Obvious to you is not the same as obvious

“What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year? Business lesson, I mean.”


I know it immediately and I wish I could say it’s a new lesson. One I haven’t had to learn over and over again. But it’s not. This one comes out of my mouth before I can even process the fact that it’s one I first learned about 10 years ago.

I’m 26.

I’m sitting on the floor of the CEO’s office. This happens a lot in the old days of Mozilla. We’re in Building K. We’re still in the offices across the street from the Googleplex on Shoreline.

I’m running PR and while my skills are solid, I’m young. There’s a bunch of stuff I still have to learn and much of it will come through real world experience.

John Lilly is Mozilla’s CEO at the time. He asks about our recent media coverage and I rattle off a few observations. Nothing formal, just some off the cuff stuff that I’ve noticed.

John jumps on it — “why haven’t you shared that internally?”

I stop, think about it, and respond:

“Because everyone has access to the same Google alerts. I’m not seeing anything they aren’t getting in their inbox. And I’m not noticing anything any other rational human wouldn’t see when faced with the same information.”

Oh boy.

I’m 36.

It’s been 10 years since I sat on the floor in a Mountain View office park and unlocked one of the greatest secrets in my professional life.

Obvious to you is not the same as obvious.

I’m sitting at my desk and I overhear a colleague talking. “Well, for anyone who uses the product, it’s obvious.”

I peek over my monitor, “I use the product. What’s obvious?”

She goes on to share an interesting insight about our users. I follow up, “That’s awesome and interesting and not at all obvious. I use the product, but I don’t use it in the way that you’re describing. And even if I did, it’s unlikely I’d see the same thing. It’s obvious to you because you’re immersed in this stuff. How lucky for us that you are.”

Lucky you, lucky us

Lucky you. You get to do a job where you bring your natural ability to work. You pay attention. You notice patterns. You spot trends. You can rattle off the top five ways our users are hacking our platform right now. When faced with the same information as everyone else, you see things that matter to the business.

Lucky us. We employ you. We benefit from you thinking about one area of our business in depth. Be it product, marketing, design, recruiting, or something else entirely. We reap the reward of you having all the context that comes with sitting in your seat. But we don’t get any of the value of you having that full-time vantage point unless you share what you see.

Without finding its way out into the business, the profound insight you’ve had is the same as the profound insight you haven’t had. It has no bearing on our day to day operations.

Ten years in

I no longer find it surprising that faced with the same access to the same information, that several reasonably clever people draw radically different conclusions.

My friend Mike says it’s okay to fail, you just shouldn’t keep failing in the same way over and over again.

Ten years in, I’m still learning and relearning this lesson. To be fair, I’m learning different versions of it. Perhaps that means I still pass Mike’s test.

These days, the version I work on is about how to contextualize my decisions so my staff know these are more than mercurial whims.

We sit in different meetings. We have different conversations.

My job requires that I’m in touch with the business strategy. Not as some far off nebulous thing to be revisited on a quarterly or annual basis. But as the driving undercurrent that informs all my interactions.

This means I’m often representing a unique perspective in conversations. Things that are obvious to me, with one foot in strategy and one foot in operations, aren’t obvious to many other executives. Even though they are also splitting their time between these worlds.

On a near daily basis, I’m reminded that this ability to see what others cannot is a gift. It’s not better or worse than the things that they can see that I cannot.

I nudge myself to share, especially the things that seem obvious. This is usually an indication that I’ve thought about them long and hard.

I try to dig in on the why when the reasons seem evident. I try to show my work, to go back and turn my slow hunches into useful, and meaningful business intelligence.

And I push the people around me to do the same. Because I know that the things they can see that others cannot is their gift.

It’s not better or worse.

It’s not obvious.

It’s just different.

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour

Melissa Nightingale

Melissa Nightingale

Melissa Nightingale is a founder and partner at Raw Signal Group. She is co-editor of The Co-pour and co-author of a book about modern leadership (coming fall 2017). Melissa’s been a startup warrior since the first dotcom boom and has the branded t-shirt collection to prove it. She has held senior leadership roles in marketing, pr, and strategy at several fast paced startups, including Wattpad, Edmodo, and Mozilla. Melissa moved to Toronto after more than a decade of working in senior tech roles in Silicon Valley. She is gradually adjusting to seasons.

  • Think Though

    I enjoyed the beginning of this. My insight to share is that it morphed into you selling yourself as someone who sees what others cannot without citing any evidence, at which point I became distracted by the critical-thinking sensation of reading propaganda.