I’ll never forget a tense conversation I had with my leadership team about the launch of a key tech product.
When discussing why broad adoption wasn’t happening among our users (in the home improvement sector), a team member offered an explanation: “This industry is just slow to adopt new technologies.” I’ve been thinking about that comment ever since. But not because it’s accurate.
In fact, construction was the first industry to heavily use cell phones, back when they were big, blocky and expensive. On a deeper level, what struck me was the frame of mind behind the remark. By making an excuse that “it’s the industry,” you let yourself off the hook. It’s a mental dead end. Psychologists call this an “external locus of control,” and it means that you assume that some force outside of you — the economy, luck — is running your life. But if you have an “internal locus of control,” you believe that you are the primary driver of your life. Making this switch requires a kind of radical responsibility, a mindset where you take total ownership of your work.
It can be frightening to confront the idea that no one beside you is in charge of your success. But it’s precisely that quality that makes great leaders. It requires seeing things as they are – and asking hard and careful questions about how they got to be that way.
The art of first principles
Here business can learn from science. The scientific method is about making hypotheses and testing if they’re wrong. We need this in business: Instead of looking for reasons why you’re right — like Kodak finding all the reasons film was superior to digital or Blockbuster insisting that DVD rentals would never die — try to find ways that you might be wrong.
In physics, this spirit finds special form in “first principles” thinking. People usually reason by analogy: they look for a precedent, and try to iterate on that. Take the example of transportation: in the late 19th century, everybody was competing to create the best horse-drawn carriage. But then inventors, with the discovery of the engine, discovered the horseless carriage. Like that, the world changed.
With first principles, you’re trying to get at fundamental truths. This approach helped Elon Musk launch SpaceX: “I said, OK, let’s look at the first principles,” Musk recalled. “What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper and carbon fiber. And then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around 2 percent of the typical price—which is a crazy ratio for a large mechanical product.” Rather than taking anything for granted, Musk went to the core of rocket construction, evaluating the very materials themselves.
But this doesn’t have to be rocket science. I learned about it at the kitchen table growing up in Canada. My parents would have my brothers and me take a side of a debate at the dinner table. Then we’d switch, suddenly debating the same issue for the other side. My parents knew what they were doing: those exercises trained us to look at the world with a critical eye, and I think that’s what’s allowed BuildDirect to enter the home improvement industry with such success.
Taking radical responsibility
With radical responsibility, your success depends not on any external factor but your willingness to see and act on things as they really are. So how do you develop this frame of mind?
While it’s a lifelong pursuit, here are a few first steps:
- Base your thinking around first principles: A handy way to get to breakthrough insights is by asking “What is true” about a conventional topic. An everyday example: You might think that exercising is grueling by nature. But really, working out just means being active. If you find an activity you enjoy – whether basketball with friends or yoga after work – it can be a pleasure. But first, you have to move beyond preexisting bias.
- Give yourself time for reflection: A Harvard Business School study found that freshly onboarded employees to an Indian outsourcing company had 23% higher performance than the control group when they took 15 minutes at the end of the day to reflect on what they did well. Why? Because when you assess your performance, you’re gathering firsthand feedback.
- Surround yourself with loyal dissenters: Volkswagen had its catastrophic fall because leadership got way too agreeable. Research on over 2,500 US corporations found that when there’s too much consensus at the top, firms have lower valuations, lower profits and a higher chance of fraud. At BuildDirect, finding people whom I respect — and will respectfully disagree with me — has been a lifesaver.
By building these habits and relationships, you’ll be able to spot the blind spots you otherwise would have missed. And you’ll be taking responsibility over your work – and life – in a whole new way.
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