Solve Systems, Not Symptoms





Transcript below, for those of you who prefer reading over listening!


Jeff, I’m glad to be back in the saddle with you this week after a brief hiatus for a vacation. Last time we were talking about personal responsibility and how that really is the wedge into learning – owning one’s responsibility in a situation, owning one’s reaction to a situation, is the way to opening the door to learning. 

But the other side of personal responsibility we often talk about at Talentism is the system. Recognizing the system in which we are operating – how we shape it, how we influence it, how we’re at the effect of it. So I’m excited to get your thoughts on that today. Why don’t you kick us off by describing what we mean when we say “the system,” and how is that a compliment or a counterpart to this idea of personal responsibility?


Great, and welcome back Angie. First, let’s start with a very simple definition of a system, because there are entire fields of study and world-class thinkers like Dr. Derek Cabrera dedicated to this. But let’s just start simply: a system really is just a bunch of people in an interdependent situation, where there are certain rules that are being followed, whether you know the rules or not. And so, if you and I are having a conversation, we’re creating a system. It’s a very small system – it’s a system between you and I –  but there are three parts to it: there’s you, there’s me, and there’s the relationship we have between us (and that relationship actually influences both of us). So we are influencing one another, and our belief about the relationship – the conversation we’re having, everything – influences us as well. Systems are incredibly complicated and they produce lots of weird outcomes. We like to start with the theory that every system is perfectly designed with the outcome it produces. There are some people who say: Just look at whatever answer is produced and then figure out the question. Don’t ask the questions to produce the answer. In other words, think in terms of what is reality (what is happening) and then try to decode the system behind it that is creating that reality.

Just for the purposes of this, we can say: systems follow rules, but rules aren’t physical laws. Physical laws can’t be broken – gravity is always gravity. But rules can be broken – they’re just what should be happening. Often when we think about the rules of a system, we are thinking in terms of black and white (it should do this, it should do that), and a lot of times systems act in ways that are very confusing to us. 

Let’s say you’re a founder and you’re creating a business, and that business is a system. It’s a set of relationships you have with a bunch of stakeholders – with your employees, vendors, capital partners or investors, landlords… Your business as a system: a bunch of interdependent relationships where we’re affecting each other. The difference for a leader is that you are creating part of that system. You are actually creating the system that’s influencing and impacting you, where a lot of people don’t have the agency or permission – especially from you – to create their own system. They’re joining your system. They’re saying, I’m giving up a certain level of autonomy and agency, so I can be a part of this thing of yours. And I often find that leaders don’t acknowledge that. And they don’t acknowledge the responsibilities that come along with saying, I’m going to create this system, I’m asking you to volunteer to join this, and there’s a certain power dynamic in this system, and I’m going to have more agency and authority to shape this system than I’m going to give you.

That’s the very nature of a hierarchy, and that’s what’s going on. We’ve been talking about how learning is really the root of long-term success. And in the midst of the situation that we’re all in, we all have to be learning faster and better. And the learning really starts with us. It starts with what we’re like, because we are literally creating our reality – that’s the way the brain works – and then we’re responding to the reality that we’re creating. So we’re a little system inside ourselves, and then we’re part of ever-expanding, bigger systems. You can design that system. You can affect the thing that affects you by designing the system that affects you. 

Now let’s talk about a couple of principles around that, and what that means, and what it means to have personal responsibility in the midst of being affected by a system – much of which you can’t really control. 

The first principle is: you can’t design around a self you don’t understand. This was a quote that came up from one of our clients. She’s a fabulous entrepreneur, and she was talking about everything she was learning in her work with Talentism and her clarity coach. She was starting to understand: design is possible, I can change the system around me, but I can only change that to the extent I understand myself. Because the system affects me, and the system is a part of me, and I’m creating that system. So I have to start with me, and I have to understand myself, because mostly I’m creating this system around me through unconscious action and bias. It’s not part of a plan. It’s not part of a conscious, logical, thoughtful, slow-thinking process. It’s happening many times every day in little movements that are compounding into a big system effect.

The second principle is: you don’t really understand yourself, if you don’t understand your system. I think this is a really hard one for people to understand, so I want to talk a little bit about that in reference to my health journey.

