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These 4 Simple Rules Will Make You Exponentially More Effective And Productive

2023 October 8
by Greg Satell

Shortly after I first arrived at college, my wrestling coach told my teammates and me that we would all be attending a freshman technique camp. It turned out to be something quite different than what I had expected. He didn’t teach us any advanced or esoteric method, but instead demonstrated the basics.

It was incredibly humbling. The fact that we were there in the first place, competing for a Division 1 program, meant that we had all demonstrated outstanding accomplishment. And now we were supposed to revisit the stuff we learned in peewee programs? It seemed insulting at first, but turned out to be one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned.

The truth is that in any endeavor, you are only as good as your fundamentals. While it’s easy to get enamored with grand strategies and fancy tactics, whether you succeed or fail is far more likely to depend on doing simple, basic things consistently well. In much the same way, I’ve found that simple rules can, if applied sensibly, help make you incredibly effective.

1. Play, “Hey Jude”

Paul McCartney wrote hundreds of songs in his career. Many were hits, but others were more obscure. One that was sure to please crowds was the classic “Hey Jude.” He first wrote the song in 1968, to comfort five-year old Julian Lennon during his parent’s divorce and I’m sure that over the years the former Beatle got tired of singing it. But he continued to perform it because he knew that’s what his fans wanted.

Clients often ask me whether I can create a new keynote or a workshop for them. Michael Port, a top coach in the speaking industry, explains why that is almost always a bad idea. Would you like a doctor to perform the same surgery on you that she has successfully done hundreds of times before, or try something different this time?

One of the things that has amazed me over the years, in myself and in others, is our urge to do something different for difference’s sake. Doing the same old thing time and time again gets boring, which is why as successful high school wrestlers we wanted to learn fancier techniques and didn’t focus on our fundamentals as we should have.

We need to learn to play our own personal “Hey Jude’s.” It may seem old and tired, but it’s what we’re good at and, if it does the job we need it to, we should keep at it. That doesn’t mean we don’t continue to experiment and learn new things. But we have to remember to always play the hits.

2. Talent Is Overrated

One of the most common questions I get asked by senior managers is “How can we find more innovative people?” I know the type they have in mind. Someone energetic and dynamic, full of ideas and able to present them powerfully. It seems like everybody these days is looking for an early version of Steve Jobs.

Yet the truth is that today’s high value work is not done by individuals, but teams. It wasn’t always this way. The journal Nature noted that until the 1920’s most scientific papers only had a single author, but by the 1950s that co-authorship became the norm and now the average paper has four times as many authors as it did back then.

To solve the kind of complex problems that it takes to drive genuine transformation, you don’t need the best people, you need the best teams. That’s why traditional job descriptions lead us astray. They tend to focus on task-driven skills rather than collaboration and human skills. We need to change how we evaluate, recruit, manage and train talent.

Talent isn’t something you hire or win in a war, it’s something you empower. It depends less on the innate skills of individuals than how people are supported and led. As workplace expert David Burkus puts it, “talent doesn’t make the team. The team makes the talent.” Skills and teamwork are developed over time.

So if you’re disappointed with the level and talent in your organization, the questions you need to ask are: “How can I better empower people to do their best work?” “What do I reward and what do I punish?” “Am I asking people to do what I want or inspiring them to want what I want?”

3. Find A “Hair on Fire” Use Case

Good operational managers learn to identify large addressable markets. Bigger markets help you scale your business, drive revenues and allow you to invest back into operations to create more efficiency. Greater efficiencies lead to fatter profit margins, which allow you to invest even more on improvements, creating a virtuous cycle.

Yet when you are doing something new and different, trying to scale too fast can kill your business even before it’s really gotten started. A truly revolutionary product is unpredictable because, by its very nature, it’s not well understood. Charging boldly into the unknown is a sure way to run into unanticipated problems that are expensive to fix at scale.

A better strategy is to identify a hair on fire use case — someone who needs a problem fixed so badly that they are willing to overlook the inevitable glitches. They will help you identify shortcomings early and correct them. Once you get things ironed out, you can begin to scale for more ordinary use cases.

For example, developing a self-driving car is a risky proposition with a dizzying amount of variables you can’t account for. However, a remote mine in Western Australia, where drivers are scarce and traffic nonexistent, is an ideal place to test and improve the technology. In a similar vein, Google Glass failed utterly as a mass product, but is getting a second life as an industrial tool. Sometimes it’s better to build for the few than the many.

4. Anticipate Failure

Starting a new venture or initiative is always exciting. Pregnant with possibility and hope, the sky seems like the limit and the last thing you want to think about is things going wrong. Yet neglecting to anticipate failure is one sure way to decrease your chances of success.

That’s why when we first start working with a team on an organizational transformation, we ask them to imagine someone possessed by an evil demon. How would such a person try to derail the initiative? What dirty tricks might they pull? What would they lie about? We ask this not because we think that there’s actually people possessed by evil demons, but because it helps executives imagine things that could go wrong

There is, in fact, no shortage of tools that can help to uncover flaws in your plans. Pre-mortems force you to imagine specific ways a project could fail. Red Teams set up a parallel group specifically to look for flaws. Howard Tierski, CEO of the digital transformation agency From Digital and author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller Winning Digital Customers, often uses de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats to help the team take different perspectives.

When we deconstruct failed initiatives, the problem is rarely one of ambition, energy, hard work or even acumen, but rather a lack of imagination. You can evaluate and analyze all you want, but chances are what kills your venture or initiative will be something that you didn’t see coming and didn’t account for.

For any significant endeavor, learning to anticipate failure is a key success skill. Or, as Andy Grove put it: “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”


Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto and on LinkedIn.

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Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash


4 Responses leave one →
  1. Olga Shchur permalink
    October 8, 2023

    So many good insights here, Greg! Definitely resonated strongly with the last one, expect to fail and have a plan B. So easy to overlook and get caught out.

    Thank you for sharing your advice!

  2. October 9, 2023

    I’m always happy to see you Olga!

  3. October 17, 2023

    Your post reminds me of the story (as I cannot verify the truth) that Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of what you blokes call ‘football’ stated every seasons first address to the team with the same words “gentlemen, this is a football’, and then proceeded to focus on the basics.

  4. October 21, 2023

    Apparently Lombardi coached at my alma mater William & Mary and complained that there were “too many Mary’s and too few “William’s.”

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