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Playbooks Over Prescription


a sign that is on the side of a hill

A prescription is comforting. You generally need something prescribed to you when you’re in pain, when you have a problem. The simple knowledge that you have the prescription brings peace. Executing the prescription brings relief.

But when you are managing, mentoring, advising, or leading in some form, prescriptions cause more harm than help. It may feel right—it’s certainly the fastest way to get something done in the moment—to just tell a team what to do, but when you do that, you are robbing them of a critical skill that can only be developed over time and through experience. You also put more on your plate because the people on the teams you work with will come to expect you to solve their problems. The problem compounds from there until it’s a snowball that can’t be stopped. When that happens, you’re left wondering why the team can’t execute when in reality, you never let them.

You don’t even have to be a formal leader or manager to be a prescriber. Co-workers and friends might ask you for help. And yes, it’s OK to just give them the answer. But there are certainly times when you’d be better off and they’d be better off if you gave them a playbook for answering questions like that themselves in the future.

When I look back on my career, some of the lessons I apply to product development and leadership today came from my days working in a call center. This whole concept of playbooks over prescriptions came to me originally while working with a team of ten reps in a call center in Tucson, Arizona. I learned very quickly that when people asked me questions and I answered those questions, I was helping them in the moment but hurting them in the long run. And I was hurting myself. People learned to come to me for quick answers. In a call center environment, quick answers are the most valuable currency, and I was taking from my reserve and giving to others without teaching them how to build their own stockpile of currency.

After I realized this, I would ask one question in response to every question I received:

How did you try to find the answer to this before coming to me?

Most of the early interactions after that were some form of frustrated “I didn’t.” And this was great. Because then my response was a suggestion of where they could start to explore the problem and how they could think about ways to find a solution. It took longer. It impacted my time. It impacted their time. But eventually, when people came to me with questions, they would start the question like this:

I looked here, read this document, and checked this form, but I still have a question about…

Those types of questions are great because it means the person asking the question has used the playbooks you’ve provided and is now asking for a new playbook. They are no longer asking for prescriptions.

Later in my career, while managing teams and leading product development, I expanded this concept beyond just finding answers to questions and into trusting intuitions and experience. When people would come to me and ask my opinion about something, I used to just give my opinion. And there are certainly times where I still do that and it’s necessary. But more often than not, simply giving your opinion is prescribing something that could be solved with another playbook.

For example, I might have a team member who would ask me what I thought about a product idea or research approach. My answer would almost always be:

What do you think about it and why do you think that?

If they could give me a reasoned answer with nonfiction and confidence, then my opinion was not necessary. If they couldn’t, my opinion still didn’t matter because there was a more important step they needed to take. They needed to run a new play from a playbook that would help them articulate the what, why, and how.

Eventually, my team would come to me, not with a request for my opinion but with a story. The messages from them would sound more like this:

I’m going to do this because I looked into X and learned Y, but what’s missing is Z and I’m confident we can move the needle by just doing this one thing.

As I started mentoring startups, this idea of playbooks over prescriptions became even more important. Startups are fragile. If you solve a founder’s problems for them, you’re setting them up for failure in the future. Mentoring and advising are never about solving problems. They are about enablement.

When I talked to founders, I ask them questions. In fact, 90% of what I do is ask questions. What I am trying to do with these questions is make these founders really think about their problems and how they’ve tried to approach them. Are they running playbooks to help them navigate big questions? Do they know how to build a playbook? Almost without fail, simply asking questions will naturally result in a playbook being built.

There is a time and a place for quick answers or suggestions. But more often than I think most people realize, a playbook is more impactful. And while later in my career, I helped build playbooks from a leadership position, I started doing this while an individual contributor on a team. So, if you find yourself asking teammates and managers questions that you didn’t try to solve on your own first, consider trying to build your own playbook. If you have trouble, that’s when you go to your team or manager.

And if you’re a leader dolling out answers without pushing your team to build the muscle memory of discovery, you’re probably hurting them more than you know.