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Issue #4 of The Two But Rule
If you’ve read the first three issues of The Two But Rule, you might be saying, “I get the idea, but there are plenty of times when I simply can’t think of a good second-but.”
You’re in luck! There’s a second-but even to this but. And here it is:
But…you don’t have to provide a particularly good second-but.
For example, a team of newly-hired MBAs and engineers at IBM were brainstorming ways to approach a new project. One of the MBAs proposed a plan. An engineer curtly said, “But that won’t work.” When asked to add a second-but, the engineer said with a snarky grumble, “Well, it would work if gravity worked differently.”
Not five seconds later, another engineer jumped out of his seat and said, “Wait a minute!” They then proceeded to lay out an idea that didn’t alter gravity but did lead to a patent filing and a project that would garner the attention of the company’s CEO. Introducing the notion of gravity to the conversation, something completely outside the context of the initial idea, gave the second engineer an unexpected, but key insight.
The moral of this story is that any second-but will do. Sometimes the crazier the better. It doesn’t have to solve the problem. It just has to maintain momentum.
Another technique to keep things flowing is to blur the lines of the initial idea when formulating the second-but. One way to do this is to break things down into “first principles.” This is an approach originally formulated by Aristotle, recounted in Terrence Irwin’s 1989 book, and most recently popularized by Elon Musk. At the core of this method is the idea that the nature of a product comes from the nature of its building blocks and how they interact, right down to the atoms. (Everything is a box of Legos to Elon Musk.) This way of thinking can lead to bigger, fuzzier buts.
Case: Elon Musk’s Fuzzy But
Elon Musk’s SpaceX company started as an idea to land a miniature greenhouse on Mars with the ultimate goal of growing plants. Obviously that idea, while not necessarily stupid, was only one small step for…Elon. The resulting journey is a prime example of stepping through many pairs of buts.
The first but: In 2001, the cost of rockets was too high making the Mars mission unattainable for a private company. Rather than trying to raise more capital, Musk went looking for breakthroughs in rocket technology.
He observed that the spot prices of a rocket’s raw materials were about 2-3% of the total manufacturing cost at the time. There was the seed of an idea: Design manufacturing to optimize turning raw materials into a rocket. That came with an obvious but: But all known methods for this process, refined over decades by some of the best engineers in the world, were still too expensive.
Using the first principles approach, Musk reasoned that materials are just collections of atoms. That led to the second-but: SpaceX could cut costs dramatically, if they had a magic wand for turning atoms into rockets. Crazy-but? Check. Fuzzy-but? Check.
And yet, it turns out that Musk did indeed have a magic wand. Three wands, in fact. The first wand was access to enough private capital to vertically integrate materials supply and production. The second wand was a new modular manufacturing approach based on the principles of Musk’s prior experience in object oriented software. The third wand was 3D printing, literally a magic wand for rearranging atoms.
On September 28, 2008, SpaceX launched the first privately developed, liquid-fueled spacecraft into orbit. It was the result of many, many pairs of buts.
A well-chosen set of fuzzy buts can literally launch you on a journey to Mars.
Elon Musk, and people like him, have a relentless and seemingly inexhaustible capacity for gnawing on a problem like a dog with a bone. But they also have a knack for maintaining momentum. That’s the difference between dwelling on a problem and iterating through it. They bring the second-but, no matter how crazy or fuzzy it is.
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