3 min read

Solve the hard problem first

Successful leaders attack the hard problems first, because those are the problems when solved, unlock the entire equation.
Solve the hard problem first
Solving hard problems first unlocks new opportunities.

Copasetic goals can be broken down into steps. Steps can be thought of as problems to solve. For example, if a goal is to launch a product, then there are indubitably a number of problems to solve in building the product. Invariably, examining the various problems in need of solving will highlight that there are at least two groups.

One group is made up of easy problems. These are the steps we've done before; they are familiar problems we've solved previously. There's also a group of complicated problems; they are known unknowns. These types of problems are new challenges; they are hard. It's critical to differentiate the two types of problems and prioritize them appropriately.

It's human nature

Unfortunately, while leaders can categorize steps correctly, they oftentimes prioritize them incorrectly. There’s a natural tendency for people to inadvertently prioritize easy work ahead of harder work. Afterall, solving hard problems usually takes a lot longer and oftentimes it’s quite satisfying to accomplish something (even if it’s easy). Nevertheless, when we go after the easy work before doing the hard work, we do ourselves a disservice.

Hard problems are usually the ones that when solved, open up doors and create new and hip opportunities. What's more, the hard problems are usually the ones that throw a wrench in things, resulting in a project that's perpetually 80% complete. Occasionally, hard problems can't be solved either! So it's prudent to attack this class of problems first. The reluctance to go after the hard problem is oftentimes the difference between success and failure.

Monkeys and pedestals

There’s a notion from Google’s moonshot company, X regarding monkeys and pedestals that captures the tension of easy problems versus hard problems quite nicely. As Annie Duke, a world champion poker player and author notes in her blog:

“imagine that you’re trying to teach a monkey to juggle flaming torches while it stands on a pedestal in the town square. Two tasks are competing for your money, time, and attention: training the monkey and building the pedestal.”

Of course, one task is easy and the other is hard. It’s tempting to solve the easy problem and build the pedestal first. It's a quick win and in doing so, you can show positive progres! But as she aptly states:

“there is no point in building pedestals if you can’t solve for the monkey.”

Solving the hard problem unlocks the entire equation! Get the monkey to juggle flaming torches and the world is your oyster.

One thing at a time

When thinking about monkeys and pedestals, it’s additionally important to recognize that in any set of choices, there’s usually a monkey and quite a few pedestals; moreover, once you solve for the monkey, there will undoubtedly be future choices that present a tension between the two. That is, there are always monkeys in the equation but you only have to solve one of them at a time.

Putting monkeys into perspective

Throughout my career, I've certainly prioritized pedestals at the expense of monkeys. Unfortunately, I've usually come to this conclusion after the fact.

Monkeys present themselves in various forms! They can be incredibly hard technical problems, but in practice, they're more often found in seemingly mundane activities such as finding customers or getting people to actually use your product.

Indeed, building a product is oftentimes the pedestal and getting people to use it is the monkey. The software industry is awash with tomes describing how to find product-market-fit, the essence of building minimal viable products, and avoiding a solution that's looking for a problem; however, time and time again, leaders overlook this class of hard problems and solve for the pedestal. The technology startup graveyard is littered with headstones etched with "they failed to solve for the monkey."

Leadership is the art of influencing people to achieve a goal. Moreover, an effective leader is capable of breaking a goal into steps. Those steps must be grouped into easy problems and hard problems. Successful leaders attack the hard problems first, because those are the problems when solved, unlock the entire equation. Don't fall into the trap of solving for the pedestal because it could mean the difference between success and failure.

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