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Embracing Your But
Issue #1 of The Two-But Rule
How to Use Momentum Thinking in an Age of Toxic Positivity and Turbocharge Your Team
If you make things for a living, and particularly if you work in teams that imagine, build, and improve things, then you know what it’s like to work with truly stupid ideas. If you don’t — you’re not doing it right.
Sure, the goal is to make things that are useful. Things that work well. You might even harbor the secret desire to make something people love so much that they call it, in the words of the late Steve Jobs, insanely great. But what came out of your foggy brain in the shower this morning was not that. Not yet.
Standing between you and the pinnacle of insane greatness are a bunch of pesky other people — and one particularly pesky person inside your own head — that are going to mess everything up, water things down, and redirect your resources into something completely different. And they’ll use one powerful word as a wrecking ball on all your hopes and dreams: But.
“But that won’t work.” “But why do you think that way?” “But this isn’t what people are asking for.” But But But
You probably don’t like the buts. But, you should. In fact, if you want to have the best chance of success in whatever you do, you need to embrace a lot of buts.
This series is about turning the world’s biggest momentum-killer — and arguably the world’s biggest relationship killer — into a powerful tool for getting unstuck, building velocity, staying nimble, and even repairing relationships. It’s a tool that’s always with you, though you rarely look at it, and you have to be mindful about how you display it in public. It’s your but.
You might believe that you know your but, but you don’t. There’s a lot more there than you think. We’ll explore many useful kinds of buts, how to get them into shape, when to reveal them, and why it’s essential that all buts come in pairs.
If you’re a leader, a scientist, a general pain-in-the-but, or just a regular person facing tough choices and hard problems, this series is for you. If you’re none of these, it should also be a mildly amusing digest of but jokes for adolescents of all ages.
Short on time? Here’s the TLDR:
So long as you apply the “two-but rule,” buts can be powerful. Much more powerful than ignoring them and applying only the language of positivity.
Following, “But that won’t work,” with, “But it would if,” will lead reliably to more positive outcomes for you, your ideas, and the people in your life.
Like a Shakespearean comedy, the two-but rule starts out negative but turns positive in the end.
There you go. You’ve ingested the basic point. Now you can move on with your day…or keep reading!
Either way, consider subscribing. You might learn some surprising things about buts and how to handle them.
Important safety tip: Don’t confuse the different spellings of ‘but’ when handling them at work.
Dumb Ideas are Beautiful
The call to embrace your but and apply the two-but rule is strangely rebellious in today’s society. It’s not the advice you’re likely to get if you engage one of the countless gurus standing by to take your money on the promise of helping you innovate and improve team dynamics. And it’s definitely not the advice you’ll get from your HR department.
What we get today can only be called innovation theater mixed with a lethal dose of toxic positivity that encourages going along to get along. Week-long design thinking sessions. Innovation camps and retreats featuring the proverbial ropes course and trust exercises. The brainstorming session, always with the admonition, “Please, no killer phrases.” Meetings run by people seemingly there to ensure that nothing is said, nothing’s decided, and nothing gets done.
As Microsoft’s Scott Berkun famously said, “I don’t know what a good idea looks like until I’ve seen the bad ones.” Just beware, these days, of telling anyone that their idea is among the latter.
How often do you hear from the positivity police that there are no bad ideas? There are. And some of them are beautiful:
Apple started out selling DIY computer kits. PayPal started as a way to beam money between Palm Pilots. (Remember Palm Pilots?) YouTube started as a dating site. And the first hand-held mobile phone was invented by Motorola as a response to AT&T’s eighty-pound car phone.
These are just a few of the countless cases of getting smart by starting dumb. And yet, try searching Google for “dumb ideas that led to great ideas” and most often you’ll find stories of inventors and entrepreneurs who had a brilliant idea everyone thought was stupid but, after heroic perseverance, made them rich and changed the world.
For example, everyone passed on supporting the development of form fitting, footless pantyhose until a mill owner decided to help with the “crazy” idea. Persistence made Spanx a household name and its founder rich. A world today without Spanx would be unimaginable for the ranks of on-camera personalities that rely on them.
It’s telling that so much of innovation mythology is about dogged visionaries clinging stubbornly to their initial idea. The narrative is as narrow and simplistic as a Marvel movie. What’s not to love?
But if we want to solve problems in ways that have the best chance of working in a complicated and rapidly changing world, then we need a better story. We need to understand that most of the time, the real heroic act is having the courage to refine your ideas, and the ideas of others, through the crucible of scrutiny and opposition. We need a way to do this that doesn’t sacrifice momentum and nimbleness to the gods of just getting along.
Two Buts Are Better Than One
The two-but rule should really be called the “two buts are better than one, three, five, and so on” rule. But let’s start with just the two buts.
Whether in a meeting, a formal brainstorm, or just sitting with yourself thinking through a problem, the two-but rule requires that the phrase, “But that won’t work,” be allowed whenever it presents itself in a thoughtful manner. But, only on the condition that it is immediately followed by the phrase, “But it would work if.”
There are variations of this:
But I don’t like that, but I would if…
But we can’t afford that, but we could if…
But you’re a big dumb poopie-head, but you wouldn’t be if…
The expanded version of the two-but rule adds the word, because:
You’re a big dumb poopie-head, because…
You have to admit, even in this case, the because can really help with presenting the argument thoughtfully. It’s also helpful for finding an interesting second-but.
For example, you might say, “But I don’t want to purchase a subscription to a series of stories that boil down to a two-line aphorism and some potty humor, because I’m busy working at a job that doesn’t pay me enough.” And then you might say, “But I did get a lot of likes when I posted a two-but review to Linked-In, so maybe I could become a two-but guru, build a following of loyal but-heads, and launch a successful consulting career.”
Did this thought just change your life? Yeah, perhaps not. But finding a second-but, even a silly one, can provide a real jolt of mental momentum. And that’s what we’re looking for. An alternative to the dead-end of inert positivity or obstinate negativity.
Applying the two-but rule can feel like going over a psychological roller-coaster. There’s a moment of fear that no second-but will present itself. And then the thrill, as the mind latches onto something and gets pulled along, often on an unexpected journey.
Like all journeys, getting the right start matters. There’s a lot more to executing the two-but rule than its simplicity suggests. In the next issue, we’ll discover the many ways to sculpt a well-formed but.
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