A quick refresh: almost exactly a year ago, April 1st, 2022, I get diagnosed with diabetes. I’m not going to belabor all of that. After an initial period of being in a blizzard, I start to think about what I am going to do about this, because this is existential. This will limit my time on earth, my time with the people I love, and my ability to achieve my potential. And I started thinking about myself and I thought about my blindspots and all the things my coaches Kurt and Andrew worked with me on and helped me see. One of the things I started to dig very deep into is: what system have I unwittingly created that has given me diabetes? The diabetes is mine – it’s not the system’s – I am the one being affected by diabetes. Diabetes wasn’t handed to me (although I have a genetic predisposition for it). No one gave it to me. I didn’t know I was accepting it. But all the same, if I don’t make it mine, if I make it the system’s problem, if I make it my genetics’ problem, if I make it somebody else’s problem, I can’t learn. You can’t learn if you don’t accept responsibility.

So I have to start at: diabetes is mine, it’s affecting me, but why did this occur? I’m not trying to seek blame. I’m just trying to get the picture. And one of the things that occurred to me is: moving to California at the age of 6. I was a very shy kid and I was in a very strange place. We moved from New Jersey to California. I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t really have a voice in this as a 6-year-old, and one day I’m in a really different place. And one of my earliest memories is my dad taking me to McDonald’s to help me feel better. He said, Hey listen, why don’t we go to the McDonald’s around the corner? And I remember ordering McDonald’s hamburger, and thinking that this was the best thing on the face of the Earth. This was just amazing. It wasn’t just that it tasted good. It was the whole experience. It was a reward. It was getting time with my dad. It was safety in the midst of all this change. And so at the age of 6, I started to develop a set of beliefs about fast food, and rewards, and feeling good, and safety, and all of the good feelings that came along with that. 

I can chart different parts of my evolution as a human being against the journey of fast food. I remember the first time my dad let me get a Big Mac. I remember the first time I won a sporting event and he let me get two Big Macs. I remember going either to McDonald’s or Shakey’s Pizza after every sporting event to celebrate wins and to console losses. Fast food became a big part of how I thought about achievement and celebration. When I say “I thought,” I don’t mean consciously – we all run on our unconscious mental models. Our mental models are a set of rules that help us make sense of experience, and try to optimize experience so that we can achieve what we want to achieve. I developed this mental model around fast food. 

During the pandemic – the 2 years preceding my diabetes diagnosis, which were the unhealthiest 2 years of my life – I felt a huge amount of stress. The company was struggling. I felt a huge responsibility to help take care of my clients, who are really struggling. Not only just with their business, but psychologically and existentially. I felt a big responsibility to take care of my family, and to be there for them. I’m socially and physically isolated from everybody. But one of the things I could do is I could order fast food for home delivery. And I did a lot of that. I did that. No one else did that for me. I did that, and I own that. But it’s not surprising that I did that. It’s not surprising that I turned to fast food as a way to feel better. It’s not surprising that when it’s incredibly cheap and incredibly easy to get that high, that I turned to it. What’s interesting during the pandemic is that this system that enables obesity got a lot better at enabling obesity. And you see this in all the health numbers. Faster delivery, cheaper prices. faster turnaround. Cost per calorie, convenience per calorie. Cost going down, convenience going up. Stress going up. Of course we’re going to consume more.

In order for me to understand my health journey, I had to understand that I owned it. I bought the Big Mac. I ate it. I felt good when I did it. I felt bad for the rest of the day after I did it. But that’s all me. That’s not my parents. That’s not society. That’s all me. But I don’t judge myself for doing it, because A) there’s an entire system set up to help me do it, and B) judging myself will make me want to get another Big Mac.

The negative feeling of what we call the BSL – Bad, Stupid, Lazy – the self-BSL (the diagnosis of self as being insufficient or broken or wanting, is such a negative confusing impulse in our brain that we almost inevitably turn to those short-hit, sugar-high good feelings in order to overcome them. In understanding this system, I was not placing blame, but I was not judging but I was seeking to understand.


Jeff, what’s really standing out to me is this idea that at many points in our lives, there might be things we do that are automatic. We don’t recognize them as a choice. We’re doing them because we’ve been operating in a system that incentivizes or has programmed us to make that choice through time. 

