On Finding The Fulcrum Of Understanding

One of the most difficult things to do these days is to focus.

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There are so many distractions vying for our time, and while we may think that we can multitask, parallel process, and generally do everything, the reality is that we still live our lives in a linear way and to achieve great things we need to focus.

The big question gets then gets to be what to focus on.

A lot of people find it very difficult to look beyond the system itself. They see the whole and that is as far as it gets. This is a product of a lot of things – and it starts with “the complexity of everything”. The complexity of everything is what you get when you integrate digital technology into what used to be relatively simple tools and devices. The telephone was in its first incarnation an utterly magical device in terms of the difference it made to society, and yet from a technical point of view it was quite simple: a few very simple electrical circuits connected by copper wires to a network that was physical, that a relatively unskilled engineer could service and fix. Now we have smart phones that have extraordinarily complex circuitry, which you throw away when they break – they are too complex to fix and the cost would be greater than replacement.

Virtually everything that is digital is really complex.

People are becoming used to this and now not only do they assume that they will never understand what goes on inside the “black b0x” but they also form the view that everything is complicated, and therefore they don’t need to know how things work. Someone else will do that.

But what this leads to is that people don’t take the time to think about how systems function. Because they don’t think about this they don’t realize that to build anything of value you have to be able to construct the system architecture at the outset, and if you want to understand why systems go wrong, you have to be able to de-construct that same architecture in order to understand where what I might call “the fulcrum of understanding” exists. By this I mean the key idea in the system – the concept that is the reason for the device’s existence.

This is often not what you might think when you look at the device or the system from the outside. Sometimes in today’s complex management systems the rationale for existence lies a fair way distant from what we see from the outside. Take Google as an example: Google indexes the world’s information. But it has to make money to afford to do so. It does that by selling access to words. That is a long way from me searching for some inspiration for a lecture that I am going to give…

In establishing businesses and in identifying how to fix businesses that are broken, the investigation of the system architecture of the business is a key ingredient to solving the big problems. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of time and often a variety of skills. It requires an ability to reframe problems too.

The key to this is to understand that to deliver an outcome often you have to focus not on the end goal but on the tactical goal that is the entry point of solving the problem and in getting to that point you find that you discover a lot more about the end goal and how to get there than where you started. I work with students who forget that to get hired first you have to figure out how to get interviewed. Equally I work with CEO’s of companies who forget that in order to raise capital you first have to get an understanding of what your investor is going to want to see you present….

And the more that the devices that we use become complex, the more difficult it is for people to appreciate the need to identify where the fulcrum of understanding lies. Finding it is the key part of developing strategy.

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