The dentist checkup method
A rigorous approach to questioning everything
I was reading an article from Philo at MD&A on the failure of General Electric and the rise of their competitor Honeywell (MD&A is worth a subscription) and I found a story that resonated with me.
Honeywell was much smaller than GE and run by Cote (an ex-GE executive) which transformed it into a great company that is now worth much more than GE. Cote talks at length about his experience and I was particularly struck by this:
Lacking any drive to think deeply about their businesses, and unchallenged by leadership to do so, teams held meetings that were essentially useless, their presentations clogged up with feel-good jargon, meaningless numbers, and analytic frameworks whose chief purpose was to hide faulty logic and make the business look good. When you did a bit of digging, you found that most executives didn’t understand their businesses very well, or even at all.
Cote defines this as intellectual laziness. The tendency of organizations to “juke the stats” and lie to themselves instead of diagnosing and solving root problems.
This sounded like something I heard before. In the book “Good to Great”.Jim Collins proposes the principle “Confront the Brutal Facts – but Never Lose Faith” as a core rule of great companies:
Every good-to-great company embraced what we came to call "The Stockdale Paradox" you must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
However, Jim Collins doesn’t explain how to achieve this, but Cote does.
Again from MD&A:
Cote preaches that managers should instead strive for intellectual rigor, to probe deeply to identify and confront root problems and think creatively and rigorously to find solutions.
He argues that unless leadership enforces intellectual rigor, middle managers will manipulate their reported metrics while underlying business performance suffers.
Cote’s formula for success is not some kind of complex 4-D chess […] The focus on avoiding denial and properly diagnosing root causes is reminiscent of the “five whys” technique pioneered by Toyota
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The dentist checkup method
Cote’s formula reminded me of the last course I had to pass for my Master's Degree:
It was taught by a professor that, during the exam, would ask you superficial questions to probe your general knowledge of the required topics.
Then, if at any point he felt that you didn’t truly understand what you were saying, he would keep asking questions on the specific topic over and over, going deeper and deeper, until he was either disappointed or satisfied.
Your knowledge on the topic (or lack thereof) would be exposed so well that I have never heard anybody disagreeing with the outcome of that exam.
Over the years I started using this method for decision-making or business reviews. I called it the “dentist checkup”, reminiscent of how my dentist used to find the most impossible cavities in my mouth when I was a kid.
But you can call it “intellectual rigor”, and here are some tips on how to make it work:
When you don’t understand something, ask a clarifying question. If their answer does not help, don’t assume you are stupid and shut up, ask again until it’s clear to you
Always be suspicious when someone shows you only assumptions and conclusions, what happens in between is the most important part
If someone cites numbers and figures, don’t presume their math is correct or their figures are true. Ask for sources or research yourself if something feels off
When someone has too much material it might be a sign of the “midwit trap”, or Dunning-Kruger effect. Are they overcomplicating for lack of experience?
If someone is there “just to get a sign-off” and is not interested in having an honest conversation, just say it out loud, this method won’t be useful unless everybody at the table is honest
There is no shame in asking someone to come back later after they clarified some of the points raised
On a more practical level, if you are in a position to change the way the content is presented:
Prefer digital pre-reads in which you can raise questions ahead of time, followed by an open discussion on those questions. Giving people time to prepare leads to better discussions
Set a max length for the pre-read, see the midwit trap above
Don’t be a stickler for process, format doesn’t matter, this is about good decision-making. But templates can help.
And of course, those rules should be applied to yourself before anybody else, intellectual rigor starts with you.
Using this method requires care
Asking a barrage of questions can be awkward without an established relationship, people will just assume you are an asshole. Even if it’s the culture of the company, nobody likes to be challenged by a stranger, especially one that is not from the same area or department. Pay attention to your tone, your body language, make sure to establish a relationship, and never make it personal.
The first requirement for this method is that you care. You care about the business, about the decision to be made, and, above all, about the people that might feel hurt by your remarks (even if you are right).
The second requirement is that you are not invested in a particular outcome. The point is to make better decisions, not to fulfill your wish. This is particularly important if you are a top-level decision-maker.
This third, and final, requirement is that there is no hierarchy in the room. Everyone should have a voice proportional to their expertise, not their position in the organization.
Sounds hard after I put all these warnings, but I still invite you to try it out. Try to challenge yourself and others, and see what comes out of it.