What do people want?

It just happened today that I realised that two very different books I am reading / processing had two related insights. 

From “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever” by Michael Bungay Stanier, talking about the question “What do you want?”: “Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer. We often don’t know what we actually want.”

Now, combine this with “And the Mountains Echoed”  by Khaled Hosseini – “People mostly have it backward. They think they live by what they want. But really what guides them is what they’re afraid of. What they don’t want.”

What a day to find such related pearls of wisdom.

Aaron Swartz on Curiosity

I found the following paragraph from an email exchange of Aaron Swartz. Aaron died unfortunately recently. I hardly knew about him before his untimely death, but I recommend reading about him. The following was ringing a chord in me. I have a similar feeling about exploring the world. Once you know a bit about an area, this area is getting interesting. I worked in several industries and did different degrees and it always works for me.

E.g. when I was about to finish my computer science studies I was looking for a job, maybe Ph.D. I was never exposed to the fascination of mechanical engineerings before and I only went to talk to the people that offered a Ph.D. to computer scientists within engineering simply because I was already working as a student in the same building and I needed job hunting practice anyway. But what I saw fascinated me. My curiosity was stirred. A month later I started an Dr.-Ing. I never regretted that.

This is what Aaron wrote on curiosity. I might not have been as consequent as he was. 🙂

“When I was a kid, I thought a lot about what made me different from the other kids. I don’t think I was smarter than them and I certainly wasn’t more talented. And I definitely can’t claim I was a harder worker — I’ve never worked particularly hard, I’ve always just tried doing things I find fun. Instead, what I concluded was that I was more curious — but not because I had been born that way. If you watch little kids, they are intensely curious, always exploring and trying to figure out how things work. The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you’ll get in trouble. Very few people’s curiosity can survive that. But, due to some accident, mine did. I kept being curious and just followed my curiosity. First I got interested in computers, which led me to get interested in the Internet, which led me to get interested in building online news sites, which led me to get interested in standards (like RSS), which led me to get interested in copyright reform (since Creative Commons wanted to use similar standards). And on and on. Curiosity builds on itself — each new thing you learn about has all sorts of different parts and connections, which you then want to learn more about. Pretty soon you’re interested in more and more and more, until almost everything seems interesting. And when that’s the case, learning becomes really easy — you want to learn about almost everything, since it all seems really interesting. I’m convinced that the people we call smart are just people who somehow got a head start on this process. I fell like the only thing I’ve really done is followed my curiosity wherever it led, even if that meant crazy things like leaving school or not taking a “real” job. This isn’t easy — my parents are still upset with me that I dropped out of school — but it’s always worked for me.” (Aaron Swartz)

There is no such Thing as a Pure Hard Problem

From time to time I use the differentiation between hard and soft problems or difficulties vs. messes and the TROPICS test from McCalman and Paton to differentiating these two. Why? The answer is simple. My first studies were engineering disciplines. Engineering disciplines are working with hard problems, that is problems where you have a clear understanding of what constitutes the problem and where you know when you solved the problem. However, at latest when you finish your studies you realize that life is far more complex. You might realize that two opposing and mutually exclusive solutions to the same problem might be correct, which makes you think about how well defined the problem is – a “soft problem”.

This is easy to see. But there was a piece missing. I worked in teams that did a great job in solving a tricky hard problem just to see that nobody acted on our results. It took me a while until my MBA teacher Nigel hit the nail when we told me “There is no such thing as a pure hard problem”. Every relevant hard problem is embedded in a real life context. And you have to understand the full context. If you solve the underlying hard problem you might simply solve the wrong problem. And looking back, I was part of several of those activities.

As I am now working in a project portfolio management function this is an important lesson. If you solve the wrong problem you are very inefficient, regardless on how well the project proceeds. Thanks Nigel. 

[Update 26/5/2017] The TROPICS Test was introduced to me to differentiate Hard from Soft problems. In the years following I found out that “soft problems” are often called “wicked problems”. Horst Rittel must have coined that term and he was creating a planning/design method known as Issue-Based Information System (IBIS) for handling wicked problems. IBIS made a lot of sense to me which is why I have created “Visual Thinking with IBIS” as a tool supporting the IBIS Notation.

Steven Covey: The Big Rocks

Today I got an email with another great video I would like to share. This time it is Steven Covey, maybe best known for his book “7 Habits of highly effective people”. Watch, laugh and learn.

I referred already several times to the blog of JD Meier. He is a big fan of Steven Covey teaching. Have a look at his blog, e.g.