The power of deconstruction: Two stories

blocksIn a recent blog post about how companies can increase their metabolic rate, I noted that one of the main cultural differences between insurgent and incumbent companies is how their leaders solve problems: The leaders of insurgent companies tend to break down a problem into actionable sub-elements, while the leaders of a typical incumbent tend to take a problem and make it so big it becomes unsolvable. The net result is that insurgents operate with a bias to action, while incumbents tend to suffer from a bias to inaction.

This highlights a general point about leadership: I have increasingly found that great founders, CEOs and investors tend to be great deconstructionists. I don’t mean in the tweedy, academic sense. I mean they have a knack for breaking down seemingly unsolvable problems into something actionable. Many great founder stories—from Edwin Land’s invention of the Polaroid SX-70 camera to Steve Jobs’ development of the Mac and the iPhone—feature visionaries who are able to create new industries one step at a time by breaking down big issues into smaller ones. Ron Fierstein’s A Triumph of Genius shows this vividly in telling the gripping story of how Land solved one basic research problem after another to create his breakthrough instant film camera.

In this post, I’d like bring this idea to life in a different way—by telling two deeply personal stories of extraordinary men who have been able to overcome obstacles by deconstructing problems few thought were solvable. One takes us to the indigenous communities of Australia and the other to a lonely point on Interstate Highway 10, 61 miles east of Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

The AIME is college

The first story is about Jack Manning Bancroft, the founder and CEO of AIME, which stands for Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience. Jack, whose mother is indigenous, founded AIME in 2005 while still at university. His mission was straightforward: to help indigenous kids complete high school and go on to further education, training or employment by matching them with university students volunteering as mentors. Under Jack’s leadership, AIME has grown rapidly. A program that started with 25 mentor-student pairs ended 2014 working with more than 4,090 students and 1,517 mentors. It has had remarkable success reversing the low high school completion rates among indigenous youth.

Jack talks eloquently about how AIME is transforming not only the lives of indigenous students but also Australians generally. His many fans go further, explaining how the AIME model can transform education in rural Africa and other impoverished areas (see, for example, this 30-minute documentary about Jack and AIME).

But what struck me when I met Jack recently in Sydney was how quickly he moves from expressing his vision to laying out a set of finite and actionable targets. “Our insurgency is simple,” he says. “Indigenous kids are born superheroes; we simply teach them to fly. We do this through four very specific capabilities, each of which we nurture and support in a single, integrated repeatable model.”

According to Jack, the four capabilities are:

  1. Everything scales. “Everything we do is set up to scale, from our mentor-mentee matching program, to our online workbooks, to the systems we use to support every site and university partnership. With one model, spread site by site, university by university, our goal is to reach as many kids as possible.”
  2. We are storytellers. “Every mentee-mentor match is a story. Every success, from our grads to the amazing people who work for us, is a story. Every word is precious. Every sentence written or uttered is a chance to change a life. We relentlessly chase perfection in the way we communicate. The indigenous people of this country who work for us, who walk with us, are the beacons of indigenous success, who leave footprints for the kids to follow.”
  3. We unlock the joy of learning. “One hour with AIME and a kid’s view of learning is changed forever. We make learning fun, joyful, challenging and rewarding.”
  4. Every student’s journey matters. “We change lives and can prove it: Every single student’s life and journey counts, and we measure, follow and record it accordingly.”

The metrics AIME uses to measure its impact are clear and understandable by all. A big one is high-school completion rate: While only 41% of indigenous students from the general population complete years 9 through 12 of high school, 76% of AIME students do, which is approaching the 81% rate posted by non-indigenous students. Another key metric is the number of AIME students that go on to university: Almost 27%, vs. 10% for the general indigenous population.

In our Founder’s Mentality language, Jack has created an extraordinary insurgency: Through mentorship, we help indigenous superheroes fly. It rivals that of Jaipur Rugs, one of our favorites. But he is also a brilliant deconstructionist. He understands that the big issue—how to improve the lives of indigenous people in Australia—is too big to solve all at once. So he broke it down to a single question: How can I increase the rate at which indigenous students graduate high school and move on to further education, training or employment? He then went about solving that specific problem with a scalable repeatable model.

Step by step to recovery

Now let’s move 8,600 miles east to Oklahoma, where Brett Bullington, a well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist, had a devastating cycling accident halfway through a charity bike ride across the US. He suffered extreme brain trauma, and for a number of weeks it was not clear he would recover. I’ve known Brett for 40 years—among other things, his mother was the playground monitor in my Southern California middle school. I have tracked his recovery obsessively. A blog, Brett’s Recovery, supplied a day-by-day account as Brett slowly got back on his feet.

Brett’s story is incredibly inspirational. But it is also a moving example of how powerful it can be to break down an overwhelming problem into manageable parts. After Brett regained consciousness, he decided to distill his recovery into two simple measures—steps walked per day and hours slept per night. He became a Jawbone fanatic, tracking and reporting his steps and sleep numbers daily on Facebook. While the weaker among us might have despaired over the gruelingly slow pace of recovery typical of severe trauma, Brett focused in on the job to be done and dutifully reported his two metrics each day. One of the things he’s learned: Set achievable goals that will show progress and provide a sense of moving forward.

“As soon as I got out of the hospital, all I wanted to do is walk,” he told one interviewer. “That’s what I do now. I walk about 30 miles a week and sleep between 9 and 10 hours a night.” During the week of May 11, his Jawbone recorded that he averaged 12,032 steps a day and covered 38.6 miles. He views his steps, his sleep and his socialization (meeting folks during his walks) as the key to his recovery.

Today, Brett is well on the road to recovery and is focused on giving back to others recovering from major head trauma by passing along what he has learned about setting goals and staying positive. He’s also advocating for more traumatic brain injury research and seeking solutions by talking with entrepreneurs and thought leaders on the role of social media in medical recovery. One idea: Using Big Data to find commonalities among people recovering from traumatic brain injuries to isolate what works.

Both Jack and Brett are transforming the world in their own ways. Student by student, Jack has broken down the inequality of opportunity for Australia’s indigenous people into something solvable and actionable. Step by step, Brett has broken down the problem of recovery from severe brain trauma into something solvable and actionable. Both are geniuses at deconstruction—they each chose action over inaction.

Pay attention in your next business meeting. Do you end your discussions with simpler problems that can be solved, or do problems become wonderfully more complex—problems that are beautiful in their expansiveness and fully liberate anyone in your organization from having to do a thing?

This entry was posted in The complexity doom loop by James Allen. Bookmark the permalink.

About James Allen

James Allen is a senior partner in Bain & Company's London office and recognized as a leading expert in developing global corporate and business unit strategy. He is co-head of Bain’s Global Strategy practice and a member of Bain & Company's European Consumer Products practice. He is co-author, with Chris Zook, of Repeatability (HBR Press, March 2012) and Profit from the Core (HBR Press, 2001 and 2010).

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