In Think Like a Freak, the third in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s series of books about applying economic thinking to everyday issues, they grapple (entertainingly, of course!) with the difficulty of really knowing what causes a problem or what can resolve it. And they pinpoint gathering feedback as perhaps the most essential way to figure things out.
Throughout the book, Leavitt and Dubner liberally sprinkle words of wisdom about gathering, using and thinking about feedback. Here are some that we particularly liked.
- Go out and create feedback. Even with great feedback, it takes time and experimentation to identify errors and inefficiencies, and find better ways to accomplish your aims. Identify “natural experiments” that occurred due to errors or changes, or create your own field experiments to get under the facts and tease out cause and effect.
- Be brave about admitting you don’t know answers. And that you might not even know the right questions. Make sure you’re not just attacking the noisy part of the problem, but are thinking about it in different ways that might lead to different approaches – and different solutions. Use feedback to look for questions, not just for answers.
- Be relentlessly curious. Shed preconceptions that keep you from seeing things as they are. If you assume that you understand how things work, you’re likely to miss important insights. Listen carefully for unknown unknowns – issues that never occurred to you.
- Tackle small problems. Big problems often consist of a tangled mass of small problems. Work around the edges for gradual improvement. Attend to how feedback changes as you address those small issues. If you are lucky, you might find the strand that unknots the whole ball of yarn.
- Figure out what people really care about. When creating incentives, look for wins all around. Never assume that people will do the right thing just because it is right. Test incentives to be sure they don’t backfire. Check your data as well as feedback to identify abuses.
- Treat people with decency. The most loyal customers of many companies are those who had problems that were resolved fairly, promptly and courteously. Make sure you respond quickly and with genuine goodwill to customers complaints.
- Being confident is not the same as being right. While you might be the world’s expert on selling cosmetics, you are not an expert at all on the look Jenny Giordano wants for her son’s wedding. Listen to your customers and let them lead you!
- Fail fast and fail cheap. Do lots of small experiments. Gather as much information as possible, as quickly as you can. Learn from your failures. And move on.
Get your freak on by trying out some of these tips. And check out the Freakonomics podcast for more about how “thinking different” can help you improve results in all areas of your life.