Our inability to appreciate and evaluate the complexities that we face in day to day work and life from different perspectives can limit our success in solving problems and identifying new and novel approaches towards a resolution. In fact, constraining our frames and perspectives to the ‘known’ in preference to opening our minds up to alternatives will, at best, lead to unintended consequences and, at worst, can be catastrophic.
Below is a case study that I share to highlight this point:
Since 1990, at least 23 country firefighters have died in close proximity to safety zones that could have been reached had they been lighter and able to move faster. In these instances, the firefighters were still wearing their backpack with their chain saw in hand. It turns out that the inability of these firefighters to figuratively and literally drop their tools when the firefighting efforts were clearly futile cost them their lives. Had they been able to drop their tools, they could have made a different decision.
Karl Weick, the renown thought leader on ‘sense-making’ explored the failure of highly seasoned professionals to drop their tools resulting in incorrect decisions. He identified circumstances where fighter pilots, whose planes became disabled, lost their lives when they held onto what they call “the cocoon of the cockpit” rather than face the harsh conditions following ejection. Naval personnel told to remove their steel-capped shoes before abandoning a sinking ship often refused to do so, only to punch holes in their life rafts when they boarded them.
These seasoned professionals held on to their tools because they did not know how to drop them, and furthermore, they could not comprehend their tools as separate from their identity. The fusion of a professional’s tools with their identity means that under stressful conditions, it makes no more sense to drop one’s tools than it does to drop one’s sense of identity. Implicit in this idea is that tools and people are inseparable and the mere thought of dropping one’s tools would raise questions associated with their source of power “…without my tools, who am I?”
There is a strong tendency for people and teams to entirely identify themselves with their position, role and group. Along with this come all the representations of power such as title, rank, reputation, knowledge, status, authority etc. Constant reinforcement of this collectively manifests itself as organisational silos, where there is defensive posturing between teams, and/or functions, and where there is a consensus to default to group norms rather than face potential conflict. Our inability to see beyond our frames of reference limits team effectiveness. We become bounded by our tools, where a “solution” in one area without an appreciation of the systemic nature of the problem may bring short-term relief, but the pain will reappear sooner or later in another form.
So if not axes and chainsaws, what are our tools? They are our well-known and rehearsed methodologies, techniques and mindsets as based on our vocational preferences, training, experiences and education. Those of us who worry about our credibility if we were to drop our tools are unable to pay attention to the unfolding drama that could suddenly turn on us. Did the 23 firefighters who lost their lives within reach of safety zones undertake the correct course of action? As firefighters who were being true to their identity, it is likely that they did. However under the futile circumstances, were they really undertaking the role of firefighters or simply people trying to flee the threat and seek safety?
By helping people and teams hold on to their tools lightly, I offer the ability to identify choices that are otherwise unseen to them. It helps them to gain lightness, agility and perspective, enabling new things to be learnt and opportunities to be identified. If we can start to think in different ways, we are able to act in different ways. In order to act in ways that best suit the situation, we must make decisions that consider perspectives other than our own, which in turn opens up new possibilities, opportunities and innovation potential.