6 is a resolution to act as if you are wrong, and seek out information to find out why you're wrong.
Somewhere between Step 6 and Step 7, you've usually sought out some new piece of information that helps contextualize the request. This typically takes the form of outside requirements or constraints.
In this case, the context clarified a requirement for the process. We started at the environment, and worked inward. "Given this environment, this is a process requirement."
However, it can also work the other way, beginning at the process and working outward. "For this process to succeed as-is, what must be true of the environment?"
There are few greater superpower in business than the ability to understand things in context. Practice by asking "Why?" and then looking at the influencing aspects of the surrounding environment. Then ask why those are the way they are, gradually expanding a few levels past the immediate problem space.
This helps you better explore solutions, not only by clarifying and refining requirements, but potentially also by obviating certain requirements altogether. If you work your way out 2-3 levels from the immediate problem and find an environmental constraint you can easily tweak, you can open up entirely new paths to a solution, completely avoiding the previous requirement.
This is powerful.
Learn to do this, and a whole new world of opportunities opens up before you.