And I think I hear that you’re encouraging people to look at it as a choice. Have some recognition of the system that incentivizes or programs us to choose a certain way – and rather than seeing that choice as inevitable (either because we blame the system, or because it doesn’t even feel like a choice) – and recognize that there is some agency in that choice. But not in that moment say, I’m making terrible choices, I must be a terrible person. Just sort of stare at that situation. There is a system. A lot of how that system got created is outside of me. In some ways I am a product of it, but I am not totally at the mercy of it, if I can at least recognize that it’s happening, and there are moments of choice, and in those moments there is still agency, and I have personal responsibility in those moments.


Yes, well articulated. And then in the moment of agency, you have a choice – it’s not just a choice between doing it or not doing it, it’s a choice of allocating attention to denial of the system or impulse, or improving the design so you don’t get the signal in the first place. This is a really important distinction that most people fail to see. I would imagine that most people reading or listening are thinking: Got it, yep, you put the Big Mac in your mouth. You live around the corner from a McDonald’s yep. McDonald’s makes it cheap, fast, and easy for you to consume as many of their calories as you want. That’s bad for your health, especially given your genetics. There’s a system, there’s you, got it. Don’t judge that because that’ll give you more negative emotional signal to continue the bad habit. Got it. 

People probably buy into that. But then in the moment that is happening, the typical thinking – and we see this in our clients all the time – is, I’m going to have to apply attention because if I go on autopilot I’m going to eat the Big Mac. So what I’ll do is I’ll apply the attention to denial. I’m not going to eat the Big Mac. I have willpower. I have grit. I have determination. And in that moment, you have solved that immediate problem, but you’ve actually compounded the long-term problem. I would have denied myself the calories that would give me more insulin shock, but I actually haven’t solved the system problem. So the next time I have to deny myself again, and again. And meanwhile, every time I deny myself, it’s some of the hardest attention I can spend.

Taking something that is deeply ingrained in your psyche and your physiology – in the case of food, cravings and diabetes – and saying, I’m going to apply every ounce of will I have to keep saying no to that, is a terrible way to spend that attention. Because no matter what, it’s eventually going to fail. We talk about this all of the time – about why we don’t buy into the rationalist conceptualization of willpower. Ultimately, willpower can work in short bursts, but it doesn’t change the system that causes the bad outcome. And eventually, willpower –  because it takes such a glycogen load on the brain – runs out. You get tired. You get depleted. It’s the end of a long day. You just don’t have it in the tank to have the willpower. You haven’t yet built the mental model or the habit. You’re still depending on conscious action to deny yourself a reward that matters to you, whether you want it to or not. So willpower eventually runs out. You haven’t changed the system. Most people and coaching agree on using willpower to deny yourself. Our approach in clarity coaching is to try a design experiment to see if we can change the system.

In my case, I knew that if a Big Mac showed up on my doorstep, I was going to eat it. So I did two things: I got in sync with my wife that we weren’t going to order anymore fast food via delivery service. We were going to force ourselves to go out and get it. And second, I consciously changed my travel routes to not go by any fast food, because what I needed was six months of habit building to be in the place where I didn’t feel that craving. I needed some cold turkey space, and I needed that space because of the design. Because of my design, not because of my willpower. So in addition to everything you said, which I agree with, clarity coaching says: We have to understand why this is occurring, and we have to start trying design experiments, so that we can prevent the system input that is giving you the habit or the reaction that is causing the bad outcome in the first place.


So I think what I’m hearing you say is, at the moment we recognize something that feels automatic to us is happening, there’s a moment to pause and recognize I have some agency here. To exercise that agency, I have to use up some of my limited reserves – attention, time, resources – to try and choose otherwise. Choose against my programming, choose against the incentives of the system. Which is a one-time solution and takes a lot of those reserves. 

Or, I can use that attention, the resources, the reserves that I have to step back and examine the system, and see what is available to me to change within the system itself. See how I can affect the incentives that’ll be affecting me, not just today, but going forward. And apply my attention to that much more leveraged  much more long-term impactful system change.


