When you come short on solving a problem

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The one mindset that prevents anyone from overcoming a recurring problem: “Because that’s how things have always been done… and we’ll keep doing them”.

WHEN YOU’RE TAUGHT “HOW TO DO THINGS” ONLY IN A CERTAIN WAY…

Starting at a very young age, we’re taught to replicate. School being at the forefront of all places we learn to do so. When you think back about your schooling days, chances are high that you weren’t really taught “how to learn” but rather “how to do” things. How to actually do them only in a certain way. Like writing “from left to right”, if you grew up in the Western hemisphere. Instead of the “from top to bottom” technique, which children in both China and Japan get to learn.

More importantly, the grading system in your class, then, was probably the same as in many schools around the globe today: rewarding accuracy over effort. That is, only the student to come up with the most “correct answers” – compared to those in the test correction grid – gets the highest grade and the golden star sticker in her notebook. Where in an effort-centered assessment system, the focus isn’t put only on the end result; the correct answer. It’s put on the whole completion process of a task or project. Like a science project. Has the student gathered all, only half or none of the project’s required materials – like toilet paper tubes, a pot of glue, a sheet of aluminum paper, etc. – before starting completing the project? When facing problems during the completion process, did he look and test different solution paths or simply left the project aside and quit on it? You get the picture.

The effort-centered approach giving more way to test “different roads to get to Rome”, sort of speaks. Instead of relying only on a single path. The one a group of education experts, a school board or even a teacher will have judged to be “worth taking”.

However, Japanese and Chinese people aren’t less capable to communicate with each other and solve problems than French or Americans are because they’ve learned to write from top down.

IT REINFORCES SOME SORT OF CONFORMITY

So, the importance put on “having to follow only one possible path” in order to “get to the correct answer” reinforces some sort of conformity. Something that translates in a very simple phrase or mindset: “I have to do ‘X’ this way because that’s how ‘Xs’ are done (or have to be done).Not otherwise.

Put in a work context, many companies bet on that same “single path” approach to thrive. Training their employees to think and do things only in a certain way, according to the department they work in. The top argument used to justify that choice being: we want to ensure the product or service sold to a client on Monday will be of the same quality as the one sold on Friday.

If the work that needs to be done easily compares itself to what a mass-production machine can accomplished, hyper standardization is understandable. Truth is, not all types of work accomplished by humans have their machine equivalent.

What do you do, then, when “That’s how things have always been done… and we’ll keep doing them” comes short on solving a recurring problem?

Like having yearly cycles of e-coli infections or diarrhea outbreaks in the hospital you work at. Or constantly losing half of all the employees hired on your team, within the first 3 months. Or chronically missing on fulfilling temporary staff requests in due time, as a staffing agency with more ready-to-work candidates than your competitors.

Do you keep on doing business as usual or push “how things are done” in a different direction?

Sadly, many people and companies choose to keep doing things as usual. Choose to settle with a situation they believe they have to make with, they can’t change. Because that’s how things are to be.

A PRESSURE FOR CONFORMITY THAT HIDES A FEAR

When digging, though, what comes to surface is generally a deeply rooted fear of change. Of potential loss of control.

Will it change my routine in any possible way, yes or no?

The simple thought of having to make with some sort of uncertainty is enough, at times, to scare people. So hard that they’ll fiercely resist any potential-but-not-even-fully-weighted-possibility-of-change someone will suggest them. “Don’t touch my routine” then seems to be their motto. Yet, it does nothing to solve the problem they’re stuck with.

How can you change the situation then?

ONE WAY TO BREAK OUT OF A CONSTRAINING “MOLD”

There’s this question that, when answered in the most honest way, tends to trigger that kind of change: “How much good does sticking with “a way of doing things” that prevents me (us) from getting better at what I (we) do amount to?

Why does it work? Because it forces you to consider two opposites: your present situation and what you believe could be the better version of it. The friction between the two rarely leaves anyone neutral. It pushes people to react.

Change rarely happens overnight. A mold rarely falls into pieces instantly. Only when our comfort zone starts feeling uncomfortable or do we feel threaten by something that limits our progression (or worse, makes us lose hard earned grounds) do we begin to consider taking another road to Rome.

Because we come to realize that what’s at stake isn’t our comfort anymore. It’s our ability to keep on doing whatever work we do. What’s the point of “keeping doing things the way they’ve always been done” if it means ending up not being able to do them at all anymore?

IN THE END…

Learning one “sure way” to get to Rome (or achieve success) can be very handy. Being taught there are other possible paths and be given both, the space and means, to find them makes the difference. The one between actually getting to Rome or ending stuck in a dead end. Because the environment, the conditions, the players have changed.

When was the last time you gave yourself the means to learn and try a different way of doing things? Let it be at work or elsewhere?

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Photo credits: Andre Murr

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