If you’re an innovator or entrepreneur, you challenge precedent and you disrupt the status quo. You trust that the result is worth the struggle and you embrace change because it could equal progress. You have blind faith. You know that success isn’t reserved for the superstars but you remain humble because failure is always a possibility. This journey of entrepreneurship and innovation shouldn’t be a solo trip.
If you’re missing something, struggling to begin or you’ve reached the plateau, fellow entrepreneur and innovator, Bob Moesta knows your next step because he’s been three himself. Now, in Learning to Build, bob helps you develop the five fundamental skills every successful innovator practices to be their best.
Here’s my conversation with Bob Moesta.
Welcome to Author Hour, everybody. I’m your host Benji Block and today, excited to have Bob Moesta with me, just authored a new book titled, Learning to Build: The Five Bedrock Skills of Innovators and Entrepreneurs. Bob, welcome to Author Hour.
Bob Moesta: Hey Benji, thanks for having me in. I’m excited to share about my book.
Benji Block: Yes, this isn’t book number one; you are a glutton for punishment, back for round two.
Bob Moesta: This is book number two with you guys. I actually have three other books that I’ve done. Because I’m dyslexic, it’s very hard for me to write books and so I have to find people to do it with and Scribe has been amazing to help me gather my thoughts and get them out, and I’ve got a list of five more to go. So it’s one of those things where I’m honored to be able to share with what people have taught me and pass it on and so, that’s really kind of a lot of the objectives of the book that I’ve been writing or working on.
Bob the Builder
Benji Block: I love that. Thanks for the work that you do and for taking this on and figuring out the right partners to make it work and it’s a big project but here we are. So let’s talk about this newest book, Learning to Build, and I got to ask you kind of a – when you’re reading your bio, you’re described as a builder, does everyone, anyone ever called you Bob the Builder?
Bob Moesta: They do, my kids used to call me Bob the Builder. I actually built houses for a long time, too. So I’ve worked on and built over 3,500 products, including things like the guiding system for the patriot missile and Pokémon, Mac n’ Cheese, and software, and everything in between. So I’ve literally worked on just about everything under the sun.
Benji Block: Yeah, when we’re looking at your bio, you’re a builder, a teacher, entrepreneur, author, and co-founder of Rewired Group, which is a design and development firm. Tell me, like, for this book, specifically, what was the prompter? What made you say, “All right, we need to talk about this “learning to build” and these bedrock skills right now?”
Bob Moesta: So, I have four core mentors that have helped me through the years and my last one had passed in January of 2020, Clayton Christiansen, and it made me really reflect on kind of how much gratitude I had for them and how they helped me. And I was one of those—as my mom would say, I came out of the womb an engineer. I was breaking things by the time I was two; I was fixing things only to stay out of trouble, but I was very learning-challenged, if you will.
So I had a lot of energy and so I was one of those kids who asked, you know, a hundred questions, “Why-why-why-why-why?” all the time and my mentors were the people who answered those questions for me and so ultimately as Clay was passing, I started to look through all my notebooks. I have almost 36, 37 years of notebooks of everything I’ve ever worked on and I started to look at patterns inside the books and then I started to realize. I took a step back and looked at kind of the people that I’ve worked with.
The thousands of people I’ve innovated and built product with and I kind of said like, “What if I take the people who are exceptional at this? What are those skills they have that other people don’t or what are those essential things that seem to make them kind of really different?” and so I’ve boiled it down to those kinds of, wow, and they have these five traits or skills and they’re developable or they’re things that you’re not born with but you developed them over time, and it’s one of those things that it’s kind of amazing because it’s not the traditional set of things you would think about in terms of this.
So one of them is like empathetic perspective, right? When you start to think about it, which these really good innovators can see things from so many different perspectives simultaneously, almost like can fly around it and they can move through space and time and they can see something very small and they can expand it into something big. They have a very big way of seeing the world in their own head and what’s so interesting is that when you looked and tried to teach people empathetic perspective, the only place I’ve been able to find is in the feeder, right?