Yes, exactly. So let’s take an example we see all the time with our clients. A phenomenon I call: solving symptoms, not systems. You see it all the time. Very common human trait. If you think about it from an evolutionary perspective,  when we developed our prefrontal cortex and these complex brain structures as primates, we lived in a much simpler world. There weren’t buildings. There weren’t cars. There wasn’t electricity. It was just: I need food, shelter, sex, and protection. Pretty simple. So we developed a brain that is very good at modeling that kind of world.

Now –  because of our technological capability, conceptual ability, and language – we have created an incredibly more complex world. We’ve got this brain that wants to respond to very simple things in front of us, to get the feedback loop of having just solved a problem. Like, there’s a tiger, I run, I solve the problem. Simple. Simple system. Person. Tiger. Run. Saved my life. Simple. Feels good to run. Feels good to escape. And now we’re sitting in the middle of building companies, and we’re building these companies according to our vision of where we want to go, the technologies that are available to us, the many people we depend on and who depend on us, the market conditions, talent, capital, all these markets… So our world today is just incredibly complex. But yet, we’re still that primate that wants to respond to the simple signal. So you get this thing where we solve symptoms, not systems. 

At Talentism, we see this happen all the time (a lot of our clarity coaches sit with clients at C-Suite meetings, board meetings, in conversations with key executives), where somebody comes to our client, the CEO, and says (I’m making this up), “we’re not going to make numbers this month. I know we said we were going to do 10 million this month. We’re only going to do 8.” So this is triggering. I (the client) expected one thing and got another. Confusion ensues. Confusion is physiologically unpleasant. I want to get rid of the confusion. So I want to jump into action, and the action is, I’m going to start solving the problem. I’m the CEO, I’ve got power, I’m deciding to juice sales more, spend more on marketing, and I’m just firing off solutions. Just 1, 2, 3, do this, do that…

What the client is failing to do is understand that it’s not an individual problem. It’s a systems problem. Your revenue and sales are a lagging indicator of a whole bunch of things that happened before them: the products you develop, how do you go to market with those products, what’s the macro market for your products… It’s about how clear you were as CEO and as leader, about what you wanted, and the design for getting that. There’s all sorts of things that have to add up to get to that moment of successful or unsuccessful sales. 

But when we get that signal as a leader that we’re failing, we jump into problem solving. And what’s the net effect of that? First of all, no learning. Zero. No diagnosis to figure out what exactly has gone on and why that happened, so therefore there can’t be any learning. Also no trust building because nobody’s taking responsibility for anything. This is the SVB thing we talked about last time, where nobody takes any responsibility, and trust erodes because somebody did something, and that led to this case. And then the other thing is it actually produces a ton of waste because it’s unlikely the CEO has all the information needed to be really good in that moment of problem solving.

The CEO or the leader’s responsibility is the system, not the symptom. Assuming you’re more than 5 people in a garage, there’s a system, and the system is producing those results. And you are responsible for designing, diagnosing, and evolving that system. But you can’t do that if you don’t take personal responsibility for the part you had in that. And you can’t solve it if you actually don’t diagnose and deploy fixes at the system level. If instead you dive into the shiny object of the immediate threat and problem solving, nothing improves. And not only does nothing improve, but you generally take a lot of actions that are wasteful: waste time, capital, and attention – your three most precious resources. 

You as CEO have created a business. The business has a lot of stakeholders. You are choosing goals that are increasingly more complex, more difficult, and at higher risk over time. And you’re making a bunch of design and system level decisions about how you’re going to achieve those goals. You’re hiring people into jobs. You’re defining strategies. You’re picking products. You’re building a system that you’re expecting to produce a certain output. And when that output doesn’t happen, you have to start with you, and understand that you designed that system, and you have to fix it at the system level – or at the very least learn at the system level, the design level. What did you expect to happen? What actually happened? What part of the design or the system didn’t work? What did you as CEO and designer learn there?

That’s an example of where we often see people jump into trying to solve symptoms, not systems.


Jeff, one of the reasons I can imagine that it feels very natural to jump to solutioning the problem in front of you is – for a lot of fast-moving founders and high-growth organizations, being able to quickly come up with solutions is how they got to where they are. And this sort of stepping back taking responsibility for the system and diagnosing failures at the system level is challenging because often the systems are, if not invisible, implicit. In most cases, it’s not as though a CEO sat down and sketched out the architecture of the system. It was just a compounded set of decisions over time. Hiring decisions, org decisions, etc. 

