How to solve “hard things.”

Note, there is a podcast version of this post. You can find it below, or in your podcast player of choice. Search, “Mike’s Notes.”

In his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz notes that for hard problems there’s no prescription.

“The problem with these books (about business) is that they attempt to provide a recipe for challenges that have no recipes. There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations.”

To solve hard things you need to act and learn, get dirty, and take your lumps.

A lot of Horowitz’s book is about his own lumps, and advice for people in business. That’s not me.

It’s not that I disagree – or know enough to –  but that I’m on a different path. A lot of other people are too. Horowitz’s experiences are helpful, but, and this is his point, not prescriptive.

Like everyone else on this site, the specifics don’t matter. You can’t be the next Seth Godin or Mark Cuban or Robert Kurson. You have to be you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from other people.

“Fools say that they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by others’ experiences.” – Bismarck

We want the big ideas that work most of the time. Then we can experiment on our own. We can twist and tweak from a place that worked once. That’s the systems for success here.

And Horowitz has an idea for us.

Silver bullet and lead bullet thinking.

Let’s set the scene. Ben and Mike (Homer) are working at Netscape trying to figure out a way to survive. Microsoft has just released a web server that’s better in every way. Horowitz writes:

I immediately went to work trying to pivot our server product line to something that we could sell for money. The late, great Mike Homer and I worked furiously on a set of partnerships and acquisitions that would broaden the product line and surround the Web server with enough functionality that we would be able to survive the attack.

Okay, that should work, right?

Enter Bill Turpin:

“Ben, those silver bullets that you and Mike are looking for are fine and good, but our Web server is five times slower. There is no silver bullet that’s going to fix that. No, we are going to have to use a lot of lead bullets.”

The lesson is this, there is no panacea, no cure all, no silver bullet. There is only a lot of hard work. 

We understand this, but why?

Silver bullets don’t exist because problems range from complicated to complex. Taylor Pearson explained this vis a vis jobs. We’ll look at it at the macro level.

A lot of problems exist on the complicated to complex spectrum (anything less complicated is an equation, 2+2).

complicatedcomplexspectrum.pngThe challenge for Horowitz was how to solve a complex business situation. It was closer to predicting the weather than the tides.

Horowitz’s business choices were a complex network, like an ecosystem. Pull on one string, and  another moves too. That stressed him out. Horowitz was sick and couldn’t sleep as he tried to solve these types of problems. Until he realized something, he was thinking about it all wrong.

“All the mental energy you use to elaborate on your misery would be far better used trying to find the one seemingly impossible way out of your current mess.”

Rather than worry about finding a silver bullet, Horowitz needed to spend his time firing lead ones.

It’s like untying a knot done by a 5-year-old. There’s no single tug to unravel it. You just need to start twisting and winding. That’s what Horowitz started to do.

How to solve complex problems.

Complex problems often require new questions. Ask new questions and you’ll start to get new answers.

Horowitz switched from, “what’s the worst that can happen,” to “if the worst happens what will I do?”

Like Newton under the apple tree or Archimedes in the bathtub – Horowitz got an idea.

Note, acting does imply accuracy. As Barry Ritholtz points out when he spoke with  Michael Mauboussin, Jason Zweig, and Ken Fisher – “don’t just do something, sit there” can be good advice.

When to act.

Act when you need to survive. Each big business decision in Horowitz’s book was when his company needed to just survive. That’s when you need to act, to not die.

Conclusion.

  1. Complicated and complex problems have many connected nodes.
  2. Those nodes tug on each other and create problems that live in an ecosystem.
  3. There is no single solution to change a complex problem.
  4. Change only happens through a lot of work on the different nodes.
  5. To do this you need to forget about worrying and take the right action.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

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