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Outlier’s Path

Navigating to the Right Altitude

Equally important as the skill of holding opposing ideas is the ability to interrogate them from different altitudes.

Richard Feynman was a young graduate student at Princeton in the early 1940s when he met Albert Einstein, who at the time was a professor at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. At their first meeting, Feynman was so awed by Einstein that Feynman was visibly shaking while he was giving his seminar. Years later, Feynman would remark that “Einstein was a giant. His head was in the clouds, but his feet were on the ground.” Feynman noted Einstein’s ability to zoom in to the lowest level of details, zoom out to the highest level of abstraction, and then navigate to the right altitude for an insightful and productive discussion in search of a solution.

Whether we are solving a physics, customer, product, go-to-market, finance, investing or any business problem, scrutinizing a problem from different altitudes is invaluable. The views of the problem are so different. More importantly, new solutions may reveal themselves from those varying perspectives, giving you more alternatives to consider before we narrow down our choices. Once we’ve explored the range of perspectives, the difference between a good and a great business leader is the ability to navigate to the right altitude.

First, we have to identify the correct level. Our exploration of the different levels of the problem and the range of solutions should provide the correct altitude rather than letting ourselves default to the altitude at which we are most familiar or comfortable. Knowing our defaults will help us avoid this trap and adjust when necessary.

Second, we need to understand our audience and provide them with a shared context for the discussion. Board discussions can range from long-term strategic planning to an operational quarter review to a deep dive into a new initiative. Outputs of operational meetings must align with this month’s or quarter’s goals. Product plans are full of detailed deliverables.

Third, it is crucial to actively listen and adapt the level when appropriate. We have all witnessed great board members move the discussion through inquiry. When meetings are too tactical, ask how the proposed solution aligns with our long-term mission or goals to move the conversation strategically. When a solution needs to consider the medium-term impact, ask whether we need to adjust our annual plans or how we will achieve them to move to the medium altitude. Ask for a deeper data cut or a more granular plan to move the discussion to a lower level.

We might not be giants in physics, but we can become giants in business by examining our companies from the lowest levels of detail to the highest level of abstraction and then navigating to the right altitude. Doing so might help us identify crucible moments faster, or you can learn from others by listening to our Crucible Moments Podcast.