So I wonder if you can guide us through what it looks like once we get an output signal – hey, something didn’t happen the way we expected – to actually investigate at the system level to make explicit the implicit system, and how to think about interrogating the system.


Absolutely. Let’s start simply. There’s a discipline to this. There’s a set of frameworks, thinking. and application of that thinking, that Talentism specializes in and deploys through a number of means – one of which is clarity coaching. Just like I said in the episode where I talked about my health, I had to go get help because everything you’re saying, Angie, is absolutely true. Most, if not all, people have designed their system unconsciously. A bunch of small, compounding decisions that add up into a system effect and output. And you may be at a point where you’re thinking, oh, wow I’m listening to this podcast or reading this transcript, and now I’m open to the fact I’ve created the mess that I’m in the middle of, and that mess is making me worse. It’s lowering my ability to make good decisions. It’s doing a lot of things that are making me worse. It’s taking me away from what I could be good at, my potential. Taking me away from being an excellent CEO. I can understand that. And then Angie, to your question: Okay, now what do I do? 

The first thing I would say is, help is available, and clarity coaches can show you how to do that. In that episode where I talked about my coach, Kurt, he wasn’t saying let’s-do-this-let’s-do-that. Sometimes that’s what he did. But he was teaching me how to think about my health system. He was teaching me how to think about all the things that were impacting my health, all the habits I had that were limiting my potential, all the ways I was thinking about my identity, thinking about who I am and what I care about that was just flat wrong. He was helping me decode all those things and see them. And while he was doing that, he was actually teaching me how to do that myself.

Help is available. A clarity coach is somebody who can do this with you, and help you do it for yourself over time. That’s the first thing. 

And second, in order to get to that point, you have to accept the reality that you created a system that is creating bad results. And by “bad,” I’m not making a moral judgment here. I’m describing that you thought you’d get one thing, and you got another. In many ways I think that’s good, because that’s how you learn. 

You create a hypothesis about the future. We call those hypotheses plans. Plans and budgets are just hypotheses about the future, educated guesses about what’s going to happen – you spend a certain amount of money, you’ll get a certain amount of output. And then we start working the plan, and things turn out differently than we expected, and we become confused because we expected it would do one thing but we experience another. At Talentism, we believe that confusion is the root of all learning. So those aren’t bad outcomes. Those are gold. They’re unrefined gold and you have to refine them into value. You have to refine them into clarity. 

So the first thing you have to do is sit there and say: Okay, confusion isn’t bad. It’s good. There’s a system level thing here. I own it. But I don’t know what it is, so that’s hard. It’s hard to feel like I’m responsible for something I’m not good at. But it happens every day, might as well just admit it. I’m responsible for this but I don’t know what to do about it, and I should get help. Now, in the meantime where you’re getting help, ask questions before you start giving solutions

The first question I always like to ask is: How should this have worked? What is the design? Because a lot of times what happens is people think things should be running a certain way, and it ain’t. I encounter this at least 5, 6 times a week in my work with people. 

They’ll say: We failed to file our S-1 on time or something.

I ask: How is it supposed to work?

They say: Okay well, the corporate controller does this, and the CFO does this. 

I say: Great. Are you sure everybody thinks it should work that way? 

They say: Yeah, of course, I’ve talked about it.

I say: If you don’t have rock solid evidence that everyone’s in sync on how it should work, it is safe to assume that people are confused or out of sync about how it should work.

That is the first rock I always turn over: the out-of-syncness when the leader is confident or in certainty that everything’s crystal clear. It’s obvious, everybody’s in sync – those things are rarely true, and you can turn that rock over first. When you find out that people aren’t in sync, or they’re super confused about how things should work, you’re going to have to take time to articulate what you believe again, and check whether people are really tracking. And you’re probably going to have to go through that articulation 6, 7, 10 times. A lot. 

Every leader I have worked with – Angie, you’re so right – they have not gotten to where they are by being good managers. They got to where they were with product vision, sales ability, and strategy. And so when I tell somebody: you’re going to have to go through this how-things-should-work-loop exercise 7, 8, 9, 10 times, you just see the blood drain from their face. They think it feels like such a waste of time. But that is how human beings work. That’s what human beings need to do in order to coordinate well. That’s the root of all good change management. That’s the root of all great leadership – the constant refrain of where we are going, the constant refrain of how it should work, the constant refrain of what we value. Repeat it again and again. 

