The Art & Science of Recovery [Chris Gaviglio, Jonah Oliver]

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“0.4% improvement is competitively significant.”

High stakes decisions, performance expectations, ambitious projects, adversity, balance, prioritisation, transition and change. We’re all living and working under uncertainty, stress and pressure.

Rather than just surviving, what can we do to thrive in these environments as individuals and teams?

Dr Chris Gaviglio is the Head of Strength & Conditioning at the Queensland Academy of Sport with nearly 20 years of strength and conditioning training experience with Olympic sports and professional codes (Wallabies, Gold Coast Suns, QLD Maroons Rugby League). He’s an applied sports science researcher (performance biomarkers, blood flow restriction training, warm-up and peri-competition strategies) and speaker and consultant on enhancing human performance: From World Class to World Best. He’s also a product designer/entrepreneur (Thera-wedge, Backsak, Sports Rehab Tourniquet),  husband and father of two.

Jonah Oliver is one of Australia’s top performance psychologists. He combines sport psychology and neuroscience to facilitate peak performance with experience ranging from Olympic gold medallists, executives, professional codes (Brisbane Roar, Gold Coast Suns, Essendon), to car racing teams (Porsche – Le Mans World Champion, V8s), indigenous performing artists and surgeons. He’s an executive coach, author, speaker, consultant on talent identification, leadership and organisational performance around the world. He’s also a husband and father of two.

Both of these guys have had a huge impact on me (personally, professionally and in my sporting career) and I thought this was a great opportunity for an in-depth exploration of the principles, tools and strategies for physical and mental recovery. While recovery is front and centre in any sporting endeavour, it is almost either completely ignored, or at worst, often seen as a sign of weakness, particularly in business and career contexts. 

I love the interplay of the physical and mental and that’s why having both of these guys’ perspectives was really interesting and the way they both think about recovery for both daily life and major events was fascinating.

We spoke about lessons learnt from elite performance for individuals and teams and how they can be applied at work, at home and in our daily lives. 

Enjoy!

PS:
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You might also be interested in my interview with Tatiana Grigorieva (Olympic silver medal, Pole Vault) on Transitions, Fear and Willingness.


Event Notes

Tools, Links and Resources

Conversation Notes (with time stamps for video)

[5:00] Backgrounds

Chris’ background – trainer to the stars
Jonah’s background – working in a prison, retraining

[12:00] What is Recovery and why is it important?
Jonah:
AFL: track, watches, wellness each morning, cortisol levels, urine samplesRecovery: it’s not about the amount of stress you’re exposed to, it’s the amount of recovery you have to to balance it.

Chris:
State of Origin: How can we provide an environment so that they can perform at their optimum? From the language that we talk about to ambient vision, colours etc.
How do we get someone back to their optimum as quickly as possible? So many options out there but ultimately it’s all individual: cryotherapy, flotation tanks.

The brain rules the body. Don’t want to spend hard energy in recovery. How can we potentiate or prepare our body for performance?

[16:48] How has the idea of recovery changed over the years? Have there been any surprises? 

Jonah:
Used to be passive (eg: go on holiday).
The evidence has transitioned to favour active recovery.
Do something more active and tap into more domains.

Chris:
Athletes do better with doing something on their day off – sets up the week better. Cryotherapy: -100 degrees gas
The rocks of recovery: sleep, work/life balance, nutrition – unless these are dealt with, there’s no point doing all the fancy stuff.

[22:29] What are the common misconceptions or mistakes you see people making around recovery?

Cold water immersion and the risk of blunting your growth response to the stress. Stress and reflection can help to grow and improve. Be sure to debrief experiences and stress with the right people.

[24:30] Chris’s reflection process in the car on his way home. What was I happy with today? What did I like? What didn’t I like? What can I do better?

[Toby: I reflect most days in the evening just before bed. I write down 4 things I’m grateful for, and then journal notes for the day starting at waking up and then work my way through the events of the day and what I’ve learned as a reflection process.]

[24:55] Jonah’s cup vs water jug metaphor for stress management Stress reduction vs stress expansionInterpretation of thoughts lead to elevated cortisol and adrenal response

[28:35] Antifragility (from Antifragile – Things that benefit from chaos and disorder Nassim Nicholas Taleb)

[28:50] Good stress (Eustress) vs Bad Stress

Strong emotion as an alarm clock
Pain is the only way to grow

[31:40] Stretch vs overload

[33:19] Chris – Taking people to the edge – putting stress into context – the right debriefing the right people around you. In times of stress you can draw on that experience. The brain

[35:25] Jonah – Good high performance director explains why the pain is going to occur.

[36:15] Broken glass metaphor – humans are crap at feeling pointless pain. Stress and recovery – not coping, struggling, suffering – lost the spotlight on the why. Not a deficit of recovery, it’s a loss connection to the why and meaning.

[38:42] Managing major life events

[40:50] Chris’ view of handling major events – load management – cognitive, physical, emotional, Rate of Perceived Exertion. The importance of support team and how that can be used. Being clear about the bare minimums of a session.
What is the 1 thing I want to get done? Prioritise tasks

[44:44] Jonah explains the “Duality of experience” – if you can realise that we are able to feel grief, fear, anxiety, joy, happiness all at once. Giving yourself permission to feel them. And then I can still choose to do the things that matter.
Finding the balance.

[47:02] Preparing for key moments

Chris:
Plan: work back from the event. The role of testosterone in peak performance for power, cognitive function, determination, assertiveness. Short sharp heavy lifting.
Passive ways to increase testosterone.
Getting in the zone: Watching videos, music.
Planning back from meeting: prep, decompression, caffeine, nutrition
Preparing for energy requirements.
Maintaining body heat.
Do you have the right tools with you? What happens if…? Preparing for the unexpected

Jonah:
Haphazard caffeine consumption – 45 minutes until caffeine peak. 
Homeostatis and the homeostatic response to caffeine dosing – why athletes yawn before big occasions.

[58:40] Tools and tips:
Jonah:
Fish oil and mindfulness
Book: The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

[1:01:00] Jonah’s 4/8 breath mindfulness exercise
Breath in for 4 secs and then out for 8 secs.
Do this 3 times.
Then really notice the chair you’re sitting on. How is your body weight is distributed? What does it feel like?
Repeat this 3 times each day for a total of 3 mins of mindfulness.
Neurological changes will occur within 6 weeks of practice in the prefrontal cortex leading to improved focus and attention.

Le Mans driver 1.2 seconds of mindfulness @ 370kms/hr

Chris:
Book: How to Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie
Exercise as the 1 recovery technique

Jonah:
Even a 7 min walk still has a huge impact.

Audience Q&A
[1:05:33] How to take physical lessons into a corporate environment to get into a peak state?
Chris:

  1. Work back from event. 
  2. Acute period of time prior (1 hr) – What time are you arriving? What are the key elements you’re focussing for the meeting. Plan a decompression time.
  3. Day of: What time are you waking up? Are you getting the right fuel in? Exercise done in the morning. Lower cognitive load of the tasks prior to the meeting. Get rid of distractions – eg shutting down email. Walk
  4. Day before: Travel the night before
  5. Reflection process post event is crucial to develop an individual plan and continue to refine it.
  6. Process vs Outcome

Jonah:

  1. Get nutrition right
  2. Phone off
  3. Look at diary – critical meeting and the week that leads in.
  4. Where’s down time?
  5. Where’s active recovery?
  6. Meeting requests for well being and recovery that can be moved but not taken out.

Chris:What’s happening 3 or 4 days before is just as important. What is your weekly flow? Hard session – where is your down session? 3 weeks on, 1 week off (later start, decompressing staff)

[1:12:41] Sustainable practices of CEOs to navigate daily stresses 
Reading/learning – don’t shut down your learning time.
Definition of happiness – doing things that are challenging.
Finding things in day and week that give us a sense of challenge
Mindfulness
Pinball effect – what did you used to do?
Stacking is about combining the answers to the below 4 questions to architect energising, fulfilling situations: 

  • Who is most important to me?
  • What is most important to me?
  • What are my values?
  • What do I do when I’m at my best?

[1:18:20] What should we be tracking as a layman?
Sleep: quantity and quality
4 nights of impoverished sleeps = a 20% increased risk of a hamstring tear.

