The Right Order In Which To Think About An Important Project


I learned to go into business only with people whom I like, trust, and admire. – Warren Buffett

I was listening to a Jay Abraham podcast and one of the speakers said something – almost a throwaway line – that suddenly made sense to me in a way I hadn’t appreciated before.

He said something like “When I’m looking at an opportunity I first want to know what needs to be done. Then I want to know who is going to do it. If I know those things then the how is easy – and I just need to find the capital to pay to get it done.”

I’ve written about this before, questioning whether Sinek’s popular model of “why, how, what” makes much sense, and wondering if it should be replaced with a different model that starts with “to what end?”

Still, looking back at this, it’s still not particularly clear what order one should follow.

So, why did this one stand out?

If you’ve read this blog for a bit you’ll be aware of my interest in Soft Systems, a methodology that helps approach “wicked” real world problems.

Wicked problems usually involve human activity systems – the kinds of things we do as a society – ranging from the complexities of government to the way in which the people in a company decides which projects they want to do.

The reason this is hard is because people have points of view – they have a perspective on a situation and express this in the form of a narrative – a story that helps them make sense of reality.

Now, if you have a story in your head about a situation – for example, if you believe that encouraging more cars on the road will add to air pollution and affect children’s health, then you are likely to oppose the building of a new school on the grounds that it will increase traffic.

The people who want to build the school will have views on how it will provide a better education for children in the area and help with regeneration.

Both are valid points of view, but that’s all they are – world views.

They just happen to be incompatible and possibly irreconcilable.

Societies have come up with ways to deal with this – using systems of planning and consultation to do or stop doing things.

The same thing happens, at a much smaller scale, when you want to work with an organisation and have to go through a sales process.

If you want to be successful when selling your services you have to start with where the customer happens to be.

If they have a need it can probably be expressed in the form of a “what” question.

What needs to happen?

Usually, some input (I) needs to go through a transformation (T) and be turned into an output (O).

What you’re describing is a system and if the system is non-human, you talk about its function and if it’s a human activity system you talk about purpose.

The purpose of Soft Systems is to understand “purpose” – it’s a strangely recursive thing, where you use a modelling language to express what’s in people’s heads – taking multiple narratives and turning them into a model that people can agree with.

What happens in practice is that the minute someone knows what needs to be done their thoughts turn to who can do it for them.

If you know that your boiler is broken, for example, isn’t the first thing you think about who you can call?

And ideally, you want to call someone you know, someone who has done work for you before and someone you can trust.

And if you call the right person they’ll know how to do the job and you’ll be fine.

The what-who-how model seems to actually represent what goes through people’s minds in practice.

If you’re selling, then, you should probably stop.

Instead, if you try to help the customer understand what they want then, when they get it, they’ll think about who can help them – and you’ll be right there in front of them, ready to offer your services.

In Jay’s podcast, they put this first bit really quite simply – you have to start with empathy for your customer.

Soft Systems is simply a rigorous way to be empathetic – to see things from the point of view of the person in front of view.

It should come as no surprise that if you have the ability to be empathetic you’ll be a better salesperson.

And you’ll also be the kind of person people want to work with again and again.


Karthik Suresh

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