Now, some people we’ve worked with have said: Look, I’m never going to develop that habit, I hate that. And I say: Great. Let’s create a design that does that, so you don’t have to. You don’t have to do it, you just have to make sure it gets done. So we can create a different system that makes sure that people have the constant refrain. 

But the first thing you have to understand is that it’s needed. And that you created a system that didn’t prioritize, highlight, or incentivize that. So of course you’re getting the bad results, because people aren’t in sync, and that’s not their fault. It was your responsibility to get them in sync. So understand that about yourself. Accept that about yourself. Change the design so someone else can do that, someone who actually is good at it. That’s an example of what you can do in that moment. But again,mid- to long-term, the fastest solution is to get help from somebody who’s good at this. 


Two things that you said are really sticking out to me. 

One is that it’s difficult to do this alone. I think that’s such a simple but powerful reminder that when we’re trying to solve problems, we might try and use the tools at our disposal, our cleverness, and the information we have. But when we’re trying to see ourselves and how we may have been at the heart of a system that yielded that problem, and really diagnose our piece of it well, that’s hard to do on our own. That requires somebody who can give us some perspective on ourselves, and some perspective on the system we’re sitting inside of, that we may not be able to perceive as clearly. That really stuck out to me, and what it means to get the help of a trained clarity coach.

The second thing is that an easy way to start uncovering what even is the system that I might not be seeing,  what is sort of the implicit system that I have created, is to test whether the things I thought were obvious, are actually obvious. Test that people are in agreement on the things that I thought everyone was in agreement on. Because in uncovering that not obviousness, and in uncovering that disagreement, I have a chance at understanding where there are dependencies in my system, where I have created something where I believe I am getting people aligned, I am putting things on the right track, and that’s not actually the case. 

Both of those things really stuck out to me as you were speaking.


Yeah, awesome. That’s exactly right. Being a founder, the CEO, a high-growth executive, whatever it is… These positions are really hard. And you shouldn’t have to do it by yourself. So you need help, and it’s okay to get help.

Another thing I wanted to talk about is that there’s a personal preference, a habit of mind, a style, that many leaders we work with have, that causes dramatic system effects, that then they are completely bumfuzzled by. This tendency is conflict avoidance. 

Taking a step back, human beings are largely a conflict-avoidant species – hard to recognize that in our world of wars and all of these terrible things – but we’re a fairly conflict-avoidant species. That makes sense because we are a social species, so it’s far better to get along than it is to be in conflict. But that tends to create in us a desire to not say difficult things to people who could benefit from our perspective. We broadly call this conflict-avoidant behavior. When leaders are conflict avoidant, they don’t give feedback, they don’t share their feelings or perspectives, they don’t engage in difficult conversations to move things forward. So learning doesn’t happen. What is the net effect of that? 

This is fascinating. At one point I was working with about 10 high-growth companies at the same time, and 7 or 8 of the CEOs were super conflict avoidant. Given their financials, I formed a correlation between the degree of conflict avoidance, and the amount of money wasted. It was a huge system effect. Now this wasn’t scientific, and I’m not pretending it’s science, but the correlation was pretty interesting. The more the CEO or leader chose to avoid what they considered difficult conversations, the more money they spent to overcome the problem. The way they typically spent that money is they would layer somebody, and that’s expensive. They would divide responsibilities up, sort of helter skelter, and hire more executives. They would put more people on the team to try to give support to the “failing person.” Also expensive. They would start to discount product launches in their plans. They would start to backpedal on commitments to the board. All just to avoid conflict. 

So what they were doing is – from this very personal place that they either couldn’t see or were actually seeing very clearly through our coaching but couldn’t accept, and wouldn’t work on – creating a system of waste. 

All of this work of hiring extra people, delaying plans, not launching products…. All of that was centered in a system where not only the CEO but other people started to get the signal: Don’t make waves and you can get along here because the CEO isn’t going to hold you accountable for that. They’re not going to call that out because they’re doing it too. So it starts to develop this culture of waste in these businesses that didn’t learn anything from making these big financial decisions. 

