Bernard Roth

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

‘Bernie’ Roth trained as a mechanical engineer. He would build things. Then an opportunity to visit California came up. He was a New Yorker but his wife wanted to take the trip so they went, and he never left. Decades later David Kelley got cancer and Roth was asked to be the dean at Stanford’s, and again he never left.

Today we’ll look at Roth’s book, The Achievement Habit and some quotes from a talk he gave at Stanford. Included are lessons from his time on both coasts, work in multiple university departments, and consulting with a variety of firms.

Roth aims to apply “design thinking” to a person’s life. “Design thinking came about because it uses methods used by designers to design stuff, but now it applies it to almost everything.” It’s a powerful idea because part of what ‘design’ allows is for ‘designers’ and the first question to ask is, What’s the problem?

Designers know, Roth writes, that next-to-nothing has inherent meaning. Almost all meaning is assigned. Is cereal a breakfast food? Not in my house. That’s an assigned meaning. People, Roth proposes, get into trouble when they assign “functional fixedness,” like thinking cereal is only for breakfast. This idea comes through in our language, to a person with a hammer every problem is a nail.

Hammers are only good for nailing is functional fixedness.

But not so fast Adam Savage writes that every tool is a hammer. Designers, like Savage and Roth, wrote their books to inspire people to summize and solve situations in new ways.

Let’s say you’ve got a chain of pizza restaurants. It’s a large company and sales have stagnated. Surveys say that customers don’t like the taste. There’s also an urban legend that the pizza is so cheap because it’s cardboard, not dough, for crust.

This was Patrick Doyle’s situation at Domino’s. It wasn’t enough for Domino’s to change the taste (though they did), Doyle had to change how people saw Domino’s.

In his talk, Roth tells a related story where he spent five minutes looking for the gas-tank-cover-release on a rental car. After his frustrated search, a woman pulled up to the next pump over and he asked her where the lever was. ‘There is none’ she said. The cover opened with a touch. Roth attempted to solve the wrong problem (Where’s the handle?). Had Doyle only focused on taste he would have isolated the wrong problem too.

The first part of good design is finding the right problem. Domino’s situation was like a rummy hand – keep the best and discard the worst.

Roth had a student whose goal was to get a better night’s sleep. So his project for the class was to fix his bed. At their meeting the student admitted that he was behind. Roth gave advice. The student got further behind. Roth wished him luck. When the end of the semester arrived the student presented his solution: a new mattress. Roth gave him an A.

“Design thinking emphasizes that you always make sure you’re working on the real problem.”

Bernie Roth

The real problem is sometimes hard to find because we’re liars. There’s always “a goooood reason” for doing anything and people lie to paint themselves in the nicest light possible around those reasons. “If you don’t want to do something,” Roth writes, “the world will give you a reason.”

This is part-of-the-reason Roth started his class and wrote his book, The Achievement Habit. According to Roth, action and achievements are muscles. “I’m advocating for living your life as reason free as you possible can.” Don’t find a good reason, act instead.

Trying is not doing. That’s okay, but don’t confuse the two. A friend told Roth, “Bernie, every time time I’ve hit a block that’s what got me to do something great and creative.” Constraints aren’t blocks so much as gaps. Constraints help. Film school restricts students. Conan O’Brien said, “The funniest thing in the world is to give someone restraint.” Sam Hinkie said, “Within heavy constraints, thinking different is one of the few ways you can do anything differently.”

It’s good when resources are limited because that means old problems are solved in new ways.

Adopting this approach to problem solving takes work. Finding the ‘Why’ to the ‘Why’ means asking more questions. Getting past our ‘goooood reasons’ means being honest. Doing despite obstacles takes effort, iteration, and ingenuity. Those are all things Roth might say is good design.

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