A word about second-order thinking

An important skill for life, career and cobra infestations

Sometime during its rule of India, the British government became concerned about the number of venomous cobras in Delhi. Their solution? A bounty program offering a cash reward to anyone who killed one. It worked great -- citizens started taking care of the cobra problem and earned some cash in the process. Win win. Until...

Eventually someone figured out that you could make even more money by breeding cobras and turning in their corpses for the reward.


It gets better: eventually the authorities caught wind of people gaming the system, at which point they canceled the reward program. What happened then? Well, there was no longer any reason to raise or house cobras, so everyone let theirs loose... causing a worse version of the same problem that kicked the whole thing off. Oof.

Tough day at the office for whoever called the shots on that one.

I can’t think of a better anecdote to make the point: it’s important to consider the consequences of your decisions. That’s obvious in the case of dealing with rampant cobras, but also worth considering in general as a skill that can be practised and refined.

I learned a version of the cobra lesson early in my career, albeit with way less danger and unintentional comedy involved. In those days, my job was usually to compile some collection of numbers and deliver it to a boss figure who would use it to make decisions. My MO in performing my job was what you’d expect from your average entry-level data monkey: I’d take the instructions at face value, deliver what was asked, then wait for the next task -- not digging beneath surface level in any way.

Often when I handed something in, my boss would point out things that looked strange or ask questions about my work. Happy to do what I was asked, I would take those questions away and come back with answers as best I could.

At some point, a mentor figure (a peer, a few years older than me) sat me down and taught me a lesson that’s stuck with me since: anticipate the next question. Don’t wait to be asked for clarification of the thing you’re handing in; put yourself in the boss’s shoes and read the report as they would. Make it your goal to deliver not just the thing you were directly asked for, but also the answers to the questions that will come out of it.

Like the British government solving their snake problem, it pays to practise what’s known as ‘second-order thinking’. First-order thinking is coming up with the direct solution to the problem or answer to the question you were asked. Second-order thinking is about considering (and trying ahead of time to address) the new problems that your decision, action or answer will introduce.

One of the qualities that’s in high demand everywhere that there’s creative work to be done is the capacity for original thought -- of which strong second-order thinking is a key component. If you’re good at thinking through not just the problem in front of you, but the implications and potential consequences of your solution to it, you’ll always have a seat at the table.

To practise the skill, first -- no matter what problem or question you’re faced with -- make a habit of considering the ‘then what’. I do this, then what? What new problems will my solution create? What next question am I likely to be asked? Adjust your approach accordingly.

Then, after you’ve done the thing (made the decision, delivered the report, etc), if something happens that you didn’t anticipate on your first go-round, conduct a mini post mortem for yourself. Consider where/how you missed it on your first pass, and make a mental note as to any cues you might consider next time around. Rinse and repeat.

In practising this way, sooner or later you begin to get better at it. It becomes less frequent that you get totally blindsided by an outcome you hadn’t envisioned. And that’s exactly the sort of progression that makes a person a better problem solver, a better leader, or generally better at any other role involving the need for thinking ahead.

Oh, and try to keep the accidental cobra infestations to a minimum. That’s an important skill in leadership too.