[1:19:37] Hacks for sleeping
No caffeine after 2:30 in the afternoon
Reducing screen time
Mindfulness – don’t “try to sleep” – practicing mindfulness will take you to stage 3 sleep anyway.
Try to get a good sleep 2 nights before a major event
Movement and exercise will improve the quality of sleep.

[1:23:21] How do we create psychological expansion
Basic principle: Change the relationship to your internal dialogue – the stuff that’s traditionally been not wanted eg anxiety, fear etc.

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Tatiana Grigorieva – Transitions, Fear and Willingness

Tatiana Grigorieva is an Olympic silver medallist (in pole vault, Sydney 2000), mother, coach, entrepreneur and all round fascinating person.

In this interview I did for the Queensland Academy of Sport Action TV series, we explore:

  • the transitions that have shaped her life through sport, business and motherhood including how she went from a hurdler to a silver medallist pole vaulter in just 2.5 years
  • how she manages fear
  • her meditation habits and the importance of visualisation in accelerating her training
  • how she encourages her athletes to think about the long term
  • her early childhood in Russia and why her mother made her sign a study contract when she was 13 years old
  • why willingness is the #1 characteristic of the athletes she works with
  • what it felt like to be jumping in the middle of the Olympic stadium for Cathy Freeman’s historic 400m gold medal.
  • and much more.

Enjoy!

What’s helped you through transitions? Let me know in the comments below.

Links from the interview:

The Art of Learning: Fractals, Water Polo and Marketing Templates

“We do not learn from experience, but from reflecting on the experience.” – John Dewey

[This post started out as a book review and became a reflection on my own experiences of learning. The idea of fractal learning is one that I would love your feedback on in the comments. Is it useful? Could it be applied in a way that helps us to learn more rapidly or teach more effectively? With more depth or more focus on the passions we have?]

Josh Waitzkin has a fascinating story. He is:

  • 2 x US Junior Chess champion (his father wrote a book about his journey called Searching for Bobby Fischer which was turned into a feature film of the same name),

  • Tai Chi Push Hands World Champion (2004) – the martial arts version of Tai Chi – and has subsequently coached others to that same title,

  • and founder of The Art of Learning Project.

I’ve read his book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance and loved it.

The Art of Learning:

The Art of Learning

The book explores Josh’s journey from US Junior chess champion to world champion as a martial artist in Tai Chi Push Hands. As he learned TaiChi, Josh began to see how his deep understanding of chess was influencing his learning process and vice versa. Josh subsequently spent years deconstructing his learning process across the 2 pursuits and shares his universal themes in the The Art of Learning.

Josh’s principles of learning:

  • Cultivating a beginner’s mindset
    A beginner is open to all possibilities, is excited to learn and is not afraid of failing. As a beginner there is no expectation to succeed or produce results.

    As your skill level increases, so too does the expectation (often self-imposed) for you to produce results. We stop learning when those expectations make us too afraid of making mistakes. Cultivating a beginner’s mindset helps us overcome this fear of mistakes so we can continue to learn and improve.

  • Invest in loss
    By training, practicing and competing with people who are better than you, you will be forced into making mistakes (losses). These losses become investments when you take the time to reflect on them to understand what happened and why. Through this reflection you can learn and then refine and improve your skills and performance.

  • The study of numbers to leave numbers
    Another way of wording this principle might be to call it the study of a skill to make that skill automatic. By studying and practicing your skills, you gradually absorb them. They become intuitive, automatic, no thinking required.

    Remember the basics of how to catch a ball? Keep your eye on the ball and watch it into your hands. Do you repeat this to yourself every time you catch a ball? When you’re first learning – sure. However, after practicing for a while, you don’t think about it anymore. In fact, often you forget someone even taught that to you.

    This is one of the key difficulties for masters trying to teach beginners – they have forgotten what they have learnt and how they learnt it.

  • Making smaller circles (condensed technique)
    Over time you work on finer and finer details within a skill, condensing your technique to use less effort to achieve the same result. To progress to smaller and smaller circles you’ll need to follow the above 3 elements every time:

    • adopt your beginner’s mindset,

    • invest in loss to understand and learn the finer level of a skill

    • then reflect, study, and practice the new “smaller circle” of the skill until it is automatic. Then you can progress to even deeper levels.

