This article was based on episode 173 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Members can get one of five copies of Decoding Greatness. To request your copy, become a member at themodernmanager.com/join.
All my life, I’d been told there are two ways to succeed: figure out your talents and practice, practice, practice. But it turns out that there’s a third approach to success! According to Dr. Ron Friedman, it’s called “reverse engineering.” Ron is an award-winning psychologist who has served on the faculty of the University of Rochester, and has consulted for political leaders, nonprofits, and many of the world’s most recognized brands. His newest book is Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success. Ron walks us through some incredible examples of people who reverse engineered themselves to success and how we can encourage our own teams (and kids!) to use this technique to rise to the top.
WHAT IS REVERSE ENGINEERING?
Put simply, we need to observe what other successful people are doing in their fields, work backwards to figure out what strategies they used, and then apply those strategies to our own work. Through his research, Ron has identified three phases to reverse engineering. They are Curate, Analyze, and Templatize.
CURATE: WHAT ARE THE BEST EXAMPLES?
The first step to reverse engineering is to find the best examples of what you’re going for. Ron shares a beautiful story about Barack Obama’s journey to becoming an incredible orator. In his first race for Congress, Obama got trounced because his speeches sounded like lectures and people didn’t want to be lectured to. Then Obama started paying attention to how his pastor gave speeches at church. He found his pastor’s style and tone to be magnetizing. Obama imitated his pastor’s style by telling more stories, modulating his tone, and using repetition to drive points home. The rest, as we know, is history.
This initial step prompts us to investigate what people are really responding to so that we can follow in those footsteps. Ron suggests that you and your team become collectors. Collect the things that stand out to you that you want to come back to and analyze. This applies to all things, including emails that we find particularly compelling, speeches that moved us, meetings that really worked, or designs that popped. One of the easiest ways to do this is to create a Google Doc or Browser bookmark for each category and place examples in it whenever one crosses your path. Collect as a team to generate a large database of information.
ANALYZE: WHY IS IT SO GREAT?
To understand a successful project, we need to look at its blueprint. What elements made this specific thing so great? Why is this email different from all other emails? Ron refers to this process as “reverse outlining”; we work backwards to figure out what kind of outline people would have used to create the final piece.
Nonfiction writers do this by looking at the sources in the back of books, and chefs will order food at other restaurants and try to figure out the ingredients and how the dish was made. I didn’t realize that I’d been using this technique for a while. After an unusually fabulous conference, I’ll take a minute to try to break down what made it so great so that I can apply those insights to my gatherings.
Kurt Vonnegut is a stellar example of a reverse outlining warrior. Vonnegut sat down and analyzed the most successful stories. He ended up finding six common story arcs of character development. Did you know that Cinderella and Annie are basically the same story?! By reverse outlining, Vonnegut was able to go to the next step in reverse engineering for success: creating a template.
TEMPLATIZE: MAKE IT REUSABLE!
Once you have found a successful product and analyzed it, you can turn it into a template that can be used over and over again. For example, you can templatize presentations by breaking them down into core components. Then, when it’s time to deliver a presentation, you can review past successful presentations and determine which of those core components apply to this situation. Similarly, if you’re planning a meeting, peruse your meeting templates and design the agenda based on a past successful meeting.
While templates give you structure, it’s important to make whatever you create authentic and unique to you. This isn’t about copying other people’s work, but about using their ideas as inspiration for your own. Also, keep in mind that audience expectations shift overtime, so what worked well once might not always work well.
While it is important to find your passion and to practice like crazy, we can’t ignore this third strategy for success. We need to look at what other successful people and businesses are doing and learn from them in a deep way. Along with our team members, we need to reverse engineer their wins in order to understand what made it impactful. Then, we can use that knowledge to boost our own work and by doing so, we can collectively reach new heights.
KEEP UP WITH RON
Members can get one of five copies of Decoding Greatness. To become a member of the Modern Manager community, go to themodernmanager.com/join.
This article was based on episode 173 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.