The Last Page In The Book Problem

I learned a very profound thing from my partner Dave Jilk at Feld Technologies 25 years ago. I have been practicing, and getting better at it, ever since. It’s a core part of the way I work with people and I have Dave to thank for it.

First, some context. Feld Technologies was my first company. Dave and I started it in 1987. We hired, then fired, a bunch of part time people and then just worked together – the two of us – for the next 18 months until we hired our first employee (Shawn Broderick). We were cash flow positive every month because we never raised any outside money. We both did everything, working very closely together. As the company grew, we partitioned a lot of things – I became the sales guy – generating much of our new business. Dave became the software guy, managing the team and getting the work done. But we continued to work closely together – he sold plenty of business and I did plenty of work, including doing all the network integration work for our clients, and occasionally managed something.

We were both young and very inexperienced so we learned a lot together, mostly by screwing things up and then fixing them. Sometimes we had a lot of fun, sometimes we were under tremendous stress, and every now and then one of us was miserable. We were (and continue to be) best friends so when one of us was very unhappy, the other could pick up on the vibe quickly and we talked about it.

I remember a stretch of time where I could tell that Dave was really aggravated with me. This wasn’t uncommon – our love and respect included plenty of “moments” as we were both developing into real adults. But this aggravation seemed deeper and didn’t surface in an obvious way.

I remember taking Dave out to dinner at a sushi place called Nara around the corner from our office at 260 Franklin Street in Boston. I can picture how the night felt – dark and empty with plenty of downtown Boston ambient noise. We went to Nara a lot – this was way before sushi became trendy and it was one of the few places in Boston, located a few blocks away from our office. They had excellent huge bottles of cold beer and amazing fish. And it was always quiet and there was always a booth open.

We sat down, got our beers, and I started with the issue, as I often do.

I asked, “Dave, what’s bugging you so much right now.”
“Why? What am I doing that’s bugging you.”
“Working with you is like reading the last page of a novel first.”

I sat nursing my beer for a quiet, long minute pondering this. I mentally read the last page of a novel and thought I knew what Dave meant. Eventually Dave broke the silence.

“When I bring an issue to you, you immediately tell me the answer. 99% of the time you are correct. So I then go spend all of my time looking for a solution that is better that yours. But I only find it 1% of the time. This is incredibly unsatisfying to me.”

I think he may have added something like “fucking demotivating” but by this point I totally groked it. We had an awesome dinner discussing what over the last 25 years we have regularly referred to as “the last page in the book problem.”

Today, I try hard not to start by telling the answer immediately. The CEOs and entrepreneurs I work with need to learn how to get to the answer. And their answer, in many cases, will be better than mine since I don’t have enough context or information to be right 99% of the time like I did when I was the president of Feld Technologies. But even more importantly, a great CEO knows this also. His team doesn’t want to always hear the answer first. Sometimes they do, or need to, but often they want to be able to talk openly, collect data, and come to it over time.

This brief moment has had a profound impact on how I work. While I despise Mr. Socrates (the guy who just asks question after question after question and never expresses a point of view) and don’t emulate him, I definitely ask more “guided questions” when presented with a problem. I tell more stories to try to give examples of how others have solved the problem. And occasionally, when I realize the CEO is asking for the answer (e.g. when Bart Lorang, in the middle of a board meeting, says “Brad, just tell me the fucking answer – I know you know it.”) I tell the answer. But in the back of my mind I always remember that part of learning the answer is figuring out how to find it.

  • secureccloud

    Brad not only excellent advice to guide CEOs, but I have found it is a golden rule in being a parent. Kids don’t learn by you telling them, they learn by experiencing it themselves. Great post. Say hi.

    • Since I don’t have kids, that didn’t occur to me, but makes total sense.

      • secureccloud

        yep, they can take what you tell them and do it, but to really learn the lesson I have learned they have to go through it themselves. Sometimes it is painful to see them have to relearn the same lessons you already learned the hard way

        • When I was younger and didn’t have children yet, there was a scene at the end of a Fresh Prince of Bel Air show that I found very profound. Hillary Banks tells Phil that sometimes the kids need to not have what we didn’t have. That the process of attaining something was what made it valuable. I thought this very profound, from an odd source, and I’ve remembered it ever since.

          Later in my career I had difficulties with friends who were constantly trying to prove me wrong (unsuccessfully mostly) and avoiding Trivial Pursuit when I was around. It took me a long time to figure out the problem and deal with it effectively. An embarrassingly long time…

          Brad, I wish you had written this post and beat me over the head with it 25 years ago. It would have made about 16 of them much easier.

    • And all kids are smarter than most CEOs. 🙂

  • Teaching a man to fish is more efficient in the long run, but not if that man dies of starvation. How do you balance this (“part of learning the answer is figuring out how to find it”) with the times where expediency is crucial? How do you know which situation you’re in at any given time?

