Expanding Your Zone of Operation

Standardized pay signals something important about the nature of work: standardized outputs.

When you use the same tools as everyone else, your output has very little variation. With software or machines the output becomes standard and certain. Pay varies little because the outputs all hover around expectations.

It’s impossible for someone that works on an assembly line to have any variability in the car produced. The work they’re doing is defined by a narrow set of tasks. Each part of the process is controlled. You press a button, the press creates a part, that part is assembled, and the end result is 200,000 cars that all look and function the same. Machines are what really do the work.

Today software is getting up to speed with the age of AI. 5 years ago, you needed a team of machine learning engineers to achieve what products today can do through a simple API call. These modern tools change the output that’s possible. No longer is output required to be like an assembly line, instead it varies person by person.

You and I can both run different prompts and get different outputs. One could be significantly better than the other. A change in output means a change in pay too.

The creation of wealth is an artistic performance and the economy is becoming an opera. 

The biggest reward goes to the best voices. A return on the ordinary is falling (and fast). Middle talent is in high supply. Look around at any Fortune 500 company. Only 20% of people drive 80% of the results. Mediocrity is everywhere. 

Creativity is what causes results to diverge from the mean. Creativity is what turns work into art. It’s what you’re really being paid to do. The best artists all understand their place in the world. There is an acute awareness of their zone of operation.

What is your zone of operation?

Tim Brady was the first non-founding hire at Yahoo. In 1994 he was asked to write a business plan for the company as it transitioned from just a project to a startup. Brady had one of the largest influences on Yahoo’s success, but this was a surprise to a lot of people.

His background was never in tech. When asked if his mixed background in traditional engineering and business was the reason for his success, Brady said:

“It’s hard to know, since you don’t know the alternative. Probably more than anything, the business education gave me the confidence to know what I knew and what I didn’t know. I knew my zone of operation and things that I was good at and things where I knew I should go ask because I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Success in any role requires you to understand your zone of operation. Your zone of operation is the areas where you have significant knowledge and expertise. This begins with the known knowns. The further you move away from this, the worse your output becomes.

Your zone of operation is the areas where you have significant knowledge and expertise.

Each area of your zone of operation can be defined as:

  • Known Knowns: This is the area that you excel in. Anything that falls in this zone you already know how to execute and can do them with better output than anyone else. Anything in this category you do faster and with better quality than someone else because you have the past experience. This area is where your creativity flourishes.
  • Known Unknowns: This area sits right on the border of your zone of operations. It’s all the “just in case” knowledge you’ve built up that finally becomes useful to the situation. Most people won’t recognize this as your zone of operations but you’ll only uncover this by doing the work. Operating in this quadrant will grow your zone of operations quicker because you’ll realize just how much bigger your zone really is.
  • Unknown Knowns: This is all the things you’re not thinking about. It’s everything that exists just outside your zone of operations. You can learn it and grow your zone of operations from it, but it will take you longer. Relying on others to help with tasks or problems in this area will accelerate your growth.
  • Unknown Unknowns: When you find yourself working in this quadrant, you’re completely outside of your zone of operation. This isn’t a bad thing, but there’s other people who will have the expertise to do the tasks better. It requires a significant amount of time investment to achieve extraordinary results here.

Understanding where the borders of your zone of operations sit will make you an effective leader. Operating inside those borders will give you exceptional output. Output that can only be achieved as a result of creative expression.

How do you recognize your zone of operation?

Rudolf Diesel was not like most inventors. Diesel thought from scientific principles first. In science there was the idea that a machine could achieve 100% efficiency by turning heat into work without changing temperature which loses energy. This idea drove Diesel crazy.

After breaking it down through the use of first principles, Diesel became obsessed with inventing this theoretical machine. The obsession would dominate his life. Eventually driving him to suicide before he could see his invention put to use.

In the 1890s, Diesel worked to build a machine that ignited fuel through compression rather than a spark to avoid extra energy loss. It worked too. This process produced the best engines on the market with double the efficiency. Diesel powered engines fuel today’s world: ships, trains, trucks, and tractors are all fueled with diesel.

Diesel’s practical exploration of a scientific idea broke new grounds for the world to do more with less.

It’s hard to recognize your zone of operation (especially if you don’t get to choose the work you do). Majority of the tasks you do will have an overlap into your zone of operation in some way. One way to help recognize your zone of operations is to start from first principles.

For Rudolf Diesel, thinking from scientific principles first allowed him to begin with the known knowns. Overtime he would enter the unknown unknowns and create a new process and understand there. This doesn’t just happen. It comes from a gradual expansion of your zone of operation over time.

Start from first principles. Tackle the low hanging fruit that exists in the known knowns. Then find the quick and easy way to expand into the places that unknowns exist.

Another way to recognize your zone of operation is to measure tasks based on the intensity you put towards an idea. Diesel was obsessed with creating a 100% efficient machine. No unknown would have been too much for his curiosity and drive to overcome.

It’s no surprise that the people who’s zone of operations expand the fastest tend to be the most curious about the area they're operating in. This is intentional. Choose the places you operate in based on what you have a burning desire to achieve. You'll recognize what your zone of operation is a lot quicker.

Design your zone of operation

Most people settle for standardized pay because they want standardized outputs. It’s easier to hover the median results of mediocrity than it is to continually design your zone of operation.

Steve Wozniak was a part of the Homebrew Computer Club before he launched Apple. Everyone could have been an entrepreneur in the club, Wozniak recalled. Most of the people involved were software people that had no hardware background.

Even a genius like Steve Wozniak felt behind these people. He was still tinkering with hardware. They were all technicians writing software, analyzing it, and spotting wrong configurations. When Wozniak tried to give away the original designs that became the Apple I, none of them cared. To them the hardware of computers wasn’t the place to operate in. They stopped trying to expand their zone of operation there.

Steve Wozniak later realized why most of them never become entrepreneurs (despite having the skills to be). They were electronics and software people, not designers.

Designers sit down, explore, and design new things. They’re zone of operations is ever expanding because they’re always forced to make their work an artistic expression. Designers create from their zone of operation. Good art cannot be standardized.

Outcomes that cannot be controlled require compensation in direct proportion to their values. Wealth is built by continuing to design your zone of operation so that you can produce extraordinary results, not by producing work that is interchangeable.

  1. Davidson, J.D. and Rees-Mogg, W. (1997) in The sovereign individual: How to survive and thrive during the collapse AF the welfare state. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 300.
  2. Weinberg, G. and McCann, L. (2019) in Super thinking: Upgrade your reasoning and make metter decisions with mental models. London: Penguin Business, p. 196.
  3. Defense Department Briefing (37:54), known knowns in Afghanistan: https://www.c-span.org/video/?168646-1/defense-department-briefing
  4. Livingston, J. (2010) in Founders at work: Stories of startups’ Early Days. Berkeley, CA: Apress, pp. 33–134.
  5. Ridley, M. (2021) in How innovation works and why it flourishes in freedom. New York: Harper Perennial, p. 94.

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