Think backwards to move forward

Sato g business woman think

Is being able to think backwards a useful management skill? Would you drive a car that did not have a reverse gear? How does one make smart business decisions, all the time being bombarded with constant noise, based on blatant biases and fickle emotions? What do LinkedIn profiles tell us about people’s judgments?

“I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the 'backwards law'. When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. When you hold your breath, you lose it,” observed Alan Watts.

In what have become known as the ‘backwards law’ the paradox is that if you start at the end, you will have everything you need to get there.

A bit like, starting with the end in mind. Warren Buffet’s partner, and architect of Berkshire Hathaway, Charlie Munger thought backwards by following the ancient practice of the Stoics.

Before making an investment decision, he would always ask -- What are the potential things that could go wrong, to upset the financial viability equation?


Mind the noise

Ours is a world of constant digital PR, often bordering on hysteria and just plain noise. In the 2021 book Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment written by Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Olivier Sibony, and Harvard law professor, Cass Sunstein they write that 'noise' in human judgment presents itself in all sorts of forms.

The reasons given by the authors for why noise arises include cognitive biases, differences in skill and preferences – tastes, emotional reactions, mood in the moment, and just plain level of fatigue. Quite simply: when given the same facts and figures, the assessment by, for instance, physicians, judges and other professionals can be shockingly radically different.

Clamour on LinkedIn

Curious case of noise can be found close at hand on – LinkedIn, a ‘professionals’ networking site, used to let people know you exist, displaying employment opportunities. Created in May 2003 by Reid Hoffman, in December 2016 it was bought by Microsoft, with about a billion members, beginning with an alluring ‘no cost’ business model.

Aspiring, ‘onwards and upwards’ LinkedIn members may always be on the look out to move up the corporate food chain, often listing their skills.

Take Sarah, who has been in a corporate finance position at a bank for two years, now says she gained 21 skills, everything from ratio analysis, ESG reporting, team building, to impeccable negotiating skills.

Sarah believes that by injecting the noise of gross over-exaggeration, potential employers are gullible enough to believe her posting.

Or, is it that one can take the 21 skills as a credible engraved-in-stone gospel fact? In practice, her noisy embellishment of the facts, a lack of humility, may be [a subconscious] sabotaging of her efforts to move up the corporate ladder, by not being believable.

Like in Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel, The Old Man and The Sea, demonstrating a mastery of understatement and subtlety, Sarah might be better to reverse her approach, to a simple brief statement of the humble facts, realising that people are not gullible.

Yes, people on LinkedIn want to ‘sell’ themselves. But can someone really be ‘sold’, or it is that they are more ‘nudged’ into deciding based on a credible presentation of the facts, and dash of the impossible-to-miss emotion?

Ours is a world where every resume suggests that the manager can do the corporate equivalent of ‘walk on water’.

What company and organisation does not have a glorious mission statement saying they will transform their industry? Value statements are remarkably the same. Every product and service claims to be absolutely ‘the best’.

In one’s cerebral toolkit, it helps to have mastered the paradox of when advancing on insights and understanding, there is a need to retreat on worn out closely held beliefs. Strangely, often backward is forward.

In this TikTok social media world of a tsunami of constant flimflam, who is to be believed? A little “my strength is made perfect in weakness” humility would make a refreshing change.

David is a director at aCatalyst Consulting | [email protected]

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