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The power of two

Sadly, I know quite a few economist jokes; they’re generally not very funny. But the following story is true.

An economist walks into a bar and starts chatting to another customer. The economist in question is Glen Whitman and when he mentions his job the other patron asks him; “What are the Two Things about economics? You know, the Two Things. For every subject there are only two things you need to know. Everything else is just the application of those two things, or just not important.” After thinking about this, Whitman says: “One: incentives matter. Two: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

So that’s economics sorted then. Whitman says: “Since that evening I’ve been playing the Two Things game. Whenever I meet someone who belongs to a different profession or knows something about a subject I’m unfamiliar with, I ask them the Two Things question.”

The Two Things question forces someone to extricate themselves from detailed complexities and to view their area of expertise afresh. The Two Things about stock trading could be; “Buy low, sell high”. Acting; “Don’t forget your lines and don’t bump into the set. Of public relations; “Perception is reality and perception is rarely reality”. Medicine; “Do no harm. To do any good, you must risk doing harm”.

Whitman says the “two-ness” is crucial; three things wouldn’t demand such disciplined thinking and one thing wouldn’t give a truthful picture. As Einstein said: “Everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Obviously, medicine cannot really be distilled into just two things, but in many areas of activity, the duality is probably all you need to remember. If you have just passed your driving test, for example, all you need to remember is; “Don’t hit anything and don’t let anything hit you”.

It is in the interest of consultants to over-complicate business and self-help books exist just to bamboozle the vulnerable; most of them could probably be summed up as; “If you can tolerate a bit of discomfort, you can achieve almost any goal; secondly; it’s amazing the lengths we’ll go to avoid discomfort.”

Natalie Peace, who writes for Forbes magazine, applies a similar test to businesses. She asks: “Can you define your workplace culture with just two words?”

She used to sell health food and so her two words were “nutrition” and “kindness”. She wanted those values to permeate everything that they did at work; from her engagement with her staff, their interactions with each other and their customers, to their involvement with suppliers, partners and the community.

If you don’t decide what the two words are for your business, it might evolve in unintended and negative ways. Keeping your business manifesto simple is key; a 20-page document just won’t cut the mustard.

We all know trendy companies who enforce playfulness and although this might seem a bit of an imposition, creativity is a valuable asset for any company that wants success.

It is important to choose your two words with care and to communicate your vision to your team and to ask for feedback on how you can suffuse the meaning into every part of your business. The idea is to shake up your business practices, using your two words as a guide.

If your two words are “joy” and “fun”, there is no point in working in dingy offices, where those concepts can’t possibly flourish. A useful exercise is to ask people you work with what two words best describe the kind of firm they would like work at and then ask them for the two words that really sum up your business.

Nigel Phillips

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