Eight Rules of Thumb for Winning in Business

Alan Webber on change
How often do we take the time to make an honest assessment of the methods and principles that underscore our work?

Would we say we're our own best teachers and learners?, asks Alan Webber in Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self. Even in times of great change, the fundamentals of a well lived life and work well done stay constant — we are in charge of our own experience.

Alan Webber worked with Ted Levitt to reinvent the Harvard Business Review (HBR) in the 1908s and partnered with Bill Taylor to launch and edit Fast Company magazine in the 1990s. He contributed to changing the conversation about business at the highest level with one and to changing the business of publishing with community and service with the other.

The following eight rules of thumb are particularly useful reminders of the value of experience and observation, how to make sense of change and learn from what works:

#1 – When the going gets tough, the tough relax

Any time you approach a task with fear you are at least a double loser. First, you color the work with fear and increase the chances of failure. Confidence and composure trump fear every time. Second, you guarantee that you won't enjoy the experience.

[…] so when you feel that familiar unpleasant sensation rising up in your chest or settling into the pit of your stomach, remember Rule #1. Don't let fear undermine your chance to do that one thing you wanted to do. Rule #1 touches every other rule.

#4 – Don't implement solutions. Prevent problems

Companies still don't apply early intervention and prevention in something as basic as customer service. After a company has thoroughly alienated its customers with poor service, lousy attention, and insulting marketing pitches, it then tries to make it up with insincere apologies.

At the top of major corporations leaders habitually look the other way when they know a serious problem needs their attention, hoping the day of reckoning won't come on their watch. Or they pound the table and demand a fix — without ever acknowledging that their inattention to the root cause of the problem only drives up the cost of a solution, which is often not a solution but only a palliative.

[…] But there is another component to human nature, and all it takes is practice: look reality in the eye, establish an honest assessment of the real nature of the problem, look upstream to see its trues causes, and then roll up your sleeves and attack it early, deeply, and effectively.

#7 – The system is the solution

When you see the system and not just the individual pieces you increase your chances of winning.

[…] Systems thinkers see the relationships, not the functions. They see the processes, not the stand-alone components or the final products.

#11 – We've moved from and either/or past to a both/and future

one of the skills that defines an entrepreneur and an innovator is the capacity to generate new lines of sight. That means cracking problems open along a new dimension. It means rejecting old either/or choices and finding new both/and syntheses. You learn to do that when you operate in the diagonal. You learn to slice a problem along a new line and then recombine its elements in a fresh way.

[…] When you start to operate on the diagonal, you change the game, the way a bishop does in chess. You open up a new space; you change the geometry of choice.

#13 – Learn to take no as a question

As is the case with every disappointment or reversal, the question is what you make of it.


1. Say thank you – the person who gave you the no also gave you time and attention. Chances are good, you'll meet this person again. Make a gracious impression.

2. Take notes – listen carefully, listen respectfully without agreeing or arguing. You are getting something rare: honest feedback. Write it down. It will make your idea better.

3. Don't take it personally – the no is to the idea in its present form. Don't confuse the idea with yourself.

4. All prayers are answered; sometimes the answer is no – sometimes someone else is already doing it. Or somebody bigger, stronger, and richer is about to launch their version of the idea. Of for reasons you can't explain, you simply cannot marshal enough market support for your idea. […] at some point there's nothing to do except move on.

#29 – Words matter

“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug,” said Mark Twain.

consider the backstory to the recent global financial meltdown that originated with preposterous lending practices […] banks changed the words from 'second mortgage' to 'equity access,' tricking borrowers into thinking they were doing something with their homes that, in the words of one banker, 'sounds more innocent.'

[…] you don't know what you think until you write it down. […] look at the words, do they make sense? Do they say what you're trying to say?

#40 – Technology is about changing how we work

it's never about the technology — it's always about what the technology makes possible

[…] when you say 'technology' most people think of something they can touch, hold, or install: a computer, a chip, a router, or a piece of software. The real stuff of technology is invisible: it's the connections it creates, the speed and flexibility it enables, the changes in behavior it produces, and the possibilities for innovation it inspires.

[…] most things don't get used for the purpose for which they were invented. The inventor creates the technology, and then we find uses for it. It's better to think of the uses of technology than the pieces of technology: computing is more important than the computer.

[…] Every technologist I've ever met, including a handful of Nobel Prize winners, urgently wants nonscientists to weigh in on the proper use of their discoveries. They are desperate for conversations between scientists and ethicists, between technologists and politicians. […] Every discovery has unintended consequences.

#52 – Stay alert! There are teachers everywhere

You want to be ready your whole life. ready to learn, to listen, maybe even to teach. It will make every day more valuable. It will make your life more fulfilling as well.

Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self is s good collection of little pieces for anyone looking to start a conversation with their own experiences, to build a network of teachers, and discover ideas that matter while making sense of the world.

Below is Alan Webber’s talk at Do Lectures. His Big Idea: We are in a big fix and we need a big fix. The rise of the radical pragmatist.

Alan Webber: Become a radical pragmatist from The Do Lectures on Vimeo.

Bill Strickland's story is an example of how acts of kindness Make the Impossible, Possible.


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