If you are like me, you are familiar with the stories of successful people. You may have even read their biography or watched documentaries profiling their life. However, how many of you have deeply analyzed their works to discover underlying principles and patterns that make their work have significance and impact? Reverse engineering the success of others, provides you with a proven approach to unlocking the hidden insights and key differentiators of those you admire.
How many people have used this process to become successful? Perhaps, a better question to ask is there a successful person who has not used this process. The litany of prolific writers, inventors and leaders who have used this strategy is to many to count.
I was first introduced to this tool from reading the autobiography of Ben Franklin, whose system for mastering the craft of writing greatly improved the quality of his writing. Franklin would first read a quality article or piece of writing, taking copious notes on what he found insightful or effective from the way the author structured the argument to the words the author chose. After a few days, he would then try to recreate the piece from memory. The last step entailed comparing the recreated piece with the original and critically assess the areas where his version was still lacking.
No successful person wants to be thought of as unoriginal, a copycat, or a hack. And it is rarely profitable in simply duplicating the success formula of others. Instead, the goal is to identify insights and algorithms in the work of others that can be applied and leveraged in original ways.
In his book, Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success, Ron Friedman provides a blueprint for getting you started.
BE A COLLECTOR
The great ones consume voraciously. Friedman states Warhol collected artwork, David Bowie collected records, Julia Child collected cookbooks and Quentin Tarantino spent so much time in the local video store that he became the resident film expert.
By collecting and then consuming these works, you are absorbing their knowledge while refining your taste. In other words, you are improving your success algorithm. You are also learning their frameworks and patterns, even if you are not aware of them.
What many don’t realize is that before you can analyze and practice your craft, you need a collection of outstanding examples or works that will assist you in developing a particular skill.
In any endeavor, the more exemplary examples you study, the easier it is to identify what makes them remarkable. Friedman mentions that it is the rare author who proves equally skillful at plot, dialogue, character development and setting. By having a catalog of works, it exposes you to more influences, allowing you to meld the best elements of each in interesting ways.
DEEP ANALYSIS OF THE WORK
Now that you have a collection of works, the actual work begins. Your collection of notable examples needs to be examined for similarities to determine what differentiates them from their prosaic counterparts.
Friedman recommends playing the game ‘Spot the Difference’ by comparing and contrasting different pieces within your collection. It will also help to fuel your curiosity by asking the right questions such as “What makes this article interesting or have a strong argument?” Believe me when I say, your critical thinking and analysis muscles will be tested.
Don’t forget that critical thinking is all about asking better questions. This is supported by John Coleman in his recent HBR article, Critical Thinking is About Asking Better Questions. The heart of critical thinking is dependent on your ability to ask deep and effective questions. Leaders need to spend more time in coming up with and asking questions instead of just answering them.
CONSTRUCTING A BLUEPRINT
Now you need to zoom out to uncover the underlying patterns. One way Friedman prescribes this is by quantifying the work in terms of meaningful metrics.
From top hit songs to blockbuster movies, they all have commonalities. As Friedman states, you don’t need lots of data points or a degree in a quantitative field, all you need is an openness to numbers and a curiosity to explore. For example, Friedman quantified the most popular TED talk of all time by Sir Ken Robinson in order to draw some meaningful insights, which he then distilled into a template for delivering a successful speech. The big ‘Aha’ from this analysis was that Robinson only presents one data point during his talk, the rest is anecdotes.
By collecting works and examples of successful people and analyzing them, you are uncovering and unlocking keys to their success. Zooming out and quantifying their framework or structure allows you to then reverse engineer their work thereby creating a replicable blueprint.
Institute for Management Studies (IMS) educator Dr. Michael Roberto, frequently uses reverse engineering when instructing leaders on critical thinking skills to improve their decision-making. Through analyzing historical events, Dr. Roberto shows how to be an effective problem solver by identifying the underlying issues and patterns from fascinating historical examples as the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
As Robb Osinski states in his 2019 Forbes article, Disruption and The Art of Not Reinventing the Wheel, don’t reinvent the wheel unless the tire is flat. The wheel may already be able to do much more than what it was originally intended for. In reverse engineering speak – don’t try to reinvent the wheel, just reverse engineer it.
ABOUT CHARLES GOOD
Charles Good is the president of The Institute for Management Studies, which provides transformational learning experiences that drive behavioral change and develop exceptional leaders. Charles is an innovative and resourceful leader who specializes in bringing people together to develop creative organizational and talent strategies that enable business results. His areas of expertise include assessing organizational skill gaps and leading the design, creation and delivery of high impact, innovative learning solutions that achieve business goals.