    • This is one of the big challenges. Over the past 25 years, I think I have a pretty good handle on when to just dive in and state the answer. Fortunately, it isn’t very often, even in semi-crisis or crisis situations, since I often don’t have as many facts as the CEO. In these cases, especially when there is a time box around the decision, driving to the answer happens quickly, even if it’s not “here’s the answer.”

  • Dakota Gale

    Great insight. I struggle to avoid the last page answers with my employees and my wife (and probably everyone around me). The engineer in me thinks along the lines of “Identify problem, offer solution – bam, done!” And then I’m always the go-to guy with the answers and the people around me rely on me rather than taking the wheel themselves.

    I’ve been working on this and just yesterday an employee who is scared of new technology told me that “I’m feeling empowered because you make me Google stuff instead of giving me the answer.” YES. Small victories abound.

    Thanks for writing. I always enjoy your thoughts as an early-morning read.

  • “The CEOs and entrepreneurs I work with need to learn how to get to the answer.”
    Ahhh… Processes.
    As a side note they are the “company cowboy’s” most feared item! I”ve worked with many people over the years and documented processes are the enemy. It’s hard to be a company cowboy or a company politiker when everyone uses documented processes. I’ve seen people who will be glad to destroy a company if they don’t get to be slimey politikers!

  • Nice…thank you very sharing…

  • There is something similar in the process of communicating ideas. One way is to “get to the point” – first tell the idea and then have a conversation about it. The other way is to start by telling how you arrived to the idea and formulating the idea at the end.

    I usually do the second way – but that often tests the good will of the people who have to listen to my long winded story of how I came up with the idea.

    My motivation to do the second way is not to come out as someone who tries to look like a “genius” who just “creates” ideas out of nothing. I totally don’t believe in “creativity” in this sense. So I tell about all the things that led me to the idea.

    • It’s also the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning. A lot of people don’t realize that even though they like to reason one way, others like to reason the other way. This lack of understanding makes for a lot of conflict and longer discussions than necessary.

  • Timothy Johns

    Outstanding – and this technique pays off even better if you’re always striving to surround yourself with people smarter, wiser, and more focused than yourself. Scary as hell, but extraordinarily effective.

  • Listened to a speaker this morning. He touched on this:
    Before firing off the last page, build the person up. How did you come up with that question? Why is it important now? How do you want the answer? Then lead them to the answer.

    • Bingo. If you can guide someone to an answer, without manipulating the data, and being willing to have an answer other than the one you thought of first, it can be really powerful.

  • This one is deep.
    Also bears upon male female relationships.

  • RBC

    Excellent post, and I also learned something that was puzzling me for a few weeks. “I did plenty of work, including doing all the network integration work for our clients”. Now I understand how you did the networking for your place in the mountains like a boss!

    • Yeah – I was once a wizard at this stuff. Lots and lots of hours with Netware servers, DOS utilities, and Ethernet cables. I probably was one of the most experienced Netware 3.11 people in Boston at the time.

  • DaveJ

    I think it’s useful to add why it is demotivating. It is because it might take 60 seconds to hear how to do something, and weeks to actually do it. If you’re doing that, you’re spending all your time doing someone else’s thing. The reason I looked for another or better way was because I wanted to execute on my own thing.

    Now I’m tired and just tell me the answer already… 😉

    • Yup. And I knew that about you and your personality, which is one of the reasons I love you. Which made me missing on this front at the time even worse.

  • JLM

    The smartest people are those who “coax” the solution out of the problem itself and the people involved. In doing so, they multiple energy with cunning.

    In the coaxing, the fingerprints on the murder weapon are those of the individual who is actually going to have to do the work. Everyone works harder on “their” own solution.

    This requires a bit of thoughtfulness, cunning and patience. It is like landing a 5 lbs rainbow. He has to be coaxed out of that icy water by being exercised and reasoned with. Then he submits willingly. Of course, catch & release.

    The smartest people in the room are those that nobody knows are the smartest people in the room.

    Today everyone has a tendency to want to be recognized as the smartest person in the room. It may be all the blogging. Who really knows?

    Ahh, but there are people who are so controlled and manipulative — in a very good way — that people leave a meeting asking: “Hey, what just happened?”


  • A simple but powerful point, and a reminder of how important a memorable frame/catch phrase is for actually internalizing it — e.g. “the last page in the book problem.”

  • Really?

    Classic sales technique and incredibly frequently overlooked in the drive to be the “brain in the room”. In management, the team likes to show their worth and the happiest customer is he/she that sold themselves the solution. Buy-in and future efficiency increases; everyone wins.