About a year ago we decided that we were having a really tough time dealing with some behavior issues with our son. He was just over three and we were seeing a lot of aggression and refusal to listen to what we said. It was incredibly frustrating. There are a few things you can do when you hit a brick wall like we did. You can try to go through it (I’ve tried that, it doesn’t go very well), you can avoid it (yeah, because just avoiding your three year old is going to work) or you can figure out how to tear down that brick wall. We opted for the latter and bought ourselves a book.
The book is called New Kid By Friday. It’s actually entirely possible that we were gifted the book but we didn’t read it for the first few years because of how awesome we (think) are at parenting. The book is very good. Sure, it has the occasional dose of slightly masked racism but show me a parenting book that doesn’t. The book has some incredible advice and direction on how to get your children to listen to you and how to get them to take responsibility for their actions. But the key to the whole book is about getting you to act responsibly and take responsibility for your actions. And that’s where mountains and molehills come into play.
At the core, this book is about realizing the difference between big problems, little problems and no problems and understanding how to react to them. And this is what people go through every day when running a business. Is it time to hit the panic button or time to have a drink? Can we breathe or do we need to yell fire? While this book deals more with toddlers than startups, the similarities between the two are eerie. Both involve long hours, constant headaches, are a collection of concurrent failures all strung together and in both cases, you’re not going to be in the black for a very long time.
So how do you know what’s a mountain and what’s a molehill? One of the first things that the book teaches you is to try to figure out this distinction. So let’s start with assessing the damage. Consider what the worst possible scenario is when you’re dealing with a situation. If the worst possible scenario is you lose one customer with a miniscule lifetime value, that’s likely a molehill. If the worst possible scenario is that you lose a dozen of your best customers, that’s more likely a molehill. But how do you figure out what the worst-case scenario is? Well, as depressing as it sounds, you need to start thinking very bad thoughts.
How do I figure out whether I need to ask my son to stop doing something or stop my son from doing something? I think about the worst thing that could possibly happen. Quickly. Just a quick thought. From there I make a split second decision and it’s all hands on deck or all quiet on the western front. One of the things that I try really hard to do is move PAST the decision and immediately start working on an action plan. It should be no different with your business.
So, you’ve figured out that it’s not the end of the world. Can you just ignore it? Well, no. The thing about molehills is that while they’re not the end of the world, they still have to be dealt with. Molehills can become mountains. Very easily. Let’s talk about games for a minute.
Once a week my friends and I get together and play board games. It’s a heck of a lot of fun and I’ve actually built it into a side business called Welcome To Games. But I digress. One of my favorite games is called Ghost Stories. In Ghost Stories, you and 3 friends play shaolin monks, attempting to rid a small village of the hauntings of a ghost named Wu Feng and his friends. Each turn, a new ghost shows up. Some of them are hard to beat but most of them are pretty easy, until you get to Wu Feng. The problem is that it’s actually very difficult to even get to Wu Feng. Why? Because of those stupid little “easy” ghosts. Those ghosts are molehills. And you have a tendency to treat them the way you would treat a molehill. You ignore them. And eventually you’re over run by molehills. Which is still not that big a deal. Unless a mountain pops up, which is what tends to happen with this game…and life.
The thing about molehills is that we ignore them. We think that we will get to them later. We think that we can deal with them at OUR leisure. And sometimes, we can. But sometimes, we can’t. Sometimes while we’re putting things off until tomorrow, today hits you directly in the face. Sometimes it’s just another molehill and sometimes it’s a mountain. Whatever it is, you can avoid this by dealing with your molehills during downtime. If you’re wondering what downtime is, I love you. I get it. My “downtime” is spent reading, writing and hustling. Occasionally I get a little time to myself and I get to play a video game or watch a movie or, god forbid, spend time with my wife. And I LOVE doing those things. But whenever I get a free moment, the first thing I do is check the list.
What list? Glad you asked. Make a list. A running list. Put it somewhere obvious where you don’t have to “check it” but you can easily refer to it. Don’t make a super long list. Instead, break that list into more lists. Lists beget lists. Break it into projects and make a list for each one. Put it somewhere obvious and whenever you get a chance to look at that list and make something disappear off that list, make it happen. Mountains should never make it on the list. Mountains require your attention. Now. Not later. They’re not to be placed on lists. Fix them. Now.
At the beginning of this piece I said that you had to determine if something was a big problem, a little problem or no problem at all. Let’s talk a little bit about that last category, shall we? You see, what I’ve learned is that many of our problems are a figment of our imagination. What we think is a problem is in fact a personal preference. Let me explain. My son does a million things that drive me crazy. A million. Maybe more. These include occasionally throwing rocks, pushing and refusing to share. Another one on the list is not looking at me when I’m talking to him. This drives me BONKERS. But what I’ve come to realize is that in most cases, this is neither a mountain nor a molehill. Assuming he’s listening, which I can usually tell whether or not he is, then why does it bother me so much?
Too often we project our preferences on people as a problem. We don’t like the way that someone does something or we would like it done a different way so we describe their actions as a “problem”. At this point WE become the problem. If we ask for a wall to be painted red and someone paints it blue, that’s a problem. If they painted it the right colour but used a different brush than we would have, why is that a problem? It’s the shortest path to missing out on extraordinary work. Extraordinary work happens when we let people do extraordinary things.
So where does that leave us? Well, there are a few takeaways. First, when a mountain rears its ugly head, lop it off. Right then, right there. Second, when a molehill pops up, take care of it as soon as you can and try not to let it linger. And the next time someone does something “wrong”, ask yourself if it was wrong, or just different.