One-finger help

Giving just the right amount of guidance and assistance is key in developing self-sufficiency and responsibility. Help too much and take away a person’s self-reliance and willingness to struggle. Help too little and set people up for failure or wasted flailing about.

One-finger help by Nancy Knowlton

One afternoon I was looking after the daughter of some friends, and we did the only thing that I could think of – we went from place to place to see and do as much as we could. By the end of the afternoon I could see that she was getting tired because she was struggling to get up into the van. I moved to help her and she almost screamed at me to stop – she could do it herself. Well, I could see that she clearly couldn’t, and I tried to reason with her. Even though she was very young she had outstanding verbal skills and she told me how she saw things – she could do it herself. I was a poor match for her entrenched position and suggested, instead of full assistance, I could help her with one finger. That seemed to make sense to her and her concept of self-sufficiency. I was allowed to help, and we got on our way without further protests or delays.


Through the years I have observed that one-finger help is indeed a better solution than full assistance in so many situations. For many, it is a matter of being proudly self-sufficient and it’s an innate part of who they are. They want the autonomy to try things and even make mistakes rather than take help and direction from others at too early a stage in a project. In some instances this is truly admirable. Instead of immediately looking for assistance and support, these fearless souls take on as much challenge as they can grab.

For others, it is a matter of being responsible and fully taking on a task. They have learned that responsibility is a desirable trait, and they are going to take on as much as they can and go as far as they can without looking for assistance. They are willing but a little more cautious.

Unexpected challenges

Many tasks in life and business are hard. Rarely do things go as planned, because planning cannot consider all of the moving parts in a competitive environment. Competitors make unexpected moves. Exchange rates move in favorable and unfavorable directions. Funding comes and goes for projects. A part breaks in a manufacturing process. A supplier substitutes a part without notice or agreement in a product or component. People get sick or get promoted just before a major deal is signed. These situations and more can produce uncertainty where swift reactions with imperfect information are required.

Sometimes the challenges are easy to overcome. At other times they seem insurmountable. In every case, having people in place who are resourceful and accepting of a challenge is a good start to resolving the challenge. Finding the right balance between helping and allowing people to do things themselves is delicate. Help too much and take away a person’s self-reliance and willingness to struggle. Help too little and set people up for failure or wasted flailing about.

Strategy for success

Hiring well is, of course, the critical element. Beyond that, I have found that a small amount of guidance at the outset to set parameters and ensure a shared understanding of the scope and deliverables can work well to get projects underway. Regular check-ins and questions can do a lot to give input along the way, while still giving a lot of autonomy on a project. Discussing and informally reviewing progress are good interim support points.

Freedom and autonomy are earned over time. The magic of a manager is to give them to people as they have both earned them and needed them. Focusing on giving the right amount of assistance at all stages is the perfect approach.


To be clear, when I helped my young friend get in the van, I pushed all my fingers closely together so that my hand would feel like a single finger through the back of a snowsuit. She was 5 and there was no way that I would have been able to have any positive impact with a single finger. The most important thing was that she believed I was only helping in a very minor way. She had managed to get in and out of the van by herself all day and was simply too tired to execute well this last time. One-finger help became our code for helping her just a little as she grew up.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.