Hello. With Christmas almost upon us, I have recalled something that happened to me a couple of years ago when we were celebrating Christmas Eve at my mother-in-law’s house.
I wanted to share it with you, because I think it could help us all to look at the way we deal with problem-solving As you know from previous articles I have written for my blog, this is an issue that I am very interested in.
My plans for the holiday period are very normal (in fact I’m sure that they are very similar to those of most of the people reading this): We are spending Christmas Eve at my mother-in-law’s house and Christmas Day at my parents’. Next year we will swap around the days and houses.
My wife’s family is bigger than mine, and so the number of us getting together at my mother-in-law’s house is always bigger. When you count all the brothers and sisters, brothers- and sisters-in-law, nephews and nieces there must be about 20 of us, and we have always used two tables – one for the “grown ups” and another for the “children” (set out as you can see in figure 1, attached).
But of course, time passes, and some of the “children” (several of them, in fact) are well over the age of 20, so the table layout has been become rather artificial.
So one of my brothers-in-law, who is the most go-getting and who has also worked all his life in IT, decided that the moment had come to “unite” the tables.
He turned up at my mother-in-law’s house in the morning as bold as you like and, after convincing her (which can’t have been any easy task, since “doing things the way they’ve always been done” is a value all in itself for her), he set up one single table, putting together the two we had always had alongside each other.
Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out as he had expected. The single table proved to be too long, and barely fit in between the two walls. We couldn’t put chairs at the ends, we were all squeezed in, the chairs didn’t fit properly, those of us next to the wall couldn’t even move… (more or less as you can see in figure 2).
It provided plenty of conversation, at times quite heated, throughout the entire meal. Two principal “lines of thought” quickly materialised (which also remind me a lot of the opinions that generally arise during most innovation projects):
- The first of these was to attack “the innovator” (in this case my brother-in-law): “We’ve always done it this way – why are you so desperate to change it?”, “and we have always had such a good time”,… To sum up, this line of argument said: “Don’t even think of doing this again.”
- The second group recognised that the change could be positive (i.e. that it could make sense to have all of us together at the same table), but badgered my mother-in-law to “be generous” and buy new furniture to make it possible. To sum up, “if we want to change, someone will have to ‘dig deep’’.”
After such a lively meal, we all got up to leave, and that was when I saw it all clearly. I couldn’t stop myself laughing.
All we needed to have done was to place the table diagonally across the room instead of parallel to the wall!!! (more of less as you can see in figure 3).
Why didn’t this occur to anybody? The answer was simple: All our lives, all that we had ever seen (in our grandparents’ and parents’ houses and in our own) was dining tables placed parallel to the wall, and we were incapable of imagining anything different.
This anecdote is obviously not very important. But this phenomenon is something that happens to us every day, when we deal with problems at work.
Without being aware of it (and this is the bad thing) we impose limitations that are not really integral parts of the problem (the truth is that most of them are just prejudices), and these prevent us from finding the best solution.
And in this case, experience usually works against us, because it “pushes” us to stick to the same old thing and not leave our “comfort zone” (just like in that old saying of “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”), rather than embracing change and seeking new options or alternatives.
Is there any way of stopping this from happening? I think this is what consultants call “thinking outside the box”. However, the issue is not what it should be called, but rather how to achieve it in practice.
I would like to hear your opinion on this. Have you experienced something similar? Most importantly, can you think of any way of avoiding it?
I await your comments with interest, and meanwhile would like to wish you a happy holiday period. Best wishes.