  • Slowing down time (enhanced perception)
    In a competitive arena, if you are “making smaller circles” by focussing on finer details of a skill than your opponent, you will feel like you have more time. The greater the difference in skill level, the greater the time difference will feel.

Fractal Learning

As I was trying to understand these principles, I started to draw. This is my original drawing and notes:

Fractal Learning.png

 My notes on the side tie it back to Josh’s themes:

  • Level 1 Novice sees 3 skills to master

  • Level 2 Intermediate sees 3 skills to master

  • Level 3 Expert sees 3 skills to master

  • And so on

  • Cultivating a beginner’s mindset is about forever being open to, and then seeing the next 3 skills to master.

  • To move deeper into the pattern and down a level to more condensed technique you must invest in loss.

  • You progress to a deeper level when it is internalised by study, reflection and practice.

This drawing – of smaller and smaller circles within circles – immediately reminded me of fractals.

From Wikipedia: A fractal is a mathematical set that typically displays self-similar patterns. Fractals may be exactly the same at every scale or they may be nearly the same at different scales.

I started to look for a fractal that would help me visualise Josh’s concept of “making smaller circles”. I found the Apollonian Gasket. Here is an animated version:

Apollonian Gasket.gif

As the animation proceeds, it is exactly the same at each level – a bit like the drawing in my initial notes although with much more detail.

On the other hand, The Mandelbrot Set – one of the most famous visualisations of a fractal pattern – varies at each level:

1024px-Mandel_zoom_00_mandelbrot_set.jpg

Here’s an animated zoom of it (you don’t need to watch the whole thing):

You’ll notice that as you zoom into the structure, you don’t get an identical pattern repeating. Unlike the Apollonian Gasket, you get something different at each level. BUT it is still related to the whole.

Fractals really helped me to visualise Josh’s principles. So I wanted to step through 2 examples from water polo and web marketing to make these ideas more concrete.

Water Polo

I created a simplified water polo example:

Level 1 – A beginner, keen to learn, watches a game of water polo and sees 3 circles of skills she will need to learn to be able to play the game:

    • Water Polo:

      • Ball skills

      • Swimming

      • Game play

  • Level 2 – When she arrives at her first training session, the player becomes aware (with the help of her coach) that these 3 skills can be broken down further. For example she learns that in Ball skills there are 3 more circles – Passing, Shooting and Blocking:

    • Water Polo:

      • Ball skills

        • Passing

        • Shooting

        • Blocking

      • Swimming

      • Game play

  • Level 3 – This cycle of awareness of more detail (and capability to progress) then repeats and she then breaks each of these skills down even further.

So a branch of this water polo example might look like this:

  • Water Polo:

    • Ball skills

      • Passing

        • Forehand pass

        • Backhand pass

        • Push pass

      • Shooting

      • Blocking

    • Swimming

    • Game play

Drawn out, the pattern of smaller circles looks like this:

Water polo example

It looks a bit like a very simple Apollonian Gasket. In reality, there a more than 3 circles at each level of water polo, so let’s look at web marketing to provide a more detailed example.

Web Marketing and Templates

We started to create web marketing templates to help us teach our clients how web marketing worked and how all the various pieces of the puzzle fitted together. In hindsight, we were deconstructing the relevant skills as we learnt them.

So let’s consider web marketing as a skill set you might want to master.

The visual side of the Web Strategy Planning Template works as a good representation of the broadest level of web marketing.

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 7.46.52 am.png

Level 1: In the above image there are 5 areas that will need to be understood:

  • Outcomes

  • Website

  • Search

  • Backlinks

  • Social Media/Content Marketing

Level 2: Let’s zoom in on one – Search. There are 2 skills to learn in Search:

  • SEO – Organic searches

  • SEM – Google Adwords

Level 3: Let’s zoom in again – SEO. The Web Strategy Planning Template doesn’t give more detail, so we can use the SEO planning template to explore the smaller circles:

SEO can be broken down into:

  • Keyword Research

  • On-page SEO

  • Off-page SEO

Level 4: Let’s zoom in one final time – On-page SEO. Again, the template helps us to clarify that we need to learn:

  • Target Keyword

  • URL

  • Page Title

  • Header tags

  • Meta description

  • Image alt tags

  • SEO Yoast

  • Web page copy

  • Google Authorship

So one branch of Web Marketing might look like this:

Web Marketing:

  • Outcomes

  • Website

  • Search

    • SEO – Organic searches

      • Keyword Research

      • On-page SEO

        • Target Keyword

        • URL

        • Page Title

        • Header tags

        • Meta description

        • Image alt tags

        • SEO Yoast

        • Web page copy

        • Google Authorship

      • Off-page SEO

    • SEM – Google Adwords

  • Backlinks

  • Social Media/Content Marketing

Imagine if you expanded each of these – it would be complex right? Visually it might start to look more like the Mandelbrot Set with related but not identical patterns at each level.

In order to progress through the levels of either of these skills and “make smaller circles”, we need to look back at Josh’s principles:

  • Cultivate a beginner’s mindset
  • Invest in loss
  • Study numbers to leave numbers

All with the purpose of making smaller circles as we learn to condense our technique in order to enhance our perception.

So thanks to Josh for an incredibly thought provoking book that inspired me to explore and reflect on my own learning journeys. I can’t recommend The Art of Learning highly enough.

Finally I’d be really interested to hear what you think:

  • Could fractals help you to visualise your learning journey? Or to help you to teach others?
  • How might your expertise or specific skill set look laid out as a pattern?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks!

Go Slow to Go Fast – a Business Lesson from Water Polo

Club Natacio Sant Andreu - Toby Jenkins

When I was up to my eyeballs in water polo, a part of my training was weekly martial arts sessions with Andy Sutton. Back in early 2002 he introduced me to the principle:

“Go slow to go fast.”

This wasn’t just counter intuitive when I first heard it – it seemed plain mad. We’d been training one on one in a park in West End in Brisbane and it really didn’t make much sense to me. At the time I opted to file it away in my subconscious in the “too hard basket”.

Later that same year I was offered a chance to play professionally in Barcelona, for a club called Sant Andreu. I was pumped.

When I arrived in Spain, I realised they had a different approach to training. The general theme of this approach was to opt for high quality at high intensity rather than the incredible volumes we were doing at home. Each session was focussed on skills, strength, game play or swimming. In comparison to Australia, where it was typical to pile on strength work on before, or skills or match work on after a swim session, a swim set was nearly always just a swim set.

 

Go slow

I don’t remember what triggered me to dredge up Andy’s advice, but I thought it would be a good time to test if going slow could actually help me go faster.

Over the course of dwelling on and trying to practice this concept in the swimming training, I realised that by going slow with every stroke, I was able to focus on each element of the stroke from the pull at the top of the stroke all the way through to the push at the end. I concentrated on keeping my body still in the water and stayed focussed on economy of motion. By going slow, I was able to break down my swimming into discrete elements that I could then practice and improve. I felt good, I felt strong and I started wonder if there might be a kernel of truth in the saying.

It was time to test the “go fast” piece. It was time to test myself against the clock.

 

Go fast

There is one swim set that stands out for me. It was a sprint set that culminated in 3 x 100m max efforts and an opportunity to prove myself to my new team. Having been training slow, I was fascinated to see if I could embody the principle.

At the end of the first 100m, I was surprised. I’d clocked around 59 seconds (a quick training time for me) and still really felt like there was more in the tank than I’d realised. The next 100m I focussed on increasing power, while maintaining my focus on each stroke and stillness in the water to see if I could go faster. 58 seconds. Even after this, I still felt like I could go faster. I kept  saying to myself throughout these 100s: go slow to go fast, go slow to go fast. 3rd 100m – 57 seconds.

These times are by no means quick by elite swimming standards but they were amongst the best I’d ever clocked in training and particularly that I was able to improve through the 3 was completely new for my sprinting. By breaking down the 100m into a series of discrete strokes, focussing on every piece of the execution, I was able to produce these times with an ease that I still clearly remember 11 years later.

 

How is this relevant to work now?

One of the problems we’ve had recently with projects has been rework. Ads and I have sat down to address this and ultimately came to reinforce the mantra of thrash upfront in your project planning to get everything out on the table. While it feels like its slowing you down, focussing on and hammering out the details of what actually needs to be done ultimately saves huge amounts of time in the execution.

I’m also a huge believer in the agile approach to projects in that you can’t plan for everything and in fact to do can be dangerous. Slowing down to make the projects small enough to execute and revisiting these smaller projects at crucial points is also key to adjusting for new learning and delivering fast, quality projects.

 

Related quotes:

Since then I’ve heard a number of other phrases that to me, really relate to this philosophy.

“Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
This was taken from the movie Shooter with Mark Wahlberg where his character uses it as a mantra as he fires a rifle. A surprising source of inspiration 🙂

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” Bill Gates
I only became aware of this quote recently and I believe it reflects some of those same sentiments – to reduce the amount you try to do in a smaller time frame to accomplish much more in the longer period.

What do you think? Are there areas in your life/business that you’ve gone slow to ultimately go fast? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

Reinventing Education (More Opposite Thinking)

Consider your schooling for a minute.

What if you had lectures for home work and exercises for class time? What if you could have spent more one on one time with your teacher to help you really grasp the details of concepts, and help you solve problems rather than sitting in a classroom trying to concentrate on the 5th lesson of the day? What if you could have rewound the teacher to listen again to the part that you didn’t quite understand?

Would it have made a difference? Would you have learnt faster (or at least at your pace), been more engaged, been more interested?

It’s underway.

The Khan Academy, started by Salman Khan, is a fascinating project that is using videos and the web to turn education upside down and is a great example of opposite thinking. Starting off as a series of tutorials for his cousins, explaining algebra and other maths topics, Salman’s videos have now racked up 53 million views on Youtube and have expanded from maths to a huge array of topics (now there are over 2500 videos and growing). The Khan Academy is now being backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation amongst many others, and looking to roll out a full curriculum to schools around the world based on self paced learning, game theory, and everything that the web and technology now have to offer.

There are a couple of things that I really love about this idea:

  1. Salman did this initally to solve a problem for his cousins. The web has meant that his solution has been amplified, taken up and loved, by kids and parents all over the world.
  2. It has the potential to take a traditional education approach of teacher in front of the class with minimum 1 on 1, to maximising teacher 1 on 1 time – a key ingredient to personalising education.

If you’re a believer that education is key to solving the world’s problems (like I am), then the execution of this great idea has enormous potential.

Here is Salman explaining the concept in a TED presentation:

Opposite thinking

Look hard at how your industry works now. Then see what might happen if you do the opposite.

If you were looking at the web design industry, the exercise might start [and I mean start – you could definitely get much more hard core than this…] in a list looking something like this:

  1. No time sheets
  2. Take holidays when you need them because your “Job” is actually your “Calling”
  3. Client work takes place on client premises
  4. Projects are completed on time every time
  5. A person is only ever working on one project at a time
  6. Wear professional attire
  7. Spartan offices
  8. All meetings take place at client premises
  9. All staff pay is tied to company profit
  10. Clients pay only on performance
  11. Help desk would be one of the most important roles in the business
  12. Clients would never feel confused
  13. All meetings have an agenda and a time-frame
  14. All client interactions are paid
  15. All IP is publicly available
  16. Everyone can work from anywhere
  17. No one accrues sick leave – it’s taken when you need it
  18. Financial reports are shared
  19. Board meetings are open
  20. No account managers
  21. No pitching/tenders without proper planning
  22. Always give the best recommendation first, then choices second
  23. Always make recommendations as though it was our money that was being spent

Banker to the Poor (The Story of the Grameen Bank), is written by Muhammad Yunus (twitter) and is the inspiration for this post.

Since 1976 the Grameen Bank, has delivered micro-credit loans to the poorest in Bangladesh. It claims a 98.35% repayment rate – an astonishing figure and incredible achievement!

How did they do it?

  1. No contracts (therefore no police, no lawyers)
  2. No collateral
  3. Loans are given to individuals only if there are groups of 5 that need the loans
  4. 98% of borrowers are women
  5. Bankers go to the people, not people to the bank
  6. All loans have a 12 month maturity
  7. All loans are repaid weekly
  8. 20% interest rate on all loans

These are just the start of what Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen bank have done to turn the banking industry upside down to enable some of the poorest people in the world to access credit, start businesses, and bootstrap themselves out of poverty.

