We recently spent a few days at my in-laws’ house. They own a farm right up against the mountains in Yamagata, in northern Japan. It’s a wonderfully remote place to spend a few days, overlooking the valley below and surrounded on two sides by lush forest.
Living in that forest are bears, deer, wild boars, tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs), and macaques (silver-haired monkeys with pink faces). We never see them, but they are around. For example, they don’t plant watermelon because the bears always eat it before it gets ripe. And last year wild boar ate most of grandma’s pumpkins. As for the monkeys, well, they are sneaky buggers who will eat whatever they can get.
Their solution to the monkeys is simple. Own a dog. Their dog Taro barks and goes nuts at the sign of any monkeys, and the monkeys mostly stay away. But Taro is 12 years old now, largely deaf, and sleeps most of the time. The monkeys noticed.
One day I saw a movement out in the distance. It was a monkey. We were all excited. It was our first time seeing one near their house. We went out and watched him and it turned out he was meeting a group of four others who were all eating the persimmons off one of their two persimmon trees. They quickly fled, but they’d already eaten most of the low-hanging fruit. (That’s right, the low hanging fruit was the low hanging fruit!)
Later that afternoon our aunt said she saw a monkey on the other persimmon tree. This had grandma worried. She said it’s important to keep the monkeys away from the house, because if they learn they can eat persimmons in winter then they will come back and eat everything in the summer. Knowing how much she grows in the summer, it was clearly important to solve this monkey problem.
I asked her what we should do. She wasn’t sure. Taro was too old. Shooting or trapping them is illegal. We couldn’t just stay outside and guard the trees. And the monkeys were too clever to be stopped by a barrier.
After a short pause I asked her: why don’t you just pick the persimmons?
And then the funniest thing happened. She scrunched up her face like I’d short-circuited her brain, and when she reset she kind of half-smiled and said, “Naruhodo. (So that’s the answer.)” Then she called over to grandpa and said, “Hey, Bryan thinks we should just pick the persimmons.”
Grandpa furrowed his brow, then chuckled and said: “Pick the persimmons! Naruhodo.”
I’ve been thinking about this since.
How many problems have straight-forward solutions except they require us to challenge an assumption that appears “fixed”?
IS THAT ASSUMPTION FIXED? REALLY?
It’s normal in Japan to leave the persimmons on the tree until they fall off. The trees produce hundreds of fruit and most people don’t use them or sell them. This culture of leaving them on the tree is something few people question. It’s just the way it is.
But the way it is is rarely the way it has to be. Blindly accepting the way it is we doesn’t solve our problems, it just creates workarounds.
This happens all the time. Especially when a problem involves any of the following: rules, laws, processes, guidelines, instructions, manners, customs, traditions, norms and routines.
Often, these things ARE fixed. At least in the short-term. But here’s another thing they are: made by people. Which means that they can also change.
When you encounter a problem that doesn’t have an easy solution, take the opportunity to challenge what is fixed. If only as a thought exercise. Because it might not be as fixed as you think.
I want to share a real-world example from when I was working at Apple. It involves the dumbest process I was asked to create, a giant workaround that was effectively a case of “not picking the persimmons”.
Let me tell you about The Good Morning Report.*
THE GOOD MORNING REPORT
Here was the situation. Our team published a few reports that went directly to Tim Cook, the CEO. Tim is famous for waking up at 4am or so and immediately looking at our reports to gauge the previous day’s performance. If he saw something strange, our VP would get an email by 5am asking what was wrong. She would shoot us an email at 5:30, and by 7:00 if we hadn’t replied we were liable to get a phone call to figure out if
The data was correct,
We needed to raise a P1 ticket, or
We could simply republish the report to capture delayed data.
We had a particularly bad week, where Tim emailed us three times and he was upset that the report was having issues. We were also in the process of transitioning to a new director, who was getting very unwanted attention. Our current and former directors called us in to come up with a solution to the problem. Here’s how the conversation was framed:
Problem: Tim reviews our report at 5am and it has to be correct. If it isn’t correct, he needs to know so that he doesn’t waste time looking at it. We have to be proactive. Our team has to own the solution because the report has worldwide data in it (meaning very few people were approved to receive it), and the IT department can’t own it because they can’t troubleshoot the report. What are we going to do?
Solution: The Good Morning Report. One member of our team had to wake up at 4am, check that the reports ran and that the data was accurate, and then send an email stating everything was good. If there was any problem, they opened a ticket with IT and sent an email to Tim warning about the potential issue.
Before I continue, let me just be clear: this workaround solution largely worked. It was dumb and unnecessary, but that’s the definition of a workaround: something dumb and unnecessary that also solves the problem in the short-term.
But for the remainder of my time on the team, I think it caught about one problem per month. The other 97% of the time, someone was waking up at 4am, spending 30 minutes doing the checks, and then trying to go back to sleep. And that 97% wasn’t strange. That was the norm. Our bad week with three issues was just ill-timed bad luck.
Here are the four big assumptions everybody took as “fixed”, the persimmons we refused to consider picking:
Tim needs the report at 5am
Nobody in Europe can get approval to do the validation
Nobody in IT can be trained to do the validation
Something had to be done
Let’s assume Tim really did need it at 5am. I guarantee no one had the courage to challenge that one.
Getting someone in Europe approved was possible, but not standard practice. It would have required getting someone in top management to approve, and that would have been an uncomfortable discussion. Despite this being a reasonable course, we treated the approval rules as fixed, with no exceptions.
IT had plenty of people who knew enough to do it, but it was a question of accountability. We took it as fixed that IT couldn’t/wouldn’t do it (even though many of the report’s issues were IT-related).
And finally, maybe we could have just chalked it up to a bad week. We could have done a review of the previous publications and shown that it was historically accurate 97% of the time, with the other issues largely systematic. Maybe offered to ensure the report would be validated by 8am every day, or some other reasonable time, and worked with IT to fix the systematic issues.
Had we done the hard work to challenge one of these assumptions, we might have created a solution that made sense. Instead we made the Good Morning Report.
We did our best to have fun with it, putting in things like a fact of the day, or silly joke. (My favorite: “Fact of the day: lack of sleep is the leading cause of workplace errors and accidents.”) We said we would do it in the short-term, until we could come up with a better solution. But we all knew deep down that it would stick.
I don’t know if it’s still running, but I do know the report ran for YEARS. And it eventually WAS taken over by someone in Europe…so…how fixed was that assumption again?
Sometimes picking the persimmons takes creativity. We don’t even realize it’s an option.
Other times it is obvious but requires courage. To stand up and say, “hey, why is this not an option?” Or maybe, “No, this workaround doesn’t provide enough value for the costs.”
IN CASE YOU’RE WONDERING
I don’t know if my in-laws picked all the persimmons. We left the next morning and I haven’t spoken with them. I suspect they haven’t. Not because they don’t have the creativity to consider it, or the courage to do it. But because they probably re-evaluated the problem and realized it’s not as important as it seemed in the moment.
Are the monkeys really going to come back and eat all of their summer vegetables?
Was the report really going to keep having issues?
Or are those worst-case scenarios unlikely and not worth the effort the workaround requires?
Here’s my advice: before you accept a bad workaround solution to whatever problem you’re trying to solve, stop and ask yourself: Can we not just pick the persimmons?
Bryan Green is the co-founder, Editor, and COO of Go Be More. He enjoys solving problems and challenging assumptions. He doesn’t enjoy waking up at 4am to send unnecessary reports.
*I believe my teammate Praveen gave The Good Morning Report its deliciously sarcastic name. I have to say, I always hated the report, but I always loved the name.