Think ahead, get better results. It seems obvious enough, right?
But how many teams actually budget the time to discuss and evaluate what happens after they take on a new project or introduce a new objective? Realistically, how often do we ask the simple question, “OK, then what?”
Formally considering the implications of any given option before committing to one is known as second order thinking. Aside from the obvious benefits it can have during roadmapping, it can also significantly impact a company’s bottom line — and that of their customers.
At Sovrn, a company that helps online publishers grow their businesses, Advancement Manager Shahin Henrikson heard that spend was down with a customer’s client. Instead of writing the loss off to seasonality, she turned to second order thinking to learn more.
“My team uncovered that this one large buyer had stopped buying across a number of accounts after an industry change in technical requirements,” Henrikson said. “We figured out why, and were able to alert our customers and help them find ways to get that spend back.”
This approach to problem-solving isn’t uncommon at Sovrn. In fact, second order thinking is so integral to how the company conducts its business, it’s become one of its core values. Josh Voravong, a software engineer, says the process necessitates a focus on the nitty-gritty in order to create positive change on a major scale.
“You have an influence over your environment, which means you can own part of your environment and really push toward things you want to see. If you want to make a change and you want to implement new technology, you can,” Voravong said.
Built In Colorado interviewed three Sovrn employees to practice some second order thinking of our own: If a company decides to adopt this way of thinking, then what?
We know what second order thinking is in the abstract, but what does it actually look like in your workday?
Sam Sexson, Senior Scrum Master: I work with teams trying to decide which features, projects and initiatives we want to take up next. And as we go through the list, we can probably only do one or two at a time. You start considering the timeline and the impact of a project. Is that going to make something else easier? Is it going to have an impact on our customers? On revenue? If you have five or six projects to prioritize, going down that first, second and maybe third level of thinking really helps.
Josh Voravong, Software Engineer: On the engineering side, second order thinking technically happens at the very start and at the very end of an effort. When you go off your previous work you can say, “Alright, so we want to implement text warps to follow this type of pattern; if we follow this type of pattern, then everybody will know their responsibilities.” At the post-mortem, we can identify what we didn’t do well on and what results we’re seeing after we’ve implemented the first solution.
Is it hard to learn to think ahead like this?
Shahin Henrikson, Advancement Manager: There is a learning curve to thinking this way. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by deciding if something really is second order thinking. Am I thinking about this right? Is my idea or my thought good enough? You can get paralyzed into perfectionism and then that will manifest in all kinds of ways, so it’s really important to be intentional about creating an environment where it’s OK to be wrong.
On the surface, this seems like something that would only really apply to upper management. How can entry-level employees benefit from second order thinking?
Sexson: Since it’s part of our internal process, we’re able to say, “We put this type of pattern in place for how we’re going to do this type of work. Is this working for our senior members and our entry-level members?” Our senior members obviously have more experience, but we consider if that decision is really supporting even our entry-level people who might be thinking about it in a different mindset. Honest critiques and an open environment can ramp up your entry-level people to be more like senior employees, to take things as they are and be honest about it.
What’s challenging about second order thinking?
Voravong: It’s always interesting when you have second order thoughts that conflict with each other. For example, in order to fix fault A, you have to implement solution A. And in order to fix fault B, you have to implement solution B. But solution A and solution B can’t coexist. Usually, we put it to a vote and go with the democratic route and say, “Hey, we’re owning this choice and you have some input on it.” It empowers your team. It can be really hard to get people to really focus on so many ideas, but the decisions really will affect your life, your workplace and your attitude.
Does second-order thinking play into Sovrn’s larger company culture?
Sexson: I think second order thinking leads to empowerment and trust. For example, a manager could say, “We’re going to empower you to edit that document and we’re going to trust that you’re going to do it.” And that leads to the employee saying, “What impact is this going to have? I better do this right.” Because then when the next time they’re faced with a similar circumstance, they feel empowered to make it better and know that it’s their responsibility to do it right. And it just grows and grows and grows.
Henrikson: Maybe someone on our team has made a mistake. It’s important to help them understand it’s OK to be wrong and it’s OK to ask others for help. You really have to foster an environment where people don’t feel afraid to ask others for help and for input. You can’t have all the answers in this industry!
Voravong: Ownership is encouraged in the types of projects we do and in the way people are treated here. I have worked in places where I show up, I work on the ticket that I’ve been assigned until it’s done, then I go home. There was no ownership. At Sovrn, we have the opportunity to actually make an impact. If you want to make a change and you want to implement new technology, you can. You have an influence over your environment, which means you can own part of your environment and really push toward things you want to see.