The Office, Herr’s Chips, and Creating Value

Jordan Peterson told Tyler Cowen that his job as a psychologist is to take a complicated problem and reduce it to a solvable process. Most of the time we think of solving problems with answers, but answers are just the end-state. Peterson’s framing highlights how we actually create value in someone’s mind: by owning the story that starts with their problem and ends with an answer. We can find this formula everywhere.

 

If you’re hungry for a snack and I give you a bag of chips, that’s a simple problem with a simple answer. Since it’s expensive to pay a person to stand around holding chips and waiting for people to get hungry, someone invented the vending machine. Accessibility, convenience, delivery-on-demand – it’s a great story until – *gasp – the vending machine is all out of your favorite chips. Now, what do you do?

 

There’s an episode of The Office (“Grief Counseling”) where Karen gets upset that the breakroom vending machine is all out of salt and vinegar Herr’s chips. She claims she needs them to do her work and Jim makes it his mission to find some for her. As the audience, we know that if he succeeds it’s going to make for an impressive, value creating story.

 

As professionals, take note of the “vending machine attitude” vs. “the Jim attitude.” The vending machine attitude is that Karen can just switch to a different snack that is available or walk away. Simple problem, simple answer. The value is only in the convenience of the transaction. The Jim attitude is to bend reality to find the chips and surprise her. Complicated problem, solvable process.  Jim’s approach may not scale, but he saw the opportunity to move the value of the chips from the transaction to the story of his effort and their relationship. Which one is Karen going to tell her friends about?

 

Whenever a complicated problem rears its head, it creates the room for a new story to emerge. There are plenty of vending machines amongst us who, when the chips are out, are happy to just wait until the distributors show up to restock. There are others who are willing to seek out the complicated problems and reduce them to a solvable process, as Jim did for Karen. It’s not just about getting the right answer, it’s about getting there in the right way – with a solvable process, and a powerful story. Which one are people going to talk about?

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