The Third Way

As some of you know, in my personal life, I have been passionate about martial arts for a long time (some 30 years by now). Studying those ancient arts taught me many valuable lessons over the years. One that I was reminded of just this week is the idea of “The third way” in Tai Chi.

In my earlier times of practicing the arts, my responses were limited to one of two categories: retreat or attack; submission or domination. Tai Chi teaches that in most cases, neither is the best solution, and one should rather look for a third way. You don’t surrender, and you don’t oppose; you find a way to embrace the energy and momentum and direct it in a direction that you deem valuable.

So how does this apply to work, and why am I writing about it here?

Well, very often, we are asked to add things to our already full plates or are confronted with situations that we don’t like or that even upset us. We usually respond either by saying ‘yes’ right away and then silently grumbling about yet another thing or by saying ‘no’ without further regard of the importance of the request.

Unless something is easy to do anyway (in which case we should just do it), or completely out of scope and unreasonable (in which case we should clarify why that is the case), it is usually worth to take a pause and to think about possible third ways. Ask yourself a few questions like:

  • What do we want to achieve?
  • Is there a simpler way to get there?
  • Who is best positioned to achieve those outcomes?
  • Who can we tap into for support?
  • How can the requestor help to make the work more efficient or simpler?
  • What aspects of the ask are hard requirements, and which ones are more flexible?

Don’t just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – take the time to work with the person who asked you to do something to gain a good understanding of the best way to achieve what they need to accomplish.

A recent reporting automation project that my team supports is one example of this. We could just take all requests for new reports, say ‘yes’, and hire more people to fulfill them. We could also cap the number of reports and headcount we are willing to fund and say ‘no’ after that. Or we can think about better ways to deliver what our customers want and need (i.e. good data to gain insights) – for example: where can we simplify (standard reports), or how can we enlist the requestor’s help (self-service dashboards).

Ask questions to understand. Ask questions to find the best solution. Ask questions to lead.

Don’t just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, insist on finding the best solution for everyone.


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