What I learned about empirical analysis, dominant hypotheses, and the value of a clean workshop while crossing Australia on my bike
Last year, when I turned 40, I did something you might think is a little predictable: I bought a motorcycle with the intent of taking it off road to cross the entire Australian land mass from west to east. That first attempt was a big fail (that is not the subject of this article!), but I got back on the steel horse and this month returned from an epic adventure with some close mates that took me from Darwin to Sydney, avoiding tarmac almost the entire way. A total of 6,030 kilometers in 13 days.
In college, one of my favorite books was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In Robert Pirsig’s famous 1974 tome, the autobiographical main character Phaedrus uses motorcycle maintenance as a way to riff on the meaning of quality. Having committed to this crazy notion of adventure motorbiking, in a country as big and barren as Australia, I had to learn enough about my motorcycle to perform basic maintenance and trouble-shooting, given the inevitability of things breaking down.
As I struggled to climb the steep learning curve (which often involved undoing my own unwitting mistakes), I saw many parallels with my work in strategy consulting. I’ve gathered these reflections here—lessons from the world of motorcycle maintenance that should resonate with strategists. These have all been acquired the old-fashioned hard way.
- Slow down and make sure you are solving the right problem.
When your bike breaks in the middle of nowhere, you can get a little panicky. This leads to impulsively locking onto the first imaginable solution as you try to be quick and efficient. Problem is, going fast is for sure the slowest way to fix a motorcycle. Even worse is trying to fix it with the wrong part or tool because you “don’t have time” to get the right one. Rushing to change a clutch (the first time I had seen a clutch, let alone changed one), I completely busted the gasket and this slowed me down by a week.
- Work back from the source of the problem.
Suppose your tire is down and won’t pump up (off-road bikers constantly adjust tire pressure to deal with different terrain, especially the dreaded sand). Many people jump to the end of the problem (“I need to switch tubes”—a hard job involving taking the tire off and putting it on again by hand). This is wrong. You have to start at the beginning, which in this case is the air compressor, then move to the valve, then the tube. As I said, I learned this the hard way; imagine how we felt standing by that dirt road after 45 minutes of hard effort changing a tube that turned out to be fine! It was, of course, the pump that was faulty. (Simple check: try your friend’s pump.)
- Be empirical.
A tattoo-covered bush mechanic with about four teeth, a long beard, and no shirt was the least likely candidate to teach me about the value of empiricism. We met him on a remote road in Arnhem land, an Aboriginal territory in the very north of Australia. I had just done something dumb: I tried to cross a creek where I couldn’t see the bottom. Next thing I know, I’m up to my thighs in water and the bike conks out. After that, it wouldn’t start. The mechanic happened to be passing by, saw us across the creek, had a bit of a laugh, and then, as they do in these parts, proceeded to help us.
We had many theories about what the problem was, but this guy (as per lesson #2) focused on testing for the source of the trouble. First, was air getting through the engine, or did water get into the casing? Test: see if you get a good chug-chug of air out of the exhaust when you crank the starter motor. Pass. Second, was electricity getting to the spark plug? Test: pull out the spark plug cable, plug in a fresh spark plug and crank the engine. It did not spark. Solution: wait an hour for it to dry out, then try again. Worked perfectly!
The point is, this bush mechanic didn’t waste time on theorizing and instead jumped in to gather data. But not in a random way: he had an ordered set of hypotheses and designed the simplest possible experiments to systematically eliminate them.
- Keep doubt alive.
Your biggest enemy in trying to fix a motorbike is excessive self-assuredness. This creates tunnel vision and makes you blind to better solutions. Watch out for that initial thought that becomes an anchor to your reasoning. I spent a very frustrating day getting the bike towed to fix an expensive-sounding “stator coil” (part of the inner workings of the electrical system) when the actual problem was insufficient fuel getting into the hose (a five-minute fix). Why? Because someone said, “Oh, I’ve seen that before—it’s definitely the stator coil,” which then became the dominant hypothesis.
Such dominant hypotheses are infectious, especially if they come from someone who sounds confident. It’s a good idea to have doubters and dissenters around, even if they can be a pain!
- Gain some distance from the problem.
At some point, you’re likely to get stuck in a rut. Have a cup of tea, step back from the bike, and think about what you’re doing. A habitual loop of stepping into the problem and then stepping away from it seems to be the key to efficiency. Things that stop you from stepping back are overconfidence (see above), being in a rush, getting angry, or panic. Keep calm!
- Be organized.
Unlike me, good mechanics keep their shops clean. I think this is because, when confronted with the ambiguity of a bike not working, you need to be surrounded by order. When the mechanic spends as much time looking for his tools as he does on repairing the problem, you know you’re in the presence of an amateur. The analogy for strategy: don’t cut corners on a disciplined process.
- Plan for the best but be prepared for the worst.
You never plan to break down, but you need to be ready for anything. Experienced adventure motorcyclists have portable kits of tools and common spares, glues, and ties that can help them get out of trouble anywhere. This little kit evolves with each incident, becoming more refined to keep it as light as possible while maximizing preparedness.
Just because you don’t plan to fail doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for failure. But too many business plans, attempting to project an aura of confidence, don’t leave room for the proverbial spare tire. I also think the relentless push for efficiency can reduce the ability to deal with upsets—those spare parts seem so wasteful when they’re not used!
My mid-life push into motorcycling has taken me out of my comfort zone and thrown me into new circumstances with new teachers. There is something about becoming a novice again that, for me at least, builds a great sense of renewal. And out there, in the wide open landscape of the outback, you have the space to reflect.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn.