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6 Tips to Wrestle Business Problems to the Ground

April 1, 2009

Look for an Ass Kicking

I wrestled for one year when I was an awkward, chubby, pubescent 13 year old.  (Not much has changed. lol)  At first, my teammates kicked the crap out of me everyday.  It sucked.  I wanted to quit after two weeks, but reasoned I should tough it out for the sake of  “character development.”  We would run miles in garbage bags, do push ups into infinity, run “suicides”, do sets of 1,000 sit ups.   Then we’d do technique training and spar.  This is where the ass kicking really began.  It was exhausting, but it made me stronger.  I was never the best wrestler, but competitors stopped taking me for granted towards the end, and I even won a few matches.

Why Business is like Wrestling

Both business and wrestling require conditioning, training, finesse, and commitment.  It takes a ton of reading and learning to understand a business to inform good decision making.  You need to synthesize volumes of data, and pull out trends with clarity.  You need to go deep on your customers and understand their unmet needs and purchase barriers.  You need to visit dozens of retailers and understand your trade dynamics.  You need to meet with dozens of colleagues in different functions and learn about their internal and external perspectives on the business.  It’s not easy.   I like to wrestle with business problems.   Business isn’t ballet. It’s an aggressive intellectual wrestling match where the smartest and strongest win–and everybody else is helplessly pinned to the ground.

The Jack Welch Approach (Debate as a Leadership Tool)

Jack Welch particularly inspired my business as wrestling philosophy.  I read Welchs’ book Winning a couple of years ago. I embrace a few of his tactics he used to to create a culture of intellectual inquiry and rigorous debate.

  1. Ferociously debate ideas with colleagues. The best ideas come out of creative teamwork.  If you study the champions of business, you always hear stories of colossal personalities sparring with one another using argument to converge on the right business strategy.  Role models include: Steve Jobs, Donald Keough, Warren Buffett, Steve Ballmer, Rupert Murdoch, the list is endless.
  2. Attack ideas, not people.  Many people confuse the difference between attacking an idea and attacking a person.  This is the key reason why we don’t see a lot of debate among the low ranks of corporations.  People are afraid they’ll get branded an “argumentative, anti-collaborator.”  In a teamwork obsessed decision by consensus culture (which most companies with over 500 employees are), an anti-collaborative reputation is dangerous for promotion and job security.
  3. Listen, Listen, Listen. When somebody is speaking, listen.  They are probably saying something intelligent.  A lot of folks are hot headed and like to debate because it’s “fun.”  Of course it’s fun, but that’s not why you do it.  You debate to learn, to sharpen ideas, and to inform decisions.  It doesn’t matter how smart you are.  Usually the best ideas come from other people, not you.  So, listen when they speak
  4. Commit ideas to writing.  It’s easy to spot a bad idea in writing.  Try to write your good ideas down.  You’ll usually discover your “good idea” sucks on the first attempt.  Seek input from colleagues.  Rewrite it a couple of times, and you’ll have a great idea.
  5. Structure some meetings as “debate sessions” rather than “information downloads.” People hate meetings because they are unbearably boring and unrelated to growing share or building the organization.  It’s either sitting through a semi-relevant PowerPoint or doing a  “team update to see what everybody else is working on.”  Not a productive hour of value creation.  Alternatively, set up an hour to debate the merits of a core strategy.  Request each individual contribute to the discussion.  Moderate it, and allow the good ideas to flourish.  You’ll see how motivated your colleagues get when you demand they express all the brilliant ideas they were too shy or indifferent to express.
  6. Play devil’s advocate. Good ideas become great ideas when they are challenged.  When somebody says something you broadly agree with, ask yourself: “What’s the weakness in that position?”  If you find one, attack.  It will make everyone a stronger leader and thinker.  It will also enable a better decision.  And, better decisions made consistently over time lead to sustained success.  Do you want sustained success?
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