Where you played a role of somebody else and so you start to realize like, some of these skills, people would take improv classes and like, “Why are you taking improv?” It’s like, “Well, I get to see things from different perspectives, it forces me to make decisions” and you start to realize, like, “Well, that’s really honing and refining their improve skills but really, they’re empathetic perspective skills” and so it’s really, really cool in terms of being able to understand how that is.
Then what I’ve been doing is, as I move into my 60s, I’m trying to package all the things that people taught me and kind of pass them forward or pass them down. I think I’ve taught a lot of people by working side by side but I feel like there’s some foundational pieces that need to be written about and so that’s kind of what this main book is about.
Benji Block: So when you imagine the type of person that you want to pick this up, who is the person you were writing this for, who are you imagining in your mind?
Bob Moesta: So in some respects, I was writing it for what I call, young Bob, which was my – the version of myself. I didn’t know I was learning these things while I was learning these things and so part of it was in the book, I go through you know, young Bob and enlightened Bob and it’s like the two ways that I used to approach it and now I approach it and for me, there’s just when you go to – I’ll say, engineering school, you go to go to learn how to build something, they talk a lot about the mechanics but they don’t talk about the mindset and the mentality around kind of how you have to think and behave and so it really is kind of focused on that.
Benji Block: Let’s talk about “young Bob” for a minute here and you’ve already alluded to some of those mentors that you had and deep education really in building and launching products from renowned innovators. Tell us a bit about that experience and highlight some of those folks for us.
Bob Moesta: I think one of my favorite moments was, I was an intern working for Ford Motor Company but I was working with a gentleman by the name of Dr. Ginichi Taguchi and Dr. Dami and at the time, I was working with Dr. Taguchi and we’re applying his methods at the time at Ford around a paint system and it’s a problem they had been working on for a long time and they had a lot like, almost 120 million dollars’ worth of rework and scrap on the line.
It was very inefficient and as an intern, they said, “We want you to study and work on this for the summer” and as an intern, I really, you know, you don’t really give interns things that really are that impactful. So it’s more like I was supposed to coordinate a lot of, a bunch of stuff but when I learned Taguchi’s method, I could sit in the back of the room and hear the variables that everybody was talking about.
Everybody was debating who was right and who is wrong and all I was doing was gathering the variables to run a test and then basically, after about three days in that room, I was – it came out and I designed an experiment that took 18 different runs of setting up the line to spray paint and it was more about the fact that I didn’t actually know anything about it that forced me to think about how I would actually test it.
So in most cases, I tested things that most people would say, “Oh, that’s never going to work” or “Oh, that’s not going to happen” but I said, “I don’t know and you know what? I’m going to let the machine tell me what’s best. I’m not going to let the experts tell me what’s best.” That’s what Taguchi’s method is really about. It’s like, there’s way more unknown than there is known and so, you need to experiment to get to the known.
In one weekend, I went off and I painted these cars and we use to setup the parameters and we did all these things and I analyzed the data and it came back and we were able to change some setting on the line that basically reduced the scrap and rework by almost 85%. So I saved them over, almost 70 million dollars as an intern and I knew at that point and to be honest, it was one of those things where I was so afraid.
Because it was one of those things where like, as an engineer, you’re supposed to know the answer and the whole thing is like, I would always say, I don’t know the answer but with Taguchi’s method taught me how to discover the answer, which is really about prototyping to learn and so, it’s this notion of that once I solved that problem, they kept giving me bigger and bigger and more complicated problems to solve.
So interesting is they just counted on me to actually do it as opposed to me teaching them and so overtime finally, I got to teach people how to use these methods and then you start to see how basically it just took off and so all these things is like an amalgamation of all these different methods and tools, have really been able to enable me to kind of just build things that I never ever imagined and never be afraid to try.
Learning From Questions
Benji Block: Yeah, my favorite line, I was going to bring this up later but you have this line where you say, “My insecurities are an asset. They help me build the right questions” and that realization is a massive, you could call it a competitive advantage. You could just call it a career advantage and then obviously for entrepreneurs, if you think you know it all, that’s a very different approach that you come to the table with than yeah.
Bob Moesta: Yeah, so this is the interesting part. Somebody told me the fact, as a dyslexic, it’s the greatest gift I ever got but I wish, I would never with it upon my children and the fact is that what my inabilities to read forced me to actually learn in a very different way, which is through questions and experimentation and so, I had to reframe the world, and because I couldn’t get the written word, I had to figure out other ways.
So I got really, really good at asking questions and to be honest, when I was about 25, yeah, 25, I went and studied criminal intelligence interrogation methods because I realized consumers lie and when you talk to customers, how do you do that? So one of the other skills is really good entrepreneurs and innovators can uncover demand. They find the struggling moments in people’s lives and so, it’s about actually understanding and not only hearing what they say but what do they mean.
What I would say is, when I learned interrogation methods, one of the things that they taught us was like, you know, you have to listen between the words and I was like, “I didn’t understand what they meant.” They’re like, “Well, you can say something like “Boy, that was really good” versus “That was really good” and based on that one pause and going down, you start to realize like the next question should be, “Well, what didn’t you like about it?” When the pause is there and when it’s not there, you have to listen.
So you start to realize, there’s way more intonation in all of this and being able to understand and so it really, really is important to these kinds of details and so you start to realize, innovators pay attention to these details but they’re also very, very empathetic around it.
Benji Block: Okay, go back to something you said there real quick before we move on because you were saying, you wouldn’t wish it on your kids. Obviously, no one’s going to wish dyslexia or anything like that on their kids. For me, it’s ADHD, it’s this propensity to get into a thousand things but I wonder as a father, how do you hand that curiosity off to your kids, are you just trying to model it or what does that look like?
Bob Moesta: So it turns out, all four of my children are applied math majors and the interesting way we got there is we actually only asked our children what they didn’t want to do and as they eliminated things, they got back to something they loved which was math and they got to basically, “I can go anywhere with it.”
So one is like applied math with programming and another is applied math with creative writing, another one is applied math with design and so you start to realize like at some point, they were able to figure those things out. So my kids loved to answer questions and math is that language. So part of it was, is always asking my kids questions and then giving them the freedom to learn around those questions.
Benji Block: Fascinating. Okay, so let’s go back to young Bob, before we move on here and you use the Matrix analogy, the red pill, blue pill experience. So tell me a little bit about that waking up, that realization and because there’s – it’s not just a necessarily for everyone, a distinctive moment but there’s an evolution, right?
Bob Moesta: It’s a very distinctive point where this also comes from the notion of like, what I was taught a lot of science in my engineering curriculum but Dr. Taguchi would always talk about the difference between a scientist and an engineer. Then you’d say, a scientist has to basically discover a phenomenon, right? And understand how to generalize it into a theory so anybody can use it but all they have to do is stop at the phenomenon.
There’s no preferences, there’s no, “What people want or don’t want” It’s like, it just is what it is. An engineer actually has to be a combination of a scientist, a psychologist and an economist and you have to be able to realize that at some point in time, you will discover things that you cannot describe or you cannot answer but you know that they’re cause and effect and you’re just going to use it.
You don’t have the luxury to go deeper, to find out why all the time and so a part of this is to realize like, how do I discover and how do I do those things and so my biggest “aha” was when I realized that everything I have to build has to work in an environment that varies all around it and so most times, you build a product with almost like in the perfect environment, in the perfect thing, like all these perfect conditions but like it’s wet outside, it snows, it’s hot outside.
So how do I make sure whatever I design is going to work in that wide range of things that it’s going to happen to? And to me, that’s when I realized like, “Oh my God, I don’t know even how to figure all these out.” So when I was overwhelmed with so many variables, it literally, what I call, broke the science out of me, which was I felt like as a scientist, I had to know all of it but the reality is, once I realized there’s too much. Now what I can do is experiment for it.
Benji Block: And gave you freedom.
Bob Moesta: It gave me the freedom and so that’s where, “prototyping to learn” came from. It’s this aspect of like, think of it as like, I do what they call an AB test. I’d test one thing and then I’d test another and compare and I’d pick the best one and then, I’d do another variable and I do another variable and what happen is eventually, I would have to change something and it will all follow part and I never knew why one thing was better than another.
All I knew was what was better and so, Taguchi taught me how to understand to get to the underlying systemic issues around it so you could actually see the systems and see how to build faster. So when I was young Bob, I was able to reduce my development time by almost 50%. Part of it gets to is I was told to build hypothesis and test them. So I would say, “Well, I think this is going to work, let’s test and see if it works.”
What I flipped was is like, “I don’t know how it’s going to work. I’m going to test a bunch of things and let it tell me how it works” and so the whole thing is, as a dyslexic again, I would say the one thing that I would say is another gift to this is, I know I don’t know, most people think they know.
Benji Block: Yep, it’s an upside down – it is a paradox but once you’re invited into it, once you accept it, it’s beautiful.
Bob Moesta: Exactly.
Getting To The Five
Benji Block: I will jump here because you’ve simplified and you mentioned you’ve simplified it down to five things and you actually hit on the two that you want to talk most about, empathetic perspective and prototyping to learn but would you just walk us quickly through what you started to see these five things that these five skills that really stand out?
Bob Moesta: Yeah and this is one of those things where I went back and forth and the way my mind works is I go very divergent like I had you know, 20 and then I had 30 and then I just kind of both look like what are the – and I did a thing called an inner relationship diagram to get to these five kind of central ones, right? One is this empathetic perspective, two is really about uncovering demand.
Most innovators and entrepreneurs realize that the product doesn’t create demand, it is the struggling moment that creates demand and that the struggle can be there for a long time and that most people feel as like, “Well, people can only know it when they see it” and what you can do is understand where they want to make progress and why they want to make progress and that’s where you actually build the product.
So one of the things that helped me switch almost everything I did was that I was told a very fundamental lie in college, which is and they made a movie about it with Kevin Costner. I could never remember, build it and they would come, what was that movie?
Benji Block: Oh, Field the Dreams.
Bob Moesta: Field of Dreams, right? God, it’s a great movie, right? It is one of those things I believed but think about it; if I come up with something and say, “Oh my god, this is the best” they give you the best thing and then I have to go find a million people to go buy what I just think is the greatest thing in the world.
So it is all about me pushing product to people and what I learned is that actually if you understand where people are struggling, there is a natural vacuum to pull things into, you’re better off building a product for where there’s pull than trying to push product onto people who don’t want it.
That’s how I was able to actually make a very big difference of basically going from what I call the supply side of the world to starting in the demand side of the world.
Benji Block: On that side of uncovering demand, there is people that would maybe get stuck in the like, “Well, it is going to take forever to talk to potential consumers, potential buyers” but I actually watched an interview with you where you are going, “No, we do this at speed and then we start to actually prototype to learn.”
Bob Moesta: That’s right and that is the whole part is most people feel like innovation is about proving what you know. We know this, this is like show it and my thing is just I look at most of innovation and entrepreneurship is about solving what I call the unknowns, like what don’t we know and when did we discover it and we talk about planning as this thing where we guess at what we should be doing.
So most of the time, we have what we call imagine tasks but when you are in the middle of the work, you have discovered tasks like all of a sudden you realize you’ve got to do this and this and these other things and nobody reserves time for these discovered tasks and so what happens is, is that’s why they end up either not doing them or they expand the thing because they don’t actually assess how much they don’t know.
I say we plan whoever the stupidest and then management holds us accountable to our stupidity, especially in innovation.
Benji Block: Yeah, so what’s the first step in a pivot once you realize that like where do you even begin to change that natural tendency?
Bob Moesta: Yeah, the first thing is to actually – so the way that I was taught was to go and find the hole you need to fill and what that means is that when you talk to customers, don’t talk about the product you are going to give them, talk about the problem or the progress they’re trying to make where many, many solutions can work and so part of this is how do you go understand the customer requirements that are technology agnostic or that don’t relate to any way of doing it.
But more like, why do they want to change and what are they hoping for when they change and what does that mean and if you frame it that way, then I can actually figure out 20 different technologies to help me do that and so the first thing is to focus on the demand side to get there.
Benji Block: It sounds maybe more simple than it actually is but that is once you start focusing on their pain and realizing it is bigger than your product like that is going to open a lot of different doors and give you a lot of follow-up questions that you’re then willing to ask because it is, well, it’s an inspiration.
Bob Moesta: That’s right. Well, the other part is you have to put on your curiosity hat because a lot of times people will say, “Oh, I want it easy” and you go like, “I know what they mean by easy” and it turns out if you say like, “So what do you mean by easy?” they can’t even tell you what easy is and then you start to say, “Well, what’s hard about it?” and all of a sudden they’ve got 15 things about what hard is. So what their definition of easy is, is just not hard.
Benji Block: Their version of both of those, yeah.
Bob Moesta: It’s their version and so part of it is like we end up getting what we would say common language. Oh, they want it easy, they want it fast, they want it fun but like as a marketer, right? I know how to communicate that but the reality is as an engineer, how do I cause fun? What are the elements that I have to do to make it fun over and over again and you start to realize like that’s the details we need.
So what made this game fun and this game not fun? My phrase is always context creates value and contrast creates meaning and those are the two foundational pieces to everything that I do and it’s how I build.
Benji Block: Context creates value, what was the second half of that?
Bob Moesta: Contrast creates meaning. I actually – most people say, they give you something and say, “Do you like it or not?” I will give you three things and have you ask and watch you decide around different questions around it as you decide which one you would pick and why. So if I give you three things am like, “Well, when would this be a better situation? What situation would you use this one in and why would you use that one?”
That contrast of understanding why they would use one thing and not another helps me understand their entire space.
Benji Block: Of course, yeah, you are changing up, putting it in a real-world situation versus just giving them one thing in a way that your brain functions with only the one is going to be vastly different and if it has the three options.
Bob Moesta: The most amazing thing is when you really study people when they choose, most people don’t choose, they eliminate. So I call it elimination theory, which is you give them three things. The first thing is they look at all three and what they do is they eliminate one of them right away and what it does is it gives them confidence to make a decision to say, “Yeah, I don’t want to do that” but they have two left.
What happens, what’s so strange is when you think any of the two if they’d compared them to each other but what they do is they compare it to the one that’s out and then they eliminate the one that’s closest to the one that’s out to get to the one they want and most people, if you listen to the verse they’re like, “Yeah, I’ll take that one” and it’s really because they went, “No, not that one. That one and I will take that one.”
It is to realize like a lot of times people don’t know what they mean or how they mean it or we misinterpret what they mean and so that contrast really helps us kind of get clarity around the meaning of things.
The Empathetic Perspective
Benji Block: Okay, so we’re zooming back out, the five where empathetic perspective, uncovering demand, casual structures, prototyping to learn, making tradeoffs. I want to go back to empathetic perspective for a moment because you give this idea, well I’ll read the brief description, “People with this skill can detach from their own perspective and see the subtle differences between the many different perspectives surrounding their thing internally and externally.”
Okay, so how do you teach someone to have that better perspective versus maybe Bob for some people that listen to this and they’ll go, “Well, maybe he’s just always been that way.” He is seeing 360, he had a few of those epiphany moments because he was around the right people, like where do you begin to train your mind in that area because that to me out of these five seems like one where you absolutely need that.
Bob Moesta: So I think a lot of it starts with being able to understand when you’re stuck and when something worked doesn’t work that you can understand why it didn’t work and what to do next. So this is one of those things where how did I learn it is that because I’d felt I could convince people and it turns out that I believe that people convince themselves, I don’t convince them of anything that ultimately, I have to be able to sit in their shoes and see what they see and hear what they hear and smell what they smell.
So part of it is to realize like I’ve been burned so many times by not understanding where finance is coming from and that there were the difference between if you will is, is this a capital expense or is this an expense that we can just deduct and so you start to realize like part of the time they are actually trying to master how much can we write off like they are doing it all for this tax reason and I am literally going like, “Well, I just need a million dollars.”
Then like, “Well but what kind of a million dollars?” and if I didn’t understand their perspective of how to ask for it, I wouldn’t get it and so part of this is to realize like most people are like, “Well, I just want to convince them to do it but the first thing you have to do is actually put yourself in their shoes and understand where they are coming from and what progress means to them and the moment I can understand what progress means to them, then I can figure out how to negotiate.
Most people think it’s more of a battle than it is about alignment, right? It is more about being aligned and alignment gets with clarity comes from unpacking and getting very clear on what things are and what things aren’t.
Benji Block: I like that you pointed out time as well because I feel like if you can put yourself in the future in their shoes looking back and going, “Oh, this was a win because…” like, “I was involved in this because…” and you start playing out those, that reality in your head, it puts you in their shoes in a different way as well like, “Because I worked with Bob this…” and this is the win that they saw like that gives you a better perspective going into those conversations.
Bob Moesta: The reason why I put the, like I opened the book with the Matrix kind of analogy on the red pill or the blue pill is that it’s one of those things where I have people that I have worked with 20 years ago call me and tell me like, “You didn’t tell me we are going down the rabbit hole and I don’t know how to un-see this anymore like damn you” kind of thing, right?
They are joking in one sense but the fact is that once you understand things like concepts of noise factors, you understand that you know, how do we actually uncover demand through struggling moments, now you see struggling moments everywhere, right? You start to realize like, “But why do I tolerate this?” and you get to the point of like, “Well, why can’t I make a decision?”
It’s like, “Maybe I don’t have enough contrast” and so it’s like these things where people are using it to analyze themselves like, “Why am I buying this? What progress am I trying to make?” and it is just one of those things you can’t un-see it.
Benji Block: Well, we’re starting to come to the end of our time together but I wonder, we have covered a lot on empathetic perspective. We have spent some time in prototyping to learn. Do you want to highlight one more for us, the five, before we start to wrap?
Bob Moesta: Yeah, I think the one that is actually – it is like the one that when you get the other four, you become a master at the fifth one, which is identifying and managing tradeoffs or making tradeoffs, and this whole notion is the majority of people want to do something but they don’t know how to actually make the decision to do it and ultimately –
Benji Block: Write that down.
Bob Moesta: Is because they wanted to be everything. It’s going to be everything or nothing. In the real world, everything is a tradeoff. There is no ideal solution ever because you can find when I wanted for free, I wanted like there is always something you’re going to have to tradeoff and so part of it is being able to understand how do you actually frame tradeoffs, how do you actually understand the dependencies between things and ultimately, how do you build the time wall to force you to make a tradeoff.
So in this, one of the things I highlight is this notion of a time wall. I say—like by Friday— I’ll tell the team and I won’t make it a deadline, like everything, you got to get it all done or it’s over. It’s more like I want to get as far as you can by next Friday just as far as we get and what happens is the notion of getting farther allows them to say, “Well, we should attack this or attack that or not do this or this is off for this week.” They can make decisions around it but if I tell them, they got to do everything by the end of the week, they literally reprioritize in a very different way.
Benji Block: That’s true in relationships as well.
Bob Moesta: Yeah. So it’s true, a lot of it. I am doing a book. My next book is about why do people leave one company and go to another company. So what causes, I believe that employees hire companies more than companies hire employees and so what progress are you trying to make by leaving this company and going to that company and can we be more explicit about it?
What other things that you are willing to tradeoff and so it’s building an entire process around kind of helping employees figure out what’s their path and where do they want to go and what is progress for them and it changes with context. When I am 20, I have different progress when I am 30, right? I have different constraints, I might have kids, it might be, you know, there’s all these other things.
So how do I take this into account to help me navigate where I want to go as opposed to be, “Hey, I am going to be a manager and then a senior manager and be a director. I am going to be a senior director” you know, most people will just follow somebody else’s progression but what you really want to do is be able to assess where you want to go next and what are the tradeoffs you’re willing to make.
Benji Block: Well, this has been a fascinating conversation. Bob, thank you for your work on this new book. Again, the title is, Learning to Build: The Five Bedrock Skills of Innovators and Entrepreneurs. For those that want to stay connected with you, they obviously can go get the book on Amazon but where else should people reach out and stay connected?
Bob Moesta: LinkedIn is my primary kind of contact. So if you want to reach out, reach out via LinkedIn. I am usually pretty active in terms of keeping my content up to speed there. I have a blog post and website at the Rewire Group that we’re in the midst of kind of revamping but the best place is going to be LinkedIn and I’m @BMoesta on Twitter.
Benji Block: Wonderful. Well, this is going to be a great resource for so many and we consider it an honor that you stop by Author Hour and it was a pleasure getting to chat with you about the new book man.
Bob Moesta: Thanks for having me on, Benji.
Accelerated: Brian Ardinger