Horses, Not Zebras.

One morning, at like 6am, I had what TV stations used to call “technical difficulties.”

I was writing a very important document and and I thought I had lost all my changes. I was getting VERY frustrated and a little bit panicked.

I figured my computer had finally broken down and I was going to have to take out an abacus and some stone tablets and start all over.

Nobody else was awake in the house and it was just me and the dog and I needed to get something out to a client ASAP. I was certainly in a tizzy and probably not my usual cool, easygoing self. I even asked the dog for advice. She just stared back at me blankly, as usual.

I went upstairs and woke up my daughter because when you have computer issues, go find a teenager. Now, any parent of teenagers knows that you take your life in your hands if you wake one up before 10 am in the summer – Ah the sweet mysteries of working from home…

I showed her my screen and she reached over and tapped some keys and VOILA! Everything came back and she grumbled back to bed. It was the simplest of solutions and as they say “if it had been a snake, it would have bitten me.” Let’s just say I was a lot happier than she was.

Sticking with that theme for a minute, one of the first things they teach medical students is “when you hear hoof beats, look for horses, not zebras.” That’s a good thing to learn because I’d hate for some kid to be treated for Methemoglobinemia when all that happened was he ate a blue raspberry Popsicle - both turn your lips blue but only one is a medical emergency. Get the idea?

Sometimes the solution hides there in plain sight and we overlook it and run down the wrong path only to stop short when we realize our foolishness – we’ve all been there.

Now this seems like a hundred years ago but one of the first deals I worked on was for a client in Argentina who was selling his company to a private equity group here in the States. Without boring you with the details, the proposed deal said that my client would receive cash plus stock and a bunch of other things. He said “the total price is OK, I just wish the structure was different.” I told him about the merits of various deal structures (tax stuff, incentives, governance, things like that) and he said "Yes, I understand but I want more cash."

So I called my counterpart at the private equity firm and being young, inexperienced, and unsure, I sheepishly said that the client would be happy to do the deal if the cash component were larger and she said “OK, we can make that happen.” Five minutes, deal done, price paid, everyone happy. The client asked HOW ON EARTH I was able to negotiate such a deal and I told him “I asked for more cash and she said OK.” Actually, I was pretty surprised myself.

Horses, not zebras.

These situations come up time and time again. Whether it's a deal, a valuation or just a question of how to improve a process or a design. When you call triple-A because your car won’t start, the first thing they ask is "is there gas in it?" We all have problems that we need solved and some are incredibly complex - or seem so - but like a bolt from the blue, the solution is right there in front of us.

But be careful, zebras exist too.


And now some words of wisdom from people who aren't me:

"The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, takes a little longer" - Edward R. Murrow

"Answers are the easy part; questions raise the doubt" - Jimmy Buffett

"There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact" - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


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