Seek First to Understand – OR – Why Potato Chip Bags are so Hard to Open

Seek First to Understand – OR – Why Potato Chip Bags are so Hard to Open


I read this recently, and it’s relevant to running a business:

A chemist named John Spevacek, working for a company that made “multilayer polypropylene films for food packaging,” was tasked with creating a bag that could be sealed without breaking open over air pressure changes, vital for the transport of chips across the Rocky Mountains. The only way Spevacek could keep the bags sealed: Create a seal that was really, really strong. Good news: Potato chip bags don’t pop open at high elevations. Bad news: They’re difficult to open at any elevation.

Interesting, huh? It reminds me of a couple good sayings: “Seek first to understand,” and “don’t move the fence until you know why the fence is there.” Both are applicable for leadership, management, and generally, working with other people.

Too often, I find people’s tendency is to assume that because something doesn’t work in the instance in which we’re judging it, that an idiot must have made that decision in the first place. Of course, our outside, isolated view must be right because it makes sense from where we’re assessing the situation.

The trouble is that rarely decisions in corporations are made with complete disregard for reality. There’s always a reason. The reason may be bad, but the decision is based on a reason. The task then becomes not to judge the previous decision, but to seek out the original reason. In this instance, the bag is hard to open so it doesn’t explode with air pressure changes, and the company is left with bad product. Honestly, that reason didn’t occur to me until I read this.

There are dozens of times per day that a leader is called to assess a situation, and maybe change course. The question is, when it comes time to make the decision, does the leader have the necessary information? Does the leader understand the original reason the decision was made? I’ve seen owners make snap judgments, confidently, and to their detriment because they don’t have all the information. I’ve done so myself! But, wisdom teaches us to slow down, take the time to talk with others, assess in a fully-informed manner, instead of simply trusting that because we’re in charge, we know best.

If you find yourself regularly making snap judgments that result in changes because the original way was wrong, you may be operating without the necessary information. You may be moving the fence. You may be causing a bag to explode over the Rockies. Instead, slow down, find an alternate opinion – maybe talk with the people closest to the situation, and seek first to understand. You may find that your initial conclusions are wrong, and you can avert spoiling your own product.

Need help with an alternate opinion? Call us.

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