I’d be really interested to hear if anyone else has applied this idea of “opposite thinking” in any other way. Let me know.

How to solve any problem in 20 mins – The Value of Extreme Questioning

Quick Background:

I learned about the Extreme Questioning process from Liz Wiseman (author of Multipliers) at her one day workshop at the Growth Summit. Obviously I’m a big fan – this is my 3rd blog post on this book! Here’s no.1 + no.2.

[side note: everytime I say Extreme Questioning, I feel like there should be a dramatic voice over!]

In the workshop which Adam and I both attended, Liz organised a 5 minute exercise to get us in the groove of relentless questioning – one of the top traits of all great leaders from her book. We picked an issue then chose roles. Adam asked the questions first, and I answered, then we switched it over.

I was excited! Even in 5 minutes, I had a much clearer idea of the problem we’d been discussing. I made a mental note to use it in the future if I was stuck on a problem. Sure enough…

So yesterday, this was my problem:

In late January, we decided to significantly change our hosting arrangement. Since then, Sam (a web strategy advisor and our resident hosting guru) and I have been furiously gathering information from our supplier about everything from hosting packages and the steps involved in the transition, all the way through to common mistakes and pitfalls of the process.

After 4 weeks of examining the problem from all angles, I still felt daunted and overwhelmed by project. I had all the background info I needed, but couldn’t quite bring it together into a project plan.

My problem was my opportunity, so I grabbed Ads and asked him if we could use Extreme Questioning to help me get some clarity.

How to do Extreme Questioning:

There are 2 roles:

  1. The Questioner – they don’t have to be knowledgeable of the issue. In this case it was Adam – he knew about the plan but not the details.
  2. The Answerer  – they need to have been immersed in the data. This was me. I’d been doing the research along with Sam.

The process:

  1. Questioner: Ask every question you can dream up around the topic until you can’t think of any more – how, when, where, why, what, who, which (example questions below in +++ section). Only ask questions.
  2. Answerer: Respond in as much detail as you possibly can to every question.
  3. Answerer: Take loads of notes as you go. (Preferably find a scribe to join in)
  4. Questioner: Once you’ve run out of questions, then ask the Answerer one more question: “Are there any other areas of this problem that you’d like me to ask you about?
  5. Repeat steps 1-3 as many times as necessary until the Answerer says “Ah-ha!”.

Total time:

22mins including note taking. (this would change depending on the problem you’re trying to solve)

[side note: OK, I definitely took liberties with the title of this post – good luck with World Peace in 20 mins!]

Result:

After 3 weeks of research and 1 week of trying to put a plan together, to be able to do this in 22 mins was an incredible result.

For me it wasn’t so much of an “Ah-ha” moment, but by the time Adam had finally run out of questions, I realised that I no longer felt daunted and the picture was much clearer in my  mind. I was able to immediately put together a step by step plan to show Sam, including the issues and responsibilities. I also had some great updates for the phone scripts we were going to use.

What helped me get the most out of it:

  1. Had all the information by doing thorough research
  2. Taking notes – lots of them

What would I do differently next time?

  1. Find a scribe!
  2. Do it much earlier in the planning process. I could have saved much more time doing this earlier rather than waiting for a 3 week research/1 week planning process. As it was, I’m happy to have shipped the plan!

Final thoughts: I will definitely be telling staff about this. Provided it’s done so the Answerer is open to it (and so they don’t feel like it’s an interrogation!), it will massively shortcut problem solving.

As always, please let me know if it works (or doesn’t) for you in the comments.

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Some sample questions (there are obviously a stack of questions you can use, the key point is to keep asking!):

  1. Why are you doing this? Why is that important?
  2. Which options have you assessed?
  3. Who is involved in this process?
  4. Who needs to be informed?
  5. How does it impact you? How does it impact others?
  6. How will it make things better? For you? For others?
  7. What might go wrong? For you? For others?
  8. What are the steps to getting this done? What has to happen first? What has to happen last? Why?
  9. When is your deadline to accomplish this?
  10. What might stop you from achieving it by that date?
  11. What further information do you need?
  12. Where will you store the information?
  13. …?

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