Learning from the best

By Slow Dad - May 10, 2017

Always listen, yet question and challenge what you are told. Copying answers will get you to your goal sooner, but only if you copy the right ones!
When you own a business that makes its money by successfully solving problems for clients then you end up working for a very diverse cast of characters.

Sarah, the author behind Tortoise Happy, recently complimented me on my frequently proclaimed “trust, but verify” caution.

Never unquestioningly accept what you are told

That got me thinking back to who the super smart, yet very demanding, South African gentleman who regularly trotted out this phrase. This guy could spot a single errant figure hidden amongst a printed A4 page full of numbers from a distance of 10 paces.

The “trust, but verify” message was regular trotted out while he was “triangulating”... his term for independently validating whatever he had been told by someone to ensure he wouldn’t be caught out by believing a line of bullshit someone may have tried to feed in.

This has been amongst the most valuable lessons I have learned over the years, to never unquestioningly accept anything I’m told.

Always trust, but verify
That in turn led me to reflect on the other key messages or ways of thinking I have picked up while delivering projects.

Always trust, but verify

Always ensure the size of the problem warrants the cost of the solution

An impatient Frenchman, sporting what looked like a small dead animal stuck to the bottom half of his face, used to encourage his staff to “spend the firm’s money like it was their own”.

Whenever a member of his staff were preparing a business case, or reviewing a tender, or even thinking of raising a purchase order they would subconsciously hear these words delivered in his heavily accented voice in their heads.

He had a way of staring down his staff and demanding to know whether they personally would spend this much money on whatever the project or purchase being debated happened to be. Invariably the staff member would break eye contact, stare at their shoes, and mutter something to the effect of “no”.

This approach certainly made it very difficult for the firm to purchase any kind of (inevitably overpriced) “Enterprise” software!

This lesson taught me never to accept that asking prices and value provided are seldom similar amounts. By focussing on how much a problem is actually costing, it becomes easy the appropriateness of a proposed solution, or indeed whether it is worth worrying about at all.

This avoids solving a £20 problem with a £2,000 solution.

spend the firm’s money like it was their own

Ensure the size of the problem warrants the cost of the solution

Value other people's time like it was your own... use it thoughtfully yet sparingly

A guy who sported a wig resembling a bike helmet used to mercilessly apply the “So What?” test to anything he read or was told. After a successful career as a Big 4 consulting firm partner, he had made the transition into becoming a serial failure as a Chief Technology Officer.

After washing out at yet another site he had an epiphany, and rebranded himself as a professional Interim Chief Technology Officer.

From that point forward his remit was to roll into a site like a wrecking ball, cancelling projects, make staff redundant, run a critical eye over outsourcing and supply agreements, and construct a playbook of corrective actions necessary to rectify a failing department.

At that point he was usually thanked for his time, paid handsomely to go away, and a newly recruited permanent Chief Technology Office would be able to appointed with a clean slate, a plan to fix things, and without having any blood on their hands.

Some useful lessons learned I've learned via the application of the "so what?" test:
  • No meeting needs to take longer than half an hour.
  • Meetings should only include those required to make decisions. No need for passengers.
  • A slide deck should be no longer than 3 slides. They should contain only the options being put forward to the audience (including one recommended option) and the decision that the audience is being asked to make.
  • An email needs never be longer than 5 sentences. If your point requires more than that to make then you either don’t understand the problem enough yourself, or you need a meeting not an email.
  • People should be measured by the value of their output, not how many hours a day they sit at a desk or how much slideware they produce.
  • Wherever possible questions should be phrased in a manner that can be validly answered with a Yes or No answer.
  • A good blog post is a short, to the point, blog post ;-)
Applying the “so what?” test to what I read certainly helps sift those rare nuggets of wisdom out from the vast quantities of substance-light blather and bloviating out there on the internet.

Apply the “so what?” test
Apply the "So What?" test

Get the right person to the solve the problem... often this won't be you

An old Swedish guy, who was a very seasoned campaigner, taught me two very valuable life lessons.

Firstly he used to regularly greet me on the phone with the phrase “I have a problem, now you have a problem”.

His philosophy was that nobody liked a complainer, so therefore nobody should talk about problems with people who would be unable to help solve them. Therefore a problem shared was a problem delegated.

He certainly felt better after our conversations, I wish the same could be said for me!

I have a problem, now you have a problem
Get the right person to the solve the problem

The second lesson was to never drink beer in the sauna. And if you do, never jump straight onto a flight straight afterwards. The effects of the alcohol are hugely magnified, while the rapid sobering up that shortly follows results in a mighty hangover.

So what?

The take away here is to always watch and learn from those people around you, particularly those who are further down the road upon which you are travelling. It is a much easier to copy proven answers from someone smarter than you, than it is to figure everything out for yourself the hard way.

Select carefully from whom you choose to seek advice, but pay attention to everything you are told regardless of the source. Very occasionally you’ll stumble upon a nugget of wisdom that would be easily overlooked, but when correctly applied could be potentially life changing.

  • Share:

You Might Also Like


  1. Never drink beer in a sauna? Probably need to put that one in bold!! :)

    This is a fabulous post with oodles of wisdom. I need to remember "I have a problem, now you have a problem". Concise! Also, "Ensure the size of the problem warrants the cost of the solution" or in my case warrants the size of the reaction! I am Italian (Sicilian) and we tend to fly off the handle about the silliest of stuff...like when my BF threw away a take out container that I really liked. You would have thought he threw out my puppy!! However, when my car got stolen, I had the strangest reaction of calm. I didn't worry, I didn't freak out, I just accepted it.

    A great line I heard a while back is "Failure to prepare on your part does not constitute and emergency on mine". This has come in very handy with teenagers in the house! ;)

  2. Thanks Miss Mazuma. I use the emergency one myself, together with one another wise colleague used to trot out to flapping project managers: "piss poor planning does not an emergency make". Sage words indeed.