So what was happening is, an individual couldn’t see themselves, couldn’t get the clarity about themselves, couldn’t design a system around themselves – because they would refuse to actually understand themselves. Then the system they created creates tons of waste and problems, which triggered my clients significantly. They thought, why are we wasting so much money. Then that would make them more overwhelmed, and more conflict avoidant. Because they felt like they couldn’t talk to anybody, because nobody got it. It was actually because they couldn’t put themselves in the center of the picture, because they couldn’t take responsibility for that, because they wouldn’t be willing to design around that conflict avoidance, because they thought it was an insufficiency. It cost them a lot. It wasn’t great. But because they judged it, because they blamed themselves for it, it became another source of confusion. They wanted to avoid it because it was painful, so they didn’t do anything about it. They didn’t pursue the designs. They didn’t improve. So the waste got built into the system, which created more bad outcomes, which then put them more in conflict and more conflict avoidance. The system spins down until the music stops, and you have to sit down and there aren’t enough chairs, or the cash runs out.

So this is another way where leaders have to take personal responsibility for what they’re like in the systems they create, and that those systems then make them worse and limit their potential.


I’m not sure that I can summarize that better than you did. I’m going to try and reflect back some of the points that are really sticking with me. The first is a heuristic that leaders can use to look at their own behavior which is: where is my unwillingness to deal with something costing me money? And in this case, the common thing that you’re calling out is conflict avoidance. 

I don’t think you’re saying that real a-hole CEOs save money – the ones who are berating or loud or angry–  I think you’re saying CEOs who can stare at what is uncomfortable for them, take responsibility for that discomfort, and deal with the issue with sufficient personal responsibility, compassion, but also honesty and accountability. This heuristic is for everybody to do a little reflection.

Then I’m hearing you say that being able to reflect on that – what’s uncomfortable –  is difficult because it can feel shameful. There’s this extra layer of not wanting to deal with it because if it has been costing the organization money, if it feels like a deficiency, there’s a tendency to want to push it down even more. So there’s an extra difficulty of being able to access and deal with the behavior. That sounds like another reason to seek help, to seek somebody who you’ve hired specifically because they’re trusted to talk to about these things.


Yes. Great summary. Just to be clear –  I’m so glad you brought the point up –  I have had many clients who, as you say, are complete a-holes. They’re arrogant. They waste a ton of money. They waste a ton of attention. They are just waste machines.

So it’s not that the opposite of conflict avoidance is the secret to success. Someone who is not willing to see themselves clearly, design a system based on what they’re like in order to achieve goals, and deal with the outcomes of that system, and put themselves as personally responsible for it, and see it at the system level – they are going to waste time, money, and attention. It’s a given. It’s not a maybe, it’s a definite. 

I’ve worked with companies that have been incredibly lucky on product-market fit, go-to-market timing, etc. and they seem like they can make no mistakes. They keep launching new products fast, and it keeps going up and up, and the revenue goes up, and the funding goes up. And the music always stops. And when it stops, it’s not just because of the macro market. It’s not just because something that was outside of your control happened, and you have to deal with it. It’s because all the way along, you were ignoring all the things that created waste in the system. And when the music stops, you have to deal with those problems that have been building for a long time. Those problems have really ingrained themselves in people’s thinking and trying to unwind that is super expensive. The longer you wait on a problem, The more expensive it is to deal with.


Jeff, I think this is a good place to ask if there’s anything you want to offer as a concluding thought, or anything we didn’t get to cover in today’s conversation?


Sure. Don’t take your kids to McDonald’s, ha. 

My takeaway is this is very difficult. It’s super difficult to deal with the fact that you are creating a system that’s upending you, that’s preventing you from being the best version of you. If you’re building a company, leading a group of people, pursuing a bold vision, it’s a lonely business, and it feels terrible. I understand that. Boy, do I understand that every day. But it is a solvable problem. We have created a system to solve it. It’s going to require some simple but difficult things like accepting responsibility for what you’ve done, and why you did it, and then designing your way to success. But It’s possible thousands of people have done it, and you can do it too.


Alright, thank you for that, Jeff.


Thank you, Angie. Always a pleasure.

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