Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Works for You

I'm often amazed by how vehemently someone will argue for a method that he's proved over and again doesn't work.

That's Not How We Do It
I walk into an "emergency" meeting where a group of engineers is trying to debug what appears to be a systemic problem with a product in the field. They've been at it for days and although they've had some "good" insights into what the problem might be, none of them have panned out.

I start asking simple questions, questions that my colleagues would never ask because they don't want to appear stupid or uniformed. Each answer elicits another question, not a deep or insightful question, just the naive and obvious one. I follow the answers wherever they lead, even if they lead to places that seem irrelevant or a "waste of time".

Before long, someone will interrupt and explain that we have no time for my questions, that we have a problem to solve and that, if I need a better understanding of the product, I should go read a paper or take a course.

I used to try to explain my process at this point, but nowadays I just ignore the comment and continue. It typically doesn't take much time to diagnose the problem and propose a solution. The funny thing is that no matter how many times I show my method to be successful, the engineers will: 1) avoid asking me to participate until things get desperate, and 2) show disdain for my method. They'll argue that my approach isn't the one adopted by the company or established by engineering standards or best known practices. They'll actively argue for a method that doesn't work.

OK, that's not it exactly. If the method never worked, then it would be easy. The real challenge is that a) it works sometimes, and b) it's the best method they know. And therein lies the rub.

The Best
There's a saying that goes: good is the enemy of best. As I think about it, I believe this can be applied to any number of daily situations. First of all, let's talk about the word best. It's a word that I really like because it's so darn useful.

First of all, let's limit the application of best to: best for you. We're not talking about comparison of you to others (who's the best trumpet player or the best runner or the best physicist), we're talking about what method or approach will give you the best results. Best may mean quickest, or cheapest, or easiest, or strongest, or most satisfying, or longest lasting, or any combination. At work it usually comes down to some combination of faster, better and cheaper. At home it may be something completely different. Also, it's important to note that best may mean one thing when you're on your own and something completely different when you're in a group.

Second, let's understand that best is, by definition, a moving target. There exists a vast no-man's land between good and perfect. This is the land of best. It's the existence of this land that tells us that there is room for improvement in our approaches and methods. Were our approaches and methods indeed the absolute best for us, then the results would perfect, not good. The existence of the gap informs us that we can do better.

There's a really cool feedback phenomenon that occurs as you seek the best approach or method. In the moment, the better approach is the best approach. However, through the process of applying the best approach, you learn and can conceive of even better approaches.

This makes doing your best insanely easy. All you have to do is to always be on the lookout for better. By definition, if it's better than what you have been doing, then it will at that point be your best. It's a process known as iterative refinement. Step by step you get better and better and better constantly raising the level of best.

Whose Best?
Over the last week, Iris, Scott and I have had discussions about best approach. Iris and Scott are both creative and talented people with an enormous capacity to learn and grow, a capacity that they both often deny. Over the years, each of them has developed approaches to learning that work for them, approaches with which they feel comfortable. They work well.

So, what's the problem with that? They're each creative and talented people. They each know how to learn and grow. What could be better?

The problem is that definition of best changes when you go from working alone to working with a group. For example, Iris has been learning drums over the past couple months. She's been doing it faster than anyone I've met: so fast in fact, that she's already become the regular drummer for our band No Room for Jello. However, now that she's signed up for the position, she's no longer the sole decision maker in what best means; there are additional stakeholders in her capacity to drum. The band depends on her.

The other night, we discovered two definitional differences to best: time and pressure. Iris likes to take her time to learn new things and she likes to do it when others are not present so that she can work out the kinks, etc. However, with a band and a date to play, time is an unaffordable luxury and pressure the name of the game.

So, we're working on a song where Iris needs to play a small drum fill at a certain break. The fill is something well with in her capacity to play, but it's new to her. Iris responds naturally by retreating to the learning approach that she knows works for her, an approach I know will take much more time than is necessary. So, I suggest another approach. Iris resists. I suggest more strongly. Iris resists more strongly. And so on until I'm way beyond suggesting.

Throughout our exchange Iris uses phrases like, "the way I learn is to" and "I need to", phrases that inspire me to move from suggesting to insisting. The problem isn't that Iris' method doesn't work. It isn't that her "best" isn't "best for her." The problem is that her best isn't best for the band. Meanwhile, having spent thousands of hours learning how to learn music, I was more than confident that I could cut down Iris' learning interval by 90%.

(To be clear, the band is infinitely patient and would have allowed Iris all the time she needed. However, taking that time would have been at odds with accomplishing other things on the band's agenda.)

The next morning as Iris and I discussed the previous evening, she came to the same conclusion; she could absolutely learn in a different way that was much faster. However, the evening before, in the the moment Iris' sense of best seemed certain.

It's amazing how what works for you can be what is working against you, how your sense of best can be your greatest limitation.

Happy Saturday,

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