Blue. Tacos. 42. All of these could be the right answers, but to which questions?
As managers and change makers, we want to be generating solutions. We want to be as efficient as possible. We want to find a problem, fix it, and keep going. We don’t want to be wasting time or resources so we feel that the sooner we get to a solution, the better. However, you could have 1000 possible answers; but if you don’t know what the question is, all 1000 are useless.
If more time was spent on understanding the problem, the solutions would be easier to implement and more efficient to maintain.
We’ve all heard an object in motion, stays in motion. Yet no matter your goals, the hardest part is often to just get started. We know we should run more, but we don’t have the right sneakers. We should wake up earlier, but we press snooze one too many times. We know this, and yet many of us still get stuck in a routine.
Systems work because they maintain themselves. If enough people buy into it, a system can run on its own, for better and for worse. We have to break through the status quo to achieve the breakthrough needed to build and maintain momentum.
Peter Senge wrote in his book, The Fifth Discipline, about how companies can transform themselves into learning organizations. One point he makes is that we allow ourselves to get blocked by our own barriers rather than work through them. Often when we attempt to make a change, we are met with resistance on many fronts.
Even when we do persist and despite the best intentions, managers often see their initiatives having a promising start and then dwindle back into the status quo. When initial efforts fail to produce foundational improvements, we tend to exert more effort assuming hard work will overcome all obstacles. All the while, we’re blinding ourselves to how we create our own obstacles.
Think of it this way: you could spend all day trying to push a door open with all your might; but if all you needed to do was take a few moments to read the sign that says “Pull”, the energy that was used to push the door, while extensive, was not well spent.
Let’s look at these quick brain teasers to challenge your problem-solving skills:
A bottle of water and a bar of chocolate cost $11. Chocolate cost $10 more than water, how much does water cost?
If your instinct is $1, this is the most common answer. Our brain is quick to try and jump to an answer that makes sense; but we should be challenging ourselves to think beyond making sense and ask, “Is this the best fit? Is there a better fitting alternative?”
Answer: water costs $0.50 and chocolate costs $10.5.
A father and son are in a car crash that kills the father. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says “I can’t operate, this boy is my son!” How could this be possible?
Answer: Society shapes our mind as we grow and it’s harder to think outside of what we know or have experienced. We are simply making use of schemas that shortcut our way through the world. So depending on your lived experience, the realization that the surgeon is the boy’s mother may come to you faster than others.
There are eight identical-looking coins; one of these coins is counterfeit and is known to be lighter than the genuine coins. You have a two-pan balance scale without weights and you are allowed to use it only two times. How do you find out which coin is the lighter one? This has a few different solutions and ways of posing the problem that may be more intuitive for some.
Answer: If each tray starts with three coins each, you would be able to know if the coin was in the lighter pan; or if the pans were balanced, one of the two coins not placed into a pan.
These word problems are examples of how hindsight can make problems easy to identify and seem obvious. But when we’re in the thick of a situation, the fog of distractions and symptoms makes the root problems harder to see. We have mental schemas that get created so when we’re presented with a situation, our selective attention can be our biggest barrier to initiating change.
Richard Thaler, a Nobel Prize winner in behavioural economics, developed the following example to explain the perceptions of change:
Company A is making a small profit. It is located in a community experiencing a recession with substantial unemployment and no inflation. There are many workers anxious to be working at the company.
Company A’s Response: Decrease wages and salaries by 7% this year. 62% of people found this to be an unfair solution, and 38% of people found this to be an acceptable response.
Company B is also making a small profit and is located in a community experiencing a recession with substantial unemployment. But there is an inflation rate of 12%.
Company B’s Response: Increase salaries only 5% this year. In this instance, only 22% believe this is an unfair response and 78% think this is an acceptable response.
Notice that the spending power of the employees at company B is less than at Company A, but the reactions are quite different. An actual cut in the nominal wage is viewed as a loss and is therefore interpreted to be unfair. Whereas failing to keep up with inflation is seen as acceptable since the nominal wage is still going up.
We’re well aware that organizations have many moving parts and conflicting demands from different stakeholders. Thaler’s example here illustrates why finding the right problem can be such a challenge. While one option may make good economic or financial sense, how that information is presented will have a large impact on how people will understand the actions taken. Their feelings and opinions aren’t rooted in logic. They’re rooted in how decisions and change will affect their daily lives.
This is why it is so crucial to keep people at the heart of your organization, and thinking about how to best communicate information that requires people to get on board and help move the organization forward.
Here is a story. I wanted to get active again and get back into a healthy routine, so I decided to take a weight training class. Before registering for a class, I felt I had to get new shoes to wear. But after buying them, I felt I needed new clothes that would help me look good and move better. But after buying the clothes, I felt I needed to get nutritional supplements to support my workouts. After all this effort and money, I still had yet to register for one class.
I felt like I needed those things before starting. I was focusing on symptoms to avoid addressing the real issue; shame in having lost much of my strength. In order to build it back up, I had to find a way to start and stick with it.
For me, I approached it in small steps. Every morning I did a series of plank exercises in my pyjamas, no special equipment or supplements needed. By stripping away the hype and lowering the stakes, I removed my own barriers and was able to create and stick with the change.
In an organization, there is no one singular party to blame. So in order to create change, we need to think about what is in our direct control. That way, no matter the size or scale of the problem, real, incremental change has a chance of sticking.
In your teams, try designating someone to be the “hole-poker”, the devil’s advocate, the other side of the coin. Whenever ideas and solutions are being considered, it’s their job to try and find as many holes in the ideas. Ideally, this position would rotate between people so one person is not always poking holes.
By designating someone on your team to this task, the freedom to put forward alternatives and to question the status quo is facilitated. It produces constructive conflict to help generate better fitting ideas.
Our perspective is a resource that needs constant development. By being curious about asking the right questions, we will continuously be challenging our minds to find the gaps in our own thinking which leads to lasting growth.
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Emily Grace Peck is the Senior Writer at Jalapeño Employee Engagement in Vancouver, BC, Canada. She has a BFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and a Masters of Management from the Sauder School of Business.
Jalapeño is bringing their vision of a better workplace to life by pairing their diagnostic platform with full service consulting to foundationally transform employee retention, productivity and